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Poets&Quants | The GMAT Focus Edition

GMAT Tips, Tricks, IntelGMAT Tips, Tricks, Intel

The new GMAT Focus Edition officially launched November 2023, and the shorter, redesigned exam replaced the GMAT Classic on February 1, 2024. The impetus for shorter exams was twofold: both students and MBA admissions offices desired shorter test formats. Stacy Blackman Consulting (SBC)’s Director of Test Prep, Anthony, who recently sat to take the GMAT Focus exam, commented that the test was definitely faster than the Classic version but it felt more like “speed dating.”  The new design can be more demanding on the test taker due to the quick pivots of the adaptive test design, where a strong test taker is given increasingly difficult questions at a faster clip compared to the GMAT Classic version. The test’s adaptive structure will throw easier and harder questions at the test taker to make sure the test assessment is not way off. 

Anthony commented, “It is futile to guess along the test how you are doing. Resist temptation or self-talk during the test to conclude you’re doing poorly if you do see easy questions in the adaptive format.”  The feature of being able to return and revise answers is another key difference, which we explore below in this FAQ.  Overall, we see that the Focus edition is much more similar to the Classic than it is different.

Q & A ABOUT THE GMAT FOCUS

SBC’s Director of Test Prep, Anthony, shared his insights internally with our team and on SBC’s B-Schooled Podcast #181.

Q- How do I know if my GMAT Focus score is competitive?

A-We recently published the GMAT Focus Editing Percentiles and Concordance, including conversions to the GMAT Classic scores. 

Q- What can you tell me about the new format of the GMAT Focus?

A-The three sections of the GMAT Focus are quantitative, verbal, and the new data insights. Data insights questions will include questions from the previous, separately-scored integrated reasoning section, along with data sufficiency questions. Data sufficiency has been scaled back, with fewer pure math questions and more word problems. The GMAT Focus gets rid of geometry, sentence completion, and the essay. The GMAT Focus has an adjusted scoring curve, and total scores have been adjusted downward on the new test. For instance, a 700 on the old GMAT is equivalent to a 655 on the new GMAT Focus, according to a comparison table released by GMAC.

To request a free test prep game plan call with Anthony of SBC, 

email [email protected]

Q- Why shorter?

A- The move clearly comes in response to students’ demands for a shorter, more efficient, and less painful test. GMAC polled many schools and students to determine what was important to them. Overwhelmingly, the students wanted a less demanding test, and the schools wanted shorter and easier tests for the candidates. I think the changes in the GMAT were likely also prompted by concerns about the GRE eating into their market share. While that may factor in, GMAC also felt it could make improvements to create a better test. They’ve been working on this for years to reestablish their position in the market.

In the case of the GRE,  the shortened test came in response to the GMAT’s changes. For the GRE, the time has been slashed in half — the formerly four-hour test now clocks in at under two hours. Where the GMAT Focus Edition has several format updates, the GRE has simply reduced the number of questions. That allowed ETS to launch the new GRE before the updated GMAT rolled out in November, so many applicants have gotten a head start with a streamlined test experience.

Q-Any downsides to a shorter test?

A- It’s worth noting that there are always trade-offs with a shorter test. Fewer questions naturally generate less data on the student. As a result, schools have less information to go on. So, these shorter tests might be a bit less reliable as a metric to determine who’s likely to succeed in business school. That said, GMAC has done several things to preserve reliability and make the GMAT Focus Edition more effective with its changes. GMAC has been able to do a shorter test and maintain accuracy because they’ve improved their computer adaptive algorithm, which is cutting-edge stuff. It’s now a more intelligent algorithm that can figure out more quickly what level of questions to give people. Another big thing is that they’re simply shifting what the exam is testing and removing one of the main focuses. That allows them to devote more questions to everything they’re still interested in. Specifically, they removed both the sentence correction and the essay from the GMAT Focus Edition. In doing so, they’re deemphasizing some verbal skills schools have said they don’t need the GMAT to test. As such, they can focus more on testing quantitative reasoning, logical reasoning, and data analysis skills. GMAC’s internal numbers say that the test should offer about the same reliability in assessing these skills.

