GMAT Practice Tests

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Talk to just about anybody planning on taking the GMAT, and they'll explain to you just how crucial practice tests are to their preparation. Many test-takers border on the obsessive: they lay out a two-month study plan, and it involves a once-weekly or even twice-weekly practice test.

Ack! To me, that sounds positively burnout-inducing. What's more, it's not all that productive.

Now, I'm not saying that practice tests are worthless. Far from it. No one should take the GMAT without having gone through at least one full-length, adaptive practice GMAT on a computer.

Here are a few of the benefits of practice tests:

  • You get experience sitting at a computer in a high-stress situation.
  • You practice answering questions that are fed to you by an adaptive algorithm.
  • You learn what to expect from yourself in a four-hour testing session.
  • You get a general idea of how you're scoring.

Those are all very important: especially the third one, as almost no one practices for four hours at a stretch with only five-minute breaks. (Nor would I recommend that you frequently do so!) However, those benefits can be gained with only a few tests. Taking more tests is counterproductive.

Value Your Time

First, and most importantly, practice tests take a lot of time. If you take a full-length exam on Saturday, odds are you're not doing much else that day to prepare for your GMAT. That four-hour investment is worth it the first and second time you take a practice test, but after that it isn't.

Consider what you can accomplish in four hours: perhaps 50 practice quantitative questions, including time spent reviewing and redoing them to ensure you're learning. Perhaps 15 reading comprehension passages, 30 critical reasoning questions, or 50 sentence correction questions, all with time left over to analyze how you did and read explanations.

Sure, when you take a practice test, you'll get plenty of practice questions, but you aren't learning very much from them. You're trying to work through them quickly, perhaps skipping some, and then by the time you're done, the last thing you want to do is go through them again and review the ones you missed. And in some cases (including the official GMAT PowerPrep tests), explanations aren't even provided.

As I say, the benefit is great a couple of times: you need to know what it feels like to work against the clock and to skip questions when necessary. But the most important aspect of your preparation is always to learn as much content as you can possibly apply to the test within a reasonable timeframe. Working through and reviewing practice questions does that. Taking a fourth or fifth practice test does not.

Practice Perfectly

Second, you may be familiar with the saying, "Practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect." That belief is why I so strongly recommend redoing practice problems until you are completely confident that you can do them correctly. When you're taking a practice test, you'll get plenty of questions wrong, especially when you're first starting out. You'll be under stress, and you may not feel very good about the whole practice test experience.

Think about what you're "practicing." You're rehearsing stress and underperformance. If you don't do well, you're adding a blow to your self-esteem. This is not productive.

Use the Best Materials

Third, there are only a handful of good practice tests out there. Most of the value of these exams is based on their accuracy–in their adaptive algorithm, in their scoring mechanism, and in the relevance of their practice questions. I've written many times about how important it is to use the best possible questions (ideally, those from The Official Guide to the GMAT and related books). That's just as true on practice tests.

If you study with Kaplan, you have access to lots of full-length practice tests. Many of the questions are very test-like; some just aren't. The verbal, in particular, is noticeably different from the real thing. Not only that, but their adaptive algorithm is a poor replica of the actual GMAT's system, and the scoring mechanism is approximate at best. Is all of that worth four hours of your valuable study time?

I don't mean to pick on Kaplan: compared to other big-name test-prep providers, their practice tests are quite good. But compared to the actual test, or even the GMAT Powerprep exams you get for free when you sign up for the GMAT, they just aren't that accurate.

The Best Approach

What, then, should you do? Plan on taking two full-length practice tests. One of them should be about two weeks before your test date. The other should be about four weeks before your test date. Those tests should be the Powerprep exams. The rest of your time should be spent practicing, reviewing, and redoing test-like problems.

Despite what you might've heard to the contrary, the GMAT is ultimately a skill-based test. You can learn to beat the system to some extent, but not much. The best uses of your time are those that develop your skills, increase your speed, and build your confidence. Practice tests strike out on all three counts, and your preparation should reflect that.



About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

Total GMAT Verbal

The comprehensive guide to the GMAT Verbal section. Recognize, dissect, and master every question type you'll face on the test. Everything you need, all in one place, including 100+ realistic practice questions.
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