Taking GMAT Practice Tests
If you have done any amount of GMAT preparation, you have likely heard that taking full-length practice tests is a critical part of your preparation. This is sage advice. Students who take the GMAT cold—without ever having taken GMAT practice tests ahead of time—can find the GMAT experience difficult. But, the flip side is that when students prepare properly, including taking a sufficient number of GMAT practice tests before the real GMAT, top GMAT scores are within reach.
That being said, you want to be smart about when and how you use GMAT practice tests in your preparation strategy. In this article, we’ll show you how and when to use practice tests to help you reach your goal.
Let’s begin by discussing the importance of taking a practice GMAT at the onset of your GMAT prep.
Start Your Prep With a Full-Length Practice GMAT
At the beginning of your GMAT studies, you should take an initial GMAT practice exam. A great place to find full-length practice exams is www.mba.com, the official website of the GMAT.
The full-length GMAT practice tests found at www.mba.com are created and offered by GMAC, the GMAT creators. GMAC exams use the same scoring algorithm that the actual GMAT uses and feature retired GMAT questions, making them a great resource for GMAT preparation.
GMAC offers six practice exams. Two of the six exams are available for free with the GMATPrep® Software, which you can download from this link at mba.com. The remaining practice tests are available for purchase from mba.com in two GMATPrep® Exam Packs containing two tests each.
After you download the GMAT Prep default Exam Pack from www.mba.com, take a full-length GMAT practice test. The results of this test will give you a baseline score and a reasonable assessment of your current GMAT-related knowledge and skills, as well as a sense of what to expect on test day.
Some students feel that they should do some rigorous prep prior to taking a practice test, but remember, the objective of this initial practice test is to help you better understand your starting level of preparedness and what the test is like. Thus, only minimal preparation is necessary before you take your first practice test.
To gain the most accurate sense of where you stand using your first practice test, beforehand, familiarize yourself with the sections of the test and the types of questions you will see. In doing so, you will ready yourself to attack the questions you encounter on the first practice test, as you will not have to figure out even what the questions are asking.
While you could use any quality resource to gain this familiarity, one high-quality resource is the information provided in the GMATPrep® Software itself. To get a general overview of the test and how it is structured, you could start at the home page of the GMATPrep® Software and click into the Prepare section. In the Prepare section, you will find information on the four sections of the test along with descriptions of and directions for answering the seven main types of questions that appear on the GMAT.
The default version of the GMATPrep® Software also includes 90 practice questions. These questions are broken into six categories within the Practice section. While answering all of these practice questions before you take a first test is not necessary, by answering at least a few from each of the six categories, you can familiarize yourself with the question formats and get a basic sense of how to go about answering each type of question.
Once you are familiar with the structures of and directions for each of the question formats and have gotten some experience answering questions of each type, you will be ready to take an initial practice test and get a sense of where you stand.
Now let’s discuss how to take a GMAT practice test.
How to Take a Full-Length GMAT Practice Test
It’s important that when you take your first practice GMAT, you replicate test-day conditions. In other words, you should take the test in its entirety, in a quiet environment, completing all sections with no interruptions other than the allowed breaks. You could probably get away with skipping the essay, but definitely take the Integrated Reasoning, Quant, and Verbal sections. If possible, use a dry erase pad and marker like those provided at GMAT test centers to do your scratch work. You can order these on Amazon.
Also, if you’re like most students preparing for the GMAT, you’re probably working full time, and it would not be a great idea to come home after working all day and sit down to take a GMAT practice test. Instead, try to take it on Saturday or Sunday morning, when you’re fresher.
The baseline score that you achieve on your first practice test will tell you how far you are from your target GMAT score, thus helping you to determine the length and intensity of GMAT preparation necessary to reach your goal. Remember, the practice test will not be an accurate gauge of your current GMAT skills unless you adhere closely to actual GMAT testing conditions when taking it. If you allow yourself to pause repeatedly, go over the allotted time for a section, or use a calculator during the quant section (one won’t be available on the real GMAT), your score will not be accurate and your results will not be optimal for devising an effective study strategy.
Seasoned test-takers will tell you that it is a great idea to duplicate the test-day experience any time you take a practice exam. For the same reason that a band rehearses on the stage where it will perform, and a wedding rehearsal is held before the ceremony, GMAT test-takers should practice for the GMAT in a realistic way in a realistic test environment.
