How hard is the GMAT? The test is hard but with the right prep you can increase your chances of getting a high score and winning admission into the best MBA programs in the world. The Graduate Management Admissions Council has recently released a new version of the GMAT that is shorter (by one hour), has a new scoring scale and pulls more data from your performance in every section and subsection. Since the GMAT is still a big part of how to get an MBA, this article will breakdown what the GMAT is, what makes it difficult and what you can do to get a high score. 

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Article Contents
12 min read

How Hard is the GMAT: What is the GMAT? How Hard is the GMAT: How Many People Took the GMAT Last Year How Hard is the GMAT: GMAT Prep How Hard is the GMAT: Why is it Hard? How Hard is the GMAT: Should I Retake the GMAT? How Hard is the GMAT: What’s on the GMAT? How Hard is the GMAT: New GMAT Test How to Prepare for the GMAT FAQs

How Hard is the GMAT: What is the GMAT?

The Graduate Admissions Management Test is a skills-based exam that is used by most of the best MBA programs in the US and the best MBA programs in Canada to assess your readiness for an MBA program. The skills the GMAT tests most are your:

  • Problem-solving abilities
  • Verbal skills
  • Reading comprehension
  • Analytical and critical thinking skills

According to the Graduate Management Admissions Council, who administers the GMAT, these are the skills that are most important to have to be able to succeed in an advanced MBA program, but whether the GMAT does this accurately is up for debate, which we’ll talk about later. There is a new version of the GMAT coming out soon (GMAT Focus). The reason for these changes is the declining number of test-takers and the increasing number of MBA programs that do not require the GMAT or GRE, although many still include the test as part of their MBA requirements.

So we’ll cover the format of the exam that has been used most since the test switched from a pencil-and-paper test to a computer-based exam and point out the differences between the new and classic versions.

The classic GMAT consists of four sections:

  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Integrated Reasoning
  • Analytical Writing

If these GMAT sections look familiar, it’s because the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) both have similar sections (incidentally, those tests are also coming out with new versions). The GMAT is timed and it is computer-adaptive so it adjusts in difficulty as you complete each section. Each GMAT section has a different number of questions with the QR and VR sections containing the most questions:

  • Quantitative Reasoning: 31 questions
  • Verbal Reasoning: 36 questions
  • Integrated Reasoning: 12 questions

Similar to many other standardized tests, the GMAT also has an analytical writing section where you must write a timed essay responding to a specific prompt. However, the analytical writing section will be removed from all future tests. Even though there are close to 7,500 MBA programs around the world that require you take the GMAT and submit your scores as part of your application, many MBA programs have changed their standardized test requirements. They have either decided to accept other standardized test scores, such as GRE scores, or have decided to go test-optional.

How Hard is the GMAT: How Many People Took the GMAT Last Year

US Test-Takers: 30,357

Canadian Test-Takers: 4,073

International Test-Takers: 156,453

Close to 35,000 people in North America took the GMAT last year, but that number is down significantly from years past with each successive year seeing a decline. Internationally, the number of test-takers has shrunken to around 150,000 from 250,000 only four years prior.

One of the main reasons for the decline is doubt over whether the GMAT accurately predicts your success and readiness for business school. Several business schools who have gone test-optional have seen that students who have been admitted because of other factors (MBA extracurriculars, work experience, MBA admission essays, interview performance) do as well or even better than students who did take the test and submitted GMAT scores.

Going test-optional is also one of the best MBA recruitment strategies, as business schools that have gone test-optional have seen a rise in their student recruitment. This strategy has also made it easier for students who wouldn’t normally be able to set aside time for GMAT prep or don’t have the resources to take a GMAT prep course to get into business school on the strength of other factors such as their MBA video essays or MBA recommendation letter.

While the number of test-takers has dropped, the mean GMAT scores in the US and Canada have all gone steadily up. The total mean score in the US went from 553 to 589 (the GMAT score range is 200-800; and the mean score for all test-takers is 582) and the same applies in Canada where the mean score went from 557 to 586.

