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gmat catsLet’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:

  1. Figuring out your current scoring level (assuming you took the test under official conditions)
  2. Practicing stamina and / or timing
  3. 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.)

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My GMAT students are often surprised when I advise them not to take a practice test.

practice gmatI don’t advise this for every student on every occasion; there are some legitimate uses for practice tests. In general though, I find that my students take too many practice tests at the expense of other more beneficial forms of study for a given circumstance.

Think of the GMAT like a Mozart sonata. Let’s say you are a pianist, and you want to learn the sonata. Would you begin by playing the whole piece from start to finish? No, instead you would work in small sections. You would identify the sections that are easy, and you would work on those sections just enough to maintain your ability. Mainly, you would be concerned with the difficult sections of the piece, which you would practice slowly and intently. Not until you had mastered those sections would you move on.

After you have put in all that practice time, you want to make sure that you can maintain your ability within the context of the larger piece. That’s when you want to play the whole piece: when you want to check to see whether your prior work is ingrained or whether you forget it when you are distracted by the other demands of the piece.

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[This article has been updated and released Feb 11, 2014 as "4 Steps to Get the Most our of your CATs."]

Practice tests are an invaluable component of any test-taker’s study plan, but the most valuable thing is actually not the act of taking the practice test. Just taking a test doesn’t help us to improve all that much. While taking a test, we are concentrating on doing (using everything we’ve learned up to that point); as a result, we’re not really learning much.

The most valuable thing is actually the data that you can extract when you’re done with the test; that’s how you learn to get better and know what to study before you take another practice test. There are two main components to that data:

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