GMAT Tip of the Week: Why You Should Care That the GMAT Is Computer-Adaptive

If you’ve spent more than ten minutes researching the GMAT, you probably know that it’s a computer-adaptive test (CAT). As the name suggests, the GMAT is administered via computer, and it adapts to you based on how you do on each question. By “adapts,” we mean that it decides what question to show you next based on how you’ve done on your previous questions. At any given point in the exam, the test has a best guess as to your ability level, and it keeps serving questions to try to get an even more accurate read on you.

A more simplistic way to phrase that last statement would be: “Get a question right, and the next question gets harder.” But what’s “harder” to one person may not be for another person. The GMAT has a humongous (that’s the technical term) bank of questions, and each one is effective teasing out differences among test takers around a certain ability level. A given question might be too basic to tease out the difference between 700- and 750-level test takers, while another might be too advanced to tell apart 580- and 630-level test takers. When we say that a question is “easier” or “harder” than the last, that’s what we mean.

Why does all of this matter to you? There are three ways in which the test’s computer-adaptive nature should influence your GMAT preparation:

An “I’ll solve this problem if it takes all day” mindset is punished on the GMAT.
Because you will see so many hard questions when you are performing well, you cannot get bogged down on any one question. If you are completely stumped after 90 seconds, it is a good idea to logically guess on a question. Learning when to dig in your heels and spend extra time on a question and when to give up is a fundamentally important decision on computer-adaptive tests.

You will not spend the same amount of time on every question.
The average time per question is approximately two minutes, but it’s just that: an average. There are some questions you will be able to answer in 30 seconds and there are others that will require three minutes. If you are going to spend more than three minutes on a problem, be fairly certain that you are going to get an answer. The worst thing that you can do on this test is spend four minutes on a question and then still guess.

Your floor is more important than your ceiling.
In your pursuit of a high score, you will naturally be drawn to the toughest questions, but by only focusing on these you risk leaving fundamental flaws in your preparation that can lead to a leaky floor, so to speak, on the exam. If you miss questions that you should answer correctly, you dig yourself a hole; the next question is then even easier, and it takes multiple questions to get back to the level at which you should have been. Do not neglect fundamentals, and be certain to double-check common mistakes that you tend to make to ensure that you don’t give back questions that should be yours. “False positives” on the GMAT are a gift — you can accidentally get questions right or narrow down hard questions to a higher-percentage guess — but “false negatives” (wrong answers that you should have gotten right) can add up and begin to weigh you down.

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