What The GMAT Really Tests

by on June 1st, 2013

The GMAT is not a math test. Nor is it a grammar test. Sure, you have to know something (well, a lot of things!) about these topics in order to get a good score. But this test is really testing your executive reasoning skills.

The term might be unfamiliar, but you already have—and use—these skills every day. Here are some examples:

You arrive at work in the morning and think about all of the things that you could do that day. You can’t get it all done, so which things will have to wait until this afternoon, or tomorrow, or next week? Which one thing should you start working on first?

You are faced with a list of 20 unread emails (or, if your inbox is more like mine, about 80). Which ones do you read first? The oldest ones? The ones from your boss? The ones marked urgent? Are there some that you won’t even click on right now because you know, from the sender’s name or from the subject line, that those emails aren’t very important? (And how did that one spam message get through the filter?)

You have a choice between working on Product X or Project Y. Project Y will result in about 5% more revenue to the company, but Project Y will also take 50% longer. Which do you do?

None of those decisions are easy ones (and many would likely require more information than I gave in the little scenario). This complex decision making is exactly what a good executive needs to be able to do well—and this is what the test writers and business schools actually care about.

The GMAT is not a math or grammar test. The math and grammar are just there as tools to allow the exam writers to test you on your decision-making ability.

How does that help me take the test?

The first step is really to internalize the fact that they don’t expect you to get everything right, any more than a CEO expects to clear everything in his or her inbox today. You have to prioritize.

A great decision-maker has both expertise and experience: she’s thought about how to make various kinds of decisions, and she’s actually practiced and refined these decision-making processes. While the clock is ticking, she doesn’t hesitate to make a decision and move forward, knowing that she’s going to be leaving some opportunities behind.

In order to do that successfully in the business world, you need to know the company’s goals and objectives, and you have to have a good idea of the kind of impact that various tasks or activities will have on the company. You also have to have a lot of practice in making these decisions and observing the outcomes. There’s never just one right way to make these decisions, so the more exposure you give yourself to how things work, the better you’ll be able to make good decisions in future.

The same is true for the GMAT: if you know how it works, and you know what kinds of trade-offs to think about when deciding how to spend your time, then you can learn how to make the best decisions to maximize your score.

Okay, how does the GMAT work?

Glad you asked. The information I’m discussing is available everywhere, but I still talk to students nearly every day who tell me that they just can’t give up on a question, or they figure that, if they “know” they can get something right, they might as well take the time to get it right, even when that means running out of time later on.

(Note: I put “know” in question marks there because… well, you don’t really know. J First, you could make a careless mistake at any time. Second, if you need a lot of extra time to do a problem, then something is problematic. You might still get it right, but your odds go way down if something is problematic.)

So here’s what you need to do: you need to grow up.

I’m not saying “Oh, grow up!” in a harsh way. I’m saying that you need to graduate from school. The way that we were trained to do things in school is often not the way things work in the real world. You already know this—you learned it when you got out into the working world.

At university, it’s not that uncommon to ask for extra time on a paper or assignment; some professors won’t allow this, but many do, as long as the work is still done in a reasonable timeframe.

It’s not so easy to ask for an extension in the real world. You’d better have a very good reason as to why it would be better to extend the deadline than to stay up all night and finish the project on time. Also, you would be expected to bring this to your boss’ attention several weeks before the deadline, at the least. Expect a very unhappy boss if you don’t say anything until the day before!

Further, if you think that a work assignment is approaching a problem in the wrong way, then you can discuss that with your boss or your team and change the mechanism or the scope of the work or whatever it is that you think is “off.” Try going to your professor and saying, “I know you assigned us these problem sets, but I think it’d actually be more productive if we worked in groups on a project.”

In school, you’re supposed to do what the professors assign. At work, you’re supposed to think for yourself.

So get yourself out of school. Graduate to the real world. Approach the GMAT as a test of your business ability and decision-making skills. The test just happens to include some school subjects in the details of the questions.

Graduation Day

If you can graduate to the business mindset, you’ll have a much better shot at hitting your goal score. If you stick with the “school” mindset, then you’re almost certainly not going to get the score you want.

So, first, keep reminding yourself that the GMAT is a decision-making test, not an academic test. React accordingly.

Next, the two articles In It to Win It and But I Should Know How to Do This will also help you make this mental switch.

Follow those up by educating yourself on the subject of Time Management. Great business people know how to manage their time and make trade-off decisions; great GMAT test-takers have this same skill.

Finally, remember that your ability to get better hinges on your ability to analyze your own thought processes and the test questions themselves. Your goal is not academic. Your goal is to learn how to think.

