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Opinion: The Shorter GMAT Is A Good Thing That Could Have Been Radically Better

By Ajay Amar, Ph.D., May 4 2018 03:00PM

GMAC, the maker of the GMAT, has made yet another change to the exam. The GMAT has been shortened by 30 minutes, reducing its total time from four hours to 3.5 hours.


The shorter GMAT seems a reversal from changes in years past, which often added new exam requirements. The original 1954 exam, given on paper, was less than three hours. From the unique Data Sufficiency questions (1961) to the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) essays (adding an hour in 1994), the computer adaptive format (1997), and the Integrated Reasoning (IR) section (substituting for one AWA essay in 2012), alterations to the GMAT have often increased its time and difficulty.


Shortening the GMAT would seem to be a step towards simplification – right? Well, yes and no. The shorter GMAT should improve your test-taking experience in one important aspect. However, I also believe that GMAC missed several potential opportunities for improvement.


The Big Improvement: The number of experimental questions has been reduced.


To shorten the GMAT’s time, GMAC has removed six experimental, non-scoring questions from the Quantitative section and five from the Verbal section. Although GMAC will not reveal the number of experimental questions that remain, based on the Enhanced Score Report data, there is rampant speculation that three non-scored quant questions and six non-scored verbal questions are left.


You may be asking, “Wait, what are these experimental questions? How do they affect the exam?”


The GMAT is a computer adaptive test, so answering more questions correctly leads to harder questions. The harder the questions that you can answer correctly, the higher your score will be.


The experimental questions are those whose level of difficulty GMAC is still evaluating. They randomly appear anywhere from the first to the last question, and they don’t count toward your score. Based on the percentage of test-takers who can correctly answer a new question, the relative level of difficulty of that question is quantified, and it takes its place in the rotation of scored questions.


If you are a GMAT test-taker, the problem with this system is obvious: After you struggle to solve a difficult question, it may not even count toward your final score. Worse, after taking the time to solve this question, you may run out of time to solve scored questions at the end.


Missed Opportunity 1: Not all the experimental questions were removed.


The reduction of the number of experimental questions is clearly a benefit for GMAT test-takers. However, that still leaves some number of questions of undetermined difficulty and no value to the test-taker that still pop up randomly throughout.


In my opinion, the GMAT should take a page from the GRE and LSAT, and place all experimental questions in one section, separate from the scored questions. I realize that this would change how the exam software is set up, and therefore would be a major change, but it will allow GMAT test-takers to have a test-day experience that correlates more closely to the official practice tests (which use actual retired questions).


Missed Opportunity 2: The GMAT still covers a wide variety of topics, some of which have questionable value to business schools.


With the key sections of Quant and Verbal being trimmed down to roughly an hour each, I am somewhat surprised that GMAC did not take the opportunity to assess with schools whether there might be some topics that might be cut as well (for example, geometry). Instead, the test covers the same number of topics, albeit with fewer non-scored questions. The GMAT may be shorter, but the exam is still disparate and wide-reaching, requiring intensive preparation.


Consider the GMAT Quantitative section, which has questions of widely varying difficulty levels, all of which must still be solved in two minutes or less (that hasn’t changed). Out of 31 questions, you can be pretty sure that one-third or more will be Data Sufficiency questions – so you know that you had better practice for that topic. The others are various types of problem-solving questions. These cover a range of question types that fall under 15 main topics. It’s somewhat likely that you will be asked to solve an integer problem or two, but you can be less sure whether any questions on sets, functions, or proportions will appear at all.


Nonetheless, you will need to study all the topics and prepare to do well on them all.


The GMAT has evolved along with its audience. For example, more applied math problems relevant to daily activities were added, as was the GMAT IR. However, in making the recent changes, GMAC missed a golden opportunity to address issues with the test's transparency, usefulness to business schools, and user-friendliness.


Or perhaps GMAC has more exam changes to be announced later.


Missed Opportunity 3: The shorter GMAT throws off your timing for the Quant section.


This is not so much a “miss” than a mistake. Previously, the two main sections were the same amount of time. Now, the GMAT Quant section is 62 minutes and the GMAT Verbal is 65 minutes.


Why not 65 minutes for both?


