How to Crack the GMAT: 13 Strategies You Need to Know

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Does the GMAT still feel like a mystery to you? You’re not alone. The GMAT can seem elusive at first. But you’ll need to understand it inside and out in order to ace it, which is where we come in.

In this article, I’ll go over everything you’ll need to know to crack the GMAT, the top GMAT tricks and traps to avoid if you want a high score, and the best study tips to help you do exceptionally well on the exam.

 

How to Crack the GMAT: What You Need to Know

The first step to cracking the GMAT is to familiarize yourself with every aspect of the exam, from format to content. Here are the top three things you need to understand about the GMAT if you’re looking for an exceptionally high score.

 

#1: How Computerized Adaptive Testing Works

The GMAT is a CAT (Computerized Adaptive Test). All parts of the GMAT are computerized, including the writing assessment, which you’ll complete using a basic text editor. There is no paper version of the GMAT. As long as you have basic technological know-how, don’t worry about the computerized aspect; the exam isn’t technically complicated.

So what, exactly, is the CAT format? Adaptive testing means that each test is customized based on an algorithm that calculates a student’s relative level, and their score, as they answer questions of varying difficulty.

Each section of the GMAT begins by assuming that the student has an average skill level and is able to correctly answer medium difficulty questions. If the test-taker answers the majority of easy and medium questions correctly, the test offers more difficult questions, and adjusts the student’s GMAT score as necessary.If the student answers medium-level questions incorrectly, the test will offer the student easier questions (and, again, adjust the score along the way).

The verbal and quantitative sections use the adaptive algorithm; the analytical writing assessment (the GMAT essay) and integrated reasoning do not.

The main thing you should know about the computerized adaptive format is that you can’t try to beat it or calculate precisely what you’d get by answering a certain number of questions correctly or incorrectly. Instead, you should focus on doing your best on the exam and not worry too much about how the algorithm is calculating your score.

While it’s important to understand the basics of adaptive testing so you know the fundamentals of how your scores are calculated, don’t obsess over it if you can help it. It’s better to prepare well and do your best on every single question, no matter how easy or difficult it seems.

You can find more information on the CAT format of the GMAT here.

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The GMAT is a computerized adaptive test. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the format.
The GMAT is a computerized adaptive test. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the format.

 

#2: How GMAT Questions Are Designed

Understanding GMAT content isn’t just about having the underlying skill sets; it also requires you to comprehend exactly what GMAT questions will look like and what they’ll be asking you.

For instance, you might be a whiz in college-level math classes, but still get confused when it comes to the (sometimes weird) ways that the GMAT will test you on quantitative skills. Likewise, you might be a voracious reader, but still not understand exactly what GMAT reading comprehension questions are asking you to do or find.

The best way to familiarize yourself with GMAT questions is to take an initial diagnostic practice test (find out more about that here) and see where you lost your way. Don’t just see what you got wrong. Read answer explanations and see exactly what confused you. Sometimes, you might understand the underlying concept being tested, but not how the GMAT was trying to test it.

As you continue in your GMAT prep, try to connect the dots and see the patterns in the kinds of questions that confuse you so you can avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

You should also always make sure that the GMAT practice materials you use contain questions that are similar in tone, length, difficulty, and content to what you’ll see on the exam. You can find some of the best resources for high-quality GMAT practice questions here.

 

#3: How the GMAT Is Formatted

To crack the GMAT, you’ll need to know not just about the kinds of questions you’ll see on the test, but about the format and timing of the exam itself. No matter how prepared you are for the content of the exam, your score will suffer if you’re surprised by the format or testing conditions.

These are the sections of the GMAT, the number and types of questions you’ll see on each one, and the time you’ll have for each.

