Let’s talk about the Do’s and Don’ts to get the most out of your CATs.
Know WHY you take CATs
Practice CATs are very useful for three things:
- Figuring out your current scoring level (assuming you took the test under official conditions)
- Practicing stamina and / or timing
- Analyzing your strengths and weaknesses
The third one on the list is the MOST important”that’s how we actually get better at this test!
Practice CATs do not help us to improve while taking the test. If you have been training to run a marathon, you don’t learn how to get better while you’re running the marathon itself; you’re just trying to survive. : ) Rather, you learn how to improve in between races while doing all kinds of training activities and analyzing your performance.
DO take a CAT at the beginning of your study
Many people put off taking their first CAT, often because they say that they haven’t studied yet so they know they won’t do well. Your goal in taking your first CAT is NOT to do well. Your goal is simply to get a handle on your strengths and weaknesses. Whatever they are, you want to know that right away so that you can prioritize your study.
It’s important to familiarize yourself with the 5 question types before that first exam (particularly Data Sufficiency) but don’t worry about learning all of the formulas and grammar rules. Some you already know; others, you don’t. Your first test performance will tell you what you do and don’t know.
One caution in particular here: a decent percentage of the people who put off their first CAT do so because they’re feeling significant anxiety about taking the test. These are exactly the same people who do need to take that first test early”pushing off the practice tests will just exacerbate your anxiety.
DON’T take a CAT more than once a week
Have you ever had this happen? You take a CAT and you get a score that you don’t like. Maybe you even really mess things up”run out of time or finish 20 minutes early”and your score plummets. So, a couple of days later, you take another CAT to prove to yourself that the bad test was just a fluke.
If you’ve ever done that, you wasted your time and a practice CAT, both of which are very valuable.
That bad test was not a fluke. Something happened to cause that performance. Figure out what it is and fix it before you spend another 3.5 hours taking a second test.
In fact, whether you like the score or not, whenever you take a CAT, don’t bother to take another until you’ve addressed whatever issues popped up during your analysis of the first test. (This article will help you analyze MGMAT CATs.)
What’s the difference between a real GMAT and a practice one? On the real GMAT, you’re finished after three and a half hours, give or take. But while you are preparing for the GMAT, finishing a practice test is much different than being finished with it. As I’ve written about before, practice tests are great assessment tools but not necessarily great learning tools. Practice tests tell you what you would likely score on the real GMAT if you answered 37 quant and 41 verbal questions with the same level of aptitude that you had on the questions you just saw. But if you want to see your GMAT score improve, you’re going to have to spend some time reviewing what you did, how you did it, and how you could do it better. To help you on that quest to get better, here are four kinds of questions that you can use to help improve your score.
1) Questions You Got Wrong
This one is the obvious one- if you want to get better at the GMAT, you need to find questions that you got wrong and learn how to get them right. But this isn’t as simple as finding an explanation online and memorizing it. Studying for the GMAT is more than just trying to read and memorize a bunch of facts- it’s about changing the way that your brain thinks about how to manipulate an equation or dissect an argument. And what better way for your brain to learn how to tackle a challenge than to give your brain more time to do so. In the middle of a test, your brain is rushed. You might have had to give up on the question halfway through or guessed on it immediately to save yourself time. But when you give your brain more time to discover that A-HA! moment, your brain is much more likely to recognize what to do the next time you see a similar hurdle. After you spend some time trying to solve it on your own, feel free to search for an explanation or a better way of solving a problem. However, you have to make sure that the explanation you read is something that you can do in your own head or your own paper come test day.
My GMAT students are often surprised when I advise them not to take a practice test.
I don’t advise this for every student on every occasion; there are some legitimate uses for practice tests. In general though, I find that my students take too many practice tests at the expense of other more beneficial forms of study for a given circumstance.
Think of the GMAT like a Mozart sonata. Let’s say you are a pianist, and you want to learn the sonata. Would you begin by playing the whole piece from start to finish? No, instead you would work in small sections. You would identify the sections that are easy, and you would work on those sections just enough to maintain your ability. Mainly, you would be concerned with the difficult sections of the piece, which you would practice slowly and intently. Not until you had mastered those sections would you move on.
After you have put in all that practice time, you want to make sure that you can maintain your ability within the context of the larger piece. That’s when you want to play the whole piece: when you want to check to see whether your prior work is ingrained or whether you forget it when you are distracted by the other demands of the piece.
[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: