Why do my practice test scores vary / differ from my real GMAT score?

You hope to see continuous improvement in your scores as you take more practice CATs, but that doesn’t always happen. Rather, your scores may vary, sometimes significantly. In fact, your scores may sometimes go down. Furthermore, you may ultimately receive a real GMAT score on test day that differs from your practice test scores. There are several reasons why this can happen – some related to the tests themselves.

  • First of all, remember that practice test scores are meant to provide an estimate of your scoring potential, not an exact value. You should expect your score to vary plus or minus 30 points.
  • Test scores are partially driven by luck. Perhaps you got lucky, receiving questions related to concepts that you are more comfortable with. Or perhaps you got unlucky, receiving questions related to concepts that you are less familiar with. This uncontrollable luck factor can impact your score.
  • How well-rested and focused you are when taking a given test can have a huge impact on your score. It is essential to be very well-rested and highly focused for the real GMAT, but we recognize that this cannot always happen for practice tests. If you are tired due to insufficient sleep and/or distracted by other pending projects, you won’t be able to fully concentrate on test questions. Your pacing will be sub-optimal, you will make more careless mistakes, and your score will probably suffer.
  • As discussed on our About the GMAT page, there is a huge penalty for not finishing all questions in a section because you run out of time at the end. So an unfinished test will probably receive a lower score than a test that was fully completed within the time limits.
  • Because GMATPrep and Exam Pack 1 contain only four diagnostics, you will inevitably also need to use other CATs. The quality of third party CATs can vary significantly. The test questions on some CATs are more reflective of real GMAT questions than on others. Similarly, the difficulty of the questions on some CATs is more consistent with the real GMAT than on others. Furthermore, the scoring algorithm on some CATs is more accurate than on others. CATs that are less reflective of the real GMAT in these ways will produce a less reliable score.
  • Some CATs contain questions that are too closely simulated from current Official Guide questions. If you have worked through the OGs and come across such a question on a CAT, the question may seem easier than it should. Furthermore, if you retake a test, you may see repeat questions. Prior familiarity with a question will allow you to answer that question faster and more easily, saving you time and lowering your stress. You are also much more likely to get that question correct. As a result of all this, your score for that test may be artificially inflated.
  • Some CATs contain the AWA and IR sections, whereas others start directly with the math section. It is obviously more taxing to spend one hour writing an essay and answering 12 IR questions before approaching the math and verbal sections. Tests that do not contain AWA and IR sections will lead to an artificially inflated score. To minimize this effect, we recommend that you write an AWA essay (picking a topic at random from the official list) and work through 12 IR questions (e.g. from GMATPrep or the Official Guide) before starting a test that omits these sections. Since the availability of IR practice questions is limited, you may instead choose to spend one hour writing two essays.
  • Finally, you cannot discount the stress involved in taking the real GMAT – you are in the official testing center, an unfamiliar environment with an unfamiliar computer, and you know that your score counts. Practice tests are often low-stress, because you take these at your leisure, in a comfortable environment on your own computer, and the pressure is off because you know that the score doesn’t count. For this reason, some students receive a lower real GMAT score than what practice tests indicate they are capable of achieving.

When should I take the GMAT?

GMAT scores are valid for five years, so it is best to get the GMAT out of the way one to two years before you wish to attend business school. Ideally you should take the GMAT well in advance of business school application deadlines. The GMAT is not a test that you can cram for. Expect to spend over 100 hours on your GMAT preparations, over the course of four to ten weeks. By extending your preparations over such a timeframe, you allow sufficient time for concepts to sink in and for extensive practice, and you minimize the risk of getting burned out.

Find a Commitment Free Time Period

Because preparing for the GMAT is a major time commitment, you don’t want to simultaneously study for the GMAT and prepare b-school applications. Similarly, you should choose a time period for your GMAT studies that is clear of major work or personal time commitments. You need sufficient time each week to study without other stressors impacting your study time or concentration level. Finally, select a time period that will allow for continuous studying without an extended break, because students tend to start forgetting material and approaches in as little as one week without continuous reinforcement.

Are You Ready?

