My Score Dropped! Figuring Out What Went Wrong

Stacey Koprince —  June 8, 2011 — 7 Comments

It’s always disheartening when we have a score drop, whether it happens on a practice test or (worst case scenario) on the real test. If this happens to you, the most important thing to do next is figure out why this happened. If you can figure out why, then you may be able to do something to prevent a score drop from happening again.

This article contains the questions to ask yourself as you try to figure out why your score dropped.

1. Official Test Conditions

Did you take your practice tests under official test conditions? Did you:

  • Do both essays?
  • Take only two 8-minute breaks (the first between essays and quant, the second between quant and verbal)?
  • Complete the test in one sitting (e.g., you didn’t do the verbal section later that evening or the next day)?
  • Pause the test, look at books or notes, eat and drink during the test, or do anything else that wouldn’t be allowed on test day

If you did not take your practice tests under official testing conditions, then your practice scores were likely inflated “ possibly just a little or possibly a lot, depending upon how far you were from official test conditions. If your practice test scores were inflated, then the bad news is: your scoring level wasn’t as good as you thought it was, and your official test didn’t represent as much of a drop as you first thought (and, possibly, the official test didn’t represent any drop at all).

While this is not great news, it is crucial to know, because it tells you what the problem is. You need to figure out in which areas you’re falling short and do what you need to do (math, grammar, problem-solving skills) in order to improve. (And don’t forget to take tests under official conditions in future, so that you get a true picture of your current scoring level.)

2. Stamina

Did you prepare yourself adequately for the stamina required to perform at a high mental level for more than 3.5 hours? Did you:

  • Take the tests under official conditions? (including essays and breaks “ see Section 1.
  • Take the practice tests at the same time of day as you took (or plan to take) the real test?
  • Avoid taking a second test (practice or official) within 3 days of taking another practice test?
  • Eat good energy food before the test and during the breaks, drink liquids to stay hydrated, and stretch or do light exercise to loosen up and get your blood flowing?

This is a long test; stamina is critical to our ability to perform well. Don’t tire yourself out in the days before the official test (don’t study too much, don’t take a practice test within a few days of the real thing, etc.). And experiment with food and liquid until you find a combination that gives you good energy without making you overly stimulated (too much caffeine is a bad thing).

In addition, many people skip the essays on practice tests and then see a substantial drop on the verbal section of the official test. People are surprised when this happens, but if you use your Critical Reasoning skills, it shouldn’t be that surprising! If you don’t take the essays, then you’re only spending about 2.5 hours on your practice tests. The real thing, with the essays, will take a bit more than 3.5 hours. Your brain is, quite simply, not prepared to last for that entire 3.5 hour period and verbal is the last section. So, the verbal score drops.

That’s why, although nobody cares about the essay scores, I still tell my students to do the essays on their practice tests. Your mental stamina is going to affect your quant and verbal scores, and you do care (very much!) about those scores, so you have to make sure you’re prepared to function at a high level for the entire 3.5 hour length of the test.

3. Timing

Mismanaged timing can cause a lot of variability in test scores. If your scores keep jumping up and down on practice tests and you’re not sure why, your timing may be the culprit. Also, whenever I talk to a student who experiences a more than 100 point drop on a test, timing is almost always a factor.

Timing is so crucial because of certain consequences that can kill our score. We tend to make more careless mistakes when we’re rushing. We may get multiple questions wrong in a row. We may run out of time entirely before the section is over. All of these things will have a negative impact on the scoring.

There are two major categories for mismanaged timing: too slow and too fast. Some testers will run out of time before the section is over; others will finish with lots of time left. Many testers mismanage the time badly, yet actually do finish the test on time. Just because you finished the test on time does not mean that you managed your time well throughout the section.

The vast majority of students who mismanage time badly enough to experience a big score drop will do so by going too slowly at some point on the test and, consequently, being forced to move too quickly at other points. Alternatively, people sometimes do move too quickly throughout an entire section because of general test anxiety; if you finish with more than 5 minutes left, you definitely moved too quickly through that section, and likely made careless mistakes as a result.

The common factor in either scenario: we have to go too quickly at some point. When we go too quickly, we make careless mistakes. We also tend to choose to go too quickly on problems we think are easy (or, at least, easier than others). So going too quickly basically equates to giving ourselves lots of chances to miss lower-level problems.

The death spiral (otherwise known as my score dropped in a big way!) occurs when you start to get a lot of lower-level problems wrong that you knew how to get right “ if only you weren’t rushing and making mistakes.

(By the way, think about the other side of things: the problems on which you would go too slowly. You’re going to do this on the really hard problems, right? Well, the chances aren’t very good that we’ll get those problems right, even by spending extra time “ precisely because the problems are really hard!)

4. Anxiety

The test is a nerve-wracking situation for everyone, but some people experience anxiety symptoms that are strong enough to interfere with rational thinking and the ability to perform. Below are links to a couple of articles about managing GMAT-related stress. If you are experiencing physical symptoms (nausea, rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing), you should consult a medical professional.

The most important thing to remember

If you can figure out what went wrong, then you can do something to prevent another score drop in future – so please take the time to think through everything that happened. Also, use the Beat the GMAT community to help – your fellow students and the GMAT experts can be great resources in helping you figure out what went wrong and what to do next.

Stacey Koprince


Stacey Koprince is an Instructor and Trainer as well as the Director of Online Community for Manhattan Prep. She's also a management consultant who specializes in corporate strategy. She has been teaching various standardized tests for more than fifteen years and her entire teaching philosophy can be summed up in five words: teaching students how to think.

7 responses to My Score Dropped! Figuring Out What Went Wrong

  1. This article has a great point about including the AWA in CAts. I never included the AWA in my practice CATs and Verbal has always been my strength but on test day, sure enough my verbal score dropped 10 points, from a usual 40+ range to a 30. I had obtained a 6.0 AWA 91% though. Had my Verbal been in the usual range I would have broken into the vaunted 700 club easily. Now I must wait the 31 days again.

  2. Currently I got panic when the test occurred. I don’t know why but in my mind I am ready on it. You stated an anxiety that’s partly right. Through that feelings you will probably lose a bit on the things you studied before. My tactics not getting nervous when my study session will be done I don’t get into memorization, what I wanted is to understand and familiarized everything about the things I used to read on. Then I can easily get the test with no worries to be failed at all.

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  3. Thanks for the informative post. Building on this subject, what is the effect of a score drop in the eyes of the admission committee? I received a good score on my first try, but I’m looking to increase my quant score. Is there a downside beyond the opportunity cost of the time spent studying and taking the test? Is a lower school have any actual effect on ones candidature?


  4. Thanks for sharing this.Currently I got panic when the test occurred. I don’t know why but in my mind I am ready on it. You stated an anxiety that’s partly right. Through that feelings you will probably lose a bit on the things you studied before.

  5. Thanks alot for your tips on how to manage one self while taking GMAT. These sound simple but missing on this basic stratergy can make person land entirely on other side of fence

  6. Another problem that the test-taker overlook is the number of questions that were repeated – either from what they have already solved on the OG or from what they have “seen” on various forums. Even a few questions either way can mean the difference between a 670 and a 710.


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