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

You hope to see continuous score improvement as you take more practice tests, but that doesn’t always happen. Rather, your scores may vary, sometimes significantly. Your scores may even 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.

  • Test scores are partially driven by luck. Perhaps you got lucky, receiving questions on concepts that you are more comfortable with. Or perhaps you got unlucky, receiving questions on concepts that you are less familiar with. This uncontrollable luck factor can impact your score.
  • In the adaptive scoring algorithm, early misses do more damage than back-ended misses. A few careless mistakes, particularly early in a section, can establish a low scoring range that’s hard to dig out of. Or (related to the prior bullet point) perhaps early questions play to your strengths on one test, but relate to your weaknesses on another.
  • There is a penalty for not finishing all questions in a section because you run out of time. So an unfinished test may receive a lower score than a test that was fully completed within the time limits.
  • How well-rested and focused you are when taking a given test can have a big impact. You should be very well-rested and highly focused for the real GMAT, but you may not be for a given practice test. 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.
  • Because the GMAT Official Practice Exam platform contains only six practice tests (two free and four paid), you may decide to also use other practice tests. The quality of third party practice tests can vary significantly. The quality and difficulty of test questions on some practice tests are more reflective of real GMAT questions than on others. Furthermore, the scoring algorithm on some tests is more accurate than on others. Practice tests that are less reflective of the real GMAT in these ways will produce a less reliable score.
  • You may come across some practice test questions on GMAT forums or in other study resources. 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, your score for that test may be artificially inflated.
  • We recommend that you replicate test day conditions when taking practice tests. If you take a practice test in a more relaxed setting or pause the exam to take breaks or spend more time on questions, your score for that test may be artificially inflated.
  • For in-person exams, lack of familiarity with the testing environment can have an impact. You are in the official testing center, an unfamiliar environment, using an unfamiliar computer. It can be distracting with the proctor coming and going to assist other students, especially if you are seated near the door to the testing room. Furthermore, the testing room environment has different students typing away at their respective work stations, another potential source of distraction. These issues don't arise with the online GMAT or with practice tests taken in a familiar environment on your own computer. To better prepare for in-person exams, we recommend taking a couple practice tests elsewhere on another computer (such as at a public library).
  • Finally, consider the stress involved in taking the real GMAT, knowing that your score counts. Practice tests are often lower-stress, because you take these at your leisure and because you know that the score doesn’t count. Unfortunately test anxiety can significantly impact some GMAT takers, resulting in lower real GMAT scores than what practice tests indicate that they are capable of achieving.

When should I take the GMAT?

GMAT scores are valid for five years, so it is best to finish the GMAT 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. 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 GMAT prep is a major time commitment, it's best to not simultaneously study for the GMAT and prepare b-school applications. Similarly, 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 tests. Before taking the GMAT, you should ideally attain at least two practice test scores within your target range, with at least one of these scores from an Official GMAT practice exam.

Timeframe with a GMAT Class

If you take an instructor-led complete GMAT preparation course, you should ideally take the GMAT one-to-three weeks after the conclusion of your course. Doing so will allow a few weeks to carefully review your course materials, fill-in any knowledge gaps, and take a couple additional practice tests.

This timeframe assumes that you have kept current with 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. The pressure to stay current with course assignments subsides once the course concludes.

Application Deadlines

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 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.

Should I retake the GMAT?

If your real GMAT score is lower than what your practice test scores indicate that you are capable of achieving, we recommend that you retake the GMAT. If this is the case, evaluate why the results were lower and consider what you can do to yield higher results next time. The first FAQ on this page provides further suggestions.

Performance issues aside, you should consider a retake if your scores are below the average GMAT scores of the schools to which you are applying, especially if other aspects of your application aren't strong. A high GMAT score can help overcome a subpar GPA or other weak areas in your application. You should also consider a retake if your Quant score is weak, because schools want evidence that you can handle rigorous courses such as Finance. In these situations, consider how to achieve higher results. The more time you have before application deadlines, the more sense it makes to try to improve your GMAT scores. GMAT tutoring may be a great option.

Should I take the GMAT or the GRE?

Many business schools accept the GRE in lieu of the GMAT in order to broaden their applicant pool. This has made it easier for potential applicants from non-business backgrounds (e.g. engineering, teaching, etc.) to pursue an MBA. Such individuals may have already taken the GRE in anticipation of pursuing graduate studies in their field; not having to take the GMAT eases the burden for these individuals.

The GMAT remains the test of choice for most business schools. If you have a traditional business background, we recommend that you take the GMAT. If you submit a GRE score with a traditional business background, an admissions officer may wonder why you elected to forgo the GMAT. Even with a non-traditional background, taking the GMAT demonstrates a commitment to pursuing a business education.

That said, you should consider whether you can score significantly better on the GRE than on the GMAT. GRE Quant is easier than GMAT Quant. GRE Verbal is more vocabulary-focused, whereas GMAT Verbal is more grammar- and logic-focused. The best way to evaluate the GRE as an alternative is to take a full GRE PowerPrep practice test. You can then use the ETS score comparison tool to convert your GRE scores into equivalent GMAT scores. If your practice test results are about equal for both tests, the GMAT is probably a better choice for an MBA. But if your GRE results are significantly higher, the GRE may be a better choice.

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

More than you may initially realize. The Integrated Reasoning section was specifically designed to be relevant to skills used in the business school and in the working world. Management students must be able to evaluate data presented in different formats and from multiple sources to make decisions under some uncertainty. 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 other GMAT 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). 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. 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