I Took a Practice Test and My GRE Score Went Down! What’s Happening?


Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - I Took a Practice Test and My Score Went Down! What's Happening? By Neil ThorntonCan’t get enough of Neil’s GRE wisdom? Few can. Fortunately, you can join him twice monthly for a free hour and a half study session in Mondays with Neil.

Sorry to hear your score isn’t improving yet. That’s the ugly nature of standardized testing; it’s designed to give you the same score over and over again. You’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning a bunch of new things, but on practice tests, the results aren’t showing up yet. Or even worse, after six weeks of hard work, your score took a major nosedive. That’s okay. You’re not alone. Many, if not most, of our students experience a drop in scores on their second test, and may not see an improvement until test 4 or 5. It happens to lots of people. Don’t be discouraged. You can make your score better. Read on.

So what happened? What can you do?

The first time you took a practice test you didn’t know much. Therefore, the questions you got wrong you got wrong quickly, either because you didn’t know how to do them and made a quick guess, or you fell into the traps fast. You probably finished the test, but with no-so-great accuracy. In some ways, finishing the test is as important as getting questions right. Therefore, you earned a respectable score just by finishing.

The next time you took a practice test, you knew a little bit more than you used to, and in the words of Alexander Pope,  “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

You saw familiar concepts and tried to apply your newfound knowledge, taking upwards of five minutes to struggle with questions that before you would have skipped. And you still got them wrong. Before you knew it, you were ten minutes behind, forcing you to rush at the end of the test, and rushing at the end of the test is the easiest way to bring your score WAY down. Thus your score was the same or worse, even though you knew more and tried harder.

Also, be honest with yourself. Did you fall into old bad habits? How often did you do problems the “old” way? Did you use algebra when you should have used smart numbers? Did you use your ear in sentence correction rather than look for the subject and verb? How’s your scratch paper? Are you crossing off wrong answers, labeling your units, and taking notes on reading comp? Did you predict an answer in reading comp? Scan your test for every missed opportunity and redo those questions the right way.

What about those “careless errors?” Don’t dismiss them! Every so-called careless error (x – 7 = 5, therefore x = 2) is a sign of a serious problem that you need to fix: now! One multiplication error is a sign you don’t know your multiplication tables as well as you should, and there’s no excuse for that. Go spend 5 minutes a day for five days learning the times tables. Do every question in the Foundations of Math book; learn every part of speech in the Foundations of Verbal book. Today.

And then give yourself a bit of a break. Look at the questions you got wrong again. Maybe those questions (geometry, probability, statistics) are in subjects you haven’t covered yet. Have you improved in the subjects you’ve studied? Bravo! Pat yourself on the back and get back to work.

Also, look at the percentile score next to each question on your first test versus the second. You may see that you reached much harder questions on the second test. That’s a great sign of improved skill, but also may be the reason your pacing was off.

Now what?

Here’s the big secret to a higher score: get more questions right and more questions done.  And FINISH! What does this mean on your next practice test?

1) If you spend any time on a question, you need to get it right. For any problem you try, you have to work the best strategy: No careless errors, no mistranslations or misunderstanding, no picking the right answers to the wrong question (you solve for x but the question is asking for y). Apply your strategy perfectly and accurately and efficiently and click on the right bubble before 2 minutes have passed.

2) For everything else: You spend NO time on the questions you get wrong. You see a problem you don’t quite know how to handle (“Ooh, I should know how to do this,” you say) and you quickly and confidently pick a guess (random or otherwise) and you move on in under 20 seconds. By the way, you can blindly guess on several (some say as many as nine) questions per section and still get a 99th percentile score.

So now get your ego out of the way and get ready to fix your score. Take out your scratch paper from the test and open up the review screen. Get ready to redo questions and take some notes. Look at each question. Did you get it right or wrong? How long did it take you: under two minutes or over three?

You got it right, quickly.

Yay you! Pat yourself on the back and review what you did. Was it a good guess? Great. Why did you guess what you did? Did you solve the problem correctly? Great. What technique did you use? Plan to do that again.

You got it wrong quickly.

Ok. No big deal. Was it a guess? Pat yourself on the back for guessing quickly and moving on. That’s an extremely important skill. Did you fall for a trap? Okay. Note the trap and vow to avoid those traps in the future. Did you try to solve it and make a mistake? Phew! Be glad you caught that mistake on a practice test. Now figure out what to do next time. Consider alternative approaches. Could you have plugged in smart numbers? Back-solved? Made a chart? Drawn a picture?  Can you put this question or a piece of this question on a flashcard? Is there a strategy guide you need to review before you take another practice test?

You got it right, slowly.

Great! You have a golden opportunity to improve your speed. Don’t look at the explanation or the right answer. Just do it again. Still slow? Do it again. This time, try smart numbers, or back-solving, or some charting set-up strategy. Repeat until you’re confident you can do this question in under two minutes.

You got it wrong, slowly.

Aha! This question and questions like it are what killed your score. You have two options now. One option is to figure out how to do this question fast. A better option is to recognize that even attempting this question was a massive waste of your time. Learn to recognize questions like it, and in the future don’t even start. Take notes. For example,  “From now on, I will guess on tough probabilities, rate problems with variables, and anything with a parabola.”

In summary:

We wish score improvements happened in a straight line, but they don’t. Instead, your score will improve in lurches and leaps, with frustrating setbacks and demoralizing plateaus. Rest assured you’re not alone, and that we’ve seen it all before. Keep learning, practicing, and playing, and you’ll see that score move soon.

When you’re ready to take your next practice test, we’ve got one available to you for free. 📝

Find Neil’s guidance helpful? Most do. Don’t forget that you can join him twice monthly for a free hour and a half study session in Mondays with Neil.

neil-thornton-manhattan-prep-gre-instructorWhen not onstage telling jokes, Neil Thornton loves teaching you to beat the GRE and GMAT. Since 1991, he’s coached thousands of students through the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, and SAT, and trained instructors all over the United States. He scored 780 on the GMAT, a perfect 170Q/170V score on the GRE, and a 99th percentile score on the LSAT. Check out Neil’s upcoming GRE course offerings here or join him for a free online study session twice monthly in Mondays with Neil.


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