In theory, the relationship between time spent studying for the GMAT and the effect on your score should be a direct correlation: the more you learn, the higher your score. In reality, though, that’s not always the case—GMAT practice test scores can vary.
At least, it’s not always the case when you’re looking at only a couple of data points. In the bigger picture, it’s going to hold up, but sometimes there’s a single practice test that totally goes against expectation. It might even be two or three tests, in rare cases.
And even if you know that, if that makes sense and you accept it in principle, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to swallow—especially after you’ve just taken a practice test and seen a score far lower than what you expected and, more importantly, what you feel you deserve after the blood, sweat, and tears of your prep.
But before you freak out, consider a few things that might help explain the discrepancy:
1) How much have you learned and how big was the drop?
Preparing for the GMAT can help you raise your score, but keep in mind that there isn’t some silver bullet of a test-taking method that’s going to lead you to a top score in just a few weeks (not, at least, if your starting score is far below that level). The GMAT is a huge test, built on skills as sweeping in their scope as math and reading. So if you’ve only been studying for a week or two, and you see a drop in scores of less than 50 points, don’t panic—in time, you’ll see the overall improvement you’re looking for.
2) Was it an official test?
I’ll be blunt: there’s a lot of substandard material on the market. And even if it’s a test filled with very high quality questions, mimicking GMAC’s scoring algorithm is a tricky task, since they don’t exactly release it to the public.
So first, make sure it was actually quality material you were using. If it was a free test from, say, Majortests, then don’t take the score too seriously. It’s possible that the quality of the content is causing a problem—never mind the scoring.
But even beyond that, in general, if the test isn’t official, no matter what company it’s from (yes, including Magoosh), treat the score as an estimate. The learning experience of taking the practice test is more important than the score it provides, anyway.
3) How were you feeling?
Your health and attitude can be major influences on your score. If you didn’t sleep well the night before, hadn’t eaten breakfast, were feeling anxious, had a cold, or whatever else, your score is likely to reflect that state. And if that is the case, if you were having a rough day and came out of the test with a low score because of it, then you’ve learned an enormously important lesson: on test day, you want to be certain that you are as happy, healthy, rested, and confident as possible. Only by doing that can you make sure that your scores on test day are as high as your practice test scores.
4) Were you using new strategies or spending more time on harder problems?
Of the four reasons for a score decrease in this post, this one is my personal favorite solely because if it is true, your score decrease “problem” is actually just an indication that you’re learning. That’s completely counter-intuitive, of course, but hear me out.
As you first go into the test, you will have certain bad habits, or, more precisely, assumptions and strategies that hold you back from your full potential. While learning more about the test and the best ways to take it, you’ll inevitably encounter skills and strategies that you wouldn’t have used on your own accord. In order to become more adept at answering certain types of questions in certain ways, you have to practice, of course. And if you spend your time and energy practicing those new, unmastered skills during a practice test (which you absolutely should) it may take away from the time and energy you could devote to the questions you’d have otherwise gotten correct.
But given more practice—and quality practice, at that—you’ll start to be able to incorporate those newly learned skills into your GMAT flow more seamlessly, which will in turn bring that higher score I know you’re looking for.
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