Many people know what a difficult task it is to take the GMAT. However, most people who are unfamiliar with the test assume that this means the subject matter is especially complicated. This is one of the many bits of disinformation floating around about the GMAT. Here we take a look at what the actual GMAT tests you on, including a breakdown of all the different GMAT subjects, including their subdivision into different question types.
FIRST, DO YOU NEED KNOWLEDGE OF COMPLEX MATH OR BUSINESS CONCEPTS?
This is the most common myth about the GMAT. The GMAT does involve a lot of numbers, but it doesn’t require you to use very complex math. Most of the math concepts are ones you would’ve learned before or during high school.
Nor does the GMAT test any complex business concepts. The most important thing to know is that the GMAT is not a test of any specialized knowledge.
THE GMAT TESTS FOR COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY
So if the GMAT doesn’t test specialized knowledge, what does it test? To quote the official website, the GMAT “lets you showcase the skills that matter most in the business school classroom and in your career.” That is, it tests your ability to solve problems that require synthesis, logical analysis and critique of new and multi-faceted information. Moreover, the strongest constraint you have on the GMAT is time. At about 2 minutes per question on Quant and 1:40 minutes per question on Verbal, you need to know how to solve questions quickly.
So how do you synthesize and analyze new information under strong time constraints? Based on our experience with tens of thousands of students, the most important trait 700+ scorers have is cognitive flexibility – the ability to select the fastest possible approach to a given problem. In turn, this requires you to develop the ability to approach each question in a number of different ways. Think of this as your mental toolbox – how many different tools can you use to solve a certain problem? Thankfully, both of these skills are learnable, and aside from teaching the basic material, they are what we focus on when we teach our students.
SO WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT SUBJECTS ON THE GMAT AND WHAT DO THEY TEST FOR?
The GMAT is divided into four different sections, each of which tests multiple different skills. These sections are Analytical Writing Assessment, Quantitative, Verbal, and Integrated Reasoning. We take a look at those different sections here.
Every one of the four sections is timed, and you take them all consecutively on the computer. The different sections also have in common the fact that you see only one question at a time, and that you are not allowed to go backward to answer or rework previous questions. Every answer you submit is final.
The GMAT permits you to choose one of the following orders in which to take these sections:
1) Analytical Writing → Integrated Reasoning → Quantitative → Verbal
2) Quantitative → Verbal → Integrated Reasoning → Analytical Writing
3) Verbal → Quantitative → Integrated Reasoning → Analytical Writing
Let’s take a closer look at the different GMAT sections.
The Verbal section consists of 36 questions you have 65 minutes to answer. The official website says the Verbal section tests “your ability to read and understand written material, to evaluate arguments, and to correct written material to conform to standard written English.”
The academic areas relevant for this section are reading comprehension, grammar, and logical analysis. But as the GMAT’s description suggests, the Verbal section doesn’t simply test your memorization of certain grammatical concepts. It’s more about your ability to understand and analyze written English, both in terms of clear expression and in terms of underlying of logic.
The Verbal section contains three different kinds of question types: Reading Comprehension, Critical Reasoning, and Sentence Correction.
The Reading Comprehension portion contains short passages written in an academic style from subjects such as business, history, science, and anthropology. None of these sections require prior knowledge in their subject to understand, but all require ‘active reading’ – the ability to critically examine the content of a passage as you read it. Each passage is followed by 3 to 4 questions which ask about different aspects of the text. Questions come in several types:
- Main idea: These questions ask you to summarize the main idea of a passage.
- Supporting ideas: These questions ask about details, facts, and other elements used to support the main idea of the text.
- Inferences: These questions ask you about things implied by the passage without being directly stated. In other words, these questions ask you to draw conclusions from the facts and opinions presented in the passage.
- Structural analysis and organization: These questions ask you about the structure of a passage’s argument, including how it develops and supports its claims and how sound its reasoning is.
- Style and tone: These questions ask you to draw conclusions about the author’s attitude as developed through the language and feeling conveyed in the writing.
