GMAT Overview: Study Guides, Books, Prep Courses & Other Resources

This comprehensive overview covers all things GMAT, including structure and sections of the exam, the most effective study strategies for getting a great score, and the best prep courses and books.  

By Riley Stoltenburg, Masters Degree in Public Health

What Is The GMAT?

The Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT, is the standardized exam required to be taken as part of the admissions process to MBA and other graduate business school programs. The test is administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council, or GMAC, and is the only entrance exam accepted by more than 2,100 colleges and universities across the globe.  The exam is specifically designed to test a student’s knowledge deemed critical to success in graduate level business and management programs. The GMAT examines a number of these essential skills, including logical reasoning, critical reading and writing, data evaluation and analysis, and problem-solving abilities.

GMAT Test Structure

The GMAT is a computer-adaptive test comprised of four sections, which takes 3.5 hours to complete (including breaks and instructions). The four sections include Analytical Writing, Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning, or in other words, a section on each of math, verbal, integrated reasoning and an essay.

The Quantitative section, or math focused section, is comprised of 31 multiple-choice questions, which the student is allotted 62 minutes to complete. Up until April 16, 2018, the Quantitative Reasoning section consisted of 37 questions that had to be completed in 75 minutes; however, the test makers modified the format to reduce the number of unscored questions. This section of the GMAT tests the student’s knowledge of arithmetic, algebra and geometry. As a note, no calculators are allowed for this section of the exam.

The Verbal section consists of 36 multiple-choice questions, which the student is given 65 minutes to complete. Similar to the Quantitative section, in April 2018 the GMAC reduced the number of questions in this section from 41 to 36 questions and decreased the allowable time from 75 minutes to 65 minutes in order to reduce the number of unscored questions on the exam. This section of the GMAT assesses the test taker’s grammar, critical reasoning, logic skills, and ability to read a passage and effectively analyze it.

The Integrated Reasoning section consists of 12 multiple-choice questions, which the student is given 30 minutes to complete. This section examines the test taker’s ability to analyze data presented in various charts, graphs, and tables and make inferences based on those infographics. A calculator is provided for use with this section.

Lastly, the Analytical Writing section, or essay portion, of the GMAT consists of one written essay which the student is allocated 30 minutes to complete. The student will be tasked with providing an analysis of a hypothetical argument for some topic of business or general interest. The essay must be composed on the computer and not handwritten.


Where Can I Take the GMAT?

The GMAT is administered at secure computer terminals at approved testing centers around the world. Check here to find a test center near you: GMAT Test Centers.


How is the GMAT Scored?

The most important score related to the GMAT is the overall, or composite, score.  The overall score ranges from 200 to 800 points, on a scale in 10-point increments, and is the result of a combination of your scores on the Quantitative and Verbal sections of the exam. While your score report will cover various parts of your performance on the GMAT, the overall score is by far the most important aspect, and graduate schools have a tendency to focus on this composite score.

The Verbal and Quantitative sections are scored separately and you will receive a score on a scale from 0 to 60 for each given section. The Integrated Reasoning section is graded on a scale of 1 to 8 in 1-point increments. Questions are multi-part, and you have to answer each part correctly to get credit for the question. That said, the Integrated Reasoning section score is not included in your composite score. The Analytic Writing section, or essay portion, is scored on a scale of 0 to 6 and is evaluated by two readers, a human and a computer. The two scores for the essay are averaged and rounded to the nearest one-half point. Like Integrated Reasoning, the essay section does not count toward your composite GMAT score.

GMAC will retain your GMAT score as valid for five years. And in case you’ve had a bad GMAT score in the past and are wondering, GMAC will report all of your GMAT scores to schools from the past five years, not just the most recent. ​


How to Study for the GMAT

We strongly recommend studying for 6-10 weeks leading up to the date of your GMAT exam depending on your schedule, time availability and your preparedness. You should not procrastinate in studying for the GMAT, as it is definitely not the type of exam one can cram for just a couple days in advance. Mastering the strategies for effectively taking the GMAT and figuring out how to properly analyze passages, read critically with an eye towards inferences, and re-learning your old math skills takes significant time. ​Here are our strategies to improve your GMAT score:

  1. Take a practice exam – start by taking a practice test under real conditions to see what you’re up against. This will help you get a feel for the structure of the exam and should help you gauge your weaknesses (and shock you how much math you’ve forgotten).  You will also notice how time matters in taking the GMAT.

  2. Get a prep course and dig in – if you’re like the rest of us, you’re going to need a course to re-learn all of the necessary skills you’ve forgotten over the last few years and to master the concepts behind the questions. Get yourself a solid prep course and dig in, committing to learning the necessary substantive knowledge and improving your problem-solving skills.  

  3. Practice questions and more practice questions – like many things in life, repetition is key. It’s one thing to sit at your desk and read about how to take a test or learn a subject, but it’s a different thing to do it. So work in as many practice questions as you can get your hands on. The more practice questions you see, the easier it will be on the big day.

  4. Improve your weaknesses – everyone has a weakness when it comes to the GMAT, whether it’s the geometry questions, critically reading a passage and making the necessary inferences, or timing in getting all the questions answered. Whatever your weakness is, focus in on that area and make it a strength. Practice, practice, practice.  

  5. Commit to a schedule – everyone’s got busy lives, but do not make excuses and skimp on the studying. Commit to studying hard and giving the time necessary to nail the test and get the score you want. You’re already paying money for the prep course and exam and giving away hours of your time, so you might as well do it right the first time. Additionally, all of your GMAT scores are reported to MBA schools, so you don’t want an awful score weighing down a later brilliant performance. Commit to a study schedule now and stick to it.


Best GMAT Prep Courses

If there is one constant across all approaches to preparing for the GMAT, it’s that a good prep course will increase your score. While you may be able to get by with just studying a couple books if you’re hyperintelligent or a supernatural student, the vast majority of us will require a solid prep course. GMAT prep courses vary widely in nature and cost, from self-paced online only courses which cost just a few hundred dollars to comprehensive in-person and online blended classes with extra tutoring that can cost up to $1,800, there’s a course for everyone. Given the importance of the GMAT, we recommend going with a reputable and trusted company that is sure to get you the results you need like Manhattan Prep, Kaplan, or Princeton Review. These companies charge anywhere from $600 to $1,800 depending on the nature of the course. It can be a hefty price tag, but not as high as the price of bombing this uber important exam.

Best GMAT Prep Books

Though we’ve already noted the importance of getting a prep course if at all possible, if your resources are limited and you’re left with no other options, or you’re looking for some good supplemental resources for your prep course, you can purchase prep books on Amazon for as cheap as $15 per book. These prep books include material necessary to brush up on substantive concepts like math for the Quantitative section and strategies for attacking various types of questions. Some books also include practice questions with detailed answer explanations to help you understand why you may be missing certain types of questions. We recommend taking a look at the books from Mometrix and PowerScore, or get the GMAC’s very own prep book, GMAT Official Guide, if you want to get inside the mind of the exam creators.

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