But these mean scores are still not high enough to get into the best MBA programs in the world, as the GMAT score range for the most vaunted MBA programs is 685-740, the latter of which is the median GMAT score for entry into the Harvard Business School (but the score range to get into Harvard is between 500-740, so people with mid-range scores are able to get in). 

So while collective scores have gone up, you still have to go the extra mile in your preparation to get into your program and be eligible for several, GMAT-related MBA scholarships. The GMAT is hard, but the consistent increase in scores suggests every new cohort scores better than the last due to factors such as the time they’ve spent preparing; the quality of GMAT test resources; and the knowledge, strategies, and advice available to new test-takers.

This last point is important and gets to the heart of why people are critical of standardized tests – learning a strategy to take the test matters more than learning the skills you need to do well. Of course, you can improve your critical thinking and reading comprehension skills as part of your GMAT prep (and you should), but learning the GMAT (identifying the types of GMAT questions; writing timed and un-timed practice tests; focusing on the GMAT sections and sub-sections) is as, or even more, important. But this is good for you. You can also learn these strategies and get a score in the high GMAT percentiles.

How Hard is the GMAT: GMAT Prep

Studying for the GMAT is essential. As with other standardized tests, the number of hours and months you put into studying increases the likelihood of getting a high score. But what should you study? You should divide your GMAT prep between learning the test (different types of questions; practicing for adaptive testing) and sharpening the skills that the exam tries to test (reading comprehension; logical reasoning).

The amount of time you should devote to prep depends on your MBA application deadlines and whether you have enough time to cover all the other aspects of your application, such as letters of recommendation and personal statement, so make sure you have enough time to do everything. Ideally, you should devote between 3 and 4 months to preparing for the GMAT.

During this time, you also want to track your progress by keeping track of your wrong answers for several examining your scores in every section and sub-section to see where you need to devote more time and attention. Since every student is different, you also need to come up with a study plan that suits your learning style, schedule and lifestyle, but the baseline for prep time can be 10-15 hours/week, which you can adjust based on your schedule.

You can sign-up for a GMAT prep course if you have the resources, but many students, who are more adept at self-study, find they do not need formal (and paid) resources to prepare. You can find many different free, online resources to help you, such as GMAT practice questions or practice tests that you can use on your own.

How Hard is the GMAT: Why is it Hard?

The GMAT is mainly used for admission to business school, so it can be challenging for students who don’t come from quantitative backgrounds, such as STEM subjects, namely students with arts and humanities degrees. But the GMAT does not test any specific knowledge; you don’t have to have any previous knowledge of business practices, data analytics, math, science or engineering subjects to take the test.

What makes the GMAT hard is what is difficult about any standardized test – time limits. You have various time limits to complete each section of the GMAT and this pressure combined with the inherently difficult questions of each section makes the GMAT hard. Of course, the GMAT is intellectually challenging, but the rise of the mean total score for test-takers across several years suggests people have come better prepared to take the exam.

How Hard is the GMAT: Should I Retake the GMAT?

But even with months of prep, you might not get the score that you were hoping for, which means you might have to retake the GMAT, which a lot of people do. Any number of things can affect your performance on test day and since you can take the GMAT five times during a 12-month period, you should consider whether it will benefit you to take it again. Remember there is more to getting a high GMAT score than getting into your preferred program.

Many MBA programs like to reward high test scorers with entrance scholarships, so getting as high a score as possible should be one the things to consider. But if you get a low score or a score outside of your preferred school’s range, you want to retake the GMAT to show that you tried to increase your score. You may or may not reach that threshold, but it looks good on your record that you at least tried to raise your GMAT score.

How Hard is the GMAT: What’s on the GMAT?

