Taking practice tests is an essential component of your GMAT study regimen. But it’s not the mere act of taking the test that provides you with your greatest opportunity for improvement. Sure, taking the test is helpful: it exposes you to more practice problems, forces you to consider pacing and work under timed pressure, and trains your mind and body for the 3.5 hours you’ll spend testing at the test center. More importantly, however, your practice tests provide you with a blueprint for your performance; they show you how you perform under those timed, labor-intensive conditions and, in doing so, shows you where you can stand to improve the most.
Analyzing and then acting upon those results, then, is where you stand to gain the most ground. When you analyze your practice test performance, keep the following in mind:
1) Categorize and prioritize your mistakes
Not all incorrect answers are created equal. Some are questions that you should have gotten right. You made a careless error, or you fell for a trap answer, or you blanked on a concept that you should have been able to figure out. These errors should go in your must-fix category – these are easy points on the test that you’re giving back because of easily correctable mistakes. Put these at the top of your list, and avoid the temptation to write these off as “silly mistakes” that won’t happen again. If it happened once, it’s something that you need to be aware of and double-check for.
Another mistake category is things that you know you could get right in the future. Upon reading the solution, you realize that it wasn’t as hard as it looked, and you just need to brush up on that concept or practice more with that question type. These should be the errors that you address next – plan on study sessions that drill those concepts so that you see them more quickly and clearly on future questions. Seek out more practice questions of that category so that your muscle memory becomes second-nature and you feel comfortable with those problems. Find articles or videos on the topic or look into a tutor or study partner to help you better understand what’s currently just outside your grasp. These points aren’t “easy,” but they’re well within reach if you prioritize them.
Then there are those questions you look at and realize that maybe someday you’d get them right, but not anytime soon. The answer explanation doesn’t make much sense and even with unlimited time you don’t think you’d feel comfortable with a problem like this on test day. Here’s where you have to summon your inner Elsa (of “Frozen” fame) and just “let it go…” for the time being. It may seem counter-intuitive to leave your biggest weaknesses behind, but think like an MBA – the return-on-investment of your time on these topics is the lowest. An hour of studying on the “could get right” category mentioned above probably gets you another question or two right; an hour on these “maybe someday” problems may not move the needle at all.
2) Understand why you made the mistake, not just what topic the question was about
The most convenient and most popular way to categorize your mistake is to scan at a surface level and say “I missed 2 geometry questions, 3 algebra questions, 1 permutations problem, etc.” Which isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s woefully incomplete. Sometimes you miss a geometry question not because you didn’t understand the triangle formulas but because the last step was to calculate the percent increase (if it doubled, that means 100% of the original was added) and not the percent of (double is 200% of the original). For that type of mistake, studying geometry isn’t going to fix it; you need to better recognize what the question is asking for. Other times you may make a mistake on a content area but again not because you didn’t understand the algebra or probability, but because you fell for a common Data Sufficiency trap.
The key to effective analysis is to spend that extra minute or two asking why you got the problem wrong. The content area is important, and often you will miss problems because you just didn’t know the rule or because your algebra skills just aren’t where they need to be. But many of the mistakes in the “should get right” and “could get right” categories come down to other parts of your thought process, so it’s helpful to note those areas so that you spend your time addressing them head-on.
3) Be realistic when assessing your pacing
One of the most common reasons for underperformance is pacing: “I didn’t bomb the GMAT…I just ran out of time and had to start guessing.” But pacing is one of those things that isn’t likely to just fix itself, and the most obvious fix – “I’ll just get faster” – isn’t as easy as it sounds. So when you assess your pacing, you should ask yourself a few questions:
A proper assessment of pacing – particularly as you get closer to test day and substantial improvement becomes more fleeting – is one that’s realistic and includes not just places where you can speed up but also those areas where you need to slow down or just realize that it’s not worth the time.
In summary, taking practice tests is a huge step toward GMAT success, but quality analysis of your performance on those practice tests takes it that much further. The best thing about practice tests is that they give you a “scouting report” on your test performance and provide you with specific areas for improvement. Use those practice test results wisely, and you’ll be ready for peak performance when the score really counts.
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