Section # of Questions Time Question Types Score Range
Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) 1 Topic 30 minutes Analysis of Argument 0-6 (in .5 increments)
Integrated Reasoning (IR) 12 Questions 30 minutes Multi-Source Reasoning; Graphics Interpretation; Two-Part Analysis; Table Analysis 1-8
Optional Break 8 minutes
Quantitative Section 37 Questions 75 minutes Data Sufficiency; Problem Solving 200-800
Optional Break 8 minutes
Verbal Section 41 Questions 75 minutes Reading Comprehension; Critical Reasoning; Sentence Correction 200-800

Note that you’ll be able to select the order in which you complete the sections of the GMAT. You can find more information about this policy here, but you can take a look at the options for section order and break times here:

Order #1 Order #2 Order #3
Analytical Writing Assessment Verbal Quantitative
Integrated Reasoning
Optional 8-minute Break
Quantitative Quantitative Verbal
Optional 8-minute Break
Verbal Integrated Reasoning Integrated Reasoning
Analytical Writing Assessment Analytical Writing Assessment

To familiarize yourself with the GMAT format, take practice tests in the section order that you plan to choose on the day of the exam. Simulate the testing conditions as closely as possible; don’t take breaks when you wouldn’t be allowed to on exam day, and don’t break up the sections and come back to them later if you can help it.

Also, use high-quality practice tests with official questions (those authored by the Graduate Management Admissions Council, or GMAC), or questions that mimic the style and tone of real GMAT questions as closely as possible, delivered in computerized adaptive format. Find out more about what practice tests we recommend here.

You can go here for more in-depth info on the format of the exam.

 

How to Crack the GMAT: Top 4 GMAT Traps to Avoid

To crack the GMAT, you’ll have to know the exam inside and out, including the most common mistakes that test-takers make. These are the most common traps that students fall into when trying to ace the GMAT, and how to avoid them.

 

#1: Refusing to Guess

Some GMAT test-takers tend to agonize over GMAT questions they’re having trouble with with, or to take too long on the first five to 10 questions in each section.

It’s important to know that the GMAT is not designed for you to get every question correct. Instead, the CAT format adjusts to your skill level as you complete questions, and gives you questions of a variety of difficulty levels in order to calculate your score.

On the GMAT, timing is key, and it’s more important to get through the entire exam than to answer every single question you’re given correctly.

If you’re having trouble with a question, try your best at using the process of elimination to increase your chances of getting it right, but don’t waste too much time. Take your best guess and move on to the next question.


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Learn more about when you should guess on the GMAT here.

 

#2: Not Taking Notes

Sometimes, students make the critical mistake of not taking notes on the provided GMAT scratch pad (find out more about it here) as they read a question or determine the answer.

Not taking notes might seem like a time-saver in the moment, but it’s actually likelier to cause you to take longer to finish the exam.

For example, you might forget important details from a chart in the integrated reasoning section or specifics in a reading comprehension passage, causing you to select the wrong answer choice or to have to go back and look at the chart or reread the passage several times.

To avoid this common problem, take notes during your practice drills, quizzes, and tests so you’re accustomed to doing so by the time you take the actual GMAT. To simulate the kinds of notes you’ll be taking during the GMAT, use a large legal pad and a slender marker or a sample GMAT scratch pad.

 

When you practice for the GMAT, always take notes as you answer questions.
When you practice for the GMAT, always take notes as you answer questions.

 

#3: Rushing Through Questions

Some GMAT test-takers think they’ll save time on the exam by rushing through questions and answer choices without reading every word. This is a big, but common, mistake.

You need to read every passage and each GMAT question fully. This is important for two reasons: to help you keep track of all the information you’re being given, including any relevant details, and to help you know what the question is asking you to find, determine, or do.

For example, a GMAT critical reasoning question might want you to find the information that would support a given argument. Students who don’t read the question in its entirety or who skim over it might instead accidentally look for the answer choice that would weaken or detract from the original argument. You’re risking making careless errors if you skim any part of a GMAT question.

 

#4: Trying to Beat the Computerized Adaptive Format

As I said before, some test-takers try to guess the relative difficulty level of a given GMAT question as they go along or otherwise try to “beat” or outsmart the CAT format of the GMAT (for example, by focusing more on difficult question than on ones they perceive as easy).

Simply put, this is a bad idea, as well as next to impossible. Firstly, it’s a lot more difficult than you might think to guess the level of a given question.

What you find difficult or easy might be different from the norm; what’s easy for one student might be outside of your wheelhouse, or vice versa. Under the pressure of an exam, you might also miscalculate the relative difficulty of a question and get confused.

