Every Question You Have About the GMAT, Answered

8 min read

If you’re thinking of attending a graduate business school program, then you’ve likely heard of the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). For years, the GMAT has served as a valued — or even required — entrance exam for admissions into an Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) program or related master’s program.

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many business schools waived test requirements for admission. While the pandemic lockdown is now long over, the GMAT has become less of a general requirement, with several of the US News Top 25 Business Schools still offering test waivers — provided that candidates meet certain conditions.

Even if the GMAT is optional, some admissions officers still recommend taking the exam as a way to stand out from other candidates. So, should you take the GMAT and, if so, what can you expect from the exam? Here’s what you need to know.

What Is the GMAT?

The Graduate Management Admission Test is a computer-based, standardized exam meant to assess the skills and knowledge of candidates to graduate management and business school programs. It’s similar in intent and purpose to the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), but is designed specifically for business school programs such as a Master’s of Business Administration (MBA). According to mba.com, more than 7,700 programs at 2,400 universities and organizations in 110 countries use the GMAT exam as part of the selection criteria for their programs.

As for what the GMAT covers, this business school test is comprised of four sections:

  • Analytical writing assessment
  • Integrated reasoning
  • Quantitative reasoning
  • Verbal reasoning

Test-takers can choose to take these sections in one of three orders:

  1. Quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, integrated reasoning, analytical writing assessment
  2. Analytical writing assessment, integrated reasoning, quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning
  3. Verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, integrated reasoning, analytical writing assessment

The GMAT can be delivered at an official test center or online. What’s on the GMAT doesn’t change, as the structure, scoring, duration, cost and score validity are the same across both versions of the test. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), these are differences between the online and the test center versions of the GMAT:

Test Center GMATOnline GMAT
Available up to 7 days a week and can be scheduled up to 6 months in advanceAvailable around the clock and can be scheduled up to 6 months in advance
Scratch Work
A provided 5-page laminated booklet and 2 dry erase markersAccess to an online whiteboard, as well as use of your own physical whiteboard
AccommodationsAdditional testing time, breaks, and access to other resourcesAdditional testing time and extended break times
Score SendingSelect up to 5 programs to receive your scores at no charge. Additional score reports available for a feeSend 5 free score reports to programs within 48 hours of receiving your official scores. Additional score reports available for a fee

Who Should Take the GMAT?

If any of the graduate schools you’re thinking of attending requires you to submit GMAT scores, then you must take it. Be sure to thoroughly check your school’s admission requirements to see if the GMAT is required or if there are alternative options.

If your intended graduate school offers a waiver for the GMAT, determine what the conditions and requirements of that waiver are. For example, the GMAT waiver for the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan requires an essay that supports the case for your admission. It also requires further consideration of a candidate’s academic and professional accomplishments, such as:

  • Having earned a master’s degree in an analytical or quantitative discipline
  • Undergraduate or graduate record, especially in analytical or quantitative courses
  • Post-undergraduate, full-time work experience in an analytical or quantitative function
  • Performance on an expired GMAT or GRE or on the Executive Assessment

By comparison, the Knauss School of Business at the University of San Diego requires the completion of the online MBA Math course in lieu of the GMAT.

Note that, even if you’re able to meet the waiver requirements for the GMAT, some admissions officers recommend that you still take the exam to submit your scores. A high score on the GMAT can help your admission submission stand out from other applicants.

As for the format you should take, surveys have found that 97% of admissions officers view the online GMAT no differently than the test center version — so, take whichever version is most convenient for you.

Is There an Alternative to the GMAT?

Aside from waivers, schools may accept certain alternatives to the GMAT. Some programs, such as Harvard Business School and the MIT Sloan School of Management will accept either GMAT or GRE scores. Since the GRE features different questions and focus areas, some students may perform better on this exam and opt to submit these scores instead.

Executive MBA programs will often allow applicants to waive the GMAT if they can show extensive prior work experience or will accept the Executive Assessment in place of the GMAT. The Executive Assessment is a shorter exam with three 30-minute sections and a total of 40 questions, meant more for working professionals with years of professional experience.

Other business programs may also accept the Executive Assessment, or other tests that are applicable to their programs, such as the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) or the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). For example, the UC Irvine School of Medicine’s joint MD/MBA program accepts the MCAT in place of the GMAT.

Again, thoroughly research a program’s admission requirements to see if it accepts any alternatives to the GMAT.

Do All Business Schools Require the GMAT?

No. Aside from schools that accept waivers or alternative tests, many online MBA programs allow applicants to waive the GMAT exam in place of other criteria. In these cases, you could consider taking the GMAT exam as a supplement for your admissions — provided your scores are above the average.

What Are the Sections on the GMAT?

The four sections of the GMAT are:

  • Analytical writing assessment — This section assesses your writing skills by providing you with a written argument. You’ll be asked to examine and critique the author’s use of evidence and reasoning. The intent is to grade how well you can organize your ideas, apply logic and connect your statements with transitions.
  • Integrated reasoning section — This section will test your ability to conceptually interpret and synthesize information using both quantitative and verbal skills. You’ll be asked questions designed around four problem types:
  • Multi-source reasoning will ask you to solve three separate problems based on information prompts that include text, tables and other visuals.
  • Table analysis will ask you to solve a problem based on a table of data.
  • Graphics interpretation will ask you a question based on a visual, which can be anything from bar graphs and pie charts to Venn diagrams, bubble graphs and scatterplots.
  • Two-part analysis asks you to choose an answer for two separate questions by choosing one answer from five or six multiple choices.

