Evaluating Practice Tests, Pt. 1: What NOT to Ask an AO


Because we are engaged in the business of preparing people for the GMAT, an integral part of their business school application, we often speak with AOs (that’s trade talk for Admissions Officers) about various facets of GMAT testing, among them the role the test plays in admissions.

Recently we had a conversation with an AO from a top 10 school that went something like this:

AO: When an applicant who has performed poorly on the GMAT says ‘..but I was doing so well on the practice tests…’ how do you respond?

BC: We tell them to assess the effectiveness of their prep, determine what steps they can take to ensure a more favorable result next time, and then get back in there and get a stellar GMAT score.

AO: What might be the cause of significant disparities between a person’s practice test scores and his/her scores on the real thing.

BC: That’s a trickier response because its almost impossible to account for a person’s performance (or lack thereof). As an AO, I think this is something that you cannot take into account because there are too many variables for you to fairly assess for comparison to other candidates.

This AO went on to say that her question arose out of a recent discussion with an applicant who posed the situation to her seeking some sort of help/understanding/support/commiseration. She also indicated it is a situation she’s faced with rather frequently, particularly with people who are seeking an application deadline extension.

We’d like to shed some light on practice tests and hopefully prevent other candidates from putting other AOs in the awkward position of trying to answer these questions from candidates. The basic advice here is don’t bring up your practice test scores to an AO. Don’t ask if they can be taken into account as part of your application. It won’t help, and, if anything, paints your application in a more negative light. You have the GMAT score that you have (or you have to take it again and change it). Practice tests are unreliable data that AOs can’t use as a measurement and thus mentioning them is a fruitless endeavor.

So, with that out of the way, let’s talk about why practice test scores might be significantly higher than scores on the official test:

1. Easy practice software. In order to assess the comparability of real and practice tests, one has to examine the source of those practice test(s). Some practice tests tend to score high while others tend to score low, and some practice tests are totally unreliable. Depending on the test, the higher scores might be a result of the software used to generate the test and/or score. The most consistently reliable indicator of scores are still the practice tests from GMAC. So if a person used those, higher scores would likely have one cause, while if a person was using another (less reliable) test, the higher score might be the consequence of a poor simulation of the real thing.

2. Erectile dysfunction (or performance anxiety if you prefer). Higher scores on practice tests are not uncommon, and even significantly higher scores are not necessarily surprising. This is one unfortunate aspect of the GMAT: it’s a high-pressure situation in which you have to perform. Sometimes this adversely affects people’s performance. Consequently, higher practice test score averages might simply mean that the person needs to find their “GMAT Viagra”.

3. Question memorization. Because of the relative dearth of reliable (read: GMAC-licensed and a few other) practice tests, many test-takers will take the official practice tests over and over again. Once one has taken that test twice, one will begin to see the same questions and one’s scores will start to reflect familiarity with the questions rather than any real understanding of the material, resulting in score inflation. Unlike the official tests, most practice tests (including GMAC’s) have small question pools, which makes this a pretty common occurrence.

4. Testing conditions. Practice tests can be taken at home with a glass of wine and Sade playing in the background. Pretty much the epitome of chill. The knowledge that it’s a practice test, and consequently doesn’t count, relieves a lot of stress and tension. If a person practices with wine and music at home, when they go into the real test they will likely not have the same experience and that might significantly impact the score.

5. People are inconsistent. We’ve seen the following situation quite frequently: someone scoring in the high 600s on all practice tests – who we believe did all things right with regard to reasons 1-4 above, and who we KNOW knows the material – goes into the GMAT and comes out with a surprisingly low score. It’s unclear why this happens, but it does. If anyone had an explanation (not to mention a cure), she’d be a soothsayer. To prevent this from happening to you, you must work to develop processes and habits of thought that lead to consistent application of the knowledge you have. You should also work to simulate the environment of the real test as much as possible so you can control for as many external factors as possible.

In light of all this, we don’t suppose AOs could reliably consider practice results. As a GMAT prep company, we’re often left questioning what some students did to get some of their practice scores. To wit, a brief anecdote:

We had one student who, after griping the entire course about not showing improvement from her initial practice test, admitted she took that first test using Google to look up things she didn’t know.

Yes, with the importance people place on getting into the “right” b-school, and thereby scoring well on the GMAT, they heap a great deal of stress on themselves. Stress makes people crazy, and crazy people do crazy stuff like “cheat” on the their initial practice tests. It’s no wonder that it’s often very difficult to determine why people sometimes score higher on practice tests than on the real deal.

That’s it from us for now. Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this topic, when we’ll take a closer look at a typical student’s scores to show how to more accurately evaluate practice test results.

Good luck in all things GMAT, B-school, and Beyond.

-The BC Team

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