Before answering the burning question: How hard is GMAT, we should first understand “What is GMAT?”, how many sections there are, number of questions in each session and how it is scored, to have some fundamental knowledge. Then, we will deep dive into how hard GMAT is and some guidelines to ace this known-to-be challenging test. 

1. What is the GMAT?

GMAT (Graduation Management Admission Test) is an adaptive computer-based test. This test result is one of input in the admission process of graduation schools all over the world. 

It is called a “Computer-based” test because you will conduct all the sections on the computer, even the writing one. 

It is called an adaptive test because the difficult level will be adapted to the test taker’s capability. The more right questions you can answer, the more hard questions you will get. This is the characteristic that makes GMAT unique and challenging. We will deep dive further into this characteristic of GMAT in part 2 – How hard is the GMAT

The ultimate goal of GMAT is to test the reasoning skill of candidates, a skill that is appreciated by both business schools and the business world.  Therefore, it is not surprising that 3 of 4 sections’ suffices contain “-Reasoning” in their names: Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning. The 4th sections are called Analytical Writing Assessment. 

GMAT Sections and How the GMAT is scored

Starting from April 2018, GMAC (Graduation Management Admission Council), the entity that owns the GMAT test, has had some updates about the timing and number of questions in GMAT. 

“How long is the GMAT test?” Generally, GMAT test will last around 3 hours with 4 sections: 



Number of questions


Max score

Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA)

30 mins

1 question

Analyze an argument



Integrated – Reasoning (IR)

30 mins

12 questions

No sub-section but questions can be categorized into:

1. Multi-source reasoning

2. Table analysis

3. Graphics Interpretation

4. Two-part analysis


Quantitative reasoning (Quantitative)

62 mins

31 questions

Two subsections:

1. Problem Solving

2. Data Sufficiency


Verbal reasoning (Verbal)

65 mins

36 questions

Three subsections: 

1. Critical Reasoning

2. Reading Comprehension

3. Sentence Correction


Note: questions in subsections will not be separated completely into different parts. For example: in Quantitative reasoning, 1st question can be problem solving, 2nd question can be Data Sufficiency and 3rd question is problem solving again. There will be no signal that indicates what type of questions goes next. Similar to Verbal Reasoning. 

Your final score of GMAT will be calculated based on the Verbal and Quantitative score and maximum score is 800. Your IR and AWA’s score will not impact the final. 

For example: a candidate got Verbal Reasoning score: 42/51 (percentile 96%) and Quantitative Reasoning score: 50/51 (percentile 86%). Therefore, his/her final score is 760.  

Please note that it is not always the standard score, meaning that another candidate still gets 42 pts for Verbal Reasoning and 50 pts for Quantitative Reasoning but only score 750. Only GMAC knows the algorithm behind the GMAT score. Therefore, you should buffet +/-10-20 pts if you are trying to estimate your test score by cross-checking with score tables on the Internet. 

Sections’ order

An update from GMAC is that candidates now can choose the order of sections instead of only one order before April 2018. There are 3 available options:

  • AWA, IR, Quantitative, and Verbal. 
  • Verbal, Quantitative, IR and AWA
  • Quantitative, Verbal, IR and AWA. 

In all 3 options, there will be 2 optional 8-minute breaks: (1) between Verbal and Quantitative; and (2) between Verbal (or Quantitative) and IR. There will be NO break time between AWA and IR.  

Miscellaneous about GMAT

Here I will address miscellaneous questions about GMAT 

Scheduling GMAT test, how to do it? You can access GMAC’s website to find the GMAT exam schedule at the nearest test center. The process is pretty straight forward. However, please consider the test date carefully as there will be extra fee incurred if you reschedule or cancel the test. The exact amount depends on how early you inform GMAC about the change. 

How much is the GMAT test fee? Up to August 2020, the fee is $250/test. However, please check the GMAC website (link) to have the most updated fee. 

How long is GMAT score valid? Up to 5 years. Therefore, some candidates take the test quite early in their career as they can spend 2-3 hours a day to study and save it for late if they want to go to B-schools. 

How long does it take to get GMAT scores? You will have your temporary test score right after the test but without the AWA one. In the next 5 – 20 days, your GMAT official score will be available. Don’t worry! Most of the schools accept the temporary score report but you must submit the official one when it is available.