Let’s discuss how to effectively analyze the results of your initial GMAT practice test.
Analyzing the Results of Your Initial Practice GMAT Practice Test
OK, so you took your first practice GMAT. You’re off to a good start. Your goal now is to do a high-level analysis of where you stand. For example, are you 50 points from your target GMAT score? 100 points? More?
The score gap will give you a sense of how much time and energy you’ll likely need to invest to reach your goal. Although you’ll carefully review all of the questions you answered on future practice tests, now is not the time to review each question. It’s difficult to draw useful conclusions about specific areas of strength and weakness from the results of one practice test. Instead, lay out your comprehensive study strategy.
Some students need as many as 300+ hours to prepare for the GMAT; however, your preparation time will depend on how far your baseline score is from your score goal, your learning style, and your other daily commitments. A person with a full-time job may have to spread his or her study over a greater number of weeks than will someone who has those hours free to devote to GMAT prep. Similarly, someone who is 50 points from his or her score goal likely will need far less time to prepare than someone striving for a 200-point increase. In determining how much time you should set aside for GMAT prep, you may find it useful to check out this article I wrote, which gives detailed advice on creating a GMAT study plan. Remember, every person is different, and you should not assume that you can follow someone else’s study plan and achieve that person’s score.
Remember also to keep your application deadlines in mind when creating your GMAT study schedule. You want to allow time at the end of your initial prep to take and analyze the remaining five GMAC practice exams, and to revisit any weak areas you uncover. Ideally, you also want a time cushion for retaking your real GMAT, in case your first GMAT score does not match your goal.
Let’s discuss the importance of mastering the material prior to taking more practice tests.
Master the Material Before You Take More GMAT Practice Tests
After your initial diagnostic exam, it will be time to get to work on the targeted study and focused practice that is fundamental to GMAT success.
At this point, your job is to master the material that appears on the GMAT. Forget about taking additional practice tests until your GMAT prep is nearly complete. Taking further practice tests before you master the material is a poor use of your time. For example, if you have not mastered functions, sequences, probability, and geometry, you can predict–without spending four hours on a full-length practice GMAT–that you probably won’t fare well answering questions involving those concepts. Instead of using up precious practice exams when they aren’t of the greatest use to you, spend your time training. Continuing to take practice exams without having mastered answering the many types of questions that appear on the GMAT yields little improvement and probably isn’t an effective use of your valuable preparation time.
With that in mind, let’s discuss how to use practice tests to dial in your GMAT score.
Begin Taking Weekly Practice Tests Near the End of Your GMAT Prep.
As you approach the end of your GMAT prep, that is, once you have sufficiently mastered the content, strategies, techniques, tips, and tricks necessary to earn a high GMAT score, and after you have completed numerous practice questions to round out your study of each topic, a sound strategy is to begin taking weekly full-length practice GMAT tests.
If you follow the advice I’ve provided in this article, you will have five official GMAC practice exams remaining. At this point in your preparation, you should have about a month before your scheduled GMAT date. Thus, you should take one full-length practice GMAT every five days or so.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of taking each of the remaining five practice tests under the most realistic conditions possible. Doing so will give you a level of familiarity and comfort that will take some of the pressure off when the time comes to take your actual GMAT. Of course, you can’t take your practice exams at the test center, but taking the test according to GMAT rules, in a quiet location away from home, can go a long way toward building the familiarity you need.
Let’s discuss what to do in between those practice tests.
Analyze Your Results Between GMAT Practice Tests
Like the GMAT itself, your practice exams will take about four hours each, and you may feel tired afterward. So, it’s probably a good idea to take a break and recharge after a practice test.
Once you’re rested, your job is to carefully analyze the results of the practice test. If you have not yet achieved your GMAT score goal, what prevented you from doing so? Chances are there are specific concepts and skills that you have yet to fully master. You can use the results of your practice exams to pinpoint those concepts and skills, so you know which topics to revisit for further study. GMAC practice tests provide reports with separate scores for Quantitative, Verbal, and Integrated Reasoning. These are good, big-picture snapshots of your overall performance. However, you will get the most out of your test results by thoroughly analyzing each incorrectly answered question.
