GMAT scores

7 reasons why your practice test scores don’t match your actual GMAT scores

One of the most painful things in the GMAT world is a massive test-day letdown. If you spend time on any of the GMAT forums, you’ll see tons of anguished posts that share a similar trait: a huge discrepancy between test-takers’ practice test scores and their actual GMAT scores.

In the geeky spirit of GMAT CR, our goal in this article is to help you resolve that discrepancy. So here are seven reasons why your test-day scores might be lower than your practice test scores:

Reason #1: you’ve been taking inaccurate, non-official tests

If you're a regular reader of our little GMAT blog, you've heard this story before: the GMAT spends somewhere between $1500 and $3000 developing every official test question, and even the best test-prep companies can’t possibly compete with that.

Of course, it’s even harder for test-prep companies to combine those (inevitably somewhat flawed) questions into a realistic practice test. For example, test-prep companies struggle to mimic the GMAT's use of experimental questions, or the exact mix of, say, geometry and probability questions.

To make things worse, if you’ve relied heavily on the materials written by a particular test-prep company, then you’ll probably do disproportionately well on that company’s practice exams. It stands to reason that the methods taught by Company X would be more effective on the questions written by that same company.

Sure, some of the higher-quality “knockoff” tests can still be good practice, at least for quant. But you’ll always want to take the scores with a huge grain of salt, and if you’re relying particularly heavily on one company’s GMAT practice tests, then you might want to be especially skeptical of those results.

Reason #2: you’re repeating the GMATPrep practice tests

In a perfect world, we’d all rely exclusively on official GMATPrep tests. The problem, of course, is that the GMATPrep software only offers six adaptive exams, and that might not be enough for you. (Check out this article for an inexpensive way to stretch your supply of semi-official tests.)

Plenty of people choose to retake the GMATPrep exams, and that’s not a bad idea: you’ll always learn something from the GMATPrep tests, and you’ll always see at least some new questions. The only problem is that you’ll also see some familiar questions, and that will bias your score upwards.

Whenever I say that, I hear the same objection: “Yeah, but I don't really remember the questions, so the scores are probably accurate, right?” Sorry, but no. Even if you don’t consciously remember the questions, you’ll be able to answer them much, much faster if you’ve seen them before. Try reading a novel that you read 10 years ago, but don’t consciously remember. I promise that you’ll read it much faster – and you’ll absorb much more detail – than you did the first time around.

The bottom line: even a few repeated questions can completely change your experience on the GMATPrep tests, because you’ll feel less time-pressured, and your score will certainly inflate at least a little bit.

So please be really, really thoughtful about how you use those GMATPrep tests. If you need to repeat them, that’s OK – but don’t trick yourself into thinking that your scores on repeated GMATPrep tests are accurate. Because they probably aren’t.

Reason #3: you’re repeating the GMATPrep questions

This one is sneaky: if you're a regular consumer of questions from the GMAT forums or other free sources, there’s a very good chance that you’re inflating your GMAT scores every day, without even noticing.

The internet is filled with official GMAT questions from all sorts of sources – including the GMATPrep exams. And even if you don’t repeat the GMATPrep tests themselves, your scores will also be inflated if you’ve seen the questions somewhere online.

So if you’re using one of the GMAT forums such as GMAT Club (which features two stunningly beautiful competent verbal forum experts), keep a close eye on the question tags. If you notice that a question comes from the GMATPrep tests, you might want to skip it, unless you've already thoroughly exhausted the GMATPrep exams.

Reason #4: all test-prep materials are based on GMATPrep questions

You’re not going to like this one.

When test-prep companies develop their own resources – guides, practice tests, practice questions – we have to draw inspiration from official GMAT sources. And since the GMATPrep tests are the closest thing to actual GMAT exams, we have to rely particularly heavily on the GMATPrep tests.

So there’s no way around it: every test-prep company writes their own “knockoffs” of GMATPrep questions. The best GMAT test-prep companies will artfully make their versions look drastically different from the originals; the lazier firms will just swap out a few details.

So if you’re ever had the feeling that the actual GMAT exam “feels weird” compared to the GMATPrep tests, this is one potential reason: you’ve seen tons of questions that resemble the GMATPrep questions, before you ever even touch the GMATPrep software. If this is the case for you, the GMAT questions on your actual exam might feel strange – and your score might drop as a result.

Reason #5: you’re fundamentally inconsistent

You won’t like this story very much, either.

I recently received an inquiry from a long-suffering GMAT test-taker who couldn’t figure out why his actual GMAT scores -- ranging from 580 to 640 on six attempts -- were so much lower than his “best GMATPrep test score of 720.”

