How the GMAT Works

Scoring the GMAT
The Spangler Student Center at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass.
Ron Haviv/AP Images

GMAT scoring is not straightforward. For example, there are 41 multiple-choice questions in the Verbal Section and 37 in the Quantitative Section, but both sections are scored on a scale from zero to 60. How is that possible? The GMAT software uses special algorithms to arrive at a "scaled" score for each section. These algorithms calculate much more than simple right and wrong answers. They also account for the difficulty of the questions and the number of questions that were left unanswered.

Since the test is almost entirely scored by computer, test-takers receive an "unofficial" score report immediately after completing the exam. An official score arrives a few weeks later. If you finish the test and know that you didn't do well, you have the option of canceling your score before you even see the unofficial version.

When you receive your official GMAT score report, it will include four different scaled scores: Verbal Scaled Score (0 to 60), Quantitative Scaled Score (0 through 60), AWA Score (0 through 6) and the Total Scaled Score (200 to 800).

As we talked about on the test-taking strategies page, the computer-adaptive test format caters the difficulty level of the exam to each test-taker's abilities, so each person receives a unique series of questions based on his or her performance throughout the test.

The "scaled" score is not a total of correct and incorrect answers, but a weighted value assigned to the overall performance of the test-taker. The computer is constantly recalculating the scaled score throughout the section, refining its estimation of the test-taker's skill level.

If you think about the scoring process as "refining" an overall assessment of skill level, then you realize that the earlier questions are weighted more heavily than the later ones [source: TestMasters]. For example, if you get the first question wrong, then the computer has only one piece of evidence to calculate your skill level. But by the time you get to the 40thquestion, the computer has already had 39 opportunities to refine its assessment. So your answer to the 40thquestion won't change your scaled score dramatically in either direction.

The AWA is scored differently. Both of the sections are read by a human reader and a computerized essay-scoring engine. Each one assigns the essays a value from zero to six. If the human and computer score differ by more than one point, then a second human reader is brought in to determine the final score. Human readers are specially trained college and university faculty members. If you believe your AWA section was scored incorrectly, you can ask for a rescore up to six months after your test date.

The Total Scaled Score is an overall score with 200 being the lowest and 800 being the highest. Since there are only 60 points in each multiple-choice section and six points in the AWA section, the total scale score is another scaled assessment of overall skill level, not a total of right and wrong answers.

Two-thirds of GMAT test-takers score between 400 and 600 and only 10 percent get 700 or above [source: TestMasters]. The median score (which exactly half of test-takers get above or below) is 550.

For more information on standardized tests and higher education, look at the links on the next page.