Expert Guide: How Hard Is the GMAT?


Is the GMAT hard? That’s a common question MBA hopefuls have, and one that’s not easy to answer. In this article, I’ll go over the bad news and the good news about the difficulties of the GMAT, who might have the most difficulty in certain areas, and how to overcome any possible challenges of the exam.


Is the GMAT Hard?

So, how hard is the GMAT? Let’s start with the bad news: the GMAT is definitely challenging. It’s meant to be, in order to predict your performance in business school.

Some students find the timing of the GMAT difficult; you’ve got a lot to accomplish in a few hours, and you’ll have to move efficiently through each question in order to answer them all. Some students are stressed by the format of the test itself: Some questions, like on the Integrated Reasoning section, have several parts that need to be answered. This confuses some students and can seem overwhelming at first.

But never fear! The GMAT is certainly not impossible, and not a reason for panic, especially if you stay informed. You can learn to do well, particularly if you know what to expect and prepare accordingly. You don’t need any business know-how to do well on the GMAT. Instead, it tests basic critical thinking, writing, and logic skills and high school level math concepts. And the GMAT is standardized, which means it’s highly learnable.

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The timing of the GMAT might be challenging for you.
The timing of the GMAT might be challenging for you.


How Hard Is the GMAT? 7 Major Challenges

Let’s begin by going over some of the factors that contribute to GMAT difficulty.


1. It’s Long

The four sections of the GMAT take about three hours, and test day usually takes 3.5 hours or more if you factor in break time, sign-in, and receiving your unofficial score report.

The GMAT takes stamina. There are two optional eight-minute breaks, so you’ll definitely want to take advantage of those to save your mental strength.


2. Timing Is Everything

The time limits on the GMAT may be challenging for you. You’ll have 30 minutes to complete your Analytical Writing Assessment, 30 minutes to answer 12 multi-part Integrated Reasoning questions, 62 minutes to finish the 31 questions on the Quantitative section, and 65 minutes to complete the 36 questions on the Verbal section. Not answering every question on a given section will affect your score significantly.

Make sure you know how long to spend on each question beforehand, and keep track of your timing as you go along. The timer at the top righthand corner of your screen will help you.


3. The Verbal and Analytical Writing Sections Require Strong English Skills

International students and non-native English speakers often find the Verbal and Writing sections extremely challenging.

These students can struggle with the Analytical Writing Assessment difficult because of its complexity and open-ended nature. Some non-native English speakers might feel uncomfortable writing at length in English due to spelling and grammar difficulties or timing issues. Those who do should begin practicing timed AWA sections at home right away and read sample essays to get comfortable with the format.

While you should obviously do your best, don’t stress about it too much: Business schools are advised by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) to take into consideration and be sensitive to the fact that a student may not be a native English speaker.

The high-level vocabulary on the Verbal section can also be challenging for international students. If you think you might struggle with the Verbal section, look up any unfamiliar terms in your practice tests and make a glossary for yourself early on in your GMAT prep.

Finally, the grammar questions on the Verbal section may be a struggle for non-native English speakers. If you are nervous about this, begin studying basic English grammar concepts right away, and prioritize grammar in your prep.


4. It’s a Computerized Adaptive Test (CAT)

The computerized adaptive structure of the GMAT confuses some students, but informing yourself about the format can help. Computerized adaptive tests tailor questions to the skill level of each student. If a student answers easier questions incorrectly, he or she won’t be given many more difficult questions. Your score will be determined both by the number of questions you answer correctly and by the difficulty of the questions you answer.

This structure can cause issues for some students who may be tempted to ‘game’ the system or evaluate how they’re doing as they go along. Don’t! It’s best to stay focused on the task at hand, and it’s much more difficult than you might think to guess at the relative difficulty or ease of a given question.

Also, because of the CAT format, you can’t go back to previous questions once you’ve confirmed your answers. You have to keep it moving and shift gears mentally every time you confirm an answer, or you run the risk of spending too much time on a single question.


5. Questions Are Often Complicated and Involve Multiple Steps

Many questions on the GMAT have several parts, all of which must be answered for full credit. You may have to determine whether four different statements about a passage are true or false, for example, and you’ll have to classify each statement accurately. This is especially true of the Integrated Reasoning section: All questions on the IR section have multiple parts, and no partial credit is given.

Secondly, the phrasing of various GMAT question types can be confusing. On Data Sufficiency questions in the Quantitative section, for example, you’ll be asked to determine whether a certain given piece of information (such as a value of x or an if/then statement) is enough to solve a problem or equation. The best way to prepare for these kinds of strangely worded questions is simply to familiarize yourself with them and to devote a great deal of prep time to the kinds of questions that confuse you most.


6. You May Have Forgotten Most of the Math

The Quantitative (Quant) section consists of primarily high school level math concepts that you may not have reviewed in a while.

If you haven’t used secondary (high school) level math skills like trigonometry, algebra, and geometry in a while, or if they were especially challenging for you, you might be worried about the Quant section. Luckily, they should come back to you with practice and review.

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7. You Can’t Use a Calculator on the Quantitative Section

Some students get nervous about not being able to use a calculator on the Quant section, especially if calculations worry them. The good news is that complex arithmetic (such as multiplying 171.24 by 86.935, for example) is not required in order to answer any questions on the Quant section. If you practice estimation skills at home, such as substituting numbers that end in zero for variables in an equation or rounding unwieldy numbers up or down to make them more manageable, you can build your calculation-in-your-head muscles in no time.

