[This article has been updated and released Feb 11, 2014 as “4 Steps to Get the Most our of your CATs.”]
Practice tests are an invaluable component of any test-taker’s study plan, but the most valuable thing is actually not the act of taking the practice test. Just taking a test doesn’t help us to improve all that much. While taking a test, we are concentrating on doing (using everything we’ve learned up to that point); as a result, we’re not really learning much.
The most valuable thing is actually the data that you can extract when you’re done with the test; that’s how you learn to get better and know what to study before you take another practice test. There are two main components to that data:
- Statistics and metrics based on timing, difficulty level, percentage correct, question category, and so on
- A thorough, analytical review of the specific questions that you saw on the test
In this article, I’ll take you through how I review the statistic and metrics from my own students’ practice tests. I’ll base my discussion on the metrics that are given in Manhattan Prep GMAT tests, but you can extrapolate to other tests that give you similar performance data (note: you need per-question timing and difficulty level in addition to percentage correct/incorrect data). Later in the article, we’ll take a look at how to review specific questions.
First, naturally, I look at the score. I also check whether the student did the essays (if she didn’t, I assume the score is a little inflated); I also ask the student to tell me whether she used the pause button, took extra time, or did anything else that wouldn’t be allowed under official testing guidelines.
Next, I look at the problem lists for the quant and verbal sections; the problem lists show each question, in order as it was given to the student, as well as various data about those questions. First, I scan down the “correct / incorrect” column to see whether the student had any strings of 4 or more answers wrong. If so, I also look at the time spent; perhaps the student was running out of time and had to rush. I also look at the difficulty levels because sometimes I’ll see this: the difficulty level is high for the first problem or two, and the timing is also way too long. On the later questions, the difficulty level is lower, but the timing is also too fast. Essentially, the person had a sense that she spent too long on a couple of hard questions, so she sped up… and then she not only got the hard questions wrong but she also got the easier questions wrong because she was rushing.
I also look at the timing for the last five to ten problems in the section to see whether the person was rushing or had a lot of time left (meaning she rushed earlier in the section).
Next, I count the number of questions that fall into the “way too slow” category. Too much time is: 3+ minutes on quant or CR, and 2+ minutes on SC. RC is a bit trickier, because the timing for the first question includes the time spent to read the passage. If it’s a first question, “too long” is above 5 minutes. If it’s not a first question, “too long” is above 2.5 minutes. If there are more than a few, then the student has a timing problem. My next question: how significant is the problem?
For these “too slow” questions, I count how many there are, how much time was spent total, and how many were correct vs. incorrect. For quant, I also count how many were Problem Solving vs. Data Sufficiency. Finally, I see whether there are any patterns in terms of the content area (for example, perhaps three of the “too long” quant problems were geometry problems or two of the “too long” SC problems were modifier problems).
Next, I count how many “way too fast” incorrect questions there are. “Way too fast” is anything done in less than half the time it was supposed to be done (for example, “way too fast” would be less than 1 minute for a quant question). I do not, however, count incorrect “too fast” questions that are rated 700+ unless that student is scoring 700+; I assume the student (wisely) realized the problem was too hard, made a guess, and moved on. That’s the only good reason to get something wrong in a “too fast” timeframe. Otherwise, these lower-level, too fast, incorrect questions represent missed opportunities – careless mistakes – and they were caused by the “too slow” questions from above.
All of the above is to quantify for the student just how bad the timing problem is. Literally just seeing the data can help students start to get over that mental hurdle (“I can get this right if I just spend some more time!”) and start balancing their time better. And the stats on question type and content area will help the student to be more aware of where she tends to get sucked in.
Next, I run the assessment reports and look at the Assessment Summary. This tells me percentages correct for the five main question types, as well as average timing and difficulty levels. Problem areas are indicated by:
- Percentages correct below approximately 50%, especially when coupled with lower average difficulty levels (though I’m not worried if I see, say, 48% correct with an average difficulty level of 730 – that’s a good result)
- Average timing that is 30 seconds (or more) higher or lower than it should be on average
- A big discrepancy (more than 20-30 seconds) in average time for correct vs. incorrect answers of the same type
I then go through the other reports (showing all of the problems divided into various sub-categories) while categorizing things into five buckets (though I may have to adjust my assessment if there are only one or two questions in a category):
- 50% + correct plus timing within the expected timeframe (otherwise known as strengths)
- Less than 50% correct plus timing in the expected timeframe (possible weaknesses in content area, methodology, etc, BUT check the difficulty levels; maybe this category just happened to be really hard on this test!)
- Less than 50% correct plus timing way too fast (an average more than 30 seconds faster than it should be); are these really weaknesses or was the student just going too fast (and, naturally, making more careless mistakes)? Why was the student going too fast on these?
- 50%+ correct plus timing way too slow (an average more than 30 seconds slower than it should be); these are still weaknesses even though the percentage correct is high! Figure out why the timing is higher and how you can do these more efficiently.
- Less than 50% correct plus timing way too slow (an average more than 30 seconds slower than it should be); these are the biggest weaknesses, obviously. Get them wrong faster. Seriously – you’re getting them wrong anyway, so start by just taking less time to get them wrong! That will improve your performance on all those ones on which you’re currently rushing and making careless mistakes!
Now let’s move on to the analysis of specific question types.
Category 1: I got it right roughly within the expected timeframe (otherwise known as strengths)
Yes, these are strengths, but no, you don’t get to skip over them. There are still lots of things to learn here. First, did you get the question right for the right reasons? Or did you get a little bit (or a lot!) lucky? If you got lucky, then you just as easily could have gotten this question wrong, which means you need to move this question to category 2.
