GMAT Prep Guide for the Math and Verbal Sections

The GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) consists of two multiple-choice sections (Quantitative and Verbal) and an essay section called the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA).

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High-scorers typically spend over 40 hours preparing.

Quantitative Section:
37 questions
75 minutes
Problem Solving Questions (approx. 24 Questions)
Data Sufficiency Questions (approx. 13 Questions)

Verbal Section:
41 questions
75 minutes
Reading Comprehension (approx. 14 Questions)
Sentence Correction (approx. 13 Questions)
Critical Reasoning (approx. 14 Questions)

Essay Questions (Analytical Writing Assessment):
The GMAT CAT begins with the two AWA questions. For each of these sections, you have thirty minutes to type an essay into the computer using a simple word-processing program. The essay sections are administered first, but the Quantitative and Verbal multiple-choice sections can appear in any order. We have a full-length prep-guide for the Analytical Writing Assessment.


What Skills Does the GMAT Test?
The GMAT primarily tests four skills:
  1. Endurance and ability to focus
    You'll have to stare at a screen intensely and focus for nearly four hours. Keep this in mind when taking practice tests. Get used to working for many hours on end. Learn how to relax. The physical and mental exhaustion is part of the test's challenge. That's why we offer GMAT CAT practice tests. You should take as many practice CATs as possible to learn the test and to get used to the grueling experience.

  2. Basic knowledge of grammar, math, reasoning, and argument formation
    The second skill, a basic knowledge of grammar, math, reasoning, and argument formation, is covered in the later chapters of this online prep guide. No calculators are allowed on test day, so you need to practice doing basic math calculations

  3. Test-taking skills: ability to guess, work at an appropriate pace, and make decisions under pressure
    These skills are covered in this chapter and throughout the online guide. Timing is a major part of test-taking skill, particularly for the GMAT CAT. Our patent-pending Test Pacer system will teach you the pacing interactively.

  4. Problem-solving abilities
    To improve your problem-solving abilities, the fourth skill, we have extensive information on reasoning techniques and math concepts throughout this online guide. When you get a question wrong, make sure to review our explanations so that you understand the conceptual error that you made in the question. You do not want to repeat the error.

GMAT Prep Guide: 1b. GMAT Scores and Business Schools

You'll receive four GMAT scores:

  • Quantitative scaled sub score, ranging from 0 to 60 (effectively 51 is the max score)
  • Verbal scaled sub score, ranging from 0 to 60 (effectively 48 is the max score)
  • Overall scaled score, ranging from 200 to 800. This is an overall score that is the combination of your 0 to 60 Math and Verbal scores (hence, the name an 800 is a perfect score). The 200 to 800 cumulative score is what business schools primarily use.
  • Analytical Writing Assessment score, ranging from 0 to 6. This is a separate score that is less important than the 200 to 800 cumulative score.

The test is graded on a preset curve so that your scaled score will correspond to a certain percentile. An overall score of 630, for example, corresponds approximately to the 90th percentile, meaning that you scored at least as well or better than 90 percent of test takers.

Sample approximate percentiles within the score range of 200-800. Percentiles may vary from year to year.
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Rising Average GMAT Scores
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The average * GMAT score at Harvard is 707.

Those six-figure starting salaries have had an impact on MBA admissions... everyone wants one. In the early nineties the average GMAT score of accepted students at New York University (Stern) Business School was 610. By 2008 the average GMAT test score had jumped 89 points to 699. Getting a high score on the GMAT is crucial because the business schools are getting flooded with applicants. Expect around a 700 average score for the top-ten business schools in 2011-2012.

That 700 average is deceptive because it includes many students who were accepted for favorable traits (diversity, unusual accomplishment or success, etc.) that allow them to gain acceptance with a lower score. If you have none of these types of traits, then you probably need to break 730 (that's the 99th percentile) to have a good chance at a top-ten school.

Competition at business schools may be fierce, and you may not get into your first choice school, but getting an MBA right now may be a wise way to ride out a once-in-a-lifetime economic storm. GMAT preparation is of prime importance in this brutally competitive MBA admissions cycle.

Average GMAT scores of major MBA programs (2005)
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According to GMAC, the average salaries for 2005 MBA graduates exceeded $100,000. The market has fully recovered from the 2001 dotcom collapse and 9/11. The appeal of high salaries will only serve to increase competitiveness and the importance of high GMAT scores.


GMAT Prep Guide: 1c. How the GMAT CAT Works


The GMAT is now only available as a computerized test. Instead of having a predetermined mixture of easy, medium, and hard questions, the computer will select questions for you based on how well you are doing. The first question will be of medium difficulty (500 level questions are halfway between 200 and 800). If you get it right, the second question will be selected from a group of questions that are a little harder; if you get the first question wrong, the second question will be a little easier. The result is that the test is self-adjusting and self-correcting to your skill level.

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Fig. 1.1 This graph shows how the test keeps a running score of your performance as you take the test. The student's running score goes up after getting the first three questions right (blue) and the score goes down when the test taker gets questions wrong (red) (questions 4 and 5 on lower axis). As the test progresses, the swings caused by getting a question right or wrong progressively decrease.

Harder Questions Count More

A result of the CAT format is that the harder problems count more than easier ones. If one student does twenty easy questions, half of which he gets right and half of which he gets wrong, and then another student does twenty very difficult questions, half of which he gets right and half of which he gets wrong, the second student who did the very difficult questions will get a higher score.

