20 Questions about the GMAT Exam

Thanks to the Internet, you can learn almost anything you want about the GMAT without ever leaving home. Much of what you'll read, however, is wrong.

The Web is full of GMAT misinformation and paranoia: "Is it really true that people who take the test stoned score higher? Will I get fingerprinted at the test center? Are other people cheating while I'm not?"

Don't laugh; these are real questions. (The correct answers are: sometimes, no and yes — in that order.)

Let's tackle some of the common myths and misconceptions about the GMAT.

How Should I Prepare for the GMAT?

You'll need to brush up on your high school math and learn a little about English grammar. I don’t recommend, however, that you practice with grammar guides or with high school math books. The GMAT tests only a very narrow range of grammar, reasoning, reading and math skills, so going outside the curriculum to a general purpose math or grammar book would mean studying a lot of material that isn't on the exam.

Take a GMAT prep class if at all possible, and if a class isn't possible, buy the Official Guide for GMAT Review and another book from a test prep company. The Official Guide has the most accurate questions. (It contains real questions from old exams.) It won’t, however, tell you about the test's secrets. That’s why you'll need a book from a prep company.

Read the prep book first and then practice out of the Official Guide. (I don’t endorse any of the available GMAT prep book because I don’t think they go into enough detail about the exam and how to beat it. But you need something to explain the more obvious tricks.)

What's the Most Common Mistake Made on the GMAT?

Blowing the timing.

It isn't just the most common mistake, it's the most costly one. When the computerized test first came out we thought timing wouldn't be a big problem. We (at the big test-prep company I used to teach for) told our students to spend a disproportionate amount of their time on the early questions and not to worry too much if they ran out of time on the final questions. That was a mistake.

The problem we're seeing with that approach is that students spend too much time on early problems that they can't solve and don't get to later problems that they can. The result is a significant drop in scores. My students who blow the timing on their first try and get the timing right on their second usually improve by almost 100 points.

So don't stick with the early, difficult problems too long. Choose an answer quickly and move on to the next question.

How is the GMAT Scored?

This is the tricky part. The short answer is that the test adjusts the difficulty of its questions until the test taker reaches a level at which he misses approximately 50 percent of the questions. That level of difficulty is then correlated with a score ranging from 200 to 800 points. So it isn't the number of questions you miss that determines your score; it's the level of difficulty at which you miss half the questions.

Your first question will be of medium difficulty. If you get it right you'll get a harder question; if you get it wrong you'll get an easier question. That's the theory, anyway. The problem with that theory is that many of the questions that are considered difficult are actually pretty simple if you get some good coaching. That's why I focus on those concepts in my classes.

How Many Questions Can I Miss and Still Get a 700?

You're missing the point. It's not the number of questions you miss that determines your final score. It's the level of difficulty at which you miss those questions.

You will miss a greater percentage of questions on the computer adaptive test than you do on tests found in prep books. That's because the computer test takes you to your "50 percent failure level" and then tries to keep you there for the rest of the exam, while the book-based tests usually arrange questions in increasing order of difficulty without regard for your skill level.

So try not to worry if you start seeing exceptionally hard questions on the real test. All that means is that you're doing well.

What if I take the test more than once? Will schools average my scores?

No. I'm not aware of a single school that still averages GMAT scores. Back in the day, policies varied from program to program, but then one year everything changed. Suddenly the schools all agreed to unify their practice. Now virtually all of them accept only your highest score.

What about the math and verbal sub-scores? Do schools use them?

Yes. In fact, your math sub-score is critically important. Admissions officers are terrified of admitting candidates who will bomb out because they can't handle the math-intensive courses. So getting an acceptable math score is important. The verbal sub-score isn't quite as critical, and applicants who speak English as a second language are often given extra leeway for low verbal scores.

What about the AWA and Integrated Reasoning scores? Do schools use them?

Almost never. Adding the essay (the AWA) to the GMAT has been a total failure, and I'll go out on a limb and predict that the Integrated Reasoning section will also flop. These two scores are not being taken seriously by business schools and are not a significant part of the admissions decision.

If the AWA and IR scores are unimportant, is it okay to skip those sections?

Definitely not. It's true that schools place virtually no weight on your AWA and IR scores when making the admissions decision, but ignoring those sections completely — as some unwise test takers have done — makes the applicant look lazy. Write the essays, answer the integrated reasoning questions. If nothing else, it's a good way to warm up for the two parts of the exam that truly matter.

Is it easier to improve in math or verbal?

Most GMAT prep students who take a class improve more in math than they do in verbal. The concepts in math are more concrete and the answer choices are less ambiguous.

What is an acceptable GMAT score?

It varies from school to school and candidate to candidate. Applicants from overrepresented work backgrounds — such as banking or consulting — need higher GMAT scores, while candidates from underrepresented work backgrounds can be admitted with significantly lower numbers. Regardless of a candidate's work background, however, being admitted to a top-tier program with a score below 600 is almost impossible.

How much can I improve on the GMAT?

The GMAT curriculum can be mastered completely. The people who write the exam aren't robots with superhuman brain power. They're ordinary worker bees who follow prescribed formulas to write predictable test questions. Because I've studied the test for so long, I know every concept that appears on the exam. If I can master it, you can master it.

Any suggestions for test day?

Arrive super early. Sneak Skittles in your shirt pocket. Go commando.

Should I use GMASS, the Graduate Management Admissions Search Service?

Yes, checking the GMASS box at MBA.com or on your computer on test day will allow schools to recruit you based on your GMAT score and self-reported GPA.

Should I elect to send my scores every time I take the test?

Yes. The fee you pay to take the exam includes sending your scores to five schools. Beyond that, you can send scores to more programs at a cost of $25 per school. (Outrageous.) There is no advantage in holding off on sending your GMAT transcript until you get the score you want. Schools will use only your highest score anyway, so don't wait until you've taken the test many times and then be forced to pay $25 per school. Send your scores with every test.

Does the GMAT 'measure' anything?

Apparently not. No one claims that the GMAT is an intelligence test or that it measures any kind of aptitude or potential. In fact, the Graduate Management Admissions Counsel is so lawyered up on this issue that it invests more energy clarifying what the test doesn't do than explaining what it does. The only justification ever given for administering the test is that there is a slight correlation (median correlation = 0.51) between GMAT scores and first-year grades in business school. (Shockingly, the study conducted to find that modest correlation was paid for and conducted by the very people who write the test.) There is apparently no correlation whatsoever between a student's GMAT score and his or her second-year grades. Go figure.

They take my picture at the test center as part of the security process. Is it true that schools can pull up that picture on the Internet?

Yep, and they sometimes do. That "security" picture is made available to schools (for some stupid reason), so don't be caught wearing your "Legalize It!" T-shirt and flipping off the camera.

What is the average GMAT score?

The worldwide average is 546.

What's the gender breakdown among GMAT test takers?

60% male; 40% female

Which undergrad majors score highest and lowest on the GMAT?

Physics (606); Education (485)

Which U.S. states have the highest and the lowest average GMAT scores?

The highest isn't a state at all, it's the District of Columbia (593). The lowest is Mississippi (441).