For example, let’s say that a practice GMAT presented you with a total of four geometry questions:
Question 1: Circles (you answered correctly)
Question 2: Shaded region in a rectangle (you answered correctly)
Question 3: Cylinders (you answered correctly)
Question 4: Triangle inscribed in a circle (you answered incorrectly)
Spend the time to understand why you got the first three correct. Your goal is to be able to correctly answer similar questions in the future. Study what you did correctly.
Then, ask yourself why you did not arrive at the correct answer to the fourth question. Was there a pacing issue? Did you make a careless error or fall for a trap answer? Have you fully understood the content upon which the question is based? Then, go back and review inscribed shapes in circles to eliminate any lingering weaknesses in that area. Follow this process for all questions you answered incorrectly on the test.
It’s important to be honest with yourself in your review. For example, did you answer the question on cylinders correctly because of a lucky guess? If so, take the time to revisit cylinders as well.
You will be presented with only 37 quant and 41 verbal questions on each test, so don’t take any question for granted. Use every question you see to analyze your strengths and weaknesses.
Don’t be surprised if you need four or five days to fully review a practice test and study the material corresponding to your weak areas. Don’t skimp on this necessary work in between tests. Without working on your weak areas, taking another GMAT practice test makes little sense. After all, you want to increase your skill from one test to the next; otherwise, why would you expect to score higher? Again, you must be honest with yourself; if you haven’t had time for sufficient study after your last practice test, make the time before you take another test.
Ideally, over the course of your final month of preparation, you will improve from one practice exam to the next. However, if you don’t see this improvement right away, don’t panic! Continue to carefully analyze your mistakes and revisit weak areas. In preparing for the GMAT, a methodical approach will be much more helpful than scrambling to relearn every topic.
If in analyzing your GMAT practice tests you determine that you are getting a higher-than-desired percentage of questions incorrect as a result of careless mistakes, you may find it helpful to read my article on how to improve your accuracy on the GMAT.
So, you’ve worked hard and smart, and you’ve take a sufficient number of GMAT practice tests under realistic conditions. How do you know whether you’re ready to sit for the actual GMAT?
Use Full-Length Practice Tests to Assess Your GMAT Readiness
Many students set an arbitrary GMAT test day and sit for the test whether they are properly prepared or not. It has never made complete sense to me why anyone would do this. The GMAT is nearly impossible to trick; if you’re not ready, your score will reflect your lack of readiness.
So, why spend your money and time taking the GMAT before you have evidence that you’re prepared enough to earn a good score? You want to walk into the test center confident and prepared, not nervous and wishing you had studied for another month. Additionally, as some people discover too late, you can take the GMAT only five times in a twelve-month period and eight times in total. So by taking the test multiple times just to see how you do, you could use up your opportunities to hit your score goal.
A much better strategy is to sit for the GMAT once you have sufficient evidence that you’re ready to earn a good score. How can you get that evidence? You can use the official GMAT practice tests from www.mba.com.
For example, let’s say that your goal on the GMAT is a 730 or higher because you’re applying to M7 schools. Let’s assume that your last three GMAT practice test scores were 670, 680, and 690. If your GMAT is a week away, you must be honest with yourself about the chances that you’ll hit a 730 on test day. In other words, the evidence suggests that you’re not quite ready to earn a 730. After all, the average of these three practice GMATs is 680. Why would you expect to go up approximately 50 points on the real test?
So, if your GMAT is scheduled but you’re not quite feeling ready to hit your target GMAT score, you have some options. First, you can reschedule your GMAT for a later date when you’ll be better prepared. Second, you can take the GMAT as scheduled and see how you do. Listen, you may just hit your target score, and even if you don’t, you can consider canceling your score and retaking the test at a later date. Keep in mind that a good percentage of GMAT-takers must sit for the exam more than once, and although you want to limit the number of times you take the GMAT, sitting for it is good practice. You may find my article on GMAT test-day policies handy.
Approach Test Day with Confidence
If you follow the strategy I’ve outlined, after completing your final GMAC practice exam, you will have about a week until your actual GMAT. I’ve written an article that provides some useful strategies for your final week. It’s natural to feel nervous in the days leading up to your exam, but rest assured that you will have done the prep necessary to tackle your GMAT with confidence.