The GMAT, as you probably know, is a standardized exam used by business schools to help them assess the qualifications of candidates for advanced study in business and management (primarily MBA, but it’s also used for PhD applicants).
On GMAC.org you’ll read that “The GMAT exam is designed to test skills that are highly important to business and management programs. It assesses analytical writing and problem-solving abilities, along with the data sufficiency, logic, and critical reasoning skills that are vital to real-world business and management success.”
You’ll also read that these are skills you have developed and honed over many years through education and work (which may or may not be true). However, the above paragraph really doesn’t tell the whole story.
Let’s start with what the GMAT is NOT
The above paragraph gives a good overview of what creators of the GMAT communicate about what the GMAT measures. It’s helpful, but it’s not all encompassing.
When conducting GMAT tutoring at MyGuru, the way I like to start describing what the GMAT measures is by instead describing what the GMAT is NOT:
- The GMAT is not a grueling math aptitude test. In fact, the actual math skills tested on the GMAT are generally basic and at the 9th and 10th grade U.S. level. It’s the framing of the questions and the required application of the relatively basic mathematical skills that makes GMAT math seem daunting. To get comfortable with the math on the GMAT, we often have students spend some time on www.mathisfun.com.
- The GMAT is not a test of English language. A strong command of English is important and very helpful, but it’s not fundamentally an English test.
- The GMAT is not a test of business concepts or topics. No subject matter knowledge is required to excel on the exam.
- It’s not even an IQ test. Being naturally more intelligent (as measured by IQ) doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll do better on the GMAT than someone with a lower IQ.
OK, you are now probably wondering what the GMAT is.
The GMAT is fundamentally:
- A test of quantitative, verbal, and integrated (i.e., reading and calculating in the context of charts and graphs) reasoning skills – skills that can be built through practice.
- A test of how you think.
- A test of your ability to use the tools you have and make decisions under time pressure.
- A test of your willingness and ability to study for an unfamiliar test.
Let’s explore the importance of that last point about it being an unfamiliar test.
The GMAT has a range of math topics that, while basic, must be applied in the context of complex and generally strange word problems. It also tests some math topics that, while basic, you may not have seen for 10+ years. And, in the case of probability and number theory, may address some basic math topics that you’ve actually never been exposed to. It has a “data sufficiency” question type that is probably unlike anything you’ve seen before. It has an integrated reasoning section that may be completely novel to you. And the reading comprehension section requires you to read detailed, complex arguments and pick apart what’s relevant quickly. It’s a strange and difficult test.
So, with all that said, what does the GMAT really measure?
I like to say that the GMAT really measures six things:
- Analytical skills – note, this clearly includes the ability to do relatively simple math calculations quickly in your head, which is a learnable skill, but one which many students need to build over time. The GMAT tests your mental math skills.
- Reading comprehension skills.
- Critical thinking skills.
- Decision Making skills.
- Time management skills.
- Your willingness/ability to study for an unfamiliar test.
You’ll notice that bullets 1-3 are aligned with how GMAC.org would describe what the GMAT is measuring. But bullets 4-6 offer a different perspective.
About the Author
Mark Skoskiewicz earned a B.S. in Business from Indiana University and an MBA from Northwestern-Kellogg. He’s spent 10+ years as a business strategy consultant (most recently at TRC Advisory), and founded MyGuru, a 1-1 tutoring and test prep, in 2009. MyGuru recently partnered with Admit Master to launch a unique small group GMAT class in Chicago.