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how the gmat predicts business school successIt’s the million dollar question, and I get it from prospective clients all the time: Why do I need to take the GMAT in the first place?

What they’re really asking is, How is the GMAT relevant to success in business school?

It’s easy to dismiss the GMAT as testing a lot of things that you aren’t likely going to have to do while pursuing your MBA, things like finding the roots of a quadratic equation or determining the arc length of a circle. I’ll be the first to admit that I never had to do those things during my 2-year graduate program.

Yet, when you dig a little deeper and understand what business students are expected to do, and when you step back and get a better sense of the skills actually tested on the GMAT — well, it turns out that the GMAT is more predictive of success in business school than it may at first seem.

In fact, understanding what the GMAT is really testing (hint: it’s not just a review of high school math and grammar) will help you better prepare for the exam in the first place. So let’s break it down and take a closer look.

Skills Expected of Business School Students

Business school admissions officers continue to require a GMAT score as part of the admissions process year after year for a number of reasons. First, it’s an indicator of your academic potential. If you’re able to commit yourself to studying for this lengthy exam and capable of learning everything that’s on it, that bodes well for your ability to succeed in a graduate classroom as well. Second, the GMAT is a standard, objective tool that enables Adcoms to quickly and easily compare across a large and diverse applicant pool. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, business schools view the GMAT as testing the types of skills expected for success in business school.

Let’s look at some of the things business school students are expected to do in the classroom (and future careers):

  • Analyze arguments
  • Take an informed position
  • Write clearly and effectively
  • Integrate different pieces of information to identify interrelations, make inferences, and draw conclusions
  • Evaluate a wide range of data
  • Determine critical and sufficient data
  • Synthesize reading
  • Evaluate arguments
  • Formulate actions and trade-offs and make decisions

Clearly almost all of those skills are tested either directly or indirectly in various question types on the GMAT.

It should be noted that the GMAT does not measure other important potential indicators of success in business school, things like leadership potential, emotional intelligence, spoken English ability, learning style, or job skills. That’s why the GMAT is only one piece of a holistic MBA application. But it’s an important piece and does play a useful role in identifying strengths that will translate to the classroom.

Let’s take a closer look at the different question types you’ll see on the GMAT, what they really test, and how it’s relevant to success in business school.

What the Different GMAT Sections Test

Quantitative Reasoning

The quantitative section of the GMAT assesses your ability to analyze data and draw conclusions using reasoning skills. The term reasoning is important here. The GMAT quant section isn’t merely a math test, though it may seem like it at times. Rather, it requires you to apply certain math knowledge in the areas of arithmetic, algebra, and geometry — and to reason your way to correct answers.

There are two major question types on the GMAT Quantitative section: Problem Solving and Data Sufficiency.

Problem Solving questions measure your ability to solve numerical problems, interpret graphical data, and evaluate information.

Data Sufficiency questions measure your ability to analyze a problem, recognize relevant information, and decide if you have enough information to solve the problem.

As you can see looking back at the bullet points of what’s expected of business school students, each of these quantitative questions types reveals one or more of those skillsets.

Verbal Reasoning

The verbal section of the GMAT assess your ability to read and understand written material, evaluate arguments, and correct written material to conform to standard written English.

There are three major question types on the GMAT Verbal section: Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, and Reading Comprehension.

Sentence Correction questions test your English language proficiency and ability to express an idea clearly, concisely, and grammatically correct.

Critical Reasoning questions measure the reasoning skills you use when crafting arguments, evaluating arguments, and formulating or evaluating a plan of action.

Reading Comprehension questions measure your ability to understand, analyze, and apply information and concepts presented in written form. More specifically, can you understand words and statements? Can you understand the logical relationship between significant points and concepts? Can you draw inferences from facts and statements? And can you understand and follow the development of quantitative concepts? Those are all skills tested on GMAT reading comp questions.

You’ll recognize many of these verbal skills as the same skills expected of students who want to succeed in a business school classroom.

Analytical Writing Assessment

Analysis of an Argument example gmatThe analytical writing portion of the GMAT is pretty straightforward and clearly tests several of the skills expected of MBA candidates. Specifically, it measures your ability to thinking critically, to analyze the reasoning behind a given argument, and to communicate your ideas through a written critique of that argument. Those are the types of things that decision-makers are expected to do in business on a daily basis, and it’s the reason the GMAT continues to include this section.

It’s interesting to note that you used to have to write two essays on the AWA portion of the GMAT. In addition to the Analysis of an Argument essay, there used to also be an Analysis of an Issue essay where you stated your opinion on a certain topic and supported it with examples. The GMAT replaced that second essay with the Integrated Reasoning section, which is a direct effort to test several of the other skills expected of B-School students.

Integrated Reasoning

The Integrated Reasoning section of the GMAT is confusing for a lot of students in terms of how to interpret its value. On the one hand, it receives its own separate score on a scale from 1-8. Since it’s not part of the all-important 200-800 point “main” GMAT score that most business school admissions officers prioritize, a lot of students (and test prep instructors, frankly) don’t give it as much weight. On the other hand, this section is perhaps the most relevant in terms of testing many of the most important business skills. As such, your IR score will likely become increasingly important in your evaluation as there’s more data available to admissions officers about how it relates to your success in business school.

Very simply, the Integrated Reasoning section assesses your ability to integrate data to solve complex problems. The skills you need on the four major IR question types — Multi-Source Reasoning, Graphics Interpretation, Two-Part Analysis, and Table Analysis — are:

  • Synthesize information presented in graphics, text, and numbers;
  • Evaluating relevant information from different sources;
  • Organizing information to see relationships and to solve multiple, interrelated problems;
  • Combining and manipulating information from multiple sources to solve complex problems

As you can see, those skills line up very directly with the skills we discussed earlier that business schools want their students to posses.

Conclusion

It’s normal to be skeptical about the relevance of a standardized test like the GMAT in predicting your success in business school. I get it — and believe me, it’s not my job to defend the GMAT or trump it up to be something more than it is. I tell my students all the time that the GMAT is a means to an end. It stands between you and business school, and whether your like it or not, it’s a hurdle that you have to overcome. In fact, I even teach my GMAT prep courses from that viewpoint, acknowledging that your objective should be to get more right answers on test day, not to become an English grammarian or make your high school algebra teacher proud.

And yet, hopefully there’s something comforting in knowing that there is a method to the madness when it comes to how the GMAT is structured and why the questions are the way they are. Are there people who struggle with the GMAT but who would do perfectly well in a business school classroom if only they could get in? Undoubtedly. And are there students who dominate the GMAT but end up struggling to complete their MBA? Of course. All told, though, the GMAT is a pretty good measuring stick. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon, so you’d better learn to love it — whether you think it’s predictive of your success or not.

I’ll leave you with this. The GMAC (the organization that produces the GMAT) is in constant communication with the hundreds of business schools around the world and regularly conducts studies to evaluate the relevance and validity of the GMAT when it comes to predicting performance in a variety of programs. I’ll spare you the details of how these studies are done, but the bottom line is that the GMAC has determined the GMAT to be 92% reliable based on its GMAT Validity Studies. The following chart shows the study outcomes:

gmat validity studies results

You can dive deeper into the GMAT Validity Studies and read the different published reports HERE if you’re interested.

Agree? Disagree? Please share your thoughts or ask your questions below!