GMAT Tip: Adapting to a Computer-Adaptive Test

GMAT test-takers must choose between spending time on difficult questions or guessing, which leaves time for questions later in the test Photograph by Eric O'Connell/Gallery Stock

This tip on improving your GMAT score was provided by Brian Galvin at Veritas Prep.

As you take a computer-adaptive test like the GMAT (or GRE), you’ll likely need to adjust the strategies you used on paper tests such as the ACT or SAT. Because the GMAT adapts to your ability level, serving you questions based on how you answered previous questions:

•  You cannot return to questions you’ve seen previously; you must answer each question as it comes—and once you’re done, it’s gone.

•  You cannot save difficult questions for later and return.

•  Pacing is extremely important. The GMAT imposes a steep penalty if you leave more than a question or two unanswered, and there’s no opportunity to bubble in a few answers quickly while the proctor collects paper. Once the allotted time is up, the section is closed.

Because of all this, the GMAT requires some strategic thinking for most test-takers. Since the questions get harder the better you’re doing, everyone is challenged throughout the test, and most examinees face some time pressure on at least one section.

As you plan your pacing strategy, it’s important to understand that missing questions below your ability level punishes you more than correctly answering questions above your ability level rewards you.

Many test-takers spend a disproportionate amount of their study time working on the hardest questions they can find and write off a lot of their practice test mistakes as “silly mistake—I knew that.” But on test day, those silly mistakes are score killers. When you answer an easier question incorrectly, the system feeds you an even easier question and reduces its estimate of your ability. In making a silly mistake, you’ve dug yourself a hole—it will now take a few correct answers to counterbalance that, and you’re on relatively thin ice as another silly mistake while you’re digging your way back out can send you slipping down that much farther in the computer’s eyes.

On the flip side, when you scrape, claw, and use a disproportionate amount of time to get an incredibly difficult question right, two things happen. One, the computer has to account for the fact that, in a multiple-choice test, there’s a 20 percent chance you just guessed right. So it won’t necessarily see that question as solid evidence that your ability level is that high. And two, the system will then serve you an even harder question, further reducing your chances of getting it right and presenting you with a pacing dilemma: How much time do you spend on that question, potentially at the expense of later questions?

Of course, you should take pride in getting difficult questions right, but it’s important that you consider the possible expense. If you invest undue time on a few difficult questions, the test will still eventually “figure you out” as you run short of time on later questions or simply crumble as you continue to face challenging questions. Whether you’re rushing on easier problems earlier in the test to save time for harder problems, or just running out of time later in the test, if you’re rushing on easier problems and making “silly mistakes” on them, you’re likely crippling your score.

So what’s your strategy to adapt to the challenges of computer-adaptive testing?

•  Don’t simply write off “silly mistakes” as silly mistakes in practice. Address those mistakes, which are likely to recur under the time and test-day pressure that you’ll face on the exam.

•  Know your probable pace and plan accordingly. If you’re consistently rushing to meet the time limit in a section, that haste will probably lead to silly mistakes on questions toward the bottom of your ability level. If you think that will be the case, plan to guess two to three times when a question immediately looks difficult and allocate that time over the rest of the test, giving yourself the time you need to avoid those mistakes.

•  Don’t be stubborn. Don’t win the battle but lose the war. Everyone misses multiple questions—the key is to answer all the questions correctly near your “floor” and correctly answer enough of the questions toward your “ceiling” so that you maximize your score. Don’t let one or two hard questions ruin your entire exam. If you’ve been working for 75 to 90 seconds and don’t see the finish line, let it go and save the time to ensure you correctly answer the next few questions.

Brian Galvin has studied the GMAT full time since 2006 as the director of academic programs for Veritas Prep. He received a masters in education from the University of Michigan and is the proud owner of a 99th percentile GMAT score.

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