Okay, so you got it right and you knew what you were doing. Now you can move on, right? Not so fast. Did you do the problem in the best way that it could be done? Best = efficiency + effectiveness. Basically, did you do the problem as efficiently as you could while not sacrificing accuracy? Even when you get a problem right, the answer to this question is not always, “Yes!” Examine other ways to do the problem and figure out which way is the best for you.
Further, how are you going to recognize a different future problem that tests the same thing, so that you can immediately replicate your “best way” approach? You need to figure that out as well; your overall goal is to recognize future problems (as opposed to having to figure everything out from scratch).
Finally, if you had had to make a guess on this problem, how would you have done so? I know you didn’t need to ” you knew what you were doing. But maybe you’ll have a harder problem of this same type in future, so learn how to make an educated guess now, on a problem that you actually did understand.
Category 2: I got it wrong roughly within the expected timeframe
(Possible weaknesses in content area, methodology, etc, BUT check the difficulty levels; maybe this question just happened to be really hard on this test!)
First, you need to figure out which weak areas here are actual weaknesses and which areas were merely consequences of other things happening on the test (eg, the question was highly rated). Why did you get this question wrong? If this one was 700+, you got another lower-ranked question of the same type right, and you were fine with these on your last test, then your fundamentals may be good, and it may be time to lift yourself into the toughest areas for this particular question type or content area. If you’re using Manhattan Prep GMAT books, for instance, now would be a good time to take a look at the material in the Advanced chapters. You also want to explore the best way to make an educated guess on a problem of this type and difficulty level.
Alternatively, maybe you think you do know the material but you’re making a lot of careless mistakes. Start an error log, (or use our GMAT Navigator tool to do so) noting identifying info about the problem (source, number, etc.) and articulating (a) what mistake(s) you made, (b) why you made it, and (c) what habits you will need to make or break in order to avoid repeating that kind of mistake. On verbal questions, include why you thought the wrong answer was right (and make a note that this reason is not a good reason to use to pick an answer) and why you thought the right answer was wrong (and make another note that this reason is not a good reason to use to eliminate an answer). Use the error log every time you find you’ve made a careless mistake!
Finally, something in this category may indicate a fundamental weakness. Is the material common – something you already studied or something you should know? Or is the material rare? Prioritize your effort to learn this material based upon your answer and, as needed, return to the relevant sections of your books. In addition, explore how to make an educated guess – perhaps the material is so rare and the problem so hard that the most appropriate action is to learn to make an educated guess and move on.
Category 3: I got it wrong way too quickly (more than 30 seconds faster than it should be)
Are these really weaknesses or was the student just going too fast (and, naturally, making more careless mistakes)? Why was the student going too fast on these?
Again, for each problem, you need to figure out why you were going too fast. The only acceptable reason to get a problem wrong too quickly: you decided this problem was way too hard for you, so you made an educated guess and moved on. If you sped up because you thought it was easy, then made a careless mistake, your first instinct in future should be to take your time. (Also, add that problem to your error log!) Don’t sacrifice a correct answer just to save 30 seconds.
Alternatively, if you sped up because you thought or knew that you were behind on time, then you need to fix your timing problems elsewhere in the section. If this is the case, try to decide whether this problem is something you should be able to do in the expected timeframe or whether you still need some review and practice in this area. Check other problems of the same type on this test or previous tests to make this assessment.
Category 4: I got it right way too slowly (more than 30 seconds slower than it should be)
These are still weaknesses even though you got it right! These questions are costing you points elsewhere on the test – maybe more points than you’re gaining on this problem. Figure out why the timing is higher and how you can do these more efficiently. If the timing is just a little bit too high, that may be okay ” perhaps the problem is extra hard and long. If you’re consistently going long, however, then perhaps you don’t know the best way to solve the problem, in which case (a) figure out the best solution, or (b) the best way to recognize that this problem requires a certain set of steps, or (c) both. Alternatively, perhaps you’re struggling to execute the necessary steps to finish the problem on time (in which case, practice the steps but also consider just making an educated guess, particularly if the problem type or content is fairly rare).
As with category 1, don’t forget to make sure that you really did know what you were doing on the ones you got right; if not, then move questions from this category to category 5.
Category 5: I got it wrong way too slowly (more than 30 seconds slower than it should be)
These are the biggest weaknesses, obviously. Get them wrong faster. Seriously – you’re getting them wrong anyway, so start by just taking less time to get them wrong! That will improve your performance on all those other ones on which you’re currently rushing and making careless mistakes!
What is slowing you down? Figure that out and it will tell you what to do next. You may need to review the material from your books, or do more practice with problems of this type, or find more efficient ways to solve, or learn better how to recognize questions of this type, or be more quick to make an educated guess… whatever that is, do what you need to do to get better. (At the same time, evaluate the frequency with which the particular material in question is tested; set higher priorities on the things that are more frequently tested.) Don’t forget to break out the error log again, of course.
Make sure to spend time figuring out how to make educated guesses in these categories as well. You may first have to go to similar but easier questions in order to learn how to make educated guesses on problems of a certain type, and then you’ll have to apply those lessons to the harder problems that are giving you trouble. Sometimes, the best solution to a problem in this category is, “I’m going to make an educated guess within the expected timeframe or faster.”
In the comments section below, let us know any additional tips you have for reviewing your work!
Want more information about how to look at your assessment reports? Check out this article.