Why Was My GMAT Score Lower Than My Practice Test Scores?

by Target Test Prep, Oct 14, 2021

It’s a dreaded scenario for any GMAT student: You study for the GMAT for months, hit your score goal on some practice tests, and figure that you’re ready to sit for your exam, only to see a lower score on your actual GMAT than the scores you earned on your practice tests. While this situation is likely to come as quite a shock to any test-taker who experiences it, it’s actually pretty common to see a discrepancy in GMATPrep vs. real GMAT scores. So, where did you go wrong?

There are a number of reasons why a GMAT student may see a drop from her practice test scores to her actual GMAT score, so it’s imperative to troubleshoot key aspects of your GMAT test prep to ensure that you don’t set yourself up for a rude awakening on test day. not

In this article, we’ll look at the 10 most common GMAT preparation pitfalls that can lead to a score drop on test day. Whether you’ve already experienced a lower GMAT score than you expected or you’re hoping to avoid one, read on.

Pitfall #1: Not Taking Practice GMATs Under Realistic Testing Conditions

If you expect to obtain an accurate score from a GMAT practice test, the conditions under which you take that test should be as close as possible to the conditions you’ll encounter on the day you take your actual GMAT. If you skip the Integrated Reasoning section, use a calculator during the Quant section, take a 10-minute break instead of an 8-minute one, peek at your notes during the practice test, or do anything else that you would not or could not do on test day, you may not get an accurate practice test score. So, always follow realistic test-day conditions when you take your official practice exams.

To create a realistic GMAT experience for yourself, I recommend the following:

  1. Plan to go to the library and rent a private study room, or go to another quiet location to take the practice test. Do not take the test at your home. After all, you will not take the actual GMAT at home (unless you’re taking the exam online because of the COVID-19 pandemic; in that case, taking practice tests at home, in the same location where you’ll take the actual exam, is a good idea).
  2. Do not skip any of the test sections. Yes, that means you must do the Integrated Reasoning section and the essay.
  3. Do not take any additional breaks or do anything that you could not do on test day (such as pause the exam and go for a walk).
  4. Turn your cell phone off.
  5. Do your scratch work with a dry-erase marker and pad similar to those provided at GMAT test centers. If you are taking the online GMAT, then use the exact same whiteboard that you plan to use while taking that test.
  6. Try to take the practice test at the time of day that you will take your actual GMAT. If you work or go to school full-time and plan to take your actual GMAT on the weekend, then take your practice test on Saturday or Sunday morning, when your mind is fresh. It would not be a great idea to come home after working all day and sit down to take a practice GMAT.

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 repeatedly pause the test, go over the allotted time for a section, or eat your lunch while you’re answering questions, your score will not be accurate.

Think of the precious hours you must spend on each practice test you take and the limited number of official practice tests available — do you really want to waste those resources by relaxing the rules of the test? The result may be not only receiving an inaccurate score, but also missing out on the valuable training for the rigors of test day that a practice test can provide.

For more on how to maximize the use of practice tests during your GMAT prep, check out our article on taking GMAT practice tests.

Pitfall #2: Taking Mock GMATs That Are Not Representative of the Official GMAT

If you take practice GMATs other than those from GMAC (the GMAT test-makers), it’s possible that you will see inaccurate score results. Does this mean that you should not take any practice GMATs from anyone but GMAC? I wouldn’t go that far. However, it does mean that if you need to see the most accurate score possible, you probably are better off taking an official GMAT practice test.

Similarly, you need to be careful when comparing practice test scores from different sources. For example, let’s say that you took two practice GMATs, one from GMAT Prep Company X and one from GMAT Prep Company Y, scoring 700 and 710, respectively. Then, you took two official practice GMATs and scored 640 and 630. Does this data indicate that your score is dropping? Good question. Perhaps there are inherent differences in the tests you took from Companies Y and X and the official tests. Perhaps the official GMAT practice tests are more accurate. The data could, in fact, indicate that your score is dropping, but since the tests are from three different sources, making that determination is difficult.

You need to compare apples to apples. So, prioritize taking all six GMAC practice exams; you may find, in fact, that you don’t need any further full-length practice exams prior to taking your actual GMAT. If you MUST take more practice exams, then you can take some non-GMAC tests, but don’t be surprised (or stress yourself out) if the results vary from those of your GMAC tests.

