How Hard is the GMAT?

How hard is the GMAT? Simply put, it can be very difficult. But you can prepare for it and make it significantly easier on yourself. 

The GMAT is short for Graduate Management Admissions Test and is the main standardized test used to gain admissions to MBA graduate programs, although it’s unrelated cousin, the GRE, has also been gaining popularity. You can take the GMAT 5 times in a year, but only 8 times total – so while you do have a little breathing room to do well, you want to prepare for it as much as possible before taking that first test. 

The GMAT is a Computer Adaptive Test – which for practical purposes, means that it will get harder as you do well on it, or easier as you begin to have trouble. You don’t have to worry about doing badly on the first few questions and having that tank your scores though, as the algorithm that calculates your score is complex and doesn’t grade based on the order questions are answered. What it does mean is that you can expect the test to get harder and harder if you’ve prepared well for it.

The test has several sections, which we will go over below – but your most important score (the one which many graduate programs pay close attention to), is the combined score between your qualitative and verbal section scores. These are also the largest sections of the test, the most difficult, and the ones that you want to spend the most time preparing for. 

The point of this test is to see if you have the skills that will be important to you in a graduate program and also the business world in general. For that reason, it tests a wide range of skills – from math (geometry, arithmetic, algebra,) to critical reasoning and grammar. In this way, the test is pretty difficult – it’s not as if you can simply study for one subject and do well on it – you have to have a well-rounded understanding of many different topics. 

You need to economize your time preparing for the sections that you have the most difficulty with – considering the duration of the test, and speed that questions need to be answered – not having a solid grip on a topic will make the whole test more difficult, but because it is a standardized test, you can prepare and expect to do pretty well. 

When determining how difficult the test will actually be, the bottom line is asking yourself how selective the program you’re trying to enter is. If you want to get into a top program that requires scores in the 90th percentile, (a score of 710 or higher out of 800) than you’re likely going to need to put in significantly more effort into the test than you would if you only need a score of 600. Do your research about what the average scores are for students accepted into the programs you’re interested in, and this will give you a better gauge on how hard the GMAT will be and how much effort you need to put into it.  See our guide on what is a good GMAT score for more information.

What Makes the GMAT Hard?

what makes the GMAT hard

In short, the GMAT is hard because it requires you to think differently under various constraints.

Let’s go over the specific challenges you will encounter as you take the GMAT.

The GMAT is a Marathon

Just like a marathon, the GMAT is long and challenging.  You'll spend over four long, challenging hours completing the exam. It will be challenging to maintain your focus for that length of time.  To make sure you finish strong, we recommend:

  • Get plenty of sleep - get at least eight hours of sleep on the days leading up to your test date.
  • Hydrate and nourish - drink plenty of water and healthy food/snacks.
  • Take advantage of breaks - use your optional breaks to stretch and recharge.

The GMAT is a Sprint

Each of the GMAT sections is timed.  Much of the difficulty of the GMAT comes from the time constraints put on the questions.  Many GMAT test-takers will waste precious time understanding the questions before answering them. The key to managing your time is to keep up a strong pace - some of the sections will require you to answer a question every two minutes. 

Remember - your score will suffer dramatically if you do not answer every question.

The GMAT is a Maze

The GMAT utilizes unusual question formats that may seem tricky to test-takers used to other standardized test such as the ACT or SAT.  Many of the questions have multiple parts requiring multiple answers for full credit.  The wording of questions can also be unusual or confusing. The best approach to deal with these tricky question types is to take GMAT practice exams to become familiar with the question formats.

The GMAT is a Skills Test

By design, the GMAT will assess your math/quantitative and English/grammar skills.  If your math skills are rusty you may struggle with the Quantitative (Quant) section.  Additionally, you are not allowed to use a calculator on the Quant section.

The verbal and analytical writing sections are demanding because they require a strong foundation in English grammar.  These sections can be especially challenging for non-native English speakers.

To prepare for the GMAT, check out these resources:

To better understand the challenges and how to overcome them, let’s take a look at the sections of the GMAT in more detail. 

Breaking Down Difficulty: Sections of the GMAT Exam

You may find that the sections of the GMAT differ drastically based on your skills. Therefore, it’s important to take a practice test early and then focus on your weak points as you study. There are four sections to the GMAT: a verbal section, a quantitative section, an integrated reasoning section, and an analytical writing assessment (AWA). A new update to the GMAT allows test-takers limited options to decide what order to take the test in – but in essence, it is a choice between doing the AWA first or last. You may find that the quantitative section is the most difficult for you, so you want to get done with it first – or maybe you prefer to warm up on verbal and then move over to quant. The only way to determine how to make the test easier for yourself is to take practice tests and see what works best for you. 

 Section Duration in minutes  Number of questions  Minutes per Question
 Analytical Writing Assessment  30 1 essay   
 Integrated Reasoning  30  12 2:30
 Quantitative  62  31 2:00
 Verbal  65  36 2:48

Time makes this test more difficult – although two minutes may seem like plenty, when you’re focused in on trying to solve a difficult quant problem or wasting time doing calculations, you can quickly lose a lot of valuable time – this makes the whole rest of the test harder. The lesson here is that working quickly will make the GMAT easier and wasting time will make it harder. There are many specific strategies you can use to solve certain question types to make them easier, so do your research well before test day. 

Let’s go over the verbal and quantitative sections first, as they make up the most critical component of your GMAT score. 

The GMAT Verbal Section Difficulty 

The verbal section is quite difficult for people whose strength is not grammar and following arguments. If you’re more quant oriented, you should be wary of overlooking this section which accounts for a half of your score. 

