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.