Well, here are the scores from his first attempt at each of the GMATPrep exams:

  • GMATPrep #1: 620

  • GMATPrep #2: 720

  • GMATPrep #3: 580

  • GMATPrep #4: 660

  • GMATPrep #5: 590

  • GMATPrep #6: 600

When you average these six scores, you get 630 – and that’s really close to his top score on the actual exam.

So there are two takeaways here. First, don’t trick yourself into thinking that your best score is somehow your “real score.” Based on his GMATPrep scores, this test-taker should have expected to score in the low 600s – and that’s pretty much what happened. Praying for “a good test day” is never a winning strategy on the GMAT, and that’s basically what he was doing, without realizing it.

More importantly, these test scores clearly belong to a wildly inconsistent test-taker, and that’s a huge problem. The key to the GMAT isn’t cramming tons of knowledge into your head; it’s figuring out how to apply CONSISTENT techniques and reasoning habits every single time you see a particular type of question.

If your GMATPrep test scores are all over the place, they’re trying to tell you something: you fundamentally lack consistency and you’re applying different techniques at different moments, depending on your mood or the direction of the wind. Until your performance is consistent, there’s no reason to expect a great GMAT score – and it shouldn’t surprise you if your test-day performance is much lower than your best GMATPrep practice tests.

So be honest with yourself: until your practice results are CONSISTENTLY in your target range, it’s unlikely that you’ll earn the score you want on the actual GMAT.

Reason #6: you’re fatigued on test day

In a perfect world, you’ll feel exactly the same in the GMAT exam room as you do when you’re taking a GMATPrep exam in the comfort of your own home. But that’s not realistic: you’ll likely be amped on your test day, and your adrenaline will probably be flowing.

And maybe you’ll run out of gas as a result of all of that excitement. Every once in a while, I hear from somebody who simply got fatigued at the end of their exam – particularly if they chose the “conventional” section order, with verbal at the very end.

If fatigue was an issue for you on test day, maybe you need to do more full practice tests, or it might help to practice with some extra-hard LSAT materials, just to build up your stamina. Or maybe more sleep or a better test-day diet would help. Or you could always choose a different section order, so that the least-important sections come at the end of your exam. But test-day fatigue is definitely a very fixable problem.

Reason #7: you’re nervous

This is the elephant in the room: most people get a little bit nervous when they’re taking a high-stakes test like the GMAT. And some people – perhaps around 20%, according to studies conducted here in the United States – get so nervous that their cognitive functions are impaired.

A full discussion of test anxiety could easily fill an entire book, so I won’t say much about it here. But if your GMAT scores suddenly drop on test day, there’s a pretty good chance that nerves are playing a role – even if you aren’t consciously jittery.

If this is the case for you, you might consider trying some of the techniques mentioned in this article or this article or this article. But whatever you do, don’t sweep your test-day anxiety under the rug, and pretend that it didn’t happen. Be honest with yourself – or else you’ll have zero chance of overcoming the problem. 

Still not sure what happened? Get your ESR.

I’m a little bit cynical about the motivations behind the GMAT’s ever-increasing menu of products, but if you’re not sure why your real GMAT score was so low, the GMAT Enhanced Score Report (ESR) is probably worth the price ($24.95). And even if you’ve already canceled the score, GMAC will happily sell you an ESR.

The ESR can’t tell you everything, but it can give you some idea of what happened. For example, the ESR might tell you that you made a bunch of mistakes on easy questions, or that your time management was erratic. Or maybe it’ll tell you that you had a meltdown on one specific question type.

Of course, the ESR can’t tell you why you made those mistakes. But it can at least point you in the right direction if you’re not sure which of our seven reasons explains why your score dropped on test day.

And if you need advice, feel free to leave a comment below, and we'll do our best to help.

 

Why Adderall, Ritalin, and other PEDs won’t help your GMAT score

  If you attended an undergraduate program in the United States, you probably know that academic performance-enhancing drugs (let’s call them academic PEDs for short) are a mainstay among university students. I know dozens of students who have popped a few pills – typically ADD medications such as Adderall or Ritalin, obtained through a friend, a law-bending physician, or a black-market dealer – to help them focus while studying.

These drugs are basically legal versions of amphetamines (though their “off-label” use without a prescription is, of course, illegal) that can provide energy and help you hyper-focus while you cram for a test or write a paper. Sounds great, right?

(And just to be clear: I’m NOT talking about anybody who has an actual prescription because of a diagnosed medical condition. I’m referring to off-label use only – and there are plenty of reasons why such use is dangerous, but that’s another story for a different, non-GMAT blog.)

Anyway, I’m not here to moralize about drug use – after all, I guzzled many gallons of performance-enhancing bourbon during my years as a bartender. I’m just here to offer an honest answer to a frequently asked GMAT-related question: can academic PEDs like Adderall and Ritalin help you conquer the GMAT and GRE exams, assuming that you’re willing to ignore the potential health and legal consequences?

