How to succeed in your GMAT

Dan Mason, Senior editor
July, 2017

To win a place on an MBA course at a leading business school you'll often need to take an entrance exam such as the widely used Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)

Your GMAT score is an important part of your MBA application, so it's vital that you understand how the test works and prepare thoroughly.

Even if the exam isn't an official entry requirement for your chosen MBA course, a strong performance can give you an edge over other candidates.

What is the GMAT?

The GMAT is organised by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) and is used by universities to help them decide whether you have the academic ability to study for an MBA. It is also used for some other postgraduate business and management courses.

The GMAT is a three-and-a-half hour exam, taken in English and split into four sections:

  • Analytical writing assessment (one topic, 30 minutes) - tests your ability to think critically, understand an argument and communicate your ideas.
  • Integrated reasoning (12 questions, 30 minutes) - tests whether you can evaluate information presented in different formats.
  • Quantitative (37 questions, 75 minutes) - tests your ability to analyse data and draw conclusions from it.
  • Verbal (41 questions, 75 minutes) - tests your skills in reading, understanding and correcting written English.

You can choose the order you complete the sections and you are entitled to two optional eight-minute breaks.

The exam is computer-based and adapts to your level of ability. This means that in multiple-choice sections, your answer to one question will determine the difficulty of the next.

To take the GMAT you will need to book a place at an assessment centre. These are located around the world and you can search for your local centre on the GMAT website.

It costs $250 (about £190) to take the GMAT. Rescheduling or cancelling your appointment also incurs a charge. Find out more about how much the GMAT costs.

How does the scoring work?

You will receive individual scores for each of the four sections, and an overall score. The total score ranges from 200 to a maximum of 800. Two-thirds of candidates achieve an overall GMAT score of between 400 and 600.

The score you'll need to get onto an MBA course varies between business schools, so check with your chosen institution. In general you'll need a score of at least 600 to be considered. Here are some example entry requirements for some of the best MBA programmes in the UK:

  • University of Cambridge - does not specify a score range, but the average among successful applicants is around 690.
  • London Business School - a minimum score of 600. The average for the latest cohort was 707; class range is typically 600 to 800.
  • University of Manchester - requires a 'satisfactory GMAT score'.
  • University of Oxford - recommends applicants have a score of 650 or above. The current class has an average of around 690.
  • City, University of London - specifies a minimum score of 600, with an average of 640.

Don't forget, your GMAT is only part of your MBA application. A good score does not guarantee entry onto a course, and equally a lower than average performance does not necessarily exclude you.

Business schools will consider all elements of your application, including essays and your academic and professional achievements. In some cases you may be asked to retake the exam to improve your result.

How can I prepare for the GMAT?

To be successful in the GMAT you must spend time familiarising yourself with the types of questions involved and taking practice tests.

Claire McKeown, recruitment manager at Warwick Business School, says preparation is essential. 'The GMAT website has 90 exam questions on it, which will help you discover your weak areas,' she advises. 'Set out a timetable that focuses mainly on those areas and builds in intensity until the day of the exam.'

She adds that it's a good idea to get hold of official textbooks, which have thousands of questions in them, or the GMAT 800 book, which includes some of the hardest questions. 'Keep practising. It will help you recognise what the question wants from you and what type of question it is.'

Claire suggests that you should do a simulation run once or twice before the exam, making sure all technology is switched off and the test is timed. 'Another good tip is to keep a diary of where you went wrong and what the correct answer is, so slowly you will see your areas of weakness as you prepare. It helps build confidence as well.'

If English isn't your first language, read publications such as the Financial Times, The Economist and the Wall Street Journal as often as possible. 'Improvements in the verbal score generally have a bigger impact overall,' she explains.

When it comes to the test, remember the algorithms change the questions depending on your previous answers. 'If you're getting harder and harder questions, this usually means you're doing well - so don't panic,' says Claire.

What other MBA admission tests are there?

Many business schools accept alternative admission tests for MBA courses. The most common besides the GMAT is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which is provided by the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

The GRE is used for a wider variety of postgraduate courses in addition to the MBA, especially in the USA, and consists of three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. You can take the GRE at test centres around the world.

Meanwhile, some business schools have their own admission tests. For example, Cranfield University accepts a GMAT or GRE score but candidates who are able to attend an interview in person can take a Cranfield admission test. This is made up of two paper-based exams testing your numeracy and problem-solving skills.