- Specific words and phrases: These questions ask you about the meaning of a certain term or phrase in the given context.
Critical Reasoning questions measure your skills relating to rhetoric, argument, and logic. Like with Reading Comprehension, this section consists of passages from various sources that make different kinds of arguments or suggest different kinds of action. However, as opposed to the above, questions in Critical Reasoning focus specifically on your ability to understand and critique the arguments presented, and not on things such as the general idea of the passage or the meaning of specific words.
The Critical Reasoning section contains three subvarieties of questions, which include:
- Argument construction: These questions require you to analyze the rhetorical structure of different kinds of arguments, such as their assumptions, supporting evidence, reasoning, and conclusions.
- Argument evaluation: These questions ask you to bring a more holistic view, analyzing the arguments’ reasoning and methodology to identify their strengths and weaknesses. In particular, you’ll be asked which of the given answer choices would strengthen or weaken a claim.
- Form/evaluate a plan of action: These questions involve passages arguing for particular changes, which you are asked to evaluate from the standpoint of their logical soundness
Sentence Correction questions test your ability to communicate in written English by examining your knowledge of grammar and your ability to identify shorter and more concise sentences. Not all the questions you deal with will involve strict grammatical errors; many will have more to do with choosing among a few technically correct sentences for the most effective and efficient one
The Sentence Correction section of the test contains questions about the following elements of grammar and syntax:
- Agreement between subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent
- Diction, including the ability to recognize word-choice conventions as well as mistakes in word choice
- Sentence construction (including subject-predicate, conjunctions, phrases, independent & dependent clauses, sentence fragments, and punctuation)
- Verb tenses/moods
The Quantitative section consists of 31 multiple-choice questions for which you have 62 minutes. Though the questions do rely on basic high-school level math skills, they do not rely on more advanced concepts such as trigonometry or calculus. The areas you need familiarity with are algebra, word problems, and geometry.
Moreover, and this relates to the concept of cognitive flexibility mentioned above, you’re not being tested explicitly on your knowledge of these areas/concepts. The official site says the Quant section measures “your ability to analyze data and draw conclusions using reasoning skills”, and you will find that your natural skills in logic and reasoning are as helpful to you as your skills in math
These are the different topics you’ll see in your Quant section:
- Fractions and Percent
- Powers and Roots
- Expressions and Equations
- Positive and Negative Numbers
- Ratio and Proportions
- Rate and Work
- Counting Methods & Probability
- Descriptive Statistics
- Lines and Angles
- Coordinate Geometry
NOTE: calculators are not allowed on the Quant section. Usually, this means that the actual numbers you’ll have to work with won’t be very difficult.
There are two types of questions in the Quant section: Problem Solving and Data Sufficiency.
Problem Solving are standard questions you’ve likely seen before: they consist of a description of a problem, in words or in equations, followed by 5 multiple-choice answers, only one of which is correct.
Data Sufficiency questions are structured differently: similarly to Problem Solving, they consist of a problem description and given data, but instead of being followed by five answer choices only one of which is correct, they are followed by two additional statements. Your task is to determine which of these statements is sufficient to solve the problem.
For example, you might be given an equation such as x + y + z = 5 and asked what the value of x is. As posed, this question has no solution – x could have infinitely many values depending on the values of y and z. Say that your first statement is y = 1 and your second statement is z = 2. Each one of these statements, on its own, is also insufficient to answer the question for the same reason mentioned above – given that y = 1, x + 1 + z = 5 so x + z = 4 and there are still infinitely many possible values for x. But – combining both statements together does give enough information – given that y = 1 and z = 2, x must equal 2. In this case, the correct answer to the question is ‘both statements together are necessary to solve the problem’.
While Data Sufficiency questions might seem somewhat unfamiliar to you at first, you’ll soon find that, in some cases, they are easier than the standard Problem-Solving questions. This is because you don’t have to fully solve the DS questions —you simply have to determine if you have enough information to solve them. In the above example, if you notice that the statements y = 1 and z = 2 allow you to solve x + y + z = 5 by substitution, then you can mark the answer choice ‘both statements together are necessary to solve the question’ without actually completing the calculation.