The short answer: I don’t think so.

First of all, the whole idea behind academic PEDs is that they help you hyper-focus. Imagine, for example, that you need to spend 14 hours memorizing organic chemistry formulas. Stimulants can help, at least in the short run. Gotta grind your way through some repetitive calculus problems? Well, that takes some short-term energy and focus, and academic PEDs might help with that, too.

But hyper-focusing is actually a bad thing if you’re trying to improve your GMAT score. The GMAT – especially the quant section – requires you to think logically through different solution paths, and then choose the best option. In general, if you’re hopped up on amphetamines, you’ll speedily pick the first solution path that comes to mind – even if it’s an inefficient path or a complete dead-end. Basically, academic PEDs cause cognitive tunnel-vision – and that’s a good way to ruin your GMAT score.

The second reason why I’m skeptical of academic PEDs is that a few of my students have used them while studying for the GMAT, and they haven’t had much success. In every case, my GMAT students were accustomed to taking Ritalin, Adderall, or a similar drug during their undergraduate studies – and in every case, the academic PEDs didn’t seem to help their GMAT prep. They would stubbornly obsess over unnecessary details of GMAT RC passages, crunch through dozens of lines of algebra when quicker solutions were available, and make score-destroying careless errors because they were moving too quickly.

In a different context, maybe the academic PEDs would have helped these very same students. But the GMAT requires a flexible mindset and a solid approach to time management. Drugs that cause you to energetically develop tunnel vision are exactly the wrong prescription for success on the GMAT.

So if you’re looking for quick fixes – well, you probably already know that you’ve come to the wrong GMAT tutor’s blog if you’re looking for gimmicky shortcuts. To be honest, if I thought that academic PEDs could help your GMAT score, I would (probably very quietly) admit it. But the truth is that they don’t seem to do much to improve your GMAT or GRE scores.

I do, however, have plenty to say about another GMAT performance-enhancing substance: food.

GRE vs. GMAT, part V: look Ma, no MBA rankings!

  In four earlier GMAT blog posts highlighting the differences between the GMAT and the GRE exams (you might want to start at the beginning of the GRE vs. GMAT series), I held back on one big factor: if you’re not a great standardized test-taker, then you should probably consider taking the GRE instead of the GMAT. Why? Because the GRE still isn’t included in MBA rankings schemes.

So let’s take a step back: why do MBA programs care about the GMAT and GRE tests in the first place? I’d argue that there are two major reasons. First, the original intent of the GRE and GMAT was to help graduate schools figure out whether applicants can handle graduate-level coursework – after all, undergraduate GPAs can be hard to trust. But over the past couple of decades, the tail has begun to wag the dog: MBA rankings have forced MBA admissions committees to “play the GMAT game”, and GMAT score averages have inflated to ridiculous levels.

This little GMAT blog already contains plenty of whinging about rising GMAT scores, but to be fair, let’s think about it from an MBA program’s point of view. Imagine that you’re on an MBA admissions committee, and you’re choosing between two candidates. Candidate A has a 720 GMAT, while Candidate B has a 750 GMAT. The two are otherwise similar, except that Candidate A is qualitatively a bit more appealing than Candidate B – more interesting MBA application essays, a sharper interview, and more convincingly effusive recommendations, but nothing quantifiable.

Would you blame the admissions committee for worrying about their MBA rankings and selecting Candidate B? I certainly wouldn’t, even though the two candidates’ 30-point GMAT score difference may be nothing more than measurement error. MBA rankings matter – a lot – whether we like it or not. “Candidate A is cooler” also matters, but in practice, that argument is almost always trumped by hard numbers.

But the GRE isn’t factored into MBA rankings – at least not yet. So if you submit a GRE score instead of a GMAT score, you’re effectively removing yourself from the GMAT/MBA rankings game.

Is that necessarily a good thing? Unfortunately, it depends. That Candidate B fellow, with a 750 GMAT? I’d call that guy “GMAT-positive” – he’ll almost certainly help an MBA program increase its GMAT score average, so swapping the GMAT for the GRE would be a mistake. The same would be true if your GMAT score is simply high for your demographic: if, for example, most applicants from your country or industry have lower GMAT scores than you do, then stick with the GMAT.

But if your GMAT score might be a liability in your MBA applications, then maybe the GRE is a good idea. I’m convinced that there’s always a little voice inside the adcom’s head, nervously babbling about average GMAT scores and MBA rankings. By taking the GRE instead of the GMAT, you can hush those voices, at least a little bit – and then maybe the adcom might be more attentive to how qualitatively cool you are in your sassy MBA admissions essays.

 

Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you’re not sure which test to take, call or email for more information… or try starting from the beginning of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT. And if you want some insights into what, exactly, a "good" GRE score might look like, check out GRE vs. GMAT, part VI.