Also, take heart: There is an onscreen calculator on the Integrated Reasoning section.


The computerized adaptive format of the GMAT is hard for some test-takers to grasp at first.
How hard is the GMAT? It depends on how comfortable you are taking a test on the computer!


How Hard Is the GMAT? 3 Pieces of Good News

While the GMAT is challenging for many reasons, there are also several reasons not to worry:


1. The GMAT Is Predictable

The single most important thing to remember about the GMAT is that it’s standardized. You can learn exactly what to expect and how to approach it so you’re fully confident on test day.

The questions in all sections except the Analytical Writing Assessment are multiple-choice, so almost nothing is open-ended. This makes it easy to prepare for the GMAT and easy to know what to expect.


2. The Math Doesn’t Require Complex Calculations

The math concepts tested on the GMAT are fairly basic: remember, secondary level (primarily trigonometry, algebra, and geometry). So even if you don’t remember much of it now, your Quant prep should be like riding a bicycle: a little rocky at first if you’re rusty, perhaps, but you’ll regain your confidence quickly.

Also, the required arithmetic isn’t likely to make you sweat. The calculations are primarily simple and can all be estimated or quickly computed in your head.


3. All Answer Choices Are Objectively Correct or Incorrect

In the Verbal section, for example, all the answers can be found directly in the corresponding passage. This means you can easily use the process of elimination to determine your answer choices. Remember to look for evidence: Every question will have direct textual evidence that makes the answer clear.

Remember, the GMAT is standardized, so the answer to each question can’t be ‘iffy’ or subjective. It has to be inarguable (or the test-makers would get a lot of complaints!). Once you start preparing, you’ll learn to spot the necessary evidence in the given texts more quickly and confidently.


Review geometry and other basic math skills to prepare for the GMAT.
Review geometry and other basic math skills to prepare for the GMAT.


How to Prepare for GMAT Difficulty

Though the GMAT is hard, there is a lot you can do to make the test easier for you. Check out the tips below to make your studying more effective and ensure you’re fully prepared for exam day.


1. Learn the Format

The key to managing your stress before the GMAT is to familiarize yourself with the format. Using the GMAT prep software from the Graduate Management Admissions Council will help you simulate test conditions as closely as you can, particularly if you’re nervous about the computerized adaptive format. When you take practice tests, note not just the content that’s most difficult for you (such as trigonometry-based questions, for example), but question types and formats that challenge you (like graphic analysis Integrated Reasoning questions, for example). Prioritize these question types in your prep.

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2. Start Reading

If you’re nervous about the Verbal section, begin reading high-level material as soon as you can. Academic journals (spanning business, the humanities and arts, social sciences, physical sciences, and natural sciences), newspapers, nonfiction articles, and legal and business documents will all give you a head start on the kind of reading you’ll be expected to do on the GMAT. Your time on the test will be limited, and you’ll have to pick out main ideas, find textual evidence, and make accurate inferences quickly. Reading high-level material will help you to do this and to synthesize complex information more efficiently.


3. Review Basic Math Concepts

Review trigonometry, algebra, arithmetic, and geometry skills as early as possible during your preparation. No math skills beyond what you would learn in a high-level secondary math course will be required of you, but extensive review is key.


4. Practice Calculations Without a Calculator

Begin preparing for the Quant section now by doing calculations in your head as often as possible. Learning how to estimate, round, and do arithmetic quickly in your head will make your life much easier during the test. If you build these skills, you won’t be bogged down with tedious manual calculations on scratch paper and will be able to move through the questions much more quickly and accurately.


5. Make Sure to Rest, Both Before and During the Test

Since the test takes stamina, make sure you’re well rested not just the day of the test, but the week before if possible. Take the two optional breaks, and bring snacks and water to keep in your locker at the testing location. You can also bring ‘comfort items’ like cough drops and a light sweater or jacket. Comfort is key to avoid distractions.


If you're worried about the Verbal section, start reading high-level material right away.
If you’re worried about the Verbal section, start reading high-level material right away.


Review: How Hard Is the GMAT?

Let’s review: Is the GMAT hard?

The GMAT is challenging. In particular, the length of the test and the phrasing of some of the questions may seem overwhelming or confusing at first. Non-native English speakers may find the Verbal and Analytical Writing Assessment sections intimidating, and students who haven’t reviewed basic math concepts in a while might struggle with the Quantitative section at first.

To prepare for the GMAT difficulty, you should familiarize yourself as much as possible with the format of the test, including timing, question types, and structure, by taking computerized adaptive practice tests. You should also practice doing estimation and arithmetic in your head if you’re nervous about not having access to a calculator during the Quant section. If you are worried about the Verbal section, begin reading high-level material such as newspaper and academic journal articles as soon as possible.

Remember, the GMAT is standardized. And that makes it learnable! Empower yourself by learning as much as you can about what to expect on exam day, and you’ll feel much more confident as you prepare to take the GMAT.


Non-native English speakers might find the GMAT intimidating at first. But don't worry: With preparation, you'll become far more comfortable with the exam.
Non-native English speakers might find the GMAT intimidating at first. But don’t worry: With preparation, you’ll become far more comfortable with the exam.


What’s Next?

Reading our article on the GMAT format is a good first step in familiarizing yourself with what to expect from the GMAT.

If you’re worried about the Quant section, check out our complete guide to how to prepare for GMAT Math.

Concerned about your grasp of sophisticated vocabulary? Our guide to GMAT vocabulary can help you prepare for the Verbal section.

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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.