4 Steps to Analyze your CATs (part 1)
How many practice tests have you taken so far? Are you satisfied—or frustrated—with your progress?
One of the biggest mistakes I see students make is also relatively easy to fix: they don’t learn what they should be learning from their practice tests. This is exactly what we’re going to talk about today.
You don’t get better while taking a CAT
Wait, if you don’t get better while taking a CAT, then why are we starting here? Read on.
Have you ever done this? You take a test, but aren’t happy with your score, so a few days later (or even the next day!), you take another exam.
Bad move! First, your data from that first test already tells you what you need to know; your skills aren’t going to change radically in a week. Don’t waste 3.5 hours of valuable study time (not to mention, one of your limited practice tests!) in order to get the same data that you already have.
Alternatively, have you read online that someone out there took 14 practice tests in a 6-week period and swears by this method of studying because he then got a 760? If you do just what he did, you’ll get a 760 too!
Sadly, that’s unlikely to work either. Do you remember that one kid from your school, the one who was always excited when standardized test days came around? She was super annoying because she just did well on these tests “naturally” and she actually liked taking them. (Yes, that was me. Sorry.)
Here’s the thing: for people like me, sure, the brute force approach seems to work. But we are also extensively analyzing our own data; we just do so more quickly than most. Everyone needs to use this data to figure out how to get better.
You’re going to use your CATs to:
(1) practice what you’ve already learned,
(2) provide data to help you build a roughly 2-3 week study plan prioritizing certain things based on what your analysis told you, and
(3) figure out how to get better at Executive Reasoning.
Go ahead and click that link now. I’ll wait.
Ready? Let’s go!
Use your CATs to learn your strengths and weaknesses
Within the first roughly 2 weeks of your study, take a practice test. (Seriously! Don’t put this off! Also, note: The gap between practice test 1 and 2 will be on the longer side—say 6 to 8 weeks. After that, you’ll settle into a more regular cycle of 2 to 3 weeks.)
I’ll base my discussion on the metrics that are given in Manhattan Prep tests, but you can extrapolate to other tests that give you similar performance data.
You will likely need at least 60 minutes to do this analysis, not counting any time spent analyzing individual problems. If that sounds like a lot, split this into smaller tasks. Plan to spend 30 minutes each for your initial analysis of Quant and Verbal.
Where should I start?
I know you’ll want to look at your overall scores first. But don’t do what so many people do: Immediately become demoralized because you think your score is too low.
Right now, your score is what it is—but this isn’t the real test. You’re going to use this to get better. That’s the real focus here.
So, let’s put those scores into some context. First, how confident can you be that they reflect your current ability level?
- Did you run out of time in any section and either guess randomly to finish or just not finish the section at all? If so, your score will be pushed down, so your actual ability level is likely higher than your score reflects. (But you do need to fix the timing problem.)
- Conversely, did you use the pause button or otherwise use extra time to solve anything? Did you take much longer breaks than the real test would allow or look something up? If so, your score may be artificially inflated. (This is why we recommend sticking strictly to test conditions when taking a practice exam.)
- Did you take the exam after a long day at work when you were already pretty mentally fatigued? If so, your performance might have dropped as a result.
Next, pull up the problem list for Quant or Verbal. The problem lists show each question, in order as you took the test, as well as various data points about those questions.
“Correct / Incorrect” Column
Any strings of 4+ questions wrong?
- If so, look at time spent. Were you low on time and rushing?
- Alternatively, were they really hard? Maybe you’d done well on the prior problems and should have gotten these hard ones wrong.
- Did you happen to get a string of things that you just didn’t know how to do at the time, but looking at them now, you think you can learn this?
One common scenario: The first one or two in a string are really hard, so you spend extra time. You get them wrong because they’re hard. You know you spent extra time, so you speed up on the next couple and make careless mistakes, getting those wrong as well. If this happened to you, what do you think you should do to remedy the issue?
Another common scenario: You ran up against a little string of things that you haven’t studied yet—or maybe it was a mix of things you don’t like and things you haven’t studied yet. What should you do about this?
For the first scenario, you probably need to train yourself to bail quickly on the stuff that’s too hard even when you spend extra time. Then, you won’t be behind on time when you get a question at a level you can handle, and so you’ll be able to get that one right next time.
For the second scenario, what do you think is a good opportunity for you to learn? Add a couple of things to your study plan for the coming week or two—but don’t add everything. There’s only so much you can do in a couple of weeks, so be choosy.
“Cumulative Time” vs. “Target Cumulative Time”
Go back up to the top of the Problem List. The Cumulative Time column tells you how much time you spent to that point in the section. The Target Cumulative Time column indicates how much time you’d want to have spent based on the timing averages we need to hit for the exam. Compare the two columns.
How closely did you stick to the expected timeframe? It’s completely normal to be off by + / – 2 minutes, and I’m actually not too concerned as long as you’re within about 3 minutes of the expected timeframe.
- Are you 3+ minutes behind (too slow)? If so, where was that extra time spent? How well did you really do on those problems? (They should be all or mostly correct, since you chose to allocate extra time to them! For the ones you’re getting wrong even with extra time, start cutting yourself off when faced with a similar problem in future.)
- Are you 3+ minutes ahead (too fast)? If so, where are you picking up that time? How well did you do on those problems? If you know you don’t know how to do a problem, it’s a great idea to guess fast. If you were going quickly because you did know how to do it, though, and then made a careless mistake, you’ll want to remedy the overall timing problem so that you don’t make that kind of mistake next time.
Pause and Reflect
We’re about halfway through our analysis of the Problem List. What have you figured out so far? What are your hypotheses about what went well and what didn’t go as well? Are there any particular things you want to look out for to help confirm or deny those hypotheses as you continue analyzing?
Join us next time for part 2, where we’ll dive more deeply into a timing analysis of individual problems.