Why Was My Official GMAT Score Lower than My Practice Test Scores?


Manhattan Prep GMAT Blog - Why Was My Official GMAT Score Lower than My Practice Test Scores? by Chelsey Cooley

Hopefully, once you’ve done a couple of GMAT practice tests, nothing will surprise you on test day. That includes your official GMAT score. But what does it mean if your official GMAT score doesn’t measure up to your practice tests? Keep reading, and we’ll troubleshoot.

First, don’t panic.

It’s fine to take the GMAT twice. It’s fine to take the GMAT three times! If you do better next time, your schools will see that as a positive. If you do worse, you can just cancel your score, and nobody will be the wiser.

Why did this happen?

There are three broad reasons to score lower on test day than on your practice tests. Here they are:

  1. You had bad luck.
  2. Something made your practice tests easier.
  3. Something made your official test harder.

Let’s address these one by one.

Can bad luck hurt your official GMAT score?

According to the GMAC, the standard error of your official GMAT score is 30-40 points.

Here’s what that means. If you could take the GMAT an infinite number of times, your average score would perfectly reflect your GMAT skills. Sometimes you’d get lucky and see questions that just happened to click for you; sometimes you’d get unlucky and see that one question you were totally dreading. On average, the good luck would balance out the bad luck, and you’d get exactly the score you deserved.

Standard error measures how much a single official GMAT score can be affected by random luck. Since the standard error is 30-40 points, your score on any particular GMAT might be as much as 40 points higher or lower than your actual skill level.

So, you scored a 560. Your actual skill level might be 560. Or it might be as low as 520—and you were just incredibly lucky on test day. Or it could be as high as 600, and you were really unlucky. The downside is that there’s not necessarily any way to tell. After all, to find your “real” GMAT score, you’d have to take the test an infinite number of times.

Did something make your practice tests easier?

Look back on the practice tests you scored well on. Is it possible that something inflated your score?

Some third-party practice tests just aren’t that accurate. Unfortunately, a lot of the information out there regarding practice test accuracy is anecdotal and contradictory. If you haven’t done so already, take an official GMAC practice test from mba.com. If the score is closer to your official GMAT score, you might have your answer: your practice tests scored you incorrectly. You might want to keep using those tests for practice, but you should take the scores with a grain of salt.

Here are some other factors that could have come into play:

  • Did you take extra breaks, or longer breaks, while taking your practice tests?
  • Did you take your practice tests in a more comfortable environment than the testing center?
  • Did you eat or drink while taking your practice tests (not just during your breaks)?
  • Did you skip one or more of the sections?  
  • Did you take your practice tests at a different time of day, or on a different day of the week?
  • Did you do anything during or before your practice tests that you couldn’t do on test day?

If something here seems right to you, explore it further. First, as you keep studying, start taking your practice tests under more “official” conditions. (Now that you’ve taken the GMAT once, you know exactly what those are!)

Second, if you did something on this list in order to compensate for a weakness, address that weakness! For instance, if you took an extra break because you felt fatigued halfway through the test, practice doing long problem sets without taking breaks, particularly when you’re already tired.

Did something make your official test harder?

The number-one reason to score lower on test day is anxiety. Test anxiety makes everything harder, and it’s more likely to show up on test day than during a practice test. The good news is, now that you’ve experienced it, you know exactly what you need to fix.

Another factor related to anxiety is what I’ll call “taking the test too seriously.” On practice tests, it’s relatively easy to make yourself guess, try new strategies, and use the “back-of-the-napkin” approach to problems. But on test day, you might suddenly feel like you have to answer every question: after all, it’s test day, so it’s time to get serious! Right?

Wrong. Unfortunately, guessing is a big part of why you were scoring so well on practice tests. Read this article about guessing and this one about back-of-the-napkin math, and commit to treating your next official test a little more like your practice tests.

Here are a few other things to think about:

  • Did you sleep well the night before the test?
  • Were you hungry? Too warm or too cold? Sick? Stressed? Feeling scared or pessimistic?  
  • Did you go into the test feeling burned out?
  • What did you do in the week before your test? Did you try to cram in a bunch of new material? Or did you relax and review what you knew?

The first step to a better second GMAT is figuring out why the first one didn’t go well. The second step is doing something about it, then taking the test a second time and crushing it! For what it’s worth, most of my students score higher on their second attempt. By the way—did you already take our GMAT course? If you’re a former MPrep GMAT student who’s taken three of our practice tests, and you weren’t happy with your official GMAT score, contact Student Services at gmat@manhattanprep.com—an instructor will meet with you for free and go over the next steps. 📝

Want more guidance from our GMAT gurus? You can attend the first session of any of our online or in-person GMAT courses absolutely free! We’re not kidding. Check out our upcoming courses here.

Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GMAT prep offerings here.

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