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A few days ago, I wrote about setting a realistic score goal, especially for those of you who have taken the test and are aiming for a higher score. One thing I didn't get into is that, on any given day, you could walk out of the exam with a wide range of scores; if you ended up on the low end of your range the first time, you might be in for a boost the second time.

GMAT Score Variance

As you know if you've taken several full-length practice tests, your score will vary, and it won't always do so in a logical fashion. You might have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed one morning and saw your score drop 30 points; another day you might see a run of questions that you'd just practiced and get a much better result.

There's no research to prove this (nor do I think there will be: it would be just about impossible to control for all the variables involved) but I suspect that, the day you take the test, there's a range of about 50 points that your score could
fall into. Several factors determine whether you end up at the high end of the low end of that range; some of those are within your control, others are not.

The Questions You See

Probably the biggest variable is the exact makeup of your test. Because the GMAT is adaptive, you see only a small percentage of the questions that could be selected for you. The test is designed to make every experience similar, so that, for instance, you'll predictably see about 13 Data Sufficiency questions, a small handful of geometry problems, and plenty of algebra. But you surely have specific strengths and weaknesses: perhaps you are great at working with circles, but not so confident on the coordinate plane. No matter how much practice you put in, you'll still be stronger in some areas than others.

In other words, there's not a whole lot you can do about the questions you see. What you can control is how you react to those questions. The single thing you can do to best guarantee that you will score on the low end of your range is to see a question you're not prepared for, let yourself flail at it for five minutes, and then stress out about how you've ruined your time management. That may sound like something you would never do, but it's much more common than you think.

Even if you don't succumb to stress, there's another worry. A student pointed out to me the other day that it's only natural to see a difficult problem that you're not prepared for and simply want to figure it out. Especially if you like math or are just an inveterate problem-solver, it's tempting to sit there for as long as it takes and puzzle over it. Maybe that's a good life habit (I don't know) but it's not a good GMAT habit.

Stress, Stress, Stress

There are a million other things that can happen to disrupt your test experience. You could end up starting your exam early or late. You could get a worn-out marker or a dirty dry-erase board. The person next to you could type loudly, cough a lot, or smell bad. The list goes on and on–imagine a distraction in the test environment, and I've heard it used as an excuse for a poor performance.

Again, there's next to nothing you can do about these distractions. But you can control your reactions to them. There's no magic bullet I can share to solve that problem, but the more confident you are, the less they will bother you. If you go into the exam thinking that something in the test or the environment will hold you back, something probably will. If you walk in ready to ace the GMAT, you're much more likely to do so.

Second Time's the Charm

Best of all, if you have taken the GMAT before, you have some idea of what obstacles might arise. Simply being aware of the possibility will make you more ready to ignore or defeat them. Instead of worrying about getting a second disappointing score, focus on the positives: the test itself is less stressful if you've taken it before. Further, you've gotten a first-hand idea of where your skills are lacking, and you've (I hope!) spent time remedying those defects.

In other words, simply taking the test a second time–if you approach it with the right attitude, anyway–should be worth a little score boost in itself. Combine that with your targeted practice in between test administrations and a change in attitude, and you're that much more likely to get your score up to where you want it to be.

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.

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