As test-takers push through the Quant section, they aren’t just trying to solve each problem in two minutes, they’re also keeping track of the overall time: “15 minutes left … 10 minutes left … 5 minutes left ….” Ending the Quant section at an irregular time, instead of making the section an evenly spaced time series, adds yet another thing for the test-taker to remember and account for at the end.


In my opinion, GMAC should have just allowed 2.097 minutes to solve each quant question, extended the Quant section to 65 minutes, and shave off three minutes elsewhere.


Missed Opportunity 4: The “shorter” GMAT could be much shorter.


GMAC trimmed a little here and a bit there in order to reduce the four-hour GMAT by just a half-hour. Now, if GMAC’s goal was to be just a wee bit shorter than its rival, the GRE, which is three hours and 45 minutes, then: Mission Accomplished!


If, however, the GMAC’s goal was to improve your experience as a test-taker, then may I make a radical suggestion? Eliminate the AWA.


Yes, I am aware that business schools asked for and received the Analytical Writing Assessment in 1994. The idea was good. The ability to write well is a valuable skill for high-level management. Today’s AWA essay question often asks the test-taker to pursue a line of reasoning to make a convincing argument … another important skill to have.


However, in listening to various schools’ admissions representatives through the years, I have come to the conclusion that the AWA score is not heavily weighted in the admissions decision. Instead, it is used as a potential red flag. If an applicant has a low AWA score but submits beautifully written application essays, the admissions team may request the AWA essay to confirm or allay their suspicions.


With the advent of plagiarism-detecting software, it seems as if having every GMAT test-taker write an AWA essay in order to identify a few cheaters might be overkill. Moreover, there are many other ways to evaluate the ability to develop a logical argument, for example, case study interview questions and essay questions, both video and written.


It seems to me that people in multiple-choice test-taking mode might have difficulty switching to essay-writing mode during the high-pressure GMAT. If GMAC really wants to shorten the GMAT, the AWA seems to have increasingly less value to admissions committees and could be retired. Few would miss it.


Blunt Request: Eliminate the AWA and all the non-scored questions (in the scored sections), but please don’t shorten the GMAT Quant or Verbal sections further.


Shortening the GMAT further without decreasing the number of topics would make your final exam score more dependent on your good luck.


Let us suppose that you possess average problem-solving skills in most topics. (In reality, of course, you would have taken our GMAT course and developed above-average skills. But I digress.) When you are asked a question of average difficulty, you answer correctly, but when you are given a harder question, you get it wrong. You have two big weaknesses, Geometry and Exponents, for which you generally get wrong answers. On the plus side, you have two big strengths: Integers and Probability. These you always get right.


GMAT Quant Section – 20 Minute Example

Topics: Functions, Venn Diagrams, Geometry, Sequences, Ratios, Percentages, Exponents, Statistics, Probability, Integers


In this example, out of 10 questions, you answered six questions correctly (60%): two on the easier side, three of average difficulty, and one of greater difficulty. Although your weakness in Geometry and Exponents dragged your score down, you still correctly answered one Integers question at a higher scoring level.


Suppose that the test was shortened by four minutes. Wouldn’t a shorter GMAT be more pleasant? The answer is: No. If no topics are removed, the test results become more random. The chance of getting to “race your strengths” to nudge up your score becomes more dependent on your good luck.


GMAT Quant Section – 16 Minute Example

In this example, out of eight questions, you answered four questions correctly (50%): two on the easier side, and two of average difficulty. Because you had the bad luck of getting an Exponents question (your weak area) towards the very end, your score dropped, and you ran out of time.


When an exam has fewer questions, the topics it can present you with are fewer – you would have to hope that the GMAT’s algorithm works in your favor, and not against you. So, as it stands today, be grateful that the GMAT Quantitative and Verbal sections are as long as they are.


Final Word: The shorter GMAT is progress in the right direction. But it still falls short (pun intended).


Please note: GMAC has removed some of the tutorial screens from the beginning of the exam to help shorten the GMAT. Before you take the exam, please visit the GMAT Exam Tutorial to become familiar with the test center screens.


To learn about other recent changes to the GMAT, read GMAT Section Selection: You Really Want To Do AWA First? Seriously?


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