How to Deal with the Computer Adaptive Function of the GMAT

Written by , Next Step Test Preparation, for GradSchools.com, February 2014

The GMAT is delivered by computer daily in testing centers across the country. Tests given via computer have a few unique challenges. Studies have proven that people read more slowly off of a computer screen than they do when looking at printed text. You also cannot write on the text of a computerized test. Scratch work on the GMAT is in marker on a booklet of laminated sheets. This can make solving math questions--particularly geometry questions--a bit more of a challenge. Further complicating matters, you don't have a calculator (except on the Integrated Reasoning section).

Moreover, the GMAT is not merely a computerized test; it's a Computer Adaptive Test (CAT). A CAT basically assigns questions according to your performance. If you are doing well, the questions you are assigned will be harder and if you are doing poorly you'll see easier questions. No two GMAT test takers will see the same test. One implication of this format is that you cannot go back to look at or change your answers on previous questions. You see each question once and then never again. Without the ability to skip around, timing also becomes more difficult. Finally, there's the potential stress of overanalyzing question difficulty.

Here are a few tips for navigating the adaptive function of the GMAT.

(1) Focus on easier questions.

While harder questions tend to be worth more points, because of the adaptive function, you don't get to answer harder questions until you correctly answer easier ones. So there are really two benefits to answering easier questions carefully and correctly: more points from more right answers and the ability to reach the highest score levels by attempting the hardest questions. So if you know how to solve a problem, always put in a little extra time and effort so that you can be sure you got it right.

(2) Don't over-think the difficulty of each question.

If you see an easy question at the middle or later in a section, don't assume that you're doing poorly. For one thing, difficulty can be subjective. You may think certain math topics are easy that others find challenging. A tough reading passage may also have been written about a topic that you are familiar with. Most importantly, though, worrying over question difficulty is a distraction from your greater concentration.

(3) Set firm but flexible timing guidelines.

Because you will only see each question once, you must decide how you are going to answer it in that moment. You have 37 math questions to answer in 75 minutes, which equates to about 2 minutes per question. For an easier question, you should aim to solve it quickly and efficiently but take enough time to be certain of your work. On harder questions you can take 2 minutes or a bit longer--as long as you are making good progress. If you don't know how to solve a question however, you cannot afford to spend more than two minutes hoping to figure it out. It's often best to acknowledge your lack of understanding early on, make an educated guess and invest the saved time into other questions.