It’s a waste of precious time and focus to be concerned about the CAT format as you take the exam. Instead, do your best on every question regardless of difficulty, and guess when you need to.

 

Top 6 Study Tips on How to Crack the GMAT

Now that we’ve gone over what you need to understand about the GMAT and the most common traps to avoid, let’s take a look at the six key study tips you should follow if you’re hoping to crack the GMAT.

 

#1: Take a Diagnostic Test

A GMAT diagnostic test is a practice test you take at the beginning of your prep, often about three months before your scheduled exam date (find out more about making a GMAT study schedule here).

You can use the results of your diagnostic test to figure out what your weaknesses are and how to target them in your study sessions over the course of your GMAT prep. You can also use it to get a good idea of where you’re starting in terms of your score and to set a realistic GMAT target score before you create a study plan. Find out more about setting a target GMAT score here.

The most effective and best GMAT diagnostic test is available through the Official GMATPrep Software. You can access two official practice tests in computerized adaptive format for free with an account at mba.com.

The GMATPrep software questions are all written by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC). They’re “official” questions and will look and feel just like the questions you’ll see on the GMAT, so you can be confident that the results you get on this initial diagnostic practice test are reliable in terms of gauging your progress and assessing your abilities as you begin your GMAT prep.

Once you’ve taken a GMAT diagnostic test, you’ll need to break down your test results and analyze your weaknesses, which will include asking yourself which sections were your best and your worst, what kinds of question types you missed, and if you had enough time to finish every section. I’ll explain this essential step—analyzing what you need to work on—in the next tip.

Find out more about GMAT diagnostic tests and how to use them here.

 

#2: Analyze and Target Your Weaknesses

Analyzing and honing in on your weaknesses during your GMAT prep is the #1 key to cracking the exam. As often as you might study, if you don’t focus primarily on the aspects of the test that cause you the most trouble, your score won’t improve.

You should analyze your mistakes every time you study for the GMAT. After you finish a practice test or a set of practice problems, look at the questions you got wrong (or the ones you guessed on or were confused by).

Evaluate yourself honestly by asking yourself a series of questions, and look for error patterns. Where did you go wrong? Is there a foundational skill you’re missing, and how could you work on it? Do you tend to make careless mistakes when you calculate the answers to quantitative questions?

Do you read too slowly or miss details? Do you glance over charts and graphs instead of looking at them as a whole? Or do you have a timing issue that could be addressed with pacing drills?

Do you misunderstand certain kinds of GMAT questions and what they’re asking you to do? Or is there a particular section that you find wholly troublesome and that you should devote a great deal of study time to?

Use the trends you see on your practice tests to create and adjust your GMAT study plan accordingly. You should consistently be making slight adjustments to your study plan as you go along based on the areas that you need more help in and the areas that you’ve already mastered.

 

Analyzing your weaknesses is one of the most important steps in cracking the GMAT.
Analyzing your weaknesses is one of the most important steps in cracking the GMAT.

 

#3: Create a Study Plan

After you take an initial diagnostic test and have an idea of the weaknesses you need to target, the next step in your GMAT preparation is to make a study plan. It’s important to make a study plan in order to focus your energies, manage your time efficiently, and address your particular weaknesses.

Once you’ve taken and analyzed your initial diagnostic test, create a detailed schedule that gives you enough time to cover all your GMAT prep bases before your exam date.

Your goals for each study session should be as specific and focused as possible.

Instead of simply allotting a certain number of hours a week to general GMAT prep, each study session should have a particular goal (for example, “Complete twenty sentence correction practice questions in 25 minutes”). This will prevent you from wasting time or being tempted to study things that you’ve already mastered rather than concepts you struggle with more.

You should also make sure to follow a GMAT study routine; don’t try to cram all your studying into the last few weeks before the exam, and study frequently in smaller chunks rather than long blocks of time less frequently. This will help you sharpen your skills and create better test-taking habits.

Keep track of what you accomplish each week, and adjust your goals accordingly. You can find out more about creating the perfect GMAT study plan here.

 

#4: Review the Fundamentals

Strong foundational math, reading, and grammar skills are necessary if you want to do well on the GMAT. Addressing your particular weaknesses might include reviewing these fundamental skills.

