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How to “Read” Your Practice Tests

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So, you’ve taken a practice test!  Maybe you’re closing in on the score you want, or maybe you still have some distance left to travel.  Regardless of which scenario applies to you, “reading” your practice test data is an incredibly crucial element to GRE progress!

I write this assuming I don’t need to discuss looking at your score, comparing overall quantitative to overall verbal, etc.  Everyone looks at the ‘big’ numbers.  The question is, what eureka moments can we gain from a deeper analysis?

There are three components to analyzing a practice test: analyzing timing, analyzing accuracy by question type, and analyzing accuracy by topic tested.

Analyzing Timing

You can’t analyze your timing until you know what your timing should look like.

GRE 1 edited

Does anything stand out to you in image above?  Why do some questions take you less than one minute, while some take more than three?  We expect some variation across different questions – Reading Comprehension should take longer than Text Completion or Sentence Equivalence, and Data Interpretation questions (especially the first DI question) will usually take longer than Quantitative Comparison.  But why are there such wide swings in question time within the QC question?  And I can’t help but notice that the two Discrete Quantity questions both took less time than the vast majority of the QC questions.  Perhaps this is someone who is skilled in math, but doesn’t yet truly grasp the logic underlying the QC questions.

A review of QC as a question type is probably called for from this practice test.

Another element of timing is more fundamental (and the above image captures this concept also).  Do you know when to let a question go, guess, and move on to the next question?  Any time you spent three minutes on a question, you had a problem letting go.  Right or wrong, that question hurt you.

Bottom line, when you analyze timing in a practice test, you want to see two things: 1) question by question timing – were you able to let a question go when needed, and 2) question type timing – do you have the desired timing for each question type?

Now it’s time to Generate an Assessment Report!!!  (It’s exciting because it’s got three exclamation points 🙂  )

Analyzing Accuracy by Question Type

GRE 2 edited

Take a few moments and see what you can find in the image above.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait  🙂

Seriously, there’s a lot you should consider here.  If you haven’t been looking for at least 5 minutes, you haven’t spent enough time.  And although I *said* this is the Accuracy analysis portion of this post, we’re not done with timing.

First, let’s talk good decisions vs poor decisions.  Good decisions – on TC, you know when to get out of a question.  Look at the Average Time Wrong vs Average Time right for the Harder and Devilish TC questions.  That’s what we want to see!  This indicates you recognize when more time will/won’t pay off.  (Maybe… more on this in a moment.)

So why aren’t you making the same decisions in SE?

Finally, why, why, why are you spending five minutes – on AVERAGE across three questions – in RC?  What’s going on here?  There’s some leeway in RC, because of the time needed to read and process a longer passage, but not five minutes leeway.

On the Easier RC question that you missed, you missed it in one minute.  This indicates you were confident in your answer.  Confident in the wrong answer – somewhere in this question is a trap that you fell for, and you need to figure out what that trap was!

Back to the TC timing: one possibility is you know when to get out of TC, and that’s why your wrong answers take less time than the right answers.  Another, more disturbing possibility, is you’re cheating yourself on TC time.  How do I know this?  Look at the variation between TC and SE accuracy – it’s not huge, but the discrepancy is there.  Why is TC accuracy lower?

Finally, the most obvious element of this analysis is that RC is your lowest accuracy.  Time to go back and study!!!

Analyzing Accuracy by Topic Tested

This issue cannot be addressed by looking at one image – you will generate an assessment report, and view the Analysis by Content Area and Topic.  There are a few things you’re looking for here.

First, and foremost, are you seeing accuracy and speed in topics you’ve studied?  If you haven’t studied Geometry yet, who cares if your Geometry accuracy is 20%!  But you’ve spent two full weeks reviewing algebra, so why are you missing 2 out of 3 function/formula questions?  Bright side though, your accuracy in Quadratics is through the roof!!

Obviously that paragraph is a hypothetical, but notice two things: first, you need to decide which area(s) deserve your analysis; second, you need to look not just at the overall topic, but also at the subtopics.