Can you use a calculator on the GMAT test? Yes and No. In the Quantitative, no calculator is allowed in the test room. Therefore, practicing some brainpower for this session is necessary. In IR, there will be a virtual calculator on the screen that you can leverage for complicated calculation, for example: how much is 7.7% of 1.3 million USD

GMAT score report, what is it? I am not sure which kind of report is mentioned, so I will address all available score reports in GMAT.  There will be 3 score reports 

  • Temporary score report: will be available immediately after the test but without AWA score. It contains the score and percentile of each session plus final score. In the urgent case, you can use this one to submit to your schools for the admission procedure but note that schools always ask for the Official Score report
  • Official Score report: will be available 5 – 20 days after the test days, including score and percentile of all 4 sections, plus final score. 
  • Enhanced Score report: this score report is not included in the test fee. You have to pay extra to get this (up to August 2020, it costs 30$ extra to get this report). This report is to analyze the test takers’ performance by each session and difficulty level. 

How about GMAT Online?

Due to COVID-19, a lot of test centers can’t be opened. That is why GMAC has to create the online GMAT test. At the moment, the Online GMAT test will not impact on the quota of Offline GMAT test, the traditional version that you have to take in GMAC’s test center. 

We still mention this format here because maybe GMAC can consider to maintain the online version even after COVID, along with the Offline one.

Here are some comparisons between Online and Offline GMAT for your consideration if both versions are available in your country. 


Online GMAT test

Offline GMAT test

Number of sections

3 only. 

There is no AWA section

4 sections

Test fee

$200 (Aug 2020)

$250 (Aug 2020)

Sections’ order

Only 1 option: Quantitative – Verbal and IR

3 options as mentioned above


Only 30s breaktime among sections

2 optional 8 minute breaks. 


Candidate has to self-prepare the whiteboard according to GMAC guidelines. This whiteboard is for note taking purpose

The white board is prepared by the test center. 


At Home

At Test center

2. How hard is the GMAT?

Personally, I think the right question should be: How hard is it to get my desired GMAT score? 

Average GMAT scores of Top 20 US B-schools last 2 years are all above 700. Although other top b-schools outside of the US, such as INSEAD or London Business School, have stopped announcing the average GMAT score for the last 2-3 years to increase diversity, around 80% of the cohort get a 680 – 780 GMAT score. 

Here is a table to show the relationship between score and percentile. 

Final Score

Percentile Ranking










Simply speaking, your performance should be within the top 22% all over the world in the last 3 years to get a 700 GMAT score. Of course, if you choose a less competitive school, normally the pressure to have a high GMAT will be not as high.

I hope you understand how hard it is now. But what makes it that hard?

First, GMAT is an adaptive test. In both Quantitative and Verbal, the test will start with a set of Medium questions. The more right answers you get, the harder the next set of questions are.   

Here is an example of a candidate who got 50 scores in Quantitative. 

This candidate got all answers right in the first set of questions, then the difficulty level of the 2nd set increases to “High” immediately. 

In the 2nd and 3rd set of “Hard” questions, this person got only 1 wrong answer. While only half of the 4th set are right, this test taker still got 50 as the performance is consistently high. 

Secondly, time pressure. A candidate has an average of 2 minutes to solve a math problem, and around 1 minute 40 seconds to solve a Verbal question. 

For example: In the Reading Comprehension of GMAT, there will be 1 or 2 readings including 4 paragraphs and following with 4 questions. So you have around 7 minutes 12 seconds to read the whole paragraphs, understand the content and answer 4 multiple-choice questions.   

To solve all of those questions, you need significant concentration within 3 hours at the test center, especially in Verbal and Quantitative, to score high. That requires prior practice.

Thirdly, questions content. Although based on basic knowledge, the questions are pretty tricky under time pressure. And there will be the traps waiting for you in 5 choices A, B, C, D and E in those questions. Normally, those are hard ones.  

To sum up, the GMAT test is pretty challenging for most test takers. Of course, you can find a lot of inspiring successful stories on the Internet, in which an individual can get a 700+ score in 2-3 months. It is possible but it is not attainable for everyone. Therefore, if you plan to apply for B-schools, especially top B-schools globally, do plan ahead your time to study GMAT.

3. How to prepare for GMAT – The best GMAT prep book 

There are hundreds of GMAT prep books in bookstores. I personally think it is hard to choose the best GMAT prep books as each person will have some preferences over others. Therefore, I will focus only on MUST HAVE GMAT books for any GMAT taker in this section. 

  • The GMAT Official Guide (a.k.a OG), published by GMAC. This is the must have document because the book includes GMAT questions that appeared in the test with explanation. Each year, GMAC will publish the new version in which they remove and add some GMAT practice questions. If possible, please choose the latest book. 