Q-  So, even though the GMAT Focus is not intended to be harder than the original GMAT, and perceptions will vary by test taker strength, do you have an opinion on which is “harder”? A client mentioned they’ve heard rumors that the GMAT Focus is harder?” 

A- Adaptive tests are their own special kind of beast, such that it is almost a non sequitur to ask “how hard” an adaptive test is. It’s just going to adjust to your level, regardless. That said, I have a few theories/speculations about what might lead to such rumors:

  1. The scoring scale itself has shifted downward, such that the psychological benchmark numbers that students are used to aiming for now represent far stronger scores than they used to. Everyone will need to adjust to the idea that “700” is not the baseline important-for-top-schools number it used to be, but is now, instead, a huge, 99th-percentile achievement on par with an old-scale 750. So psychologically, students seeing “lower” numbers may feel that the test is harder. Students and schools will both have to re-establish their psychological thresholds for what defines a “good” score on the GMAT Focus.
  2. The GMAT Focus adapts a bit “faster” than the old GMAT did. As a result, low scorers should see easier questions faster, and high scorers should see harder questions faster. Since we mostly work with above-average students, it is natural that our clients (and many of the peers they associate with the most) will be seeing harder questions a bit quicker on the GMAT Focus than they did before. This won’t inherently change their score, but it certainly could make the test feel a bit harder — it doesn’t wait as long to smack you in the face as it used to.
  3. The content mix of the GMAT Focus is of course different, and for some students that really will make the task either easier or harder. Students who struggled with sentence correction and/or geometry should be thrilled, but those who struggled with charts, graphs, and tables should be less enthused. It should be noted that GMAC spoke to a lot of non-native speakers who were pretty relieved to be rid of sentence correction, but we — and our clients — may simply run into those students a bit less often.
  4. The new score scales, especially on the math side, create more distinctions at high scores. Whereas the old scale had gotten pushed into sort of a clump of students at 50/51 math scores (51 was the max), those are now spread among several different scores. The tradeoff is the new test clumps the really low scorers a bit more, but that honestly matters a lot less for business school purposes. The result is that students who were used to comfortably maxing out, especially on math, may suddenly be finding that they can’t max out anymore on the GMAT Focus.

Q- I’m a bit confused about those overall numbers: are you saying that if a person now takes the GMAT and gets a 665, that is considered the equivalent of a 720 in the old test? How will schools be using this information in terms of assessing whether an applicant falls below their median, when the scale has changed so dramatically?

A- A GMAT Focus 665 is the equivalent of an old-scale 710 or 720. Schools will have to re-establish their psychological thresholds for what defines a “good” score on the GMAT Focus. If they don’t, they simply won’t be able to fill their classes — there just aren’t going to be enough students scoring, say, 735 on the new scale (=760 on the old scale). Fortunately, schools are fully aware of the shift, and the conversion table is easy to use. A school that used to have an average of, say, 730 should now consider 675 to represent its new normal.  Also note that the new scores ending in 5 rather than 0 is meant to make it easy for schools to discern whether a score is on the new scale or the old one.

So, will the preparation need to change for the updated exam? Anthony clarified: “As previously noted, the different content mix of course should lead to some shift in students’ GMAT preparation. Sentence correction and geometry are gone, and the charts, graphs, and tables formerly known as “integrated reasoning” now fully count. The hope is that this is a net benefit, somewhat lessening the prep burden on students. Otherwise, the general plan is the same: Take a practice test, assess your needs, and do targeted practice on each individual skill set that requires improvement. Repeat as needed. As a tutor, I’ve already worked with several GMAT Focus students, and the job hasn’t really changed that much.

To request a free test prep game plan call with Anthony of SBC, 

email [email protected]

Q- And what about if someone is at Step 1, do we recommend any particular tool, strategy, or resource for the GMAT Focus exam?

A- We always favor 1:1 individual test prep tutoring because it’s the most effective and efficient. SBC’s Test Prep services are worthwhile to evaluate starting with a free test prep game plan chat with Anthony. 

Anthony concludes, “what you need really depends on your level. For the average self-study student who is just starting out, I’d suggest taking a practice test, digging into the Official Guide, and heading to GMAT Club, probably in that order.” 

Q-And how about the changes to the GRE?

