The 4 GMAT Sections: What to Expect on the Test

To truly understand the GMAT, you need to break it into pieces. There are four sections in the exam, each with its own challenges and demands.

There are some shared themes throughout the GMAT sections, but each stands on its own and requires unique preparation. This guide will go over the four GMAT sections in full so you know exactly what to expect from each one and how to get ready for exam day.

To start, let’s go over a general overview of the four GMAT test sections.

 

What Are the 4 GMAT Sections?

The four sections of the GMAT are Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA), Integrated Reasoning (IR), Quantitative, and Verbal, always in that order. The AWA and Integrated Reasoning sections are 30 minutes each, and the Quantitative and Verbal sections are 75 minutes.

Altogether, the four GMAT sections take three and a half hours to work through. This chart shows the length of time, number of questions, and average time per question in the four sections of the GMAT.

Section (in order) Length of Time Number of Questions Time per Question
Analytical Writing Assessment 30 minutes 1 essay question 30 minutes
Integrated Reasoning 30 minutes 12 questions 2 ½ minutes
Quantitative 75 minutes 37 questions About 2 minutes
Verbal 75 minutes 41 questions About 1 minute and 48 seconds
Total time: 3 hours, 30 minutes (not including breaks) Average time/question: 2 minutes (excluding AWA section)

The AWA section asks you to write an essay in response to a prompt, but the remaining GMAT sections are multiple choice. The Quantitative and Verbal sections are unique because they are both adaptive.

On an adaptive section, questions are selected as you go to match your ability level. If you’re getting questions wrong, then the subsequent ones should be a little easier. If you’re acing everything, then the questions should get progressively more difficult.

This adaptive format means that no two versions of the GMAT are exactly the same. It also means that it’s important to answer all of the questions in each section so that the scoring algorithm can get the most accurate measure of your skills.

The GMAT sections are unique, but they all draw on your critical reasoning and problem solving skills. As the GMAT is a test for business school, the exam often asks you to examine evidence, draw conclusions, and evaluate solutions. All in all, the GMAT tests the writing, math, verbal, and data interpretation skills you need to succeed in business school.

Now that you have a general sense of the GMAT test sections, let’s take a closer look at each one, starting with AWA.

 

With an average of just two minutes per question, you'll have to work quickly and efficiently throughout the GMAT.
With an average of just two minutes per question, you’ll have to work quickly and efficiently throughout the GMAT.

 

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GMAT Section #1: Analytical Writing Assessment

The Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) section asks you to write an essay in response to a short prompt. You’ll get an excerpt featuring an argument and then be asked to evaluate the strength of that argument.

You will be given a set of instructions, followed by the short argument you need to assess. Your instructions will always say this:

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion.

You’ll also be reminded that your job is to evaluate the argument, not to present your own opinion on the topic.

Helpfully, GMAC published a comprehensive list of most of the AWA prompts it’s ever used. Below is one example, but you can practice writing essays from this full list of GMAT AWA prompts.

The following appeared in a memo from the customer service division to the manager of Mammon Savings and Loan:

“We believe that improved customer service is the best way for us to differentiate ourselves from competitors and attract new customers. We can offer our customers better service by reducing waiting time in teller lines from an average of six minutes to an average of three. By opening for business at 8:30 instead of 9:00, and by remaining open for an additional hour beyond our current closing time, we will be better able to accommodate the busy schedules of our customers. These changes will enhance our bank’s image as the most customer-friendly bank in town and give us the edge over our competition.”

Your essay will be graded between 0 and 6 in half-point intervals, and you’ll get the score on your official GMAT score report about 20 days after you take the test. Your essay will be graded by one person and one machine. A third grader may offer input if the two scores differ by more than a point.

You can check out the rubric that graders use to score the essays. An essay with a top score of 6 “clearly identifies and insightfully analyzes important features of the argument” and “effectively supports the main points of the critique,” along with other requirements.

