4 Steps to Get the Most out of your CATs (part 1)

Stacey Koprince —  February 11, 2014 — Leave a comment

GMAT-free-test2How many practice tests have you taken so far? Are you satisfied—or frustrated—with your progress?

One of the biggest mistakes I see students make is also relatively easy to fix: they don’t learn what they should be learning from their practice tests. This is exactly what we’re going to talk about today.

#1 You don’t get better while taking a CAT

Wait, how is this a step to get the most out of your CATs?? Read on.

Have you ever done this? You take a test, but aren’t happy with your score, so within a week or so, you take another test.

Bad move! First, you already have all of the info that you need in that first test; your skills aren’t going to change radically in a week. You just wasted 4 hours of valuable study time (not to mention, one of your limited practice tests!) in order to get the same data that you already know.

Alternatively, have you read online that someone out there took 14 practice tests in a 6-week period and swears by this method of studying because he then got a 760? If you do just what he did, you’ll get a 760 too!

Sadly, there’s a very good chance you won’t. Do you remember that one kid from your school, the one who was always excited when the standardized test days came around? She was super annoying because she just did well on these tests “naturally” and she actually liked taking them. (Yes, that was me.)

Here’s the thing: if these tests already just “make sense” to you, then sure, the brute force approach is likely to work. The thing is: those of us who can do this ARE actually analyzing this stuff just as much as you need to, but we do so more quickly than most, and almost without being aware that we’re doing it. The brute force method works for perhaps 1% of the population and if it were going to work for you, you’d already know it.

The first step, then, is to make this mindset switch: you’re going to use your CATs to practice what you’ve already learned and to provide data to help you continue to learn after the CAT is over. You should be able to find a bare minimum of 2 weeks’ worth of things to do based on your assessment of one CAT. That takes us to step #2…

#2 Use your CATs to learn your Strengths and Weaknesses

Sometime early on in your study, you’re going to take a practice test. Don’t put this off! You need to know your strengths and weaknesses so that you can set up your study plan and prioritize the right things.

In fact, that’s the single biggest value of taking a practice test: learning your strengths and weaknesses and using that data to inform your study for the next 3 to 6 weeks until you take another practice test.

I’ll base my discussion on the metrics that are given in ManhattanGMAT tests, but you can extrapolate to other tests that give you similar performance data. You will likely need at least 60 minutes to do this analysis, not counting any time spent analyzing individual problems.

Before you start the analysis itself, learn what the GMAT really tests. (Seriously, go read that right now, then come back here.)

First, naturally, look at the overall score! Did you do the essay and IR sections? If not, assume the Quant + Verbal score is a little inflated because you wouldn’t have been as mentally tired as normal when you got to those sections.

Ditto if you used the pause button, took extra time, took longer breaks than allowed, or did anything else that wouldn’t be allowed under official testing guidelines.

The not-so-hidden message here: it really is best to take a full test (including essay and IR) under 100% official conditions. You’ll get the best data and the most realistic picture of your current skill set and scoring level.

Next, pull up the problem list for each of the 3 sections with multiple choice questions (Quant, Verbal, and IR). The problem lists show each question, in order as you took the test, as well as various data points about those questions.

“Correct / Incorrect” Column

Any strings of 4+ questions wrong?

  • If so, look at time spent. Were you low on time and rushing?
  • Alternatively, were they really hard? Maybe you should have gotten them wrong.
  • Think back to how you felt on these problems. A common scenario: the first one or two are really hard, so you spend extra time. You get them wrong because they’re hard. You know you spent extra time, so you speed up on the next couple and make careless mistakes, getting those wrong as well.

“Cumulative Time” vs. “Target Cumulative Time”

How closely did you stick to the expected timeframe? It’s completely normal to be off by + / – 2 minutes, and I’m not too concerned as long as you’re within + / – 3 minutes.

  • Are you 3+ minutes behind (too slow)? If so, where was that extra time spent? How well did you really do on those problems? (They should be all or mostly correct, since you chose to allocate extra time to them! If not, start cutting yourself off.)
  • Are you 3+ minutes ahead (too fast)? If so, where are you picking up that time? How well did you do on those problems? If you knew you didn’t know how to do a problem it’s fine to answer fast. If you were going quickly because you did know how to do it, though, then be careful: that’s a recipe for careless mistakes.

