The GMAT – A Detailed Summary

Striking fear into business students all over the world, the GMAT is the gateway test to many prestigious business schools and universities.  Top schools often require scores in the 700s, which can appear daunting indeed.  Here, we dive into the format of the test and see what it’s really about.


The GMAT is divided into four sections:



Time per Section

Time per question (minutes:seconds)

1. Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA)




2. Integrated Reasoning




   Optional Break




3. Quantitative (Math)




   Optional Break




4. Verbal (English)




The Essay and Integrated Reasoning sections have their own scores, while the Quantitative and Verbal sections are combined to give you your main score out of 800 (the score colleges really care about).  We’ll break down how the scores work in a little bit.

A Note about Endurance

The AWA and Integrated Reasoning sections are each 30 minutes long.  This means that you have to spend an hour on the test before you get to start the two sections that actually impact your chances of getting into the school you want.  This is why we refer to the GMAT as a test of endurance.  Just like running a marathon, it takes training and practice to be able to produce quality results over the entire 3.5 hour test.  And while it may seem like a good idea to just blow through the first two sections, it is wise to put some effort into them.  First of all, they serve as a good warm-up for the harder sections of the test.  Secondly, your school may compare your essay score to the quality of your admission materials.  If you score low on the essay but have flawless English in your application, it can imply that you didn’t write the application yourself, or that it’s been so heavily edited that it does not showcase your actual writing ability.

The AWA Section

The AWA (Essay) section consists of what I call an Analyze an Argument task.  The test gives you an argument that is full of logical flaws and unfounded assumptions.  Your job is to identify what they are, what is wrong with them, and how they possibly could be fixed.  DO NOT state whether you agree with the conclusion of the argument; the purpose of the essay is to test your writing and critical thinking abilities, not your persuasive abilities.

The Integrated Reasoning Section

The Integrated Reading sections tests your ability to pull information from charts and graphs.  This is probably the section that most people score the lowest on, but that’s all right because it’s also the section that matters the least.  What makes this section so tricky is that few people study for it, and it has the only multi-answer questions on the GMAT.  If you get one part of the answer wrong, the entire question counts as missed.  But remember, this section doesn’t affect your chances of getting into a good school.  Consider it a warm-up for the next two sections.

What Really Matters

This is where the wheel meets the road.  The Quantitative and Verbal sections of the exam are each 75 minutes long, with only 1 short break between them.  Questions are not timed separately, rather, there is a timer counting down for the whole section.  This means careful time management is key to answering all the questions.

The Quantitative Section

The Quantitative Section tests your number sense, estimation, and computational abilities.  Most concepts covered in High School (except for calculus, trigonometry and complex numbers) are fair game.  You are not allowed a calculator on the GMAT, so it’s important to be very comfortable with complex arithmetic and algebraic operations in order to be able to finish the problems in time.

The Verbal Section

The Verbal Section tests your reading comprehension, logical reasoning, and grammatical abilities.  It does this through three questions types: Reading Comprehension, Critical Reasoning, and Sentence Correction.  While Reading Comprehension is fairly standard, Critical Reasoning and Sentence Correction are unique to the GMAT.

In Critical Reasoning questions, you are provided with a paragraph that presents a situation or argument, and then you have to decide which of the answer choices logically completes the scenario, or strengthens or weakens the argument.

Sentence Correction primarily tests two things: parallelism and English idioms.  Parallelism is making sure your verb tenses and sentence clauses match each other.  English idioms in the GMAT are not idioms like you are probably familiar with, such as “raining cats and dogs”, but rather common English sentence patterns such as “not x but y”.


Scoring on the GMAT is a little complicated, but basically each section has its own subscore, with the Quantitative and Verbal sections’ scores being scaled and combined to yield the final score.

GRE scoring in a nutshell:

  • The main score ranges from 200-800. When people ask you for your score on the GMAT, this is what they are asking for
  • The AWA score ranges from 0-6 with half scores possible
  • The Integrated Reasoning score ranges from 0-8
  • The Quantitative and Verbal sections have subscores from 0-60

The average score on the GMAT is 552 (as of 2019).  To get a score of 700 would require you to be in the 89th percentile.  To get this high of a score, preparation is key.  It is important to note that the Verbal section is weighted heavier than the Quant section.  This is because it is much rarer for a person to score very high in Verbal and have a high Quant score than to score very high in Quant and have a high Verbal score. So, if your Quant and Verbal scores are about equal, raising your Verbal score will have a higher impact on your total score.

Adaptive Scoring

GMAT scoring is adaptive.  This means that as you answer questions, depending on if you get them correct, the next ones you receive will be more or less difficult.  A side effect of this is that it is not possible to go backwards and review questions you weren’t sure about: once you answer a question, it is gone forever.

A Final Note

Remember that the GMAT is a test for business students, and a valuable skill to have in business is the ability to recognize when the cost of an opportunity outweighs the potential benefits.  This means that if a question is too difficult, it is important to move on and not take time away from other questions you can answer correctly.  Remember, with the adaptive scoring, if you get the next one right, your score will go back.

In Summary

While the GMAT is definitely a difficult test, understanding how it is structured can make it that much easier to conquer.  For more information, please contact us.

Ryan Stallard is a Tutor at Seeking English and freelance writer with extensive knowledge of test prep, having taught it full time for over a year.