Quantitative Reasoning

Time Limit: 60 minutes

# of Questions: 31

# of Sub-Sections: 2/Data Sufficiency and Problem-Solving

The Quantitative Reasoning (QR) section of the GMAT examines your problem-solving and analytical skills. This section has the second-greatest number of questions behind the Verbal Reasoning section and it is the “math” or “GMAT Math” section. You’ll see a lot of logic and problem-solving questions that are supposed to test your abilities in several areas, such as:

  • Rates, ratios, percentages
  • Statistics, probability, estimation
  • Geometry, algebra, and factors

These areas are spread out over two sub-sections: Data Sufficiency and Problem-Solving. Each of these sub-sections contains between 14 to 18 questions. If you’re someone who is especially averse to math and calculations (although, if you want to take an MBA or succeed in business, having quantitative skills is critical), you can take solace in the fact that some of the Data Sufficiency and Problem-Solving questions do not use numbers. Instead, these questions present word problems that you have to unpack to find the correct answer.

Some Data Sufficiency questions only ask whether you have enough information within the question and its premise to discover the true answer, or not. Quantitative Reasoning is one section where you have to analyze and breakdown a question’s structure to answer correctly. You should examine the question’s stem or stimuli (the original premise of the question) to determine whether you have all the information you need to answer the second part of the question, hence the name, “data sufficiency”.

Verbal Reasoning

Time Limit: 65 minutes

# of Questions: 36

# of Sub-Sections: 3/Reading Comprehension, Sentence Correction, and Critical Reasoning

The Verbal Reasoning section of the GMAT is another lengthy section, as it also tops out at over 30 questions. But here, you’ll see questions that examine how closely you read, and whether you are good at picking out specific details of a text and understanding the point or arguments of several different types of texts written about various subjects. For the Reading Comprehension section, you must read a selected text and simply answer the questions asked about the text’s arguments, counter-arguments, logic, tone and attitudes of the author.

The Sentence Correction section is similar to a fill-in-the-blank questions where must match words or a pair of words to the blank sections of a sentence based on the other parts of that sentence. As for the Critical Reasoning section, this one is similar to the sections on the GRE and LSAT, as you must close-read short theses and statements that you must then compare to a list of multiple questions to determine which one applies to the statement.

The most popular way to prepare for this section is by training your mind to unpack and disassemble arguments and concepts, which you should be well-versed in if you’re already a professional, have graduated college or both. You can read scholarly journals and articles to memorize how arguments are structured and what type of language authors use to articulate their arguments.

Integrated Reasoning

Time Limit: 30 minutes

# of Questions: 12

# of Sub-Sections: 4/Multi-Source Reasoning, Table Analysis, Graphics Interpretation, Two-Part Analysis

Every standardized admissions test has a section unique to it; and Integrated Reasoning is unique to the GMAT. Every business is built on data and knowing how to interpret, analyze, collect, and collate data from various sources is an important part of your education in an MBA program, which is why this section exists. The Integrated Reasoning section is made up of four sub-sections that all use various stimuli (graphs, tables, charts) to assess how well you can extract useful data from these sources.

This section is the shortest in terms of questions (12), but you only have half an hour to complete this section. Some of the questions look simple; they combine various visual elements such as pictographs and Venn diagrams to illustrate their premises. In this section, you’ll use a combination of skills, such as your critical-thinking, analytical and reasoning skills to look for patterns, find connections and reach conclusions based on the data presented.

Analytical Writing

Time Limit: 30 minutes

# of Questions: 1 written essay response

# of Sub-Sections: n/a

Analytical Writing is the same here as it is for every other standardized test that still use it (Analytical Writing will no longer be used on the new GMAT tests), except for the subject matter, which has to do with a business-related topic or something similar. Even though all the section of the GMAT is challenging, a lot of people sometimes feel like this is the hardest section since they have to write a compelling, original essay in only thirty minutes. But this section is also the easiest to prepare for, as you can simply read over various prompts to understand what they ask and read various texts to internalize the essential components of a good essay.

