GMAT Tip of the Week: Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda – How To Analyze Your Practice Test Results

So you’ve taken a practice test and want to know how to use it to improve. You’re not alone, but actually you’re a step ahead of much of the competition! Read the various GMAT forums and you’ll see a lot of data dumps:

On my most recent CATs I scored 640, 610, 630, 580, and 620. What must I do to score 750+ for H/S/W???? Please Help!

Particularly if you’ve taken reputable tests (we recommend GMATPrep and, naturally, the Next-Generation Veritas Prep exams, both types being scored using Item Response Theory) the scores can be quite helpful in gauging whether you’re near the range you’d like to score in on test day. But think about other scored or timed pursuits: Michael Phelps didn’t become a great swimmer by simply looking at the clock at the end of each race, but rather by analyzing his stroke, his aerodynamics (or I guess hydrodynamics), his conditioning, etc. Similarly, the best use of your practice tests isn’t as a gauge of your score, but rather as evidence of why your score is approximately what it is. To capitalize on that information, it’s important that you analyze your results so that you can prioritize your study. Here’s how:

1) Never take a practice test without analyzing its results.

There’s flawed conventional “wisdom” that simply taking practice tests will improve your score. But real improvement comes between those tests, when you’re reviewing the results and considering what they tell you. Did you miss several questions of the same type? Did you mismanage your pacing? Did you fall into common traps and make silly mistakes? Doing the tests helps – it builds stamina and familiarity with the interface and exposes you to dozens of practice problems under real conditions – but analyzing the tests helps you to learn from your mistakes. Once you’ve seen your mistakes or determined your weaknesses, you can use the next few study sessions to address them – revieiwing skills you missed, drilling problems of those types under timed conditions, creating mental checklists to avoid the same mistakes, etc.

2) Prioritize your study sessions by categorizing mistakes.

This is critical – many people will simply look at their problems and say “I missed X geometry questions, Y sentence corrections, etc.” but remember that not all questions are created equally! Were the questions you missed easy or hard? Did you miss them because of silly mistakes or because you just didn’t know what to do? One way to prioritize your study is to divide your mistakes into categories:

Should Get Right – these are the questions that should hurt the most; you knew what you were doing but made a silly mistake or dove hard for the trap answer or completely blanked on something you’d ordinarily remember. These are your top priorities – don’t write them off as “silly mistakes,” but instead come up with a plan to avoid those mistakes. See if these come up in families (“answered the wrong question” vs. “calculation mistake” vs. “made an assumption” etc.) and if they do make it an even more critical plan to have a reminder on test day to slow down and double check. These problems are probably holding you back the most, since “shoulda” questions are in your CAT scoring wheelhouse and missing them lowers your score significantly.

Could Get Right – these problems aren’t silly mistakes, but you know that the concepts aren’t beyond you. You could invest a little more time in practice to make them strengths, so you should carve out some study time and consult a few study resources (like maybe our YouTube channel) to build those iffy concepts or question types into strengths.

Probably Wouldn’t Get Right Anytime Soon – These are the problems you save for later. Anything that you stare at and say “I don’t even…” – these are probably problems that would waste your study time and your test day time. And that’s okay, at least for now – until you can comfortably get problems around your ability level or a little higher correct, these problems well beyond you won’t impact your score much at all. Think about it – getting a monster question right in a CAT test means you get an even scarier question next, and that one will take even longer. You need to shore up your floor before you shoot for the ceiling. Which isn’t to say you’ll never get these, just that they’re not your top priority right now. Since much GMAT study is incremental – harder probability questions require you to be good with algebra and factors/multiples, for example – while you’re shoring up that floor you’re already building toward these, too.

3) Focus on Why – Not Just What

People love to give themselves surface information (think of those Buzzfeed “Which _________ Are You?” quizzes – they’re almost never all that detailed or thought out, but we can’t help but click on them), so you naturally gravitate to “I missed ____ geometry questions and only _____ algebra questions.” But those are big families of conceptual knowledge, and often the reason you missed a geometry question isn’t “geometry” but rather “I screwed up the algebra” or “I assumed something in a Data Sufficiency construct”. Hold yourself accountable for the “why” you got it wrong so that you can better address your specific needs.

4) Be Practical With Pacing

Look for problems on which you spent way too much time and be honest: were you going to get it right and just ran out of time, or were you spinning your wheels the whole time? Look at problems that you missed in a minute or less: could you have gotten it right with 10 seconds of double-check? It’s easy to see a test and say “if I get pacing under control I won’t make those mistakes” but that “if” is a really big hypothetical. Keep track of the types of problems that take you too long and know that as you get closer to test day you may need to triage them, guessing earlier to save time. And keep track of the types of problems that you miss when you’re rushing; that extra time you save by having a quick “guess” trigger finger may save the day on these. Far too many examinees take “I just ran out of time” lightly and assume that will get better on its own; those who know better know that pacing is almost always a struggle for even the 750+ crowd, and make plans to address pacing, not excuses for why pacing held them back on this particular test.

Remember – taking a practice test is only part of the battle; analyzing it and using it for improvement is the other half and arguably the most important half. When you’re done taking your test you’re not done with it overall – put in some analysis time and watch how it impacts your score on the next one.

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By Brian Galvin