Quantitative reasoning section — This section is meant to test your ability to think logically about mathematical concepts and your knowledge of number properties, algebra, statistics and geometry. The section tests your ability to think logically about two different problem types:

  • Data sufficiency questions are meant to determine if you can quickly identify essential information. Instead of solving a mathematical problem, these questions present you with a question and two different data statements; you must determine if the statements give you enough evidence to solve the problem.
  • Problem-solving questions are the classic standardized test questions to test quantitative and critical thinking. You’ll be asked to solve for a value or algebraic expression and then choose from five multiple choice answers.

Verbal reasoning section — This section tests for your skills in standard written English, critical reading and argument analysis. You’ll have to work through three different problem types:

  • Reading comprehension questions test your critical reading skills to summarize ideas and make inferences based on the text.
  • Critical reasoning questions will present a short argument or series of statements and then ask you to evaluate a conclusion, resolve a discrepancy or find an assumption or conclusion.
  • Sentence correction questions will present long sentences with underlined sections, You’ll be asked to choose the best version of the underlined section between the original or from one of four alternatives.

How Long Does the GMAT Take?

The full GMAT exam takes just under 3.5 hours. The four sections will run 187 minutes and you have the option of two 8-minute breaks.

What Is a Good GMAT Score?

First, understand that each section of the GMAT is scored a little differently. The quantitative and verbal reasoning sections are computer-adaptive tests (CATs), which means they start with questions of average difficulty and then increase or decrease in difficulty based on the accuracy of the answer. Correct questions bring up harder questions, while wrong questions will bring up easier ones.

Your scores in both the quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning sections are calculated based on the difficulty level you were able to maintain until the end of each section. Both sections have a minimum score of 0 and a maximum score of 60.

The integrated reasoning section is not adaptive, and so is scored more traditionally with a range of 1 to 8. The analytical writing assessment is scored by a human reader and a computerized program. Analytical writing assessment scores are graded in half-point increments in a range from 0 to 6.

You will receive five scores — one for each section — plus a total score which is based on your performance in the verbal and quantitative sections. The total possible GMAT scores range from a low of 200 to a high of 800 and are reported in 10-point intervals.

For a good baseline target score, you’ll want to look at the mean or median GMAT score of applicants who have been admitted to the MBA programs to which you’re thinking of applying. A good competitive score will be at or above that median/mean. In general, you’ll want to aim to meet or exceed a score of about 650 to be competitive, and over 700 if you’re hoping to apply to any of the top 10 MBA programs.

GMAT Statistics

Time LimitNumber of
Problem TypesScore
Analytical Writing
30 minutes1 questionArgument analysis0-6
(half points)
30 minutes12 questionsMulti-source reasoning, table analysis, graphics interpretation, two-part analysis1-8
62 minutes31 questionsData sufficiency, problem-solving0-60
65 minutes36 questionsReading comprehension, critical reasoning, sentence correction0-60

How Much Does a GMAT Score Matter?

GMAT scores are used to determine if a prospective MBA student has the skills and knowledge to excel in rigorous courses. The GMAT score carries a lot of weight for graduate business school programs that require them.

However, the GMAT score is just one among many important components in an MBA application, including prior academic coursework, any professional work experience, letters of recommendation and supplementary materials such as entrance essays.

While a poor GMAT score may hurt your application chances, a strong GMAT score won’t carry an application that’s weak in all other areas.

How Do I Prepare for the GMAT?

If you’re intending to take the GMAT, start by creating an account on mba.com, the official website operated by the GMAC. Identify convenient test centers in your area by searching for test centers and seat availability using the link on their registration page. Determine if you’d prefer to take the GMAT at a local testing center, or take the online version of the exam.

From there, here’s a few helpful tips:

  • Schedule your test at least three to four months in advance of the first application deadline of your chosen programs. That can give you some time to retake the test if needed.
  • Create a study plan to prepare for the test. For a sample study plan, check out this GMAT Prep Timeline.
  • Establish your baseline score goal, which will help determine how much prep time you’ll need. Data collected by mba.com shows that the students who earned a score over 700 usually study for 90 hours or more.
  • Start studying and practicing. Consider utilizing the official GMAT preparation resources, such as the starter kit and practice exams.

How Many Times Can I Take the GMAT?

You can take the GMAT up to five times within any continuous rolling 12-month period, though you can only take each format (testing center or online) once every 16 calendar days. There is a lifetime limit of eight attempts for taking the GMAT.

After taking the GMAT, you’re allowed to preview your score before sending it to your designated schools. Your GMAT score is good for five years, so it’s possible to take the exam a few years ahead of any applications. You can decide whether to accept the score or cancel it and then retake the exam later.

How Much Does the GMAT Cost?

While prices for the GMAT can vary depending on the test location, a review of listings on MBA.com shows that most testing-center exams in the U.S. will cost $275 USD. The online version of the GMAT costs $300 USD. Note that there are also fees for rescheduling or canceling an exam.

If you’re looking at test prep, the price of prep courses will range from free to more than $1,000 depending on the course length and structure. GMAT prep materials, such as prep books, will also cost money — usually between $10 and $50.

Should I Take the GMAT?

If you’re interested in applying to a full-time MBA program, then you should research the admission requirements to see if the GMAT is required or if you qualify for a waiver. While the GMAT may increase your odds of a successful application, it isn’t required for executive MBA programs or many online business programs.

If you are thinking of applying to business school, especially with an eye toward working in tech or developing a startup enterprise, then we invite you to consider the 100% online University of San Diego’s Master of Science in Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship (MITE) program. The MITE program is based around focused coaching on business, entrepreneurship and leadership within the computer and communications connectivity space.

In the MITE program, you’ll collaborate with fellow innovators and entrepreneurs while engaging with expert industry instructors from both the School of Engineering and the Knauss School of Business. It’s an in-depth experience in navigating the world of technology innovation, financing and product/market fit that doesn’t require the GMAT to apply.