Let’s talk about the Do’s and Don’ts to get the most out of your CATs.
Know WHY you take CATs
Practice CATs are very useful for three things:
- Figuring out your current scoring level (assuming you took the test under official conditions)
- Practicing stamina and / or timing
- Analyzing your strengths and weaknesses
The third one on the list is the MOST important”that’s how we actually get better at this test!
Practice CATs do not help us to improve while taking the test. If you have been training to run a marathon, you don’t learn how to get better while you’re running the marathon itself; you’re just trying to survive. : ) Rather, you learn how to improve in between races while doing all kinds of training activities and analyzing your performance.
DO take a CAT at the beginning of your study
Many people put off taking their first CAT, often because they say that they haven’t studied yet so they know they won’t do well. Your goal in taking your first CAT is NOT to do well. Your goal is simply to get a handle on your strengths and weaknesses. Whatever they are, you want to know that right away so that you can prioritize your study.
It’s important to familiarize yourself with the 5 question types before that first exam (particularly Data Sufficiency) but don’t worry about learning all of the formulas and grammar rules. Some you already know; others, you don’t. Your first test performance will tell you what you do and don’t know.
One caution in particular here: a decent percentage of the people who put off their first CAT do so because they’re feeling significant anxiety about taking the test. These are exactly the same people who do need to take that first test early”pushing off the practice tests will just exacerbate your anxiety.
DON’T take a CAT more than once a week
Have you ever had this happen? You take a CAT and you get a score that you don’t like. Maybe you even really mess things up”run out of time or finish 20 minutes early”and your score plummets. So, a couple of days later, you take another CAT to prove to yourself that the bad test was just a fluke.
If you’ve ever done that, you wasted your time and a practice CAT, both of which are very valuable.
That bad test was not a fluke. Something happened to cause that performance. Figure out what it is and fix it before you spend another 3.5 hours taking a second test.
In fact, whether you like the score or not, whenever you take a CAT, don’t bother to take another until you’ve addressed whatever issues popped up during your analysis of the first test. (This article will help you analyze MGMAT CATs.)
Most of the time, DON’T take a CAT more than once every 3 weeks
There are two broad modes of study: the trying to improve phase and the final review phase. Most of our study is the first phase; the final review phase kicks in for just the last couple of weeks.
During the trying to improve phase, it is a complete waste of time to take a CAT more frequently than about every 3 weeks. Really! The whole point of taking the practice CAT is to figure out what needs to get better. Then, go get better! Until you’ve made substantial progress towards whatever issues were uncovered, taking another practice CAT is just going to tell you that you still have those same issues.
That even applies when you are trying to improve timing or stamina issues; there are other ways to address these issues besides taking a CAT. If you’re struggling with timing on the quant, GMAT Focus is a great intermediate resource from the real test makers. You can also set up longer sets of questions for yourself (in the 15 to 20 question range)”your practice sets don’t have to be 37 or 41 questions in order for you to learn to handle the timing better. (Read this Time Management article for more.)
You can practice building stamina every time you study. Figure out everything that you’re going to do for the next hour or two hours (I try to set up what I think will be three hours’ worth of work, just in case I finish faster than I think; if I don’t finish, I save the rest for the next day.) Then, GO for 1 hour without stopping”no email, no smart phone, no food, nothing. If you want to do a second hour, then take a 15-minute break and GO again for a second hour without stopping.
After that second hour, do take a substantial break (at least one hour, ideally two) before you study any more that day. Making new memories is more mentally fatiguing than recalling memories (you only need to recall memories during a CAT), so don’t do this exercise for more than about 2 hours in a row or your study will suffer.
Once you hit the final review phase, you can take a CAT once a week for the last couple of weeks; at this point, you’re just trying to solidify everything and develop your Game Plan.
DON’T take a practice CAT within 5 days of the real test
You wouldn’t run a practice marathon a few days before a real marathon, would you? You risk tiring yourself out or (mentally) injuring yourself (by reducing your confidence) just before the real test.
If your score isn’t where you want it to be, postpone the test; you’re not going to change it substantially by taking a practice CAT at the last minute (or doing anything else).
DON’T go months without taking a CAT
When someone does this, the impetus is usually anxiety. You’re nervous that you won’t get the results that you want, so you avoid getting any results at all. Alternatively, maybe you think that you’ll study everything and then when you take the test, you’ll get the score that you want but practicing without any CAT data is going to cause you to build bad habits (such as spending too much time on a question) and fail to build good ones (such as learning how and when to cut yourself off and guess).
If your last CAT was so long ago that you’re no longer sure what your strengths and weaknesses are under testing conditions, it’s time for another CAT.
In short, do take a CAT pretty early on in your study process. Then analyze the results and use that analysis to inform your study plan. When you have addressed a substantial proportion of the major issues identified via that analysis, it’s time to take another CAT. Most of the time, you should be able to find at least two to three weeks’ worth of issues to address after every CAT.
Once you’ve got your score where you want it to be, you’re going to start your final review. During this phase (which typically lasts a couple of weeks), plan to take one CAT two weeks before and another CAT one week before your real test date. Read the Game Plan article (linked above) to learn what to do with this data.
Good luck and happy studying!