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Understanding the GMAT CAT: Perfection isn’t necessary

GMAT test-takers are an ambitious breed. Most of the students I encounter work full-time, have various extracurricular projects, and still find time to devote 10 – 15 hours each week to GMAT preparation. This is of course an admirable trait, and one that often translates well into GMAT success. The downside, though, is that most people gunning for 700+ on the exam believe that a 90th percentile score on the exam requires getting ~90% of the questions on the exam correct. Fortunately for you, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

A student of mine (whom we’ll call Mary) recently took a GMATPrep CATafter we had done about 15 hours of tutoring. To the delight of both of us, Mary scored a 46 on the Quantitative section, which was a significant improvement over her original exam. But Mary was a bit perplexed. She achieved this increase despite the fact that she had missed 16 of the 37 questions on the section. Was this a fluke? If you miss almost half of the questions on the GMAT Quant, is it still possible to get a good score?

In short: Yes!

Though it’d be ideal to go into the GMAT and nail all the questions you see, such an expectation is unreasonable and unnecessary. In fact, the GMAT is DESIGNED to give you progressively more difficult questions until you begin messing them; that’s how adaptive exams work. Let’s say your true score on the GMAT is 700. At the beginning of each section, you’ll encounter a few 500-level questions. Since you’re a 700 scorer, you’ll get most of these right, and the GMAT’s scoring algorithm will provide you new questions that are more difficult. This trend continues until you reach a level of difficulty at which you don’t consistently answer the questions correctly. The GMAT algorithm will then give you easier questions, and the trend from easier to harder continues until the algorithm has as refined a measure as possible of your true score. So the fact that you’re missing these tough questions doesn’t mean you’re doomed. It means the algorithm is trying to assess your true proficiency, and if your goal is a 700, then missing those 750-level questions will not at all prevent you from achieving that magical 700 score.

One key takeaway from this regards time-management.  If you’re going for a 700, you should allocate your time so that you give yourself a proper shot at answering those 700-level questions and not waste 3+ minutes trying to answer.  Though guessing on a question might make you uncomfortable at first, success on the GMAT is grounded as much in strategy as it is in conceptual knowledge. So abandon the myth that there’s a correspondence between percentile ranking and percentage of questions answered correctly. You’ll be happier for it.


Erfun Geula
Erfun Geula

Erfun Geula is a professional GMAT tutor, based in New York City. He has scored in the 99th-percentile of the GMAT three different times, he has written and edited hundreds of practice GMAT questions, and he has over 7,000 hours of tutoring experience.

  1. That’s a very interesting article! One of my friends actually took the GMAT and said the same thing: He thought he missed a ton of questions, but he still got a really high score. (I’m jealous 🙂 )

  2. […] concern yourself with the perceived level difficulty of questions on the exam. As I mentioned in another blog post, you can get an excellent score on the exam even if you miss a significant number of questions on […]

  3. Erfun Geula Erfun Geula Says: June 20, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Glad you enjoyed the article!

  4. […] I’ve discussed elsewhere, the GMAT scoring algorithm is designed to push you to failure. Your score on a given section is based largely on the average level of difficulty of questions you […]

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