Often, confusion exists about the uses and benefits of practice tests, and the role of practice tests in preparing for the GMAT. Let’s try and offer some clarity to the situation:
Practice tests are evaluative tools and should be used as such. They are NOT learning tools. You use tests to assess what you have learned and your ability to apply that learning under conditions as similar to the real exam as you can make them. As such you should only be taking practice tests at most once per week (unless you are not working), and should seek to simulate the conditions of the actual test as much as possible when doing so (especially in the last few weeks before the real exam). In the larger preparation picture, you should take a practice test at the very beginning of your preparations to establish a baseline and determine your areas of strength and weakness. After that, it would be advisable to hold off on doing another practice test until you’ve had a chance to do some content review and focused, small-scale practice. Once you’ve gotten a sizable chunk of material and practice behind you, you should start incorporating full-length practice tests into your preparation regiment.
Key points for simulating practice tests:
- Do the practice test at the same time of day as your official test is scheduled for.
- Simulate the erasable notepad or use 10 sheets of yellow grid paper fastened at the top.
- Use tests that are as similar in look and feel to the actual exam as possible, which means use GMATPREP.
- Accurately simulate conditions: the room should be quiet but not silent (libraries are probably better than your house).
- Accurately simulate test rules: no snacks or drinks during the test, take exactly 8 minutes between sections (remember the GMAT just went to 8-minute breaks), complete the essays, and do each section straight through without pause.
Review your practice tests in detail
The only way to improve your next performance is to spend significant time reviewing your last performance. You must analyze what you did well and what you did poorly. More importantly, you must develop a plan to correct and prevent what you did poorly. Because you must give yourself enough time to review the test and potentially find your teacher to answer questions you don’t understand, taking a test in the last week before your exam is not a good idea (it often does not allow enough time to act on any problems or issues you find).
Your review should include two essential components:
1) Holistic Concerns – these speak mostly to how well you implemented your pacing strategy (assuming you had one in mind; if you don’t you need to develop one). Every test taker will be approaching and working through the test in a slightly different way. While we all have to answer the questions in the order they come, knowing where you’re at in the test, and how much time you should be spending on questions in those respective areas is an imperative. You should know approximately how many questions you usually answer (i.e. need to answer) and roughly where in your test your pace should be faster or slower. Reviewing and implementing your approach will allow it to eventually become second nature, so you won’t have to think about it anymore.
2) Localized concerns — these speak primarily to individual questions or types of questions. However, localized concerns pertain both to how well you accomplished the question and the time needed to do so. When you review you should go over every question that you didn’t get right and any that you had to guess on (whether you guessed correctly or not). Understanding these questions are the key to improvement. You’re also looking to review questions that took you an inordinate amount of time to do. If you generally average or are shooting for 2-3 minutes per question and you have several on a test that took you 4+ minutes, you need to find out why, and find a strategy to expedite solving similar questions the next time around.
The bottom line with practice tests is that you’re trying to further your own understanding of how you react in a testing situation. This means both locally and holistically, and usually involves identifying testing patterns you exhibit. Without review a practice test is almost worthless.
GMATPrep is the practice test software published by GMAC, the people who produce the GMAT. GMATPrep is the best possible diagnostic tool available to you. It utilizes almost the identical scoring algorithm as the real test, and uses questions produced by the same people as those for the real test, so it contains the most consistently reliable practice tests. The only problem? There’s only two of them. That’s right, only two. What does this mean? A couple things…
1) Use them wisely – while you can retake the two tests in the software, the question pool is limited, which means you’ll almost always see many questions you’ve seen before if you use it more than twice. You’ll want to use them at the times when you most need to know precisely how you’re doing (or how you would do) on the GMAT.
2) Save one – Generally, you’ll want to save one of the GMATPrep tests for nearer to the end of your preparation period. You’ll want to take it after you’ve done the overwhelming majority of your preparation, but while you still have time to review it thoroughly, get your questions answered, learn from it, and practice further what you learned.
3) Take it again…with a grain of salt – if you repeat either of the tests from GMATPrep, know that your scores may be inflated since you would have seen some of the questions before. However, it can still be an effective tool in that case because you’ll still see some questions you hadn’t seen before, and you can focus on your pacing and question management through the test.
The bottom line is that effective use of practice tests will help you get the most out of your preparation efforts. Don’t unduly focus your efforts on practice tests, but rather use them as part of a comprehensive approach to improving your GMAT score.