Beyond familiarizing yourself with the AWA rubric, what can you do to get ready for the AWA section of the GMAT?

 

The first section of the GMAT asks you to write an analytical essay in 30 minutes.
The first section of the GMAT asks you to write an analytical essay in 30 minutes.

 

Tips for the AWA Section

How can you write an essay that will earn you a high AWA score? There are several challenges in this GMAT section, not the least of which is time. Since you only have 30 minutes, you should be strategic about how you divide up your time.

You might spend three to five minutes at the beginning familiarizing yourself with the prompt and writing a quick outline of your essay. Then, you should spend the majority of your time, perhaps 20 to 24 minutes drafting and leave three to five minutes at the end to proofread and revise.

Structure is very important for the AWA essay. You don’t want to go off on a rambling narrative, but instead should stick to a four to five paragraph essay with a clear introduction, two to three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion.

Since the arguments are brief, most will have some assumptions and blind spots. It’s your job to pick out the two to three major flaws and describe them with specificity. You should also bring in effective supporting examples that support your analysis. As mentioned in the prompt, these may be counterexamples that would weaken the argument in the excerpt.

As you strengthen your AWA essay writing skills, you should read highly scored sample essays and familiarize yourself with the AWA rubric. Write timed practice essays from real AWA sample prompts and grade them yourself or with a friend. Above all, aim to write an essay with a clear structure and specific examples.

 

The best AWA essays have a clear, solid structure.
The best AWA essays have a clear, solid structure.

 


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GMAT Section #2: Integrated Reasoning

Integrated Reasoning is the newest of the GMAT sections. It was introduced in 2012 to bring skills of data interpretation and evaluation into the GMAT.

This 30-minute section asks 12 questions, each of which integrates your verbal, math, and reasoning skills. The questions are multi-part, so in reality, you have quite a few more than 12 questions to answer in Integrated Reasoning.

There are four main question types in Integrated Reasoning. They are graphics interpretation, multi-source reasoning, two-part analysis, and table analysis questions.

 

Graphics interpretation questions feature a graph, chart, or other kind of graphic. Below the graphic, you’ll have two fill-in-the-blank statements. To choose your answer, you’ll use a drop down menu, as in the sample question below.

This sample question includes a rather unusual graphic. Other graphics interpretation questions might feature more typical graphics, like bar graphs, scatter plots, or pie charts.

graphics 2

graphics 2 II

 

Multi-source reasoning questions present three tabs of information, and you’ll need to click through each one to get the full picture. These tend to the be the most time-consuming question types, as they have several questions that accompany the same information.

This sample question shows a multi-source reasoning question and one of three accompanying questions. On the real test, you’ll be able to toggle between the three tabs.

multi source

 

Two-part analysis questions contain two columns, and you’ll choose one answer for each. The questions may be entirely math, entirely verbal, or a mix of both.

two part 3

 

Finally, table analysis questions present a table of information that you must manipulate to find the answers to a series of questions. You can sort the table by column to answer the accompanying questions. When you sort a column, it will rearrange itself in alphabetical or numerical (low to high) order.

The question will include three statements, and each statement will appear next to a dichotomous answer choice, like true/false or yes/no. To find your answer, you’ll need to consider each statement in relation to the information in the table.

This sample question asks you to select “Yes” if the statement can be proved true with the information in the table. If it can’t, then you would select “No.

table

 

Throughout the Integrated Reasoning section, you’ll get information in a variety of formats, like passages, tables, charts, graphs, or other unusual graphics. Your job is to interpret the data, draw conclusions, and evaluate statements.

Beyond familiarizing yourself with the four question types in Integrated Reasoning, what else can you do to get ready for this challenging section?

 

To tackle the Integrated Reasoning section, you need to know how to read graphs and charts.
To tackle the Integrated Reasoning section, you must know how to read graphs and charts.