The verbal section has three question types: reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correction. In the sentence correction section, you will be asked to make decisions about which of several sentence structures is best based on grammar – so it really does do you good to review some of the basic grammar you may not have paid attention to since high school. Remember, the GMAT is not asking for which sentences sound the best but which are grammatically correct. This catches a lot of people. 

In the reading comprehension section, you will analyze a text and draw conclusions or inferences about it. Again, this is deceptively simple. You need to spend time practicing looking at the nuance of arguments and be careful of words like “all” or “some.” Reviewing basic rules of logic, and also doing a lot of reading can help in this regard. 

The critical reasoning section will test – you guessed it – your reasoning skills. All of these question types are multiple-choice and have five answers to choose from. You’re scored from 0 to 60, and on average have slightly less than two minutes to answer each question. 

This means you need to be mindful of your time. Even if you want to answer the most difficult questions, it can set you back to spend 5 minutes on just one question – as there is a penalty for not answering all the questions in the section. You can’t move on to the next question until you have answered your current one – so be careful not to get caught up on just one question. 

The verbal section is difficult partly because it is so often overlooked by test-takers. Do not make the mistake of thinking just because you are coherent and can write an essay that this section will be easy for you – it won’t be – it’s asking for specific and nuanced questions. 

How Hard is The GMAT Quantitative Section 

The quantitative section, while extremely challenging, is the easiest to prepare for. There are a limited number of question types, and therefore, given enough prep time, you can prepare for all of them. The quantitative section is also graded from 0 to 60, with 31 questions and an average of 2 minutes to complete each question (making for a test section that is 62 minutes.) 

There are two question types in this section. The first is called data sufficiency, where you will have to determine whether or not you have enough information to solve a particular problem – that’s it! This is just a matter of practicing the question type as you learn the pattern of what information you need to make determinations. 

The second is the problem-solving question type, where you will have to use your math skills to solve a quantitative problem – this can be more difficult for people who don’t usually do well in quant – but even if you do, be wary – these questions are sometimes designed to “look easy” when in reality they’re trying to trick you. Like all sections of the GMAT, this shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Keep in mind that both the quantitative and the verbal sections are CAT sections, meaning the questions will change their difficulty as you answer them correctly or incorrectly. Don’t let this psych you out. The algorithm is not as simple as just making the questions harder and harder in a linear pattern. 

Both are relatively straightforward, but again, you need to be mindful of your time and prepare well ahead of time with strategies for answering each question type efficiently. Time is not your ally on this test. You do not have a calculator during the test – so make sure you’ve brushed up on the basics before test day – you don’t want to waste time doing long division. Many questions do not need you to actually make calculations, you can determine the correct answer in other ways. The test will be harder if you don’t learn to take these opportunities. 

Now, let’s take a look at the next two sections of the GMAT: AWA and Integrated Reasoning. 

Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) Difficulty

The AWA is a formulaic essay. It is arguably the easiest aspect of the GMAT – first, because you will be asked to analyze an argument that is presented to you. You won’t be making your own argument, but rather critiquing the one that is given to you. It’s important to practice this skill ahead of time so you’re prepared for the question type on test day. Second, the test takers want you to follow a standard form and use standard structural wording, which means with a bit of research online and some practice tests and essays, you should be able to churn out this essay type fairly easily. 

On the AWA, you will receive a score somewhere between 0 and 6. A score of 0 means that you left the page blank or did not answer the question – your essay was perfectly wrong. Let’ try to avoid that outcome. 

It’s extremely important that you do not overlook the AWA because of you think it will be a breeze, or because you wrote great essays in college. Study the requirements of the test, and practice for them – not your last English professor. 

You effectively receive two scores on the esasy: one is done by an automated computer system that processes your answer based on dozens of different criteria. The other score is based off a human reader’s interpretation of your essay. The two scores are averaged to get the score you are given. 

If the scores are more than a point different from each other, a third reader is brought in to determine the final score. 

 Essay Score  Description
 1  An essay that is deficient.
 2  An essay that is flawed.
 3  An essay that is limited.
 4  An essay that is adequate.
 5  An essay that is strong.
 6  An essay that is outstanding.

Integrated Reasoning Section (IR) Difficulty 

First of all, it’s important to know the Integrated Reasoning section of the test is not computer adaptive, meaning it will not get harder (or easier) as you complete the section. That being said, it’s an extremely difficult part of this test – because you are typically given too much information, and you’re forced to focus on what matters. 

For the IR, time will more likely than not be your enemy. You may have to read long passages in order to even have a chance at answering questions. What does this mean? You need to strategize. Being a difficult section of the test, the IR section will not be defeated by “brute strength” but rather, you must practice using your time efficiently. This means employing strategies like reading the question first, and searching for the relevenant information. 

Many test-takers brush off the IR section as irrelevant. This is a mistake – and a low score on IR will more likely than not affect your chances at getting into the program you want. Take this section seriously, it’s difficult. 

The IR section has the largest range of possible answer types, ranging from simple true/false questions to multiple-choice and more advanced question types. It’s important to familiarize yourself with them before test day. You may not consider the IR section the most important aspect of your GMAT, but it is certainly not a good indicator for graduate schools to see you failed this section, even if you did well on the others.

So, How Hard is the GMAT, Really? 

There’s no denying that the GMAT is designed to be a challenging test. It adapts to your abilities and is aiming to figure out where your weaknesses are to give the most accurate view of your current skills and abilities. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s an insurmountable task. If you take enough time to prepare – both through practice tests, testing prep centers, and self-study – you will do well. The test is difficult but not impossible. 

Keep in mind that schools will likely look at a percentile score. If you want to get into a program that accepts students with scores in the 95th percentile, it’s best you start studying early. Just remember, as a skills-based test – the GMAT is a test that can be studied and prepared for. 

Good luck!