“Time” Column

Even if your cumulative time was fine, you might still exhibit a very common problem: up and down timing. This is when you spend way too much time on some problems and then speed up on others to catch back up. Your overall timing works out, but you still have a serious timing imbalance on individual problems.

Click on the Time column itself. This will re-sort the questions from fastest to slowest.

  • How many “too fast” questions did you miss or get right via luck? If you knew you didn’t know how to do the problem and chose to guess quickly, then you don’t need to count that problem.
  • How many “too slow” questions did you miss? You should have cut yourself off faster!
  • Did you have any crazy-slow problems (e.g. double time)? Even if you got it right, maybe you should have gotten it wrong must faster and spent that time elsewhere.

Here are the timing metrics by Quant and Verbal problem type:

Problem Type Too Fast “Warning Track” Way Too Slow
Quant < 1m15s 2m30s to 3m >3m
CR < 1m15s 2m30s to 3m > 3m
SC < 30s 1m45s to 2m > 2m
RC: 1st question* <2m 5m to 5m30s > 5m30s
RC: general Qs < 30s 1m30s to 2m > 2m
RC: specific Qs < 1m 2m to 2m30s > 2m30s

*The first RC question includes the time it takes to read the passage.

Here are the timing metrics for IR, depending on your “skip” strategy*:

Skip Too Fast “Warning Track” Way Too Slow
0 questions < 1m 3m to 3.5m >3.5m
2 questions < 1.5m 3m30s to 4m > 4m
4 questions < 1.5m 4m15s to 4m30s > 4m30s

*You can’t actually skip an IR question; the “skip” strategy refers to the number of problems on which you’ll make an immediate, random guess in order to save time for other problems.

If you have more than a few questions in the too fast or too slow categories (regardless of whether they’re right or wrong), then you’ve got a timing problem. For example, if you had 4 questions over 3m each, then you almost certainly missed other questions elsewhere simply due to speed—that extra time had to come from somewhere. You know those times when you realize you made an error on something that you knew how to do? Well, if you were also moving even a little bit quickly on that problem, your timing was at least partially a cause of that error.

Alternatively, if there is even one that is very far over the “way too slow” mark, you have a timing problem. If you have one quant question on which you spent 4m30s, you might let yourself do this on more questions on the real test—and there goes your score. (By the way, the only potentially acceptable reason is: I was at the end of the section and knew I had extra time, so I used it. And my next question would be: why did you have so much extra time?)

For each section, get a general sense of whether there is

  • not much of a timing problem (e.g., only 1 or 2 questions in the too fast or warning track range),
  • a small timing problem (e.g., 3 questions in the warning track range, or 1 problem in the way too slow category, plus a few “way too fast” questions), or
  • a large timing problem (e.g., 4+ questions in the warning track range, or 2+ questions that are way too slow, plus multiple “way too fast” questions).

Note that I don’t specify above whether the warning track and too slow questions were answered correctly or incorrectly. It isn’t (necessarily) okay to spend too much time just because the question was answered correctly.

Try to figure out roughly how bad the timing problem is. How many problems fit into the different categories? Approximately how much time total was spent on the “way too slow” problems? How many “too fast” questions did that cost you or could it have cost you? (If you answer something correctly in under 30 seconds… assume you got a little lucky that you did not make a mistake.) Examine the problems themselves to locate careless errors. How many of your careless errors occurred when you were rushing or just plain tired out because you’d spent too much mental effort on a too-hard problem?

Finally, are there any patterns in terms of the content area? For example, perhaps 80% of the “too slow” quant problems were problem solving problems or two of the “too slow” SC problems were modifier problems. Next time, we’re going to talk about how to use the assessment reports to dive more into this data, but do try to get a high level sense of any obvious patterns.

All of the above allows you to quantify just how bad any timing problems are. Now, I’m going to make a pronouncement that will wow you: you have a timing problem!

Actually, we all have timing problems. The question is just what yours are and how significant they are. If you’re having trouble letting go on hard questions, read this.

Everyone should read this article on time management.

Now we’re done looking at the problem lists; in the second half, we’ll analyze the data given in the assessment reports.

Read 4 Steps to Get the Most out of your CATs (part 2).

Stacey Koprince

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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.

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