If business school is in your future, the GMAT probably is too. Nearly 90 percent of enrollments in the top 50 full-time MBA programs in the United States use a GMAT score as part of the admissions process, according to the group administering the test.

Standing for "Graduate Management Admission Test," this exam has long been considered the standard for those applying to business schools and pursuing a Master of Business Administration (MBA). One reason the test is so highly regarded is because it was created by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), a nonprofit group of business schools.

The GMAT is not the only admissions exam used by graduate and business schools. The GRE is another popular option. However, the following may be reasons to choose the GMAT:

Once you've decided the GMAT is right for you, it's time to get prepared. In this Ultimate Guide to the GMAT, you'll find detailed information about the exam contents, how to study, and strategies for a successful test day.

What is the GMAT?

The GMAT differs from many of the other tests a graduate student may take.

First, it is a computer adaptive test. That means the exam adjusts its questions based upon previous answers. If a test-taker is answering correctly, the exam progresses to more complex problems. If a person is selecting incorrect answers, it displays less difficult questions. An algorithm takes these adjustments into account when scoring the exam.

Next, the Graduate Management Admission Test is designed to evaluate higher-level skills. Rather than quiz for basic knowledge, the GMAC created the test to look at the skills required by business schools:

To do that, the GMAT is broken down into four sections, each of which uses a variety of question types. Here's what to expect in each section.

Section One: Analytical Writing Assessment

As its name suggests, the Analytical Writing Assessment -- or AWA -- is the writing portion of the GMAT exam. Students have 30 minutes to review an argument, analyze its reasoning and provide a critique.

The topics provided in this section are often one-paragraph descriptions of a business problem and a possible solution. Completed essays are scored based on the overall quality of the ideas presented as well as their organization and development, supporting reasons, and use of the English language.

Scores for the AWA range from 0-6 in half point intervals. Each essay is scored twice, and those scores are averaged. One score may be made by an automated scoring engine. If the two scores differ by more than a point, an expert reader provides an additional evaluation.

Section Two: Integrated Reasoning

The Integrated Reasoning section gives students 30 minutes to answer 12 questions. Test-takers are asked to complete questions that make use of charts, tables and other forms of data. There may be several questions for one data set or multiple answers required for a single problem. In this section, the GMAT is looking for a person's ability to:

Scores for Integrated Reasoning range from 1-8 in single point intervals. Partial credit is not given if all answers in a multi-part question are not correct.

Section Three: Quantitative

As the math portion of the GMAT, the Quantitative -- or Quant -- section doesn't require anything beyond what is typically taught in secondary school. While there are problem-solving questions that use basic math, students also encounter ones for data sufficiency.

Data sufficiency problems are intended to measure someone's ability to reason and interpret data. Each problem asks a question and then lists two statements. Test-takers are asked to determine whether the information provided in one, both or neither statement is sufficient to answer the question.

There are 37 Quantitative questions, and 75 minutes is provided to complete them. Scores range from 0-60, with those from 7-50 being most common. Unanswered questions can decrease your score significantly.

Section Four: Verbal

Verbal questions comprise the final section of the GMAT. This section includes three types of problems:

In total, there are 41 Verbal questions, and 75 minutes allotted to complete them. Scores for the section range from 0-60, with 9-44 being most common. Questions not answered can reduce a score.

In addition to scores for each section, the GMAT awards a total score that combines both the Verbal and Quant sections. This score ranges from 200-800, and the GMAC says two-thirds of scores fall between 400-600.

How to Prepare for the GMAT

Like other standardized tests, one of the better ways to prepare for the GMAT is to practice sample tests and problems. Since the exam questions are often complex and include multiple parts, it's important to become familiar with their format in advance.

The GMAC recommends people begin preparing six months before they expect to take the exam. However, if you want to start graduate school earlier, some test prep courses can have you ready in three months. Either way, plan to spend about 80-100 hours studying for the exam.

GMAT test prep courses can be expensive, though. If you're looking for free resources to prepare for the exam, try the following:

You may prefer to study alone, with a partner, or in a group, but regardless of how you learn best, these three tips can help you confidently prepare for the GMAT.

Where and When to Take the GMAT

The GMAT exam is offered at testing centers globally, and many metro areas have multiple testing sites. It costs $250 to take the test, and that is paid at the time of scheduling.

You can schedule your test up to 6 months in advance, but registrations are taken up until the day before a test. If you schedule far in advance, be aware there is a $60 fee to reschedule if you do so more than week before your exam date. If you try to reschedule within seven days of your appointment time, you'll need to pay $250 to do so.

Official scores are generally available within 20 days of testing, so you could take the test only a month before applying to graduate school. However, since GMAT scores are valid for five years, it might be better to schedule the test a year in advance of when you plan to begin business school. That should give you enough time to do additional studying and retake the test if your initial score isn't what you hoped.

Getting Ready for Test Day

Before the big day arrives, try to visit your testing site to become familiar with its location. The GMAT website also has a video tour of a testing facility that can help you understand what to expect on your exam day.

On the day of your exam, arrive at the testing center 30 minutes in advance of your scheduled time. You'll need to go through a check-in process that includes identification verification, a digital photograph and a palm scan. If you arrive more than 15 minutes after your exam time, you may not be allowed to take the GMAT and you could forfeit the testing fee.

You should bring with you:

Food, drinks, friends and other personal items are not allowed in the testing room. There are usually a limited number of lockers available at the site where you can store purses, bags, phones and other items. Weapons are not allowed on-site and cannot be stored in lockers.

Plan to be at the testing site for 4 hours, although only 3.5 hours will be spent actually testing. Each person is provided a private computer workstation, but these may be subject to audio and video surveillance. Test-takers can choose from three options to customize the order in which they complete the test sections. Each option provides two short breaks.

What Happens After You Take the GMAT

Once you're done with the test, you'll be immediately presented with unofficial scores for the Verbal, Quantitative and Integrated Reasoning sections. The Analytical Writing Assessment score will be provided within 20 days.

If you're unhappy with your score, you can cancel it immediately. There is no cost to do so at the testing site. If you decide later you'd like to cancel the score, you may do so within 72 hours by paying a $25 cancellation fee. Cancelled scores cannot be viewed from home and are not reported or otherwise indicated on GMAT reports to schools.

You can retake the test after 16 days but are limited to 5 tests per rolling 12-month period. Plus, there is a lifetime total of 8 GMAT tests allowed.

If you're happy with your score, it can be sent to up to five schools you select. Then, it will hopefully be just a short time later when you get the acceptance letter from the business school of your dreams. MBA, here you come! Check out our financial aid section for tips on how to pay.