The algorithm which determines how GMAT is scored can be tricky to understand. As all test takers should know, the GMAT is an adaptive test which means that it adapts to your individual capability. When you get questions correct, it gives you harder questions so that it can find out just how good you are. And when you get questions wrong, it gives you easier questions. So how can you adapt to an adaptive test?