GMAT Tip: Scoring Fact vs. Fiction

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The GMAT Tip of the Week is a weekly column that includes advice on taking the Graduate Management Admission Test, which is required for admission to most business schools. Every week an instructor from a top test-prep company will share suggestions for improving your GMAT score. This week’s tip comes from Mike McGarry, lead GMAT content creator at Magoosh.

The GMAT uses computer adaptive testing (CAT). This means that as you take the test, the computer is involved in a vastly complicated algorithm as it tries to determine your abilities.

Imagine we play 20 questions: I’m thinking of a day in the 20th century, and you have to determine it by asking a yes/no question. Is it before 1950? It is after 1970? With enough yes/no questions, you can home in on any single day in the 20th century.

The GMAT does something similar but asks math and verbal questions instead. Then it immediately determines if the test-taker got the question right or wrong. That’s the “yes” and “no” of the “20 questions” game the CAT is playing. If the test-taker got the question right, it edges toward harder questions, and vice-versa. The algorithm is not so simple, though: A right answer is not always followed by a harder question and a wrong answer is not always followed by an easy question. Human ability is hard to measure. Clueless people guess—sometimes correctly; bright folks misread and make silly mistakes; and so forth.

Let’s look at two crucial facts, as well as some common myths about GMAT scoring:

Fact: If you have gotten several “medium” questions right, you will tend to get a mix of harder questions. If it seems you are getting one difficult question after another, that’s a good sign for your score.

Fact: Not finishing all the questions in a section hurts your score.

Fiction: “The first question is super-important.” False. The first question is no more or less important than any other question.

Fiction: “If I suddenly get a very easy question, it means I got the last question wrong.” That’s false. First, it may seem easy to you, while not being objectively easy. More to the point, the CAT algorithm is doing several things at once, so no conclusion can be drawn from a single question.

Fiction: “You can out-think the CAT.” False. You can’t, because the algorithm is far too complex. There’s no sense stressing about “how did I do on those questions?” or “why is it asking this kind of question now?” Just do your best on the question in front of you at any moment, submit it, forget about that question entirely, and move on to the next one.

Mike McGarry scored in the 99th percentile on the GMAT. He is an expert in standardized test preparation, and has been a teacher for over 20 years. McGarry earned both a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in comparative religion from Harvard University.

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