You’re looking for improvements and discrepancies.  Which areas are strong?  Which are weak?  Do you have a mix of strong and weak areas in one major topic?  These are all question you need to ask yourself.

BUT you need to take this with a grain of salt – don’t neglect to consider the difficulty of the individual questions!  Yes, maybe you missed 2 function questions.  But they were both Devilish difficulty!  You’re not weak in this area, you just got hit by some of the worst questions.

Finally, don’t neglect to examine timing in this area of analysis.  Yes, you were accurate in Rates questions.  But you spent 4 minutes on them.  Time to study!!

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve found this helpful.  If you go back and look at my previous GRE blog posts, I think you’ll notice that this post contains many, many more rhetorical questions.  That’s the point of practice test analysis.  In the test, and when you’re studying, the computer, or the book, or whatever study source you’re using is asking you questions.

Analyzing your practice tests is the time for you to ask the questions.  What are the weak areas?  Strong areas?  Why am I performing differently in Word Problems vs Geometry?

And there’s one question you must ask, which I haven’t addresses, simply because of how much space it would require – Are you seeing improvement???

Every time you take a practice test, from the second practice test on to the last, look at the most recent test, do all this analysis.  Then look at the test prior – what’s changed?  What has stayed the same?  Have you improved in your weaknesses, and have strengths remained strong?

A practice test doesn’t teach you anything in and of itself – but it tells you where you are, and where you’re moving, and what you *should* be teaching yourself.

Good Luck!!!

Manhattan Prep Instructor Wows With Record-Setting Jeopardy Win

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3-24-Jeopardy-GREYesterday, the whole wide internet was shocked by the Jeopardy dominance of “This dude Michael”, but here at Manhattan Prep we weren’t surprised at all. We already knew that dude was smart and we knew that dude had the mathematical wherewithal to bet $7,000 without batting an eyelash.

Here at MPrep we know that dude as Michael Bilow (one of those people who command such respect that he must always be talked about using his last name lest anyone in earshot mistakenly attribute an anecdote or joke to some less deserving Michael). On Jeopardy, he lived up to his legend taking home the fourth highest single-day winnings in Jeopardy history: $57,198.

Michael Bilow joined the Manhattan Prep family in 2011 using his perfect GRE score and spectacular teaching chops to secure a role as an LA-based GRE instructor. A few years later we realized we needed more Bilow in our business so we asked him to join the Marketing Department. He took a position as our Business Data Analyst, while continuing to teach GRE classes and pursue his PhD. After seeing him flawlessly juggle those responsibilities, we never had any doubt that he would take the Jeopardy world by fire.

By now the whole country knows of Bilow’s intellectual prowess, but we know so much more. Michael is a dedicated practitioner of improv, a delightful presence in Google Hangout meetings, and a stylish dresser. We can’t wait for his next trip to the New York City headquarters so he can buy us a drink with his winnings after he takes a quick a nap in a tutoring pod.

Congrats, Michael Bilow! Keep it up!

How to Switch from the GRE to the GMAT

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3-26-CrossRoadsLately, we’ve been talking about how to decide which test to take. What if you decide to switch from the GRE to the GMAT? That’s what we’ll tackle today! (Next time, we’ll talk about what to do if you want to switch from the GMAT to the GRE.)

How do I study?

The overall way that you want to study doesn’t actually change that much; rather, you’ll just need to change what you are studying, as discussed later in this article.

First, you’ll need to determine whether the way that you’ve already been studying is actually the optimal way. If not, then you’ll need to make some changes, regardless of whether you stick with the GRE or switch to the GMAT.

The GRE and the GMAT are both executive reasoning tests; that is, the test makers want to know how you think and make decisions. You of course need to know content (certain facts, rules, formulas) in order to do well on either test, but that level of study is not enough; you also need to lift yourself to a second level of understanding that allows you to think your way through these sometimes bizarrely-worded problems as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Follow the two links I put in the last paragraph. Take some time to just think about the concepts presented there. Has this been your approach to studying so far? If so, great. Keep thinking and working in that way.

If not, however, recognize that you’re going to need to start studying with this new mindset, regardless of whether you take the GRE or the GMAT.

