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Today we would like to take a look at the benefits and limitations of a computer adaptive test. Not that we can persuade the GMAC to bring back the paper test; Rather, we would like you to be acutely aware of the upside and downside of taking such a test in order to best acclimate yourself to the test environment.

In general, a CAT greatly increases the flexibility of test management. The key benefits include:

  • Tests can be taken year around at any registered centers.
  • Unofficial Scores are available immediately, expediting the B-school application process.
  • Tests are individually paced so that a test-taker can choose a more suitable time of the day to take the test and special requirements for the disabled can be better accommodated.
  • More accurate scores can be provided by a CAT over a wide range of abilities than by a traditional test.

For test-centers

  • Minimal training of test administrators is required.
  • Test security is increased because hard copy test booklets are not distributed.

For test-makers

  • Test question pools and scoring method can be updated centrally and distributed at once later. Cost can be decreased while quality and speed can be improved substantially.

Despite the above advantages, computer adaptive tests have numerous limitations, and they raise several technical and procedural issues. Here we just focus on the limitations for the GMAT.

  • Test-takers need to perform equally well when reading a passage, question or graph on the computer screen as on the paper. The same applies to writing an essay.
  • Test-takers need to maintain a relatively high level of comfortableness with taking a test on the computer, which means that they should not make simple mistakes such as not selecting the correct answer before continuing. Other examples include that test-takers are not usually permitted to go back and change answers, requiring them to do away with their long-time paper test-taking habits. And we all know “Old habits die hard”!
  • With each examinee receiving a different set of questions, there can be perceived inequities.
  • There is a limited pool of test questions with the most desirable characteristics of a CAT item. This means that test security in the long run will be affected as people may try to remember the harder questions and compare notes with others. This issue can be addressed by expanding the question pool. Otherwise, it will degrade the test quality, or a longer test would be needed.

Conclusion: Practice makes perfect! Prepare with more CATs. Read long articles on your computer screen. Take mock tests in a setting similar to your test center during the same time period of a day. Reduce your response time in the areas you are best at, for example, getting your Sentence Correction time down to less than 1 minute per question. That way you can save time for the question types that you are less confidence about and achieve an overall higher total score!

Posted on November 19, 2007 by Manhattan Review

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Computer-Adaptive Test Taking Strategies

Unlike the old paper-and-pencil administered GMAT of the past, the GMAT CAT is better adapted to measure your ability with fewer questions. On the old paper-and-pencil GMAT you would answer 61 questions of varying difficulty in each section. So an average test taker would breeze through the easy questions, get most of the difficult questions wrong, and get some of the medium difficulty questions right and some wrong. With the CAT, you answer only 41 questions for the Verbal section and 37 for the Quantitative section that are tailored to match your level of ability. So the average test taker is no longer wasting time answering the easy questions that he will most likely get right, nor the really difficult questions that he will most likely get wrong.

You are given a question of moderate difficulty at the beginning of the test and first question in each question type. If you answer this question correctly, then the difficulty level increases. If you answer incorrectly, the difficulty level decreases and this up-down system continues through the duration of the exam. The jump to a higher difficulty or the drop to a lower difficulty level decreases as you move through the test.

The first few questions you answer will either move you to a significantly more difficult or easy level; however, the last few questions you answer will only slightly increase or decrease in difficulty. Please also bear in mind that there is a penalty for not finishing a section. The details have not been released by the GMAC or Pearson. But for each unfinished section, the penalty is about 4x the point for an incorrectly answered question. If you run out of time, then just randomly answer the last questions, at least you have 20% of the chance of getting it right for each question. If these questions are part of the trial un-scored questions, most likely the impact on your score is not that great. (Roughly 37 out of 41 verbal questions are scored, 33 out of 37 math questions are scored. So about 4 in each section are unscored.) We need to caution you against guessing in the early stage of the test. Since your chances of guessing correctly are only 20% for each question, an incorrect choice moves you down to a less difficulty level very quickly in the beginning of the test. After a few randomly guessed wrong choices, the test assumes an appropriate level for you and it will be very hard for you to regain your momentum later as the CAT algorithm will not give you very difficult questions for you later to pile up some last minute points.

In sum, at the beginning, in as few as four questions you can move up to the highest possible level by responding correctly to all four questions, or down to the lowest possible level by responding incorrectly to all of them. This system was developed to better “zero in” on your real skill level. Think of it as adjusting a lens. You first adjust the macro-focus to ensure you are in the right range of focus, and then you adjust the micro-focus to fine tune to reach the optimal focal point. The GMAT CAT uses a complex algorithm, which we explain before, to focus in on your real skill level.

Therefore, please take particular care with the first few questions of each question type in both Verbal and Quantitative sections. Sometimes, it might be well into around the 10th question before you see a new verbal type question. Whenever you see that first question of a new type, slow down and do your best without unnecessarily spending too much time on it. Otherwise, you will have to rush through later questions. It is essentially a balancing act in which you need to pace yourself from the beginning to the end in order to maximize your score.

Posted on November 13, 2007 by Manhattan Review

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Based on the most recent data published by the GMAC, approximately 21% percent of GMAT tests are taken by repeat test-takers who have taken the test more than once within a year. If the data is segmented further, it shows that out of tests that score within the mean Total GMAT score range of 500 to 540, the percentage accounted for by repeat test-takers is approximately 28%. The average gain between the first test and the second test is about 30 points. That means repeat test taking may result in either an increase or decrease. An important side fact: about 20% of GMAT tests are taken for the purpose of submitting scores to a non-business graduate program.

Since each person is allowed to repeat the test up to five times a year and most repeat test takers test two or three times within a year, we can make some easy assumptions.


1) the total number of GMAT tests taken per year is 135,000 (rounded up from the 2005 data),

2) all tests required for non-business school graduate programs are taken one time only and also account for 20% in the score range of 500 to 540, and

3) all repeat GMAT test takers take on average 3 times a year, the above data implies that the number of repeat MBA-related test takers should represent just 10.6% of total MBA-related test takers or just 15.2% of MBA-related test takers with score of 500 to 540. This equates to a total repeat MBA-related test takers of about 14,310 a year.

This conclusion is in agreement with Manhattan Review’s advice to our own students: We generally recommend you to prepare well, stay focused, and then ace the GMAT in your “once and only” try. That way you can optimize the result without stretching yourself for an extended period. Also that way you don’t need to worry about recovering from bruised “ego”, exhausted soul, tighter purse string, and a swamped schedule. However, if you have taken the GMAT on your own before studying with us, we believe targeting specific weaknesses is most important. Rather than repeating an entire prep course, we recommend private tutoring so that you can customize your sessions.

Posted on October 27, 2007 by Manhattan Review

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