The student who answered ten out of twenty very difficult questions incorrectly would still get a very high score on the GMAT CAT because the harder questions are more heavily weighted. Simpler questions might be easier to answer, but they count much less. Your goal should be to get as many hard questions right because that will get you your highest possible score.


GMAT Prep Guide: 1d. GMAT Pacing Help for the CAT


One Mean CAT

To quote ETS, the makers of the GMAT, "Time management is key." Your timing skills could add or subtract 100 points from your score. Timing skills are important because the CAT has unusual pacing constraints:

  • Double penalty for any unfinished questions at the end of each section when time expires. The penalty for unfinished questions is severe (worse than getting a question wrong). You should pace yourself to make sure that you finish all the questions in the allotted time.
  • No double checking — All answers are final. If you finish a section early, you cannot go back to double-check your earlier answers. For example, if you hurry and finish your section with 20 minutes left, you are stuck at the end of the test with 20 extra minutes.
  • No skipping — When you hit a tough question or get a mental block, you cannot skip the question without entering an answer. Instead, you have to trudge through it, guess, and hope you don't waste too much time.

Tame that CAT

The proper pacing for the GMAT is difficult to learn. You can't get bogged down on questions.

Approximate time you should spend on questions, depending on your skill level.
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GMAT Pace Training Help


GMAT Prep Guide: If graphic doesn't load, press shift-refresh in your webbrowser to reload the page.The problem with the above strategies (which are standard approaches taught by GMAT prep companies) is that it is very difficult to properly train to use them. For example, if you are on question 10 with 47 minutes left, are you on pace to finish the test?

GMAT students complained that they had trouble learning the right pacing and that they wasted their practice tests trying to master the GMAT CAT's pacing strategies. Faced with these complaints, we developed the Test Pacer™ pace-training system and built it into our 5 GMAT CAT practice tests (see graphic to the right).

The Test Pacer tells you what question you should be on so that you finish the test on time. This way you can tell if you are going too quickly or too slowly at any time during the test. Moreover, you can measure if you are spending too much time on a given question. If you start a question and the pacer says 5.0 and you look at it again and the pacer says 7.0, you know you have spent double the amount of time normally required for a question.

Like a training wheel, the more you practice with the Pacer, the stronger your sense of timing will become. You can try out the pacer on our sample tests, and it is also available as a watch.


GMAT Prep Guide: 1e. GMAT Pacing Help for the CAT

The Art of Guessing

Guessing, like pacing, is more important on the CAT than on any other test you have ever taken. You'll have to guess often on the CAT because:

  1. You can't skip questions. If you hit a mental block, you have to guess at the question in front of you. You can't pass over a question and go back to it later. Since all answers are final, you have to make sure your guess is a good one. Most students waste more than 1/3 of their time bogged down on a handful of tough questions. You have to learn how to guess, move on, and cut your losses after spending more than a few minutes on a question.

  2. At the end of the test, when time is about to expire, you have to hurry to make sure to review every question or else face the severe penalty for not finishing all the test's questions. Many students have to do this last-minute sprint and are often left guessing on the last few questions.


The key guessing strategy is P.O.E. (process of elimination). A big asset going into test day is knowing that one of the five possible answers must be right. If you can eliminate two of the choices, you can increase your chances of getting the right answer by 65% (from 20% or 1 in 5 to 33% or 1 in 3). Here's how to do it:

Eliminate answer choices you know are wrong. Even if you don't know the right answer, you can often tell that some of the answer choices are wrong. For example, on the Data Sufficiency questions, you can eliminate at least two of the answer choices by determining if one of the statements is true.

Avoid answer choices that look suspicious. For example, on Sentence Correction questions, beware of any answer choices that look completely different from all of the other choices. In the Quantitative section, you can usually eliminate any answers that are negative when all the other answers are positive.

Once you have narrowed down the list of answer choices, pick one of the remainders. It is a myth that some answer choices, like A or C, are more often correct than other choices.

Draw a Grid

If crossing off answer choices on paper tests helps to clarify your thinking (using the P.O.E), you might want to consider making a grid on your scratch paper. By drawing a simple grid and labeling the rows A through E, you can keep track of which answers you have eliminated by putting an X in that box.

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The Importance of Dry Erase Scrap Paper

You'll need scratch paper because you are taking a test off of a computer screen, and you can't write on the screen. The result is that you'll often have to carefully copy much of the question down onto paper without miscopying the information. This is awkward and difficult. It takes valuable time to recopy information and it increases the chance of a hurried error, so you have to be careful about what you copy and what you don't copy.

Note: One major inconvenience is that as of January 2006, you can only use dry erase paper or dry erase boards on test day, so it is very difficult to write much content on this material.

GMAT Experiments on CATs

About 1/3 of the questions on the CAT are experimental and will be randomly mixed in with your normal questions. In these questions you are being used as a guinea pig for experimentation to assess the difficulty of the question. In the future, that question may be positioned at a difficulty level depending on how students performed on it when it was an experimental question.

The consequence of the experimental questions is that you can't rely on all the questions being at your difficulty level. In other words, if you are a high scorer you can't expect all the questions past question five to be difficult (at your level). Try to avoid obsessing over how hard your questions are as a measure of your performance.

Don't Panic

If you have a bad day, you have the option of canceling. When you finish the test, the computer will offer the option of canceling the test or accepting it. If you cancel the test, neither you nor any school will see your score. If you accept the test, the computer will display your score and it will be available to all schools (official scores will be mailed about two weeks later). Relax and make sure to schedule the test far in advance of when it is due. Make sure you have adequate time to cancel and reschedule the test if necessary.


This section is the first chapter of our GMAT Prep Guide