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GMAT History: How the GMAT has Changed Since the Old Days

Posted in Test Prep on October 26, 2010 by

Thanks to a recent GMAT question archiving project, I had the opportunity to take a trip down GMAT memory lane. The things I uncovered about older GMAT questions were amusing — but they also illuminated how much the exam has evolved since it’s inception.

How would you have done on the GMAT of thirty years ago?


To start, you’d have to get used to some pretty uncomfortable terminology. Did you know that GMAT RC passages once used phrases like “Oriental Jews”? Terms like these seem hilariously antiquated now, but at the time they actually made the test more difficult to navigate. If you were one of the ethnic groups problematically singled out for discussion, don’t you think it would a little tough to stay focused on your reading?

The language has gradually become more politically correct over time. Some time in the late 90’s, the word “Black” was swapped out of all Reading Comprehension passages and replaced with “African Americans.” Similarly “Oriental” became “Asian” at some point in the 80’s.


What surprised me most about the reading passages was how much more controversial they used to be. Anyone who’s ever sampled the passages from an official guide is well aware of their anesthetic effect; to call them “bland” is an understatement. Yet I found a passage in the 1980 guide about the lightning-rod African-American poet Amiri Baraka, who advocated war against whites. Another passage from a few years later argues for socialism.

While these older passages were a bit more unpredictable, this actually made them more engaging and interesting to read. The passages about workplace sexism and affirmative action were refreshingly candid compared to the insipid, neutral fare foisted upon GMAT examinees today. Even the CR arguments were more interesting, as the test-writers frequently discussed controversial political issues and personalized them with fanciful names like “Mr. Primm.”


The subject matter of the reading and reasoning sections is not the only major difference between the GMAT of today and of yesteryear. You may be intrigued to hear that the Critical Reasoning section replaced an earlier question type. It was called Analysis of Situations and it was BRUTAL.

These questions presented you with passages that were four times as long as those found in the RC section. We’re talking around 1200 – 1600 words. After slogging through it, you were charged with assessing the relative importance of certain passage details as they relate to some sort of business decision. The answer choices corresponded to passage details. You would mark A if the detail was an “objective” or mark E if the detail was an “unimportant issue.” B, C, and D, were for “major factors,” “minor factors,” and “assumptions” respectively. You could expect about sixteen questions, or, sixteen statements for each passage.

The length of the passage and the specificity of each detail you were asked to analyze really added to the unforgiving nature of this question type. Still, it struck me as a good test for an aspiring MBA. Business school students regularly have to analyze complicated situations and sift through a lot of irrelevant information. Regardless, GMAT students today should probably be glad that these analysis questions were replaced with the more concise, easier-to-manage CR problems.

Sort of makes you wonder what the GMAT will look like 30 years from now…