Regardless of your GMAT preparation method, you are probably ready for the GMAT if you are consistently achieving scores in your target scoring range when taking practice diagnostic tests. Before taking the GMAT, you should ideally get at least two practice test scores within your target range, with at least one of these scores from GMATPrep or Exam Pack 1.

Timeframe with a GMAT Class

If you take a full-length preparation course, whether in-person or online, you should ideally take the GMAT one-to-three weeks after the conclusion of your course. You want to allow just a few weeks to carefully review your course materials, fill-in any knowledge gaps, and take a few additional practice tests.

This timeframe assumes that you have kept current with the course assignments and are comfortable with the concepts discussed in your class. If you need time after the course ends to catch up with homework assignments and/or achieve greater proficiency with certain concepts, you may need additional time before taking the GMAT. The danger with waiting too long after your course ends to take the GMAT, however, is that you may not keep up the intensity of your studies. One benefit of taking a class is that, with class lectures and homework assignments, you are forced to consistently and methodologically study. That pressure subsides once the course concludes.

Scheduling Your Test Date

You have tremendous flexibility in scheduling your test date, if you plan in advance. The GMAT is offered daily, Monday through Saturday, at over 470 test centers in over 110 countries. You can register for the GMAT up to six months in advance. GMAT appointments tend to get booked up, particularly on Saturdays and during peak demand periods, so schedule accordingly. For some reason, most available appointments in the U.S. are at 8:00 a.m., but you can seek out a more suitable time if you’re not an early riser.

If you must schedule your GMAT exam close to application deadlines, try to schedule your appointment at least 16 days before the deadline, to allow time to retake the GMAT if necessary. If you wish to apply for any special testing accommodations, allow at least an extra four weeks for the approval process. After taking the GMAT, allow 20 days from your test date for schools to receive your score report. If you are right up against application deadlines, some admissions offices will accept an unofficial score report to complete your application by the deadline, with score verification when your official score report becomes available. Since policies vary, please check with the schools to which you are applying.

Why did the GMAC introduce the Integrated Reasoning section?

The GMAC conducted a survey of 740 management faculty worldwide to identify the skills that they considered important for students entering an MBA program. The GMAC reported the following:
  • Synthesizing information presented in graphics, text, and numbers
  • Evaluating relevant information from different sources
  • Organizing information to see relationships and to solve multiple, interrelated problems
  • Combining and manipulating information to solve complex problems that depend on information from one or more sources

In essence, the results of the survey indicated that management students must be able to evaluate data presented in different formats and from multiple sources to make decisions under some uncertainty. Integrated Reasoning (IR) was designed to test these skills. With case studies an integral part of business school classes, such skills are essential for MBA students to thrive in the classroom. Such skills are also important for managers to make effective decisions in today’s world with so much data and information readily available.

The GMAC found that most students scored about the same on both the Argument and the Issue essays within the AWA section. Because of this, the GMAC felt that one essay would be sufficient to gauge a test taker’s writing abilities. Since the GMAC did not want to increase the length of the GMAT by introducing Integrated Reasoning, it decided to eliminate the Analysis of an Issue essay to make room for IR.

What relevance do the skills tested on the GMAT have with business school?

More than you may initially realize. As described in the prior FAQ, the Integrated Reasoning section was specifically designed to be relevant to skills used in the business school and in the working world. But the other sections have direct relevance as well. The AWA section tests your ability to write a well-structured and supported essay, something that you must do in many business school classes. The GMAT verbal section question types test your ability to understand and evaluate complex reading material (RC), make and evaluate logical arguments (CR), and effectively use correct English grammar (SC). As you can surmise, these skills are essential to both business school classes and the working world.

Many students specifically complain about the math section, but the skills tested here are also relevant. Remember that the GMAT quantitative section is not so much about memorizing math formulas as about quickly solving problems. Since a standardized test can structure questions only using concepts that all students have been exposed to, the GMAT uses high-school level math to test problem solving abilities. Although it may have been a long time since you’ve done this type of math, the concepts are ones you’ve very likely seen before. The math section typically avoids complex numbers and calculations in order to test your ability to quickly and efficiently solve problems using such math concepts. This problem-solving ability is critical for business school. Furthermore, a comfort with numbers is important for certain required business school classes, such as accounting and corporate finance.

GMAT success