Happy studying!


  • Hi Stacey, thank you for writing a great article. Though GMAT is supposed to test those as you mentioned, I feel that GMAC is bringing back much convoluted language (like that of Shakespeare's works) which is much unsuitable for the present business world. The specially made twisted language of RC passages (and of CR arguments at times) gives an unfair disadvantage for non-native English-speakers -- people get quite hard time first to decipher the tangled passage, and then to find the main idea or inferences with the time constraint.

    If the aim is to test executive decision making capability, the test should have the language which is used in the business world. Instead, the test is primarily focused on "English literature"! BTW, I already have MBA and I have worked in the corporate world for a long time in management position, but I have never seen such convoluted language there!

    Another point is that, as I have seen in the past, GMAT questions need much knowledge on American culture. If a person never lived in USA, that person may not know about garage/yard sale or soccer jargon or futures or fifth amendment or skim milk! Hence, as I see, GMAT gives an edge to the Americans.

    • Hi Ruby, 

      While what you said is partially correct in terms of the Content for RCs, barring few questions( 1 or 2 out of 13 questions) you must be able to answer the RC questions with the information / content provided in the RC without any knowledge on American Culture.  If you take a look at the avg scores (Country Wise) American's scores are NOT too different from other countries.  

      In fact the average scores are slightly higher in Asian Countries such as for India and China ( Non-Native English Speaking Countries)

      Second, if the Test is primarily focused on English Literature, then most of the English Literature students must secure a great score on Verbal - but it is not so... 

      So you just need to understand how GMAT works.. it is more of psychological test then anything else... how does a human being react to particular question at  a Particular instant in time.  You will be surprised to notice that you would have gone wrong on Seemingly easy questions (something you can do comfortably) and end - up getting a low score ... 

      Just focus on your strengths and concentrate completely - you will do excellent in the Exam. 

      Hope this helps.
      GMAT Trainer & MBA Admissions Consultant

  • Hi, guys, interesting discussion.

    No test is perfect, of course, and it is true that standardized tests produced in the US have historically had biases in favor of US-based test-takers and native speakers. GMAC (the organization that makes the GMAT) has been working very hard to minimize, and ideally eliminate, these biases. In fact, a couple of years ago, I had a conversation with one of the executives in charge of the test, and he brought up the specific example of skim milk and said that term (and terms like it) are no longer used on the test.

    Now, there is always going to be some inherent advantage to a native speaker of a language - there's not much anyone can do about that. But they are doing their best to eliminate cultural biases.

    Also, while it is true that there are very complex / convoluted sentence structures, they are not actually going back to Shakespeare-type language or focusing on English literature-type structures. I know it can feel that way sometimes, though. :)

    They are trying to do two things: (1) convey very complex ideas to see whether you can "cut through" and still get the basic message, and (2) write INcorrectly on SC to see whether you understand how various errors, word placements, etc, can actually make something illogical or ambiguous. The ability to communicate in a clear and unambiguous manner is crucial to your continued success in any job.

    Having said all of that... there are lots of ways in which these kinds of tests are not great, and I agree with you that it'd be better if there were some other way in general to assess these skills without having to rely on "artificial" tests. But we're stuck with this, so we've just got to make the best of it.

  • Hi Stacey,
    Your comments are insightful and I agree to what you wrote. Yes, GMAC is trying to minimize the cultural biasing. It is true that there is no other way to test the skills other than artificial tests with the consideration that the content of the test matters.

    To clarify one thing, "complex ideas" are quite appropriate for the test as that is related to business decision. But "complex ideas" associated with "convoluted language" within "tight time allotment" is not really a fair game for non-native people.
    If you do a data analysis, you will find that normally non-natives perform very well in quant part but they find difficulty to some extent in verbal part, especially in RC part (many people, including me, dislike RC because of the convoluted language). As I know, "convoluted language" is absolutely inappropriate in present-day business scenario and hence, in my humble opinion, "convoluted language" should not be subjected to test.

    • I agree that there are times when a question crosses the line into "not fair game for non-native speakers."

      I think they're also testing, though, whether you know that something is NOT a good way to word something. I have certainly read business communication in which a sentence is too complex / convoluted, to the point that I'm not sure what the person was trying to say. So I think they're testing whether people know enough to reject certain constructions (which also means you probably wouldn't write that way yourself - and that's a good thing).

      In that sense, I think convoluted sentences can be an important testing tool - as long as a balance is struck so that it's not completely unfair for non-native speakers.

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