Pitfall #3: Not Taking All 6 Official Practice Test

Let’s say that your GMAT score goal is 700+ and you take two official GMAC practice exams from mba.com. You score 710 and 720 on those exams, so you figure that you are ready to sign up for the GMAT. Needless to say, you’re shocked when you score 660 on test day. How could that have happened?

This is a mistake that many GMAT students make. Although you scored high on your practice exams, because you took only two exams, your average score was not a true representation of your abilities. Your sample size was too small.

As I just mentioned, GMAC offers six full-length practice exams. There is a reason why the Target Test Prep study plan recommends that every GMAT student take all six of those exams prior to taking their actual GMAT. By doing so, you give yourself a substantial enough sample size of data to get an accurate picture of whether or not you’re prepared to hit your GMAT score goal. If, after taking all six official practice exams, your average score is 700+ (or whatever your goal may be), chances are you’re ready to go!

Pitfall #4: Using Prep Materials Designed Around Questions from Official Practice Exams

Imagine that you have a high school math test during eighth period, and your friend Beth takes the same test during third period. If Beth tells you what questions were on the test before you take it, do you think that you’ll perform better than you would without that information? In other words, do you think that your score will be inflated? Probably, right?

Not shockingly, this same thing happens with GMAT test prep materials. Perhaps you are using study materials designed by GMAT Prep Company X, and when building its practice materials, Company X heavily drew from questions on official practice tests rather than designing materials focused on the content, knowledge, and skills necessary for a high GMAT score.

Is researching official questions necessary? Of course. However, if a large percentage of the sample questions with which you are practicing are just models of the questions on official practice tests, then you may not learn what you need to learn and, consequently, you may see strong practice test scores that are not indicative of true GMAT mastery.

When you use GMAT prep materials that focus heavily on content from official questions, you may pick up on concepts and patterns that appear in a relatively small number of official materials but NOT actually improve your logical analysis, critical thinking, and analytical reasoning skills, all of which are necessary to earn a solid GMAT score.

In other words, some study materials can create the illusion of GMAT mastery, an illusion that can be reinforced even when you take official practice tests. In reality, you may be mastering the art of performing well on practice tests without truly gauging your strengths and weaknesses and mastering the GMAT. This is a recipe for disaster on test day, when any lingering GMAT weaknesses you have will likely be exposed.

So, to avoid a score drop and a low GMAT score in general, make sure that you thoroughly research GMAT test prep materials and select a GMAT course that provides the depth you need to truly master the GMAT, not just do well on official practice exams. In fact, give Target Test Prep a try. Poets & Quants found that GMAT test-takers ranked us the #1 GMAT prep platform for showing deep GMAT expertise.

Pitfall #5: Overinvesting in the First 10 Questions in Quant or Verbal
A common misconception is that if you correctly answer the first 10 questions on GMAT Quant or Verbal, you automatically get a great score. Maybe at some point during your GMAT test prep, you heard about this tactic. Maybe you decided that by adding this “secret weapon” to your arsenal on test day, you could give your score that extra little boost it was missing. Maybe, as a result, you saw your score decline.

Myths about the GMAT are never in short supply, but the myth of the first 10 GMAT questions is one with serious staying power. Unfortunately, the reality is that overinvesting time in the first 10 questions of a GMAT section can have a negative impact on your score.

For one thing, just because you answer the first 10 questions correctly does not mean that the GMAT scoring algorithm will have you pegged as a “high scorer,” and thus regardless of what happens on the remaining questions, you will get a great score. Furthermore, by spending more time on those initial 10 questions than you normally would, you most likely will end up having to rush at the end of a section to make up time, and maybe even guess on several questions, both of which will hurt your score.

For example, let’s assume that you use 40 minutes to answer the first 10 questions of the Quant section correctly; how will the rest of the section go with only 22 minutes remaining to answer 21 questions? You won’t have sufficient time to correctly answer many of those questions, even if they are within your skill level, and those incorrect answers will degrade your Quant score substantially. As you near the end of the Quant section, more than likely you will be forced to guess on a string of final questions, further dropping your score. So, even though at question 10 you had a very high score, by question 31, there is a high likelihood that your score will have plummeted. In fact, your quant score likely will end up being much lower than it would have been had you devoted a reasonable amount of time to each question in the section, pacing yourself from beginning to end.

Are the first 10 questions of a section important? Of course. If you answered all of them correctly, would you be scoring very well on that section at that moment? Yes. However, overinvesting time in the first “X number of questions” is a poor GMAT strategy because any gains that bring will more than likely evaporate by the time you reach the final “X number of questions.”

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