After you take your first diagnostic GMAT and go over the answer explanations, honestly assess where your skills are lacking, not only in terms of question types but also in terms of basic skills.

Are you noticing that you aren’t fully processing complicated reading comprehension passages in the time allotted, for example?  Practice tests alone likely won’t fix this issue: you might also need to work on your critical reading skills on a fundamental level.

If you have trouble with reading comprehension questions or sentence correction questions, or if you’re a non-native English speaker, reading articles from publications like The Economist, The New York Times, The LA Times, Science, Nature, and The Atlantic can help you get used to comprehending complex written material in English. You should time your readings and summarize them afterwards in your own words, which will help you succeed on all question types in the verbal section. For more help with the verbal section, click here.

If math is more difficult for you, you’ll need to brush up on the fundamentals of geometry, statistics and probability, trigonometry, and algebra. Even if you succeeded easily in math classes in the past, you should specifically go over the math rules that are tested on the GMAT. While the math topics covered on the GMAT aren’t necessarily especially high-level or difficult, they are tested in complex and unique ways. You can review the math concepts that are tested on the GMAT here.

 

#5: Familiarize Yourself With the GMAT Testing Conditions

To crack the GMAT, you’ll have to be familiar with not only the content on the exam, but the testing conditions as well. Seemingly tiny things (such as the logistics of the test or the way it’s administered) can throw you off during the GMAT and cost you time and points. It’s in your best interest to feel as comfortable and prepared as possible for every aspect of the GMAT.

To best simulate GMAT testing conditions while you’re prepping, practice with official practice tests in CAT format as often as you can. The more familiar you can get with the GMAT format now, the less likely it is that you’ll lose precious time on exam day.

Take breaks at the correct times, and don’t use any outside sources to help you as you practice. You need to develop the stamina and discipline necessary to complete the three-and-a-half hour exam.

At the GMAT, as I mentioned earlier, you’ll be provided with a laminated, double-sided scratch pad and a slender dry erase marker with which to take notes. At home, during practice tests, practice taking notes on both sides of a legal pad with a thin marker so this doesn’t throw you off during the exam. Find out more about how best to use the GMAT scratch pad to your advantage here.

Additionally, never use a calculator for the quant section at home, since you won’t have one on the exam. You can prepare for this by practicing calculations in your head as much as possible on an everyday basis and as a routine part of your GMAT prep. Learn more about how to practice computing answers to GMAT questions without a calculator here.

 

#6: Keep Track of Your Progress

As you analyze your weaknesses, take practice tests and quizzes, and evaluate your progress, it’s important to find an effective way to track that progress so you can adjust your GMAT study plan as needed. Regularly adapting your study plan to your needs, and to your improvement, is an important part of cracking the GMAT.

Keep a journal or log that includes notes about each of your study sessions. What did you accomplish, and how long did it take? You should also track all of your scores on practice quizzes and tests.

You should take at least four full-length practice tests over the course of your GMAT prep. Space them out over the course of your study plan so that you can see how your GMAT score is improving (or stagnating). In your log, keep track of how many of each question type you got wrong, as well as your error patterns so that you can see what you still need to work on.

You can also take note of things like what time of day you studied so that you can adjust your study time to be most effective (say, if you’re a morning person rather than a night person), or to match the time at which you’ll be taking the actual GMAT.

Be honest with yourself as you track your progress. You might need to add more hours to your initial study plan if you’re not progressing as quickly as you had anticipated.

 

Keep track of your progress as you practice for the GMAT.
A big part of knowing how to crack the GMAT is keeping track of your personal progress as you prep for the exam.

 

What’s Next?

Ready to raise your GMAT score and still wondering how to crack the GMAT most effectively and efficiently? Check out our 13 expert tips to improving your GMAT score to go more in depth on how to excel on the exam.

Cracking the GMAT isn’t just about doing well; it’s also about avoiding traps. Read here about the 13 most common GMAT mistakes and how to avoid them.

Creating a study plan is a key aspect of improving your GMAT score. Here’s a guide to crafting the ideal GMAT study timeline.

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Author: Laura Dorwart

Laura Dorwart is a Ph.D. student at UC San Diego. She has taught and tutored hundreds of students in standardized testing, literature, and writing.

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