 

Tips for the Integrated Reasoning Section

One of the biggest challenges of the GMAT Integrated Reasoning section is figuring out what a question is asking you. You should practice answering all four IR question types. The problems are not very intuitive, so having seen and solved these question types before will automatically help.

In most cases, you should read the question before spending much time looking at the graphs or passages. You might glance over a graph or passage to get your bearings, but then you should read the question to figure out what you’re looking for. Once you understand your assignment, then you can look more closely at the data to locate your answer.

The reason it usually helps to read a question first is because each graphic, table, or passage will have a lot of extraneous information. You don’t need to know everything about each information source. Instead, you need to sift through the data to find specific information.

As mentioned above, tables will have sorting functionality, so you can rearrange columns to help you answer a question. You could arrange a column in alphabetical or numerical order. If a question is asking you to compare a car with a high speed versus a car with a low speed, to give one example, then you could sort the chart by speed from lowest to highest. That way, you can make sure you’re looking just at the cars with the highest and lowest speeds.

As you look at the data, make sure to pay close attention to units. A graphic may show speed in hours while a question asks about speed in minutes, to give one example.

Not only do you need to be comfortable reading various types of graphs and charts, but you also need to be comfortable using the on-screen calculator.

Finally, keep in mind that the Integrated Reasoning section calls for an integration of your math and verbal skills. In addition to data interpretation, you’ll need the same reading comprehension and fundamental math skills in this section that you will in Verbal and Quantitative.

You’ll need to work efficiently, know when to guess and move on, and divide your time in a way that will allow you to answer all of the questions before the timer runs out.

 

Integrated Reasoning is the only section of the GMAT in which you can use a calculator. The calculator is on the computer, so practice using it before test day.
Integrated Reasoning is the only section of the GMAT in which you can use a calculator. The calculator is on the computer, so practice using it before test day.

 

GMAT Section #3: Quantitative

The Quantitative section is all about math. It’s your first adaptive section on the GMAT, and it asks 37 math questions in 75 minutes. There are two question types in the GMAT Quantitative section, problem solving and data sufficiency.

 

Problem solving questions are typical multiple choice math questions that you must solve for one correct answer. Here’s one example of a problem solving question involving algebra.

problem solving

 

Data sufficiency questions are more unusual. They present a problem followed by two pieces of information. Then you need to decide whether the first statement, the second statement, both together, or neither give you enough information to solve the original problem.

Here’s an example of a data sufficiency problem involving geometry. All data sufficiency problems will have these same five answer choices.

data sufficiency

 

Quantitative questions are challenging, but you might be relieved to hear that they don’t test especially advanced math. The main concepts tested are arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, plus you’ll get word problems that will call on one or more of these skill areas.

You won’t have to do particularly advanced calculations either, as you can’t use a calculator in this section. On average, you have about two minutes per question.

You’ll have to work quickly and efficiently to do well in the GMAT Quantitative section. What else can you do to meet your goals?

 

body_math
The Quantitative section doesn’t test super advanced math. It focuses on concepts of arithmetic, algebra, and geometry.

 

Tips for the GMAT Quantitative Section

To prepare for the GMAT Quantitative section, you should review fundamental math concepts in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, as well as practice answering word problems. Once you’ve reviewed concepts, you should drill these skills by answering lots of practice questions and taking timed practice tests.

Timed practice tests will help you develop a test-taking rhythm, so you can get to all of the questions in time. You’ll also know when you’re wasting too much time on a question and would be better off guessing and moving on.

Beyond answering lots of practice questions, you should also memorize the answer choices for data sufficiency questions. These will always be the same, and you don’t want to waste time figuring out what they’re asking on test day.

You don’t have to write out a full solution to data sufficiency questions. Instead, you should do just enough to know whether you have enough information to solve a problem.

You won’t get a calculator here, but you can use provided note boards and markers. Take advantage of these materials to write out your work. Writing out problems will help you keep your thinking straight, plus there’s enough arithmetic in this section that mental math will only take you so far.