How Hard is the GMAT: New GMAT Test

The new GMAT test aka GMAT Focus will only have three sections:

  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Data Insights

By removing the Analytical Writing and Integrated Reasoning section, the test is now shorter; each section is supposed to take only 45 minutes. But you will also have more time to read and answer each question. The number of Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning questions is unchanged, but the other changes important to know about the new GMAT Focus test are that:

  • You can go back and review your answers
  • You can change your answers to a maximum of three questions in each section
  • You can get your results faster
  • New score scale (205-805) to differentiate from the old score scale (200-800)

How to Prepare for the GMAT

1. Learn Time Management Skills

Learning how to properly manage the short amount of time you have to complete the GMAT is key to your success. You should divide the amount of time given to complete each section by the number of questions to find out the maximum amount of time you can spend on each question, in terms of minutes. You can also set up certain goal posts for how long you can spend on every section, meaning you should have completed a certain number of questions at specific intervals, such as completing ten questions within fifteen or twenty minutes or fifteen questions by 30 minutes, etc. You want to be able to reach these goal posts during your GMAT prep so you can answer all the questions in time, as you must answer all the question to advance through the exam.

2. Build Up Your Core Skills

This refers to practicing the basic skills that are tested in the GMAT, such as reading comprehension, quantitative analysis, problem-solving skills, and analytical skills. You can do this in a variety of ways from close-reading technical manuals and critical writing to understand how essays and arguments are structured to mastering fundamental concepts (algebra, geometry, pattern recognition) for the quantitative section. As an add-on, you should also develop unique strategies for each of the sections, such as using shortcuts to understand the premise of the questions by memorizing specific words and phrases and being able to read different charts, and other data displays to get into the habit of being able to analyze them more efficiently.

3. Take Full-Length Practice Tests

Taking a practice test is the best rehearsal for taking the actual GMAT and it is also where you can apply all the training you learned during your study time. You can test out your time management skills, as well as apply all the reading, problem-solving and analytical skills you’ve sharpened to answer the questions, so taking practice test is vital. But you don’t want to take practice tests just to take practice tests; taking a practice test should come at the end of your study time to see how far you’ve progressed, or not. You should only take a practice exam after you’ve dedicated a few weeks to studying to see whether your study strategies are effective, or whether you need to retool your approach if you don’t improve in a significant way.


1. How hard is the GMAT?

The GMAT is a difficult exam, but if you prepare by both learning how the exam works, and building up your core skills, you can get a high score to get into your MBA program. 

2. What is the GMAT used for?

The GMAT is used for admissions to MBA programs, as well as other graduate and doctoral business administration programs. 

3. How is the GMAT scored?

The GMAT has four sections that each have their own score scale. The Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections have a score scale of 6 to 51; the Integrated Reasoning section is scored between 1 to 8; and the Analytical Writing essay is scored from 0 to 6. The total score scale runs from 200 to 800. 

4. How often can I take the GMAT?

You can take the GMAT five times a year, but you must wait 16 days before your last exam to take another one. 

5. How long are GMAT scores valid?

GMAT scores are valid for five years. 

6. What strategies can help me excel in the GMAT?

You can learn and develop time management skills, critical and problem-solving skills, as well as close-reading skills to get a high score on the GMAT. Combining all these skills is the best preparation for the GMAT. 

7. Is a high GMAT score a guaranteed ticket to top-tier graduate schools?

According to many MBA admissions directors, yes, a high GMAT score matters a lot when determining whether you’ll get into your preferred MBA program. Other aspects of your application matter, but the GMAT is still used in MBA admissions for many prestigious programs. 

8. How can I approach GMAT studying more effectively?

A big part of preparing effectively for the GMAT is learning from your mistakes. You should not only examine what makes a correct answer, but what is the difference between the right and wrong answer. The differences between the right and wrong answer can be very subtle, which is why you should train yourself on what these differences are to be able to spot them quickly when you’re taking practice tests and the real test. 

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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