Changing Your Answer
I welcome the latest press release by ETS, which provides helpful data regarding students changing their answer choices on the GRE exam. Indeed, it overturns a common fallacy that I’m sure has hurt students’ scores. Nonetheless, one has to be careful in interpreting ETS’s latest findings.
For instance, students might very likely to think that their first hunches are suspect, and so they might end up overanalyzing a question that they knew the answer to all along. The data in the ETS study only showed that questions in which the student changed the answer—meaning a potentially difficult question—tended to result in an increased score.
Such a misperception is just one of many that can result from the data. I urge students to think carefully about their current approach to the test before changing their answers. For one, some students might actually do better by sticking with their original guess. That subset would clearly be in the minority but if you happen to be in that minority then applying the findings could actually work against you.
Hopefully, your head is not spinning with all the different possibilities and ramifications of these findings. And if it is—don’t fear. To get a better sense of how you do on questions in which you decide to switch your initial guess take detailed notes while doing practice sets and—more importantly—practice tests. You’ll want to note all the questions in which you changed the answer and then the outcome of those questions. You’ll even want to make note of the questions that you weren’t a 100% sure on. So even if you don’t end up changing your answer, do you tend to go with the right answer when you less than certain?
Once you can determine a general pattern that fits you—that one test taker in a million—that you’ll start to improve. Blithely sticking with the answer choice you switched to, without actually going back to the original and without having a better understanding of your own approach, can hurt your score. So be careful how you decide to apply the findings of this study to your own test approach.
Does this press release mean I should not take the GMAT?
If you have no plans to apply to b-school, disregard this part of the post. If you are applying to b-school, then you might be wondering, after reading this, whether the GRE is the safer test—the better test—since it allows you to go back and change answers, if need be.
But knowing that students go back and changes their answers doesn’t tell us anything about those students who spent lots of time going back and looking over questions and not changing answers—regardless of whether those questions were right or wrong. In other words, students might have wasted time agonizing over questions that were right all along. In that case, the GMAT suddenly looks like the better test.
Finally, in wondering whether the GRE is the fairer test, you should keep in mind that ETS has an incentive to publish these results and frame them in a positive context: it wants you to take the GRE instead of the GMAT, because it wants to make money. Cynical? Sure. But when there is a profit motive involved, we should always be at least somewhat skeptical of a company’s claims, or at least aware of that company’s underlying bias.
My recommendation: take plenty of mock tests across both exams, apply various strategies, and see which one you do better on percent-wise. Even then, many business schools, while accepting both tests, continue to give greater weight to the GMAT than to the GRE. And that’s something that ETS, probably won’t tell you.