A- According to the GRE website, the content on the shorter GRE is not changing — there’s simply less of it. Some of the cuts came from removing unscored experimental questions, but other cuts came from questions that counted, so there is still a chance that the GRE’s overall reliability as an assessment tool could drop. It remains to be seen how, if at all, schools will look at GRE scores differently in the future.

Q-Do these changes influence how you recommend students approach the tests, or which exam better matches them?

A- The changes do affect things somewhat. Even though the GRE remains largely the same, the GMAT Focus Edition has a different question mix than before. It depends on the individual student and their strengths and weaknesses. For example, if your weakness on the old GMAT was grammar skills, that might have been a deterrent. But those language skills are no longer tested there. Conversely, the GRE still has a very vocabulary-based focus. For people more concerned about their language skills, shifting toward the GMAT may be a better option. However, the GMAT Focus is now much heavier on data analysis. It has a whole counting section of data analysis that wasn’t there before. People worried about their data analytics skills or integrated reasoning might lean more toward the GRE than they otherwise would have.

Q- How do you advise students to prepare for these new, shorter exams?

A- How you prepare for the GRE is totally unchanged. ETS (the company that writes the GRE) has been very clear about that.

The GMAT Focus Edition answer is more interesting. GMAC definitely had the goal of reducing prep time. Many tutors agree that the most preparation-heavy section was sentence correction. Removing that from the test will significantly reduce student study time for the verbal side. On the math side, geometry has also been removed, further cutting into study time. However, these cuts are partially counterbalanced by the fact that now the data analysis counts. You had integrated reasoning before, but schools didn’t entirely know what to do with it. Students didn’t know how much it mattered since it didn’t factor into the primary score. So tutors rarely bothered to cover it, and students rarely spent much time working on it. But now it counts. So, everyone has to adjust and start working to improve on that. On the plus side, students may be able to prepare for this skill set more quickly since it’s familiar to many potential MBA applicants — it’s reading charts, graphs, and tables, looking at multiple short sources, and reasoning about them. Many of us do this sort of thing daily in our jobs. So the hope is that the net prep time goes down.

Q- One of the significant improvements of the GMAT Focus Edition is that you can now go back and change some of your answers. Can you explain the thinking behind that?

A- Even though it has an adaptive algorithm, the GMAT Focus Edition now allows students to go back at the end of the section, review as many questions as they want, and change up to three answers.

This is not meant to be a tool for “second-guessing” – literature shows that second guesses are worse on average than first guesses. Rather, GMAC intends this as a time-management tool to help students let go of the small number of questions they get totally stuck on and stubbornly cannot let go of – the 5- or 6-minute questions that kill people’s pacing. We’ve always told students, “Let those questions go and move on. And if you miss them, so be it. You’ll get it back later in the test.” But some students still have a problem moving on. Now it’s even an easier sell to say, “Look, if you’re really struggling with a question and you’re starting to take too long, just let it go. Move on; pick an answer – any answer. And at the end of the section, if time permits, just go back and get an answer at that point.” According to GMAC, “This is expected to greatly reduce the anxiety level” of students.

Oh, and by the way, note that there’s no point thinking, “Oh, I’m going to miss the first three on purpose to get easy questions and just go back and fix them later.” That won’t work — they’ve tested it out and made sure.
Stacy Blackman Consulting’s Podcast, B-Schooled, is hosted by Erika Olson, Harvard MBA and Chandler Arnold, Stanford GSB MBA. B-Schooled now has more than a quarter million downloads and 200+ episodes. Search and sort through our 200 B-Schooled podcasts.


Stacy Blackman is the founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting (SBC). We are the only consulting firm in the industry that has a complete panel of former MBA Admissions Officers from the top US and European MBA programs. SBC holds the #1 ranking on MBAinsight, CollegeConsensus, ClearAdmit, BeattheGMAT, ExamStrategist and we are  #1 out of 11 firms for the presence on our SBC team of former MBA Admissions Officers by PoetsandQuants.  Sign up for SBC’s E-Newsletter for valuable insider intel culled from the former MBA Admissions Officers on our team and real-time learnings: stacyblackman.com/newsletter  Request a free MBA Advising Session call: stacyblackman.com.