If this book is not enough for you, there are 3 more good books, also from GMAC

  • The GMAT Official Guide Verbal review: only include Verbal questions. 
  • The GMAT Official Guide Quantitative review: only includes Quantitative Questions.   
  • GMAT Official Advanced Questions: this one was newly added in this series in 2019, including Hard questions in Verbal, Quantitative and IR. 

There will be other materials from well-known publishers, which also provide high quality questions. However, I recommend to prioritize mentioned books for all GMAT test takers. 

GMAT Diagnostic test – knowing your starting point

There is a GMAT Diagnostic test that you can take and estimate your performance.

Pro tip: you can practice 10-20 GMAT sample questions in the OG book or search sample GMAT questions on forums such as GMAT club to get used to the format first before doing the GMAT diagnostic tests. 

This is the starting point of your GMAT journey. In the Official Guide.

Via the result, you will better understand your level compared to your target score (from your target school). At this step, you should have a sense about your strength and weakness, for example: is your performance better in Verbal or Quantitative? Or does your performance skew completely towards any session? 

Your study plan should be designed according to this result, your target score and how long you want to complete GMAT.  

Study Plan

It is an important step in your GMAT test prep. The study plan will help keep track your progress and where you are vs your goal. 

Depending on your situation, you should balance study time between Verbal and Quantitative. There is no fixed framework for everyone here. However, there are some principles that, in my opinion, will be helpful for your study. Those principles also somehow address the question “how to study for GMAT?”

Be consistent when studying

Spend around 2 hours everyday to study rather than doing nothing during weekdays and spend the whole weekend on GMAT. 

Distribute your study time appropriately across sections

GMAC never reveals how many questions for each subsection and how subsections are distributed in the test. Hence, it is better to cover all the topics during your study.  

Do it right first, then do it right and on time

Time pressure is one of the factors that make GMAT harder. However, for beginners, you should direct your energy on how to answer this question. It can take, maybe, 3 – 4 minutes to get it right at the beginning, but it will help to build up your foundation before speeding up.

Review the thinking flow carefully

This is a mistake that a lot of GMAT test takers make. They only review the right answer but less focus on the thinking flow. That is why many people complain that they can choose the right answers when practicing but can’t achieve the desired score in the real test. 

A lot of people will ask “How long to study for GMAT?”. The answer is “It depends”. The duration really depends on your current level, your target score and how dedicated you are for GMAT. Some people can make it in 2-3 months. Some spend 2-3 years to finish GMAT. 

Test taking and Timing strategies

Order of sections

Choose the best option for you. Normally, people often choose to do either Verbal or Quantitative first because those two impact directly on the final score. Some prefer to do Verbal first as they want to be fresh for the most challenging section. Some prefer to do Quantitative first because they need a fresh mind to do all the calculations. Choose the best one for yourself. 

Test taking timing

For offline GMAT test, candidates can choose either morning or afternoon section. Schedule your test smartly depending on your biology clock. 

Timing strategies

If you have any chance to take a look on the Enhanced Score Report, GMAC splits the test into 4 parts, each part is more or less equal to ¼ of the question’s numbers. After each session, the difficulty level will be adjusted based on the candidate’s capability.  Hence, the total timing can be splitted into 4 parts and make sure that you are not too fast or too slow compared to the standard milestones. 

Focus on the first ¼ of the test

Of course you should be fully concentrated in the whole test. However, the first ¼ of the test is even more important as it sets the base for your score. If you do well, you have more chances to get a higher score than that of a candidate who does not perform well in this question set. 

GMAT practice tests

Do consider planning time to do GMAT practice tests in your study plan. It is to monitor how much you improve from the starting point and how far you are with your target score. 

Similar to GMAT learning materials, there are several GMAT practice tests from well-known publishers in the market that you can take. However, I always recommend taking the ones from GMAC. They have 6 practice tests, and the first two are free when you register your account on Therefore, plan to use those tests smartly.

Secondly, when you do those GMAT practice tests, try to stimulate the real test taking environment by: 

  • Do all 4 sections continuously with the same break time duration as the real test’s one
  • Turn off all of phone and focus on the test only
  • If you choose to take the test in the morning, try to do the practice test in the morning. 

Final Words

GMAT is a challenging test that most b-schools’ applicants have to pass. However, the return is worth the hard work. With good GMAT scores, you have one step closer to your dream b-schools and even some scholarships. Even some industries, such as consulting or investment banking, also look at the GMAT score of an MBA candidate to decide whether they want to interview or not. 

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