What are my strengths and weaknesses?

Any time you’re developing or revising a study plan, you’ll want to put together a solid analysis of your strengths and weaknesses.

If you have been studying for the GRE for a while, then you should have some practice CAT data. (If not, or if it has been more than 6 weeks since you last took a CAT, then you’ll need to take one to get the data. Make sure to take the test under official conditions, including the essays, length of breaks, and so on.)

Analyze your most recent two CATs (this link tells you how to analyze Manhattan Prep CATs). If you haven’t taken MPrep CATs, you can still read through that link to get an idea of how you want to analyze your data from another test. Your goal is to split all question types and content into one of three buckets:

Bucket 1: Strengths. I’ll still study and practice these but not as heavily as other areas.

Bucket 2: Low-hanging Fruit: These are my easiest opportunities for improvement. Careless mistakes. Things that I get wrong fast. Things that I get right but just a little too slowly.

Bucket 3: Weaknesses. These are areas that I’ll ignore until I’ve worked out my Bucket 2 issues. Things that I’m likely to get wrong even if I give myself unlimited time. Things that I get right but way too slowly. Things that use up way too much mental energy, even if I get them right.

Your primary focus until your next practice test will be working a lot to improve Bucket 2, while maintaining Bucket 1 skills and getting Bucket 3 questions wrong fast (yes, seriously!).

[Aside: there are certain things that will stay in Bucket 3 forever. I’m terrible at combinatorics and I’m pretty bad at 3D geometry. That’s been true since my very first practice GRE, more than 10 years ago! When I see these, I’ll give it a look in case the problem is very similar to one that I do remember how to do, but otherwise, I pick my favorite letter and move on.]

Okay, now that you know what your strengths and weaknesses are, you need to familiarize yourself with the differences between the GRE and the GMAT.

What new things do I have to learn?

The Essays and Integrated Reasoning

You won’t care as much about one difference, so let’s get it out of the way. At the beginning of the GRE, you write two essays. The GMAT also asks you to write an essay but in place of the second essay you’ll have to do the Integrated Reasoning section, a multiple-choice section that mixes quant and verbal skills.

This section is different enough from the others that you will have to study how to answer these questions and how to manage your time during the section. At the time of this publication (in March 2015), schools aren’t using IR scores much, so this section is less important, though this could change in the future.

Quant

Next, for the quant section of the test, you’re going to need to learn about one different question type contained on the GMAT: Data Sufficiency (DS).

The GMAT dives more deeply into number properties, story problems, and some algebra concepts, so you may need to get GMAT books for these topics versus continuing to use your GRE books.

The timing on the two tests is also quite different, so you’ll have to learn how to handle 37 questions in 75 minutes on the GMAT, or about 2 minutes per question on average.

Verbal

Most of your new efforts on verbal will be geared towards the grammar question type, Sentence Correction (SC). You’ll definitely need to get some materials that teach you the grammar and meaning issues that are tested on SC.

Again, if you are already using Manhattan Prep materials, you can use what you already have for Reading Comprehension (RC), but you will need to get new materials for Critical Reasoning (CR). The CR question types on the GRE are also tested on the GMAT, but the GMAT contains additional CR question types that don’t appear on the GRE.

Again, the timing will be different on the GMAT. You’ll need to answer 41 verbal questions in 75 minutes, spending about 1 minute 20 seconds on SC, 2 minutes on CR, and about 6 to 8 minutes total for RC passages and questions.

How do I make a study plan?

We’ve already talked about part of the process (analyzing your strengths and weaknesses). You may decide to take a class or work with a tutor, in which case your teacher will give you specific assignments . If not, you’ll need to develop your own study plan.

Takeaways for switching from GRE to GMAT

(1) Make sure that you’re going into your studies with the right overall mindset (executive reasoning!) and that you know how to lift yourself to the “second level” of study.

(2) Begin your studies by concentrating on the aspects that are new to you: the different question types and topics that are tested on the GMAT. Once you build those skills up to a competent level, you’ll review all aspects and question types.