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How GMAT Question Types Test the Skills Business Students Need

The GMAT exam was created more than 50 years ago because business schools did not think existing tests gauged very precisely the academic skills that graduate business programs demanded. Although the GMAT exam has evolved since its 1954 creation, the test remains true to its core competency: measuring the specific academic skills needed for business school.

Across the business school curriculum, students are asked to read, synthesize, and analyze all sorts of qualitative and quantitative data. Although the GMAT exam is conducted in English and requires basic math skills, its difficulty lies not in advanced vocabulary or math skills, but in the logic and analytical reasoning the test requires.

Here’s how the most distinct question types on the GMAT exam, Data Sufficiency and Critical Reasoning, directly measure skills that are precisely applicable to business school—and the business world.

Data Sufficiency

This  question type was created for the GMAT exam in 1961 and is still considered an exam hallmark. Test takers are given a question along with two statements that give extra data. Data Sufficiency does not ask you to actually solve the problem. Instead, you have to figure out precisely what is needed to solve the question — the first statement, the second one, both together, either one by itself, or even more data are needed. For example:

Q: Is the number x between 0.2 and 0.7?

  1. 560x < 280
  2. 700x > 280

You can figure out that x is less than 0.5 from the first statement, and that x is greater than 0.4 from the second, so you can solve the problem with both statements but not either one alone. Other Data Sufficiency questions may be solvable by using either statement alone, so it’s not enough to figure out just one way to solve a problem. You must figure out whether—and how—each piece of data can be used to solve the problem at hand.

Data Sufficiency very succinctly measures your ability to sort through a lot of information and pick only what you need to solve a problem. It also tests your ability to think through solving a problem using different bits of data. Business schools demand both, as students are often presented with complicated case studies with lots of exhibits and financial statements and must figure out how to solve problems without getting bogged down in excessive detail.

“Today’s business exists in a data-rich environment,” says Pradeep Chintagunta, the Robert Law Professor of Marketing and director of the PhD program at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “To successfully manage in this environment requires translating the data into usable information. The skills tested by the Data Sufficiency part of the test are consequently, critical to managerial decision making.”

Critical Reasoning

These questions provide a brief argument, a question, and five potential answers. The question asks you to construct or evaluate the argument. For example:

Q: When hypnotized subjects are told that they are deaf and are then asked whether they can hear the hypnotist, they reply, “No.” Some theorists try to explain this result by arguing that the selves of the hypnotized subjects are dissociated into separate parts, and that the part that is deaf is dissociated from the part that replies.

Which of the following challenges indicates the most serious weakness in the attempted explanation described above?

  1. Why does the part that replies not answer “Yes”?

  2. Why are the observed facts in need of any special explanation?

  3. Why do the subjects appear to accept the hypnotist’s suggestion that they are deaf?

  4. Why do hypnotized subjects all respond the same way in the situation described?

  5. Why are the separate parts of the self the same for all subjects?

To answer (A), you have to consider all five of the answers and decide which one does the best job of weakening the theory. Some of the answers may be off point or irrelevant, and others may address the explanation indirectly. You must not only think through the logic of each possible answer but also weigh their relative strengths. In business school, as in the business world, you will be asked to collaborate on projects and evaluate the ideas and arguments of others, and the ability to do that succinctly is important.

"The real world is such a messy place that it is often hard to spot the proper correlation among facts, let alone to pin down the right ‘cause-effect’ connections. Personal perceptions and biases may cloud the picture even more,” says Valter Lazarri, MBA director of SDA Bocconi School of Management, Milan.

“MBA programs are great in providing students with the extensive, rigorous multidimensional ‘software’ required to build a sound and informed decision making process form factual analysis,” he adds. “However, this software is effective only as long as it is supported by a proper ‘hardware’—that is, by students with a raw ability to connect facts, to detect patterns, to discriminate true causation from spurious correlations: in short, by students possessing a critical reasoning ability. Business school may refine and hone it, but they can't develop it from scratch. This is why a good screening system is needed.”

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