Preparing for Business School: What Is on the GMAT?

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Today’s world is increasingly globalized and being competitive at an international level of business requires analytical, quantitative, verbal, and integrated reasoning skills that most people just aren’t born with. You learn these sorts of things after years in college business programs, the programs you got into from the high scores achieved on your GMAT. Those who haven’t yet taken the test may be wondering, “What is on the GMAT? What makes it so important?”

For those without built-in connections to the upper echelons of business–like a family name or well-connected dad–higher education is probably the best bet when it comes to breaking into the world of business. Enter business school and earn your MBA (Masters of Business Administration). But before that, there’s one hurdle you have to overcome: the GMAT. 

The GMAT, or Graduate Management Admission Test, is a requirement for admission to most internationally-ranked graduate business schools and preparing for it should be your first step in considering business school. While it’s certainly not the sexiest part of the graduate journey, preparing for the GMAT is a necessary barrier future business leaders have to overcome to reach their goals. 

What Is on the GMAT? 

The GMAT is, first and foremost, an assessment of the skills that experts consider to matter most in business. It is also a benchmark for qualitative and quantitative skills required in business school — measuring up is the first test (literally) that you’ll take. 

The GMAT is comprised of four sections and should take about three-and-a-half hours. These sections include:

  • Analytical
  • Integrated Reasoning
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Verbal Reasoning

Test-takers are offered two optional breaks that you’ll almost certainly want to take advantage of to stretch, clear your mind, and maybe scarf down a snack. Additionally, test-takers can decide in which order they want to tackle the sections. 

The GMAT is a computer-adaptive test (CAT), which means that the test adjusts its difficulty in real time based on how you’re doing. This provides test-takers (and admissions officers) a more nuanced and complex assessment of business school aptitude. 

At a practical level, this means that test-takers have two directions they can take: 1) start with what you’re weakest at and get better as the test goes on, or 2) start with your best subjects and push both yourself and the test. Part of preparing for, and taking, the GMAT is critically reflecting on your strengths and weaknesses and leveraging the adaptive nature of the test, as well as the option to take the GMAT your preferred order, to your advantage. 

This is why knowing what’s on the GMAT and the sections it consists of is vital. 

GMAT Section Breakdown

Analytical Writing Assessment

The first section of the GMAT is the analytical writing assessment, which is a written portion on a business-related or business-adjacent topic designed to get you to flex your creative, organizational, argumentative, and rhetorical muscles. 

Preparing for the analytical writing assessment, and really the verbal reasoning section as well, is two-prong: 

  1. Read relevant and good writing on topics that both interest you and might come up on the test (i.e Harvard Business Review, Forbes, The Economist).
  2. Write, edit, rewrite, delete your word document in frustration, start again, and then write some more on sample analytical writing prompts.

Things to Consider:

You should also have someone look at your writing and offer feedback on both your style and content. If you’re a current undergraduate student considering business school, work with a faculty mentor, internship supervisor, or your current boss to identify your strengths and weaknesses. 

Once they’ve helped you figure out that you write overly long sentences (like me), or are not incorporating enough sources (like my students), you’ll be able to better develop and articulate an argument. 

If you’re out in the workforce, try your hand at writing a sample on paper for a product, system, or process your team or company is working on. Then, ask your boss and trusted coworkers to offer feedback on how well you articulated an argument, described the topic in question, and if they have any suggestions for improvement. 

Remember: writing is about rewriting and practice is the only way to hone your rhetorical skills. The people who can churn out great content on any topic in 30 minutes are the people who practice responding to sample prompts religiously. 

Integrated Reasoning

The second section of the GMAT assesses your ability to make sense of data and evaluate information presented in multiple formats (such as graphs, charts, white papers, and memos). 

Test-takers preparing for the integrated reasoning section can also rely on what they should be reading to sharpen their analytical writing skills. Focus on business-related or business-adjacent writing (white papers, reports, executive summaries) on topics you’re interested in or which might come up on the test. 

Things to Consider

Test-takers should look at a wide variety of content that offers information in multiple formats, practice evaluating it, and synthesizing key takeaways. While the GMAT won’t ask you to write about original or new findings, it will ask you to identify what it thinks you should have found and understood from the sample passage.

Practicing on content in which the crucial points are usually clearly indicated is a great way to strengthen your integrated reasoning skills. 

The GMAT usually draws from topical examples for questions across the section. Familiarizing yourself with the latest issues, trends, and conversations in business sectors you’re interested in can: 

  1. Help you prepare to take the GMAT 
  2. Orient you for conversations with potential future employers

Quantitative Reasoning 

The third section of the GMAT assesses your ability to reason by analyzing and interpreting information quantitatively and solving quantitative problems. Much like the integrated reasoning section, the quantitative reasoning section asks you to evaluate and interpret presented information to glean key takeaways that may inform business decisions. 

Unlike the integrated reasoning section, this GMAT section is purely quantitative. If you aren’t comfortable with math, numbers, budgets, spreadsheets, charts, graphs, and infographics, you better get comfortable. Pour yourself a drink, put on some business-casual sweatpants, and open Excel. 

Test-takers preparing for this section should review similar materials suggested in previous sections, but prioritize evaluating and understanding the components that are driven by numbers or data. You should specifically develop the ability to identify when you can (or cannot) answer or solve a problem and pay close attention to when the data is sufficient for interpretation and data-driven practice. 

Things to Consider

Getting into the business research literature here is a good idea. If you’ve got a particular school in your mind to apply to, take a look at the faculty members and read some of their recent publications–this will not only provide you with relevant content to study from, but it might also gain you some conversational points come interview season. 

Verbal Reasoning

This last section of the GMAT tests your verbal reasoning, specifically your ability to read and understand written content (which is obviously a huge part of both business and school). In this section you’ll be asked to read and understand material, but also correct written material when it has structural and grammatical flaws. Much like preparation for the analytical writing assessment section, preparation for the verbal reasoning section should start with reading. 

The test-prep materials offered by both the makers of the GMAT and companies like The Princeton Review offer thousands (if not more) examples of verbal reasoning questions covering recent and relevant topics. The three major keys to acing the verbal reasoning section are to: 

  1. Familiarize yourself with common language used in business
  2. Simplify this language 
  3. Use your own words 

If you don’t understand what’s being asked, break the sentence or question down into parts and rephrase it to eliminate arbitrarily confusing or arcane pieces. Once you’ve got a handle on the sentence (by rewriting it), you’re one step closer to understanding what’s being offered or asked. Failing to read the question on the GMAT and understand what’s being asked will slow you down and hurt your score. 

Things to Consider

The test isn’t trying to trick you and it isn’t asking you to become a copy editor overnight. Start preparing for the Verbal Reasoning section by reviewing questions or passages that you’re comfortable with, breaking them down, and identifying what the questions were asking you about.

Developing a critical understanding of the question types–for instance, the classic “Which of the following undermines the above argument?” question–can help you on the test. If you have no idea what the content or topic is about, knowing the question type is a place to start. 

What is on the GMAT: Final Thoughts

The GMAT is primarily designed to test your aptitude for business school through an examination of your quantitative and qualitative reasoning and analytical skills. Now that you know what is on the GMAT, you’re better prepared to dive in and start practicing, but don’t start without a plan. Test-prep for anything–particularly standardized admissions tests–requires a clear and regimented approach that helps you resist the urge (or need) to cram. Do yourself a favor and design a plan like the one sketched out here, and do it now to achieve success on your GMAT..