It’s always disheartening when we have a score drop, whether it happens on a practice test or (worst case scenario) on the real test. If this happens to you, the most important thing to do next is figure out why this happened. If you can figure out why, then you may be able to do something to prevent a score drop from happening again.
This article contains the questions to ask yourself as you try to figure out why your score dropped.
1. Official Test Conditions
Did you take your practice tests under official test conditions? Did you:
- do both essays?
- take only the breaks allowed (one 10-minute break after the 3rd section and 1-minute breaks after the remaining sections)
- complete the test in one sitting (e.g., you didn’t do some of the sections later that evening or the next day)?
- sometimes give yourself an extra section to simulate an experimental section (that is, to make the test longer and therefore more challenging)?
- pause the test, look at books or notes, eat and drink during the test, or do anything else that wouldn’t be allowed on test day
If you did not take your practice tests under official testing conditions, then your practice scores might have been inflated “ possibly just a little or possibly a lot, depending upon how far you were from official test conditions. If your practice test scores were inflated, then the bad news is: your scoring level wasn’t as good as you thought it was, and your official test didn’t represent as much of a drop as you first thought (and, possibly, the official test didn’t represent any drop at all).
While this is not great news, it is crucial to know, because it tells you what the problem is. You need to figure out in which areas you’re falling short and do what you need to do (math, vocab, problem-solving skills, time management) in order to improve. And don’t forget to take tests under official conditions in future, so that you get a true picture of your current scoring level.
Mismanaged timing can cause a lot of variability in test scores. If your scores keep jumping up and down on practice tests and you’re not sure why, your timing may be the culprit. Whenever I talk to a student who experiences a more than 100 point drop on a test, timing is almost always a factor.
Timing is so crucial because of certain consequences that can kill our score. We tend to make more careless mistakes when we’re rushing, getting questions wrong that we did actually know how to answer correctly. We may run out of time entirely before we can address all or most of the questions. All of these things will have a negative impact on the scoring.
First, know that it’s okay not to finish every single problem. We all have to make choices, and many students have to decide that they are just going to guess on certain problems and not worry about them. What you do not want to do, however, is spend way too long on certain questions that are really too hard (otherwise, you wouldn’t need all that time!) and then not have adequate time to address other questions that you actually do know how to answer.
There are two major categories for mismanaged timing: too slow and too fast. Some testers will run out of time before finishing the section; others will finish with lots of time left. Many testers mismanage the time badly between questions, yet actually do finish the test just about on time. Just because you finished the test on time does not mean that you managed your time well throughout the section.
The vast majority of students who mismanage time badly enough to experience a big score drop will do so by going too slowly on some questions and, consequently, they’ll have to move much too quickly at other points. Alternatively, people sometimes do move too quickly throughout an entire section because of general test anxiety; if you finish with more than about 3-5 minutes left (and you’re not a 90th+ percentile scorer), then you definitely moved too quickly through that section, and likely made careless mistakes as a result. [Note: if you do finish very early, do use the remaining time to check your answers “ but, ideally, balance your time appropriately throughout so that you don't have to do this at all.]
The common factor in either scenario: we have to go too quickly at some point. When we go too quickly, we make careless mistakes. We also tend to choose to go too quickly on problems we think are easy (or, at least, easier than others) “ we think to ourselves, oh great, here’s where I can make up that lost time! Going too quickly, then, basically equates to giving ourselves lots of chances to miss problems that we actually know how to do.
The death spiral (otherwise known as my score dropped in a big way!) occurs when you start to get a lot of problems wrong that you knew how to get right “ if only you weren’t rushing and making mistakes.
(By the way, think about the other side of things: the problems on which you would go too slowly. You’re going to do this on the really hard problems, right? Well, the chances aren’t very good that we’ll get those problems right, even by spending extra time “ precisely because the problems are really hard!)
Did you prepare yourself adequately for the stamina required to perform at a high mental level for roughly 3.5 hours? Did you:
- take the tests under official conditions? (including essays and breaks “ see section 1)
- sometimes add in an extra section to simulate an experimental section (which adds another 30 or 35 minutes to the length of the test, pushing the total test time towards 4 hours)?
- take the practice tests at the same time of day as you took (or plan to take) the real test?
- avoid taking a second test (practice or official) within 3 days of taking another practice test?
- eat good energy food before the test and during the break, drink liquids to stay hydrated, and stretch or do light exercise to loosen up and get your blood flowing?
This is a long test; stamina is critical to our ability to perform well. Don’t tire yourself out in the days before the official test (don’t study too much, don’t take a practice test within a few days of the real thing, etc.). And experiment with food and liquid until you find a combination that gives you good energy without making you overly stimulated (too much caffeine can be a bad thing).
In addition, many people skip the essays on practice tests and then see a substantial drop on the multiple choice sections of the official test. People are surprised when this happens, but if you use your logical reasoning skills, it shouldn’t be that surprising! If you don’t take the essays, then you’re only spending a little over 2 hours on your practice tests. The real thing, with the essays, will take about 3 hours and 20 minutes“ with possibly an extra 30 to 35 minutes for an experimental section. If you consistently skip the essays, your brain is, quite simply, not prepared to last for that entire 3.5 hour period.
That’s why, although nobody cares much about the essay scores, I still tell my students to do the essays on their practice tests. Your mental stamina is going to affect your quant and verbal scores, and you do care (very much!) about those scores, so you have to make sure you’re prepared to function at a high level for the entire 3.5 to 4 hour length of the test.
The test is a nerve-wracking situation for everyone, but some people experience anxiety symptoms that are strong enough to interfere with rational thinking and the ability to perform. Below are links to a couple of articles about managing standardized test-related stress. (Note: they were written for the GMAT, but they apply equally to the GRE or any other standardized test.) If you are experiencing physical symptoms (nausea, rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing), you should consult a medical professional.
If you can figure out what went wrong, then you can do something to prevent another score drop in future – so please take the time to think through everything that happened. Also, use the Manhattan Prep community to help – your fellow students and the GRE experts can be great resources in helping you figure out what went wrong and what to do next.