ANALYTICAL WRITING ASSESSMENT
While Analytical Writing Assessment does not factor into your Total Score, it combines many of the different skills tested in other parts of the exam. The official site says the AWA measures “your ability to think critically and to communicate your ideas.”
In the AWA, you are given a one-paragraph prompt that contains an argument (many of these take the form of ideological or strategic arguments such as what you might read in op-ed sections, company strategic reports, project proposals, etc.). You are given thirty minutes to analyze the argument and to offer a critique in the form of a short essay.
This tests your basic writing skills, such as grammar and vocabulary, as well as more abstract/conceptual writing skills, such as your ability to write persuasively. But it is also, ultimately, a chance for you to demonstrate your logical/rhetorical skills—how well you can critically engage with the logical soundness of someone else’s argumentation, and how well you can organize and support your subsequent critique.
This section is more complex than either the Verbal or Quant sections. Additionally, like the AWA, does not contribute to your total score. It is the newest section of the test, added only in 2012.
The GMAC says the IR section tests “your ability to evaluate information presented in multiple formats from multiple sources—skills you need to succeed in our technologically advanced, data-driven world.” They go on to list four official skills tested in the IR section:
- Synthesizing information presented in graphics, text, and numbers
- Evaluating relevant information from different sources
- Organizing information to see relationships and to solve multiple, interrelated problems
- Combining and manipulating information from multiple sources to solve complex problems
In terms of its actual structure, the IR section consists of 12 multi-part questions for which you are allotted 30 minutes.
If this section seems somewhat abstract to you, that’s by design. It’s ultimately a test of your ability to integrate (get it?) different kinds of data from different kinds of sources to solve complicated problems across multiple steps. The problems are more designed to mimic real-life situations than questions you’ll encounter on the Quantitative section.
Note that questions that mimic real-life situations do not mean questions that require real business knowledge to answer correctly. They test your ability to understand different kinds of data (including written information alongside numerical data expressed in different kinds of charts, graphs, and spreadsheets). You will have to synthesize the information as you solve problems in multiple steps.
There are four different question types.
In Graph Interpretation questions you are given a graph or chart alongside several incomplete fill-in-the-blank style sentences in relation to the chart’s information. You will have to select the correct answer from multiple choices.
In Two-Part Analysis questions, you are given a paragraph of information alongside a table that consists of two columns. Each column represents one part of the solution and so each column has its own question and answer choices.
In Table Analysis questions you are given a sortable data table (such as a spreadsheet). You can organize this data in multiple ways in order to better understand the data and determine the correct answers to the questions. The questions mostly consist of several statements with binary answer choices (e.g. you have to determine whether a statement is true or false, or whether the information in the statement would or would not help explain some phenomenon in the data.
In Multi-Source Reasoning questions, you are given multiple different sources of information at once about a single topic (each source typically consisting of verbal information, possibly with a chart to demonstrate). You are then given multiple questions in a row in regards to the different sources.
TAKE HOME MESSAGES
Overall, the most important thing to remember is that the GMAT tests your cognitive flexibility more than it tests any particular kind of conceptual knowledge. No single section is reducible to any single set of ideas or skills you need to have in your repertoire; it instead requires the ability to move smoothly between different solution strategies and approaches.
If you’re planning to take the GMAT, try to find test materials that give you the best of both worlds—you’ll want to increase your aptitude for those academic skills that are covered by the GMAT, but you’ll also want to increase your overall ability to integrate multiple different kinds of skills and ideas in one single problem.
And whatever you do, don’t forget The Fifth Subject the GMAT tests. Of course, there is no real fifth section. What we mean is that in addition to all its academic material, the GMAT is very much a test of time-management, stamina, and adaptive problem-solving. This is important enough to be worth repeating – the most difficult aspect of the GMAT is not solving the problems, it is the time. To succeed, you must develop the capacity to solve problems quickly, even if your solution method isn’t the ‘classic’, equation-driven approach taught in formal settings such as high-school or college.
Best of luck with your studies!