 

Inflated GMAT scores... and deflated quant percentiles

  In the most-commented GMAT blog post I’ve ever written, I argued that the so-called “80th percentile rule” – the idea that top-tier MBA applicants need to score above the 80th percentile on both the GMAT quant and the GMAT verbal section – is mostly a myth.

Why? Well, the unfortunate truth is that GMAT quant scores have increased dramatically in recent years, and you’d now need to earn a 50 (!) on the GMAT quant section to score above the 80th percentile, according to the most recent GMAT data. Here, check this out:

From mba.com. http://www.mba.com/us/the-gmat-exam/gmat-exam-scoring/your-score-report/what-percentile-rankings-mean.aspx#tab4. Retrieved October 3, 2016.

Plenty of things are alarming here. When the GMAT score scale was originally designed, the average quant score was supposed to be 30. Now a quant score of 30 is just the 20th percentile (!!), and the mean GMAT quant score is a 39 – a whopping nine points higher than it “should be” if the GMAT score distribution were actually a bell curve, as originally intended.

Even worse: if you want to score above the 80th percentile, you’ll need a 50 on the quant section. Since a 50 is one heck of a high GMAT score (a 51, of course, is a perfect GMAT quant score), I would still argue that no MBA admissions person in their right minds should actually expect it of you. So if anything, the “80th percentile rule” is more of a myth than ever.

But here’s the part of my original GMAT blog post that may not be true anymore, just a few years later:

A 710/47Q/40V is still an outstanding score that eliminates all rational doubt about your academic abilities. For the vast majority of MBA applicants, a GMAT quant score in the 73rd percentile is enough to placate MBA admissions officers, and your odds of admission will depend almost entirely on other elements of your profile.

Let’s pull this apart a little bit. Would a 710/47Q/40V eliminate all rational doubt about your academic abilities? Yes, definitely. If you can get a GMAT score that high, there’s no good reason to question your ability to handle MBA-level coursework. But is that GMAT score enough to “placate MBA admissions officers”? Probably not anymore, depending on which MBA programs you're applying to -- and, of course, on the rest of your MBA profile.

Here’s the problem: GMAT score averages for top-tier MBA programs have continued to shoot through the roof in the past few years. At Kellogg, for example, average GMAT scores have risen from 712 to 728 in just six years. Stanford’s incoming class of 2018 had an average GMAT score of 737.

I’m sorry, but those GMAT scores are ridiculous. Clearly, the GMAT arms race has gotten absolutely out of control – and I say that as a test-prep tutor who profits from that very same GMAT arms race. It’s as if MBA admissions committees have zero understanding of how standardized tests such as the GMAT actually work: the GMAT’s creators would tell you that the difference between a 710 and a 740 may be nothing more than measurement error.

And that’s before we get into the fact that there’s little evidence that the GMAT is predictive of post-MBA success. But that's another topic entirely.

To be fair, I can’t blame MBA admissions committees for allowing GMAT score averages to spiral upward. Frankly, it’s much quicker and easier for admissions committees to whittle down a stack of applications based on GMAT scores than it is to ponder the non-quantitative aspects of each MBA applicant’s profile. Plus, MBA programs are forced to play the rankings game – and average GMAT scores are part of those MBA rankings, whether we like it or not.

Unsurprisingly, MBA admissions consultants are advising their clients to chase GMAT scores in the mid-700s – and applicants to elite MBA programs are working harder than ever to raise their GMAT scores. It’s a vicious cycle, and I’d bet that GMAT scores will continue to creep upward.

In any case, if you’re reading this little GMAT blog, you probably can’t do a damned thing about the way things work: you probably just want to get into a good MBA program. So what should you do if an MBA admissions consultant – or worse, an MBA admissions committee member – tells you that you need a GMAT score in the mid-700s?

Well, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone. And if you think it’s unreasonable that you might need a 750 on the GMAT exam, take solace in the fact that you’re probably right.

And then join the rest of the herd. If you have a profile that will allow you to get away with a lower GMAT score, then consider yourself lucky. But if you’re like most people, all you can do is work as hard – and as smart – as you can for as long as you can.

And if you’re already scoring in the low-to-mid 700s but don’t have time to continue studying, maybe it’s worth taking an extra couple of shots at the GMAT, just to see if dumb luck (or measurement error, if you want to be technical about it) might hand you an extra few points next time around. And if you're a really long way from the GMAT score you want, then maybe it's time to think about the GRE -- but that's another topic entirely.

Then, please graduate from your top MBA program, become a bigshot in the MBA world, and change the way that the GMAT is handled by MBA admissions committees – because I think that the GMAT arms race encourages even more great business talents to slip through the MBA cracks.