 

body_writeoutmath
While you can’t use a calculator in the GMAT Quantitative section, you can (and should) write out your work with markers on erasable note boards.

 

GMAT Section #4: Verbal

Like the Quantitative section, the Verbal section of the GMAT is adaptive. The difficulty levels of the questions fluctuate as you go along to match your ability level. The Verbal section tests your reading, reasoning, and grammar skills with 41 multiple choice questions.

The GMAT Verbal section has three question types: reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence corrections.

Reading comprehension questions are probably the most time-consuming, because you’ll have a passage to read along with three to five accompanying questions.The questions might ask about main point, specific details, tone, purpose, organization of ideas, or other features of the passage.

Here’s one example of a passage and two of its five accompanying reading comprehension questions.

passage1passage2passage qu 1passage qu 2

 

The second question type, critical reasoning, is reminiscent of the essay prompt in the AWA section. It gives you a few factual statements or a short excerpt of an argument, followed by a multiple choice question. This question type asks you to consider evidence, draw a conclusion, or evaluate the statements in some way.

Here’s one example of a critical reasoning question in the GMAT Verbal section.

critical reasoning

 

Finally, sentence corrections mainly ask about grammar. You’ll get a (typically wordy) sentence with a word or phrase underlined. If the underlined portion has a grammatical error, you’ll choose an answer that shows what it should say instead.

If the underlined portion is correct, then you’ll go with the first answer choice, which will always look identical to the underlined portion.

sentence correction

 

As you can see, the Verbal section tests your reading comprehension and grammar skills. What can you do to set yourself up for success in this GMAT section?

 

body_reading
Strong reading comprehension skills are essential for doing well on the GMAT Verbal section.

 

Tips for the GMAT Verbal Section

To prepare for Verbal, you should approach each question type separately.

For reading comprehension questions, you need to sharpen your speed reading skills. Rather than wasting time reading each and every word of a passage, skim the paragraphs with an eye on structure, tone, point of view, and purpose.

Critical reasoning questions require the same critical eye as the AWA prompt. You’ll want to practice evaluating and analyzing arguments with an eye on assumptions, flaws, and unfounded claims.

Finally, you should study rules of grammar to get ready for sentence corrections. You might get tested on parallel structure, subject-verb agreement, or other common rules.

The sentences in these questions are often extremely wordy, so it can help to break them up into their component clauses and mentally cross out the superfluous ones. On a sentence with a subject-verb agreement error, for instance, there may be a long clause between the subject and the verb to distract you. Try blocking out the extra clause so you can focus on the important parts of the sentence.

Now that you have a sense of all four sections of the GMAT and how to approach them, let’s consider how they function during the admissions process. Do admissions officers look at all four section scores equally, or do they care about some GMAT sections more than others?

 

Rather than reading each word carefully, try skimming the passages for main points and important details.
Rather than reading each word carefully, try skimming the passages for main points.

 

How Important Are GMAT Section Scores in Business School Admissions?

While GMAT section scores are used in business school admissions, they actually take a backseat to the GMAT total score. As mentioned above, the total score is based on Quantitative and Verbal scores, and it ranges from 200 to 800. When applying to business school, your GMAT total score is the most important value on your score report.

While admissions officers remain relatively close-lipped about how they evaluate applications, it seems that they use the total score in their initial review of an application. If the score is up to scratch, then they move on to review section scores as a secondary factor.

Since the total score is based on Quantitative and Verbal scores, this means that the Quantitative and Verbal sections are more important in business school admissions than AWA or Integrated Reasoning.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore these other two sections, as an extremely low score could stand out as a red flag. However, they’re not your top priority when studying for the GMAT.

The one exception is for non-native English speakers taking the GMAT. The AWA score becomes more important when admissions officers are assessing your English level, particularly in writing. If an applicant sends a strong essay but a low AWA score, then this discrepancy could cause concern.


