As the adage goes, practice doesn’t make perfect: Perfect practice makes perfect. Though GMAT practice tests fail to reproduce the exact difficulty and experience of the real exam — and thus fall short of “perfect” GMAT practice — implementing them correctly into your study plan can save you from wasting time and effort.
In a previous post, we discussed the pros and cons of practice tests, noting both their inherent inaccuracies and their best uses for GMAT preparation. Practice tests can help identify your strengths and weaknesses on the exam and introduce you to the timing and duration of the exam. Follow these tips below to further optimize studying with practice tests.
Taking a practice test near the beginning of your preparation will help you to orient the rest of your studying. An initial test will identify which sections you do best on and which you struggle on. This information should structure what you spend time studying as you strategically work to improve weaknesses in order to achieve your goal score.
Knowing every concept, math problem and vocabulary word on the GMAT will mean nothing if you don’t have the mental stamina to pay attention for the duration of the test. When your focus falters, you make careless errors, which result in a lower score that doesn’t accurately reflect your ability.
Focus, like a physical skill, can be learned through practice, and practice tests are the workouts that build focus. However, this only works if you treat practice tests as if your actual score is on the line. Make practice tests as real as possible in order to simulate what you’ll go through on the test day, so take the allotted breaks, and nothing more, and do the essay section.
The GMAT uses an algorithm to sequence questions as you progress through the test. Generally, if you select the correct answers for a few questions, the next questions will increase in difficulty. This adaptive feature factors in to the score you ultimately receive, and it’s not easily replicated. A non-adaptive test will do little to prepare you for the actual experience of taking the GMAT.
The algorithms of most practice tests differ significantly from the GMAT’s actual testing algorithm, which makes it difficult for practice tests to accurately predict what your score would be on the real exam. In addition, your test results on the real GMAT are variable — what you score one day will differ from what you score on another day. Given all this, it’s best to take practice test scores with a grain of salt.
Use your scores on practice tests to give you an idea of the range that your actual score will fall in. So if you score 520 on one test, 610 on another and 590 on a third test, you can reasonably expect your actual test score to fall somewhere in the range of 520 to 610.
Some practice tests have known biases. For example, Kaplan’s practice tests are known to be “harder” than the actual GMAT, so a lower than expected score with one of these tests may be less of a worry. The official practice tests available from mba.com, the maker of the GMAT, are generally more accurate; however, it’s important to remember that all tests will vary. Being aware of the bias of a test can help you gain a better idea of how close you are to your goals.
Take practice tests to get an idea of where you stand compared to your goals, to measure your improvement and to condition yourself to testing conditions. Taking any more practice tests than needed to fulfill these goals can waste valuable study time as further explained in the next tip.
Many GMAT students fall into a trap thinking that the more tests they take, the better they’ll do on the exam. This logic falls through when testers focus more on practice tests than on improving their knowledge of the concepts behind the GMAT.
If you struggled on the Quantitative section, the way to improve in this section is not to take practice tests but to identify and then practice the specific type of questions you struggled on by studying the concepts and then meticulously going over practice questions. Practice tests are about applying what you know under test conditions and not learning new material.
As mentioned in tip six, one use of practice tests is to gauge your improvement. With the GMAT approaching, it’s helpful to see that all your studying has made a difference. The purpose of a final one or two practice tests is to fine-tune your focus for the real thing.
When you take four hours out of your day to complete a practice test, you might as well get the most out of it. Practice tests provide useful feedback, but it’s up to you to best apply this feedback.
In addition to seeing what questions you got wrong, ask yourself why this may have happended: Was it fatigue, a silly mistake, a difficult question or unfamiliarity with a concept? Identifying the causes behind the errors on a practice test will optimize how you study.
Mastering the GMAT is more about recognizing the common types of questions it uses and remembering the strategies to tackle these questions than it is about being the foremost expert on every subject it covers. In other words, you need to be able to see patterns in the questions and identify what is being tested.
This is often accomplished by thrououghly studying practice questions. Practice tests are an opportunity to hone this pattern-recognition ability in real time as you’ll have to do when taking the actual exam.