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Understanding the GMAT Test Structure

What do they know of cricket who only cricket know — from Beyond A Boundary by C. L. R. James

While the GMAT structure is quite well known to most test-takers there is much more to the test than meets the eye. Let us try to understand this a bit better since understanding the nature of the test will really help you get the right perspective for your preparation and practice with the right purpose.

What you get when you pay $250 to take the GMAT

What you get is a statistically valid and universally understood measure of your aptitude (as defined by the GMAC, an association of business schools) for doing a business course.

If you take the test today in India and score a 720 and 4 years later someone takes the test in China and scores a 720, schools will accept both of you as having the same aptitude — the 94th percentile. The scores and percentiles have barely changed over all of these years since about 2,50,000 people take the test every year.

Indian GMAT-takers need to understand this precisely since unlike Indian tests like the CAT, the GMAT is not a test of elimination but a measure of your aptitude. Thus, while a 720 on the GMAT means something precise, the same cannot be said about a score on the CAT — there is no standardized score to percentile conversion.

Also on the CAT since difficulty levels, questions types and number of questions vary drastically from year to year, it cannot be statistically proven that people getting 99’s in different years have the same aptitude. This is not a problem for the Indian schools since the CAT is not intended to provide test-takers with a valid measure of their aptitude, it is for institutes to eliminate a bulk of the approximately 2,00,000 test-takers appearing for the CAT every year.

Given the fact that the GMAC is an American association and hence would be bound by the American legal system, the test has to be developed, administered and scored in a way that makes the final score, which is valid for 5 years, lawsuit-proof!

How Do They Make This Measure Accurate?

How can two students who take the test years and countries apart be deemed to have the same aptitude? The answer lies in the format and content of the questions that the GMAT poses.

The question types, the number of questions and the concepts tested are so fixed that what actually changes is only the wrapper of the question — the specific content — the kind of logic/concept that is tested and the way in which it is tested do not change.

The GMAT Structure


The GMAT allows you to choose one of three pre-set section orders:

  • Analytical Writing Assessment, Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative, Verbal
  • Quantitative, Verbal, Integrated Reasoning, Analytical Writing Assessment
  • Verbal, Quantitative, Integrated Reasoning, Analytical Writing Assessment

Standardization runs right down to question-level

The GMAT is precisely defined not only at an area-level, but also at a question-type level. For example, within Critical Reasoning there are fixed question-types like Weaken, Strengthen, Conclusion, Assumption and Inference and so on with a fixed number coming from each type. The same is the case both with the errors tested on Sentence Correction and the topics tested on the Quantitative section.

Everything is transparent, except…

As mentioned earlier since the test functions in an American legal system everything has to be clearly defined which is why the GMAC not only provides information about the test but also releases loads of preparatory material and mock tests itself, something unheard of in India!

The only thing that the GMAC does not reveal is the algorithm of the GMAT.

Not just computer-based, it is a computer-adaptive test

One of the unique things about the GMAT is that it is a computer-adaptive test — a test where questions are calibrated to the level of test-taker. So, easy questions are not posed to a test-taker who is likely to get a high score and tough questions are not posed to a test-taker who is not likely to do well on the test.

Hence, everything hinges on the level of the test-taker, which the algorithm predicts.

The test will thus start with a question of moderate difficulty. If the test-taker answers it correctly, the algorithm poses a question of slightly higher difficulty and if the test-taker answers it incorrectly then the algorithm poses an easier question. The best analogy that we can use to understand the adaptive nature of the test is to think of it in weightlifting terms.

You are given a moderate weight and you lift it, the next weight you will have to lift will be slightly heavier, if you fail, the weight after that goes back to the previous level. So you can see that eventually you will hit the threshold beyond which you cannot lift.

A great test of competence

The beauty of the GMAT is that despite the fact that everything is so transparent and so many actual old questions are available for practice, the test is not a cakewalk with only 2% of the takers likely to score a 750 or above.

Every question-type needs to be tackled with a precise strategy. For example, there is a foolproof test on how to solve the Assumption question type on Critical Reasoning. Once a test-taker understands this properly, there is only a certain amount of practice that he or she would need — in my opinion not more than 20 questions to ensure that 9 out of 10 times you get an assumption question right. The specific content of the question becomes just a wrapper once you have mastered the underlying algorithm

The same applies to all other question types tested on the GMAT.

So how should you approach your GMAT Prep?

In terms of preparation, quality of practice becomes much more important than quantity of practice. A lot of test-takers preparing for the GMAT erroneously believe that just solving more and more questions will bump up their score. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The GMAT is a test that demands very limited but intense and precisely targeted preparation rather than an extended prep involving endless practice.

In terms of solving questions correctly, the GMAT rewards those who have a process-oriented approach rather than an intuition or common-sense based approach (the reason this needs to be mentioned is that areas like Critical Reasoning lull test-takers into believing that it is about common-sense).

Horses for courses

Many years ago I was discussing with a batch-mate of mine about how the GMAT and the CAT are actually well-suited tools to test aspirants’ potential for becoming business managers in developed economies and in India respectively.

In a developing country like India where the markets in most industries are not yet fully mature and systems & processes are not fully in place, the skill sets that are most critical are the ability to navigate unstructured environments, a certain tolerance towards uncertainty and the resourcefulness to improvise — this is exactly what the CAT given its unpredictable nature measures without necessarily intending to.

In mature markets like the US, business managers need to function and execute plans in a highly structured environment with competence, which is exactly what the GMAT tests, rather than resourcefulness being the key.

And most of us would know the famous Indian word for resourcefulness — jugaad, which the last thing you should use for your GMAT prep if you plan to ace the test!






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  5. Aspirant 101 says

    Really appreciate you writing out such detailed articles. Just reading your articles gives a push in the right direction.

    Sir, my question is related to GMAT or GRE. I am not very good at maths but am good at verbal and hence some of my friends have suggested taking the GRE. GRE is accepted by ISB and most Bschools but I still have this notion that my pool of schools might become limited.

    Struggling with this analysis paralysis. Any word from your end would be much appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi,

    Apologies for the super-delayed response. I haven’t been checking up on this blog at all.

    Overall, it is true that the GRE Quant is relatively easier than the GMAT but the GRE Verbal is actually quite painful unless your vocabulary without prep is quite exceptional.

    I would always favour taking the GMAT instead of the GRE since that is a more understood number when it comes to recruiters at b-schools.

    And if you ask me in terms of preparation and improvement in your skills as a function of your preparation, the GMAT is definitely leagues ahead of the GRE as well as the CAT since even I felt I learnt something new — Grammar ! — and my skills improved — DS!.

    Hope this helps and it is not too late!

    All the best!


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