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It’s also useful to note that Integrated Reasoning is new, but it’s been growing in importance from year to year. In 2012, only 22% of business schools said it was important, as opposed to 59% in 2015 according to a Kaplan survey. As time goes on, the IR score will likely continue to take on weight in the admissions process.

Essentially, your GMAT total score is more important than your individual section scores, and your Quantitative and Verbal scores are given more weight than AWA or IR scores. As for these two major sections of the GMAT, is one more important than the other?

 

Your total score is the most important value on your GMAT score report.
Your total score between 200 and 800 is the most important value on your GMAT score report.

 

Quantitative Vs. Verbal GMAT Scores: Which One’s More Important?

When it comes to Quantitative and Verbal scores, is one more important than the other? Some admissions officers suggest that section scores take on more weight depending on your educational background.

If you majored in the humanities, then officers may pay more attention to your Quantitative score to make sure you have the math chops to do well in business school. If you were a math major, then they may look at Verbal scores to ensure your reading comprehension skills are up to scratch.

Because of the math-heavy curriculum at many business schools, some officers have suggested that the Quantitative score is the more important section score.

In a Poets and Quants interview, Dee Leopold, the former managing director of admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, said, “people have to be able to do the analytics. Not everyone has to be an Excel monkey and build models, but you do have to be numerate and not phobic about numbers. When you don’t see evidence to do the guts of the work here, you realize you are putting this person at risk unnecessarily.”

The Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley similarly emphasizes the importance of math skills in its admission requirements, stating that, “the Admissions Committee looks carefully at quantitative proficiency when making its admissions decisions.”

Both Quantitative and Verbal scores are important, but some schools emphasize that they need to see evidence of proficiency in math to make sure that prospective students can handle a math-heavy business school curriculum.

This shouldn’t affect your test prep a great deal, as you should spend time getting ready for both the Quant and Verbal GMAT sections. However, it does mean that a high Verbal score may not be enough to balance out a low Quantitative score.

If you’re uneasy about your Quantitative performance, then it may be worth retaking the GMAT so you can send off an application that shows evidence of your proficiency in math. In closing, let’s go over some final thoughts about the GMAT sections and how to prepare for each of them.

 

Some admissions officers suggest that the GMAT Quantitative score is the most important section score, as it indicates whether students have the skills to handle a math-heavy business school curriculum.
Some admissions officers suggest that the GMAT Quantitative score is the most important section score, as it indicates whether students have the skills to handle a math-heavy business school curriculum.

 

GMAT Sections: Final Thoughts

There are four distinct GMAT test sections, each with its own demands and idiosyncrasies. What the sections have in common is an emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking.

Whether you’re writing an essay, interpreting a graph, solving a math problem, or reading a passage, you’ll need to keep a critical eye, evaluate information in front of you, and sift through a large amount of data to identify what’s most important and discard what’s not.

While each section calls for specific preparation, any studying you do will likely help you across the entire test. By developing your critical thinking skills and efficiency as a test-taker, you’ll be better prepared to tackle the challenging GMAT sections and to focus throughout a long, demanding test.

While you should study for all four sections, you should prioritize the Quantitative and Verbal sections, as they are most important in the business school admissions process. By achieving your target scores in these sections, along with solid AWA and IR section scores, you can show the admissions committee your commitment to joining the business school community.

 

What’s Next?

The GMAT is a tough test, but it’s definitely possible to achieve your target scores. Check out this guide to learn just how difficult the GMAT is and how to tackle the challenge.

Have you come up with your GMAT study plan? This guide gives you 23 essential tips for designing a customized GMAT study plan that will help you achieve your goals. (coming soon)

Taking GMAT practice tests is an essential part of any study plan. Check out this full list of free practice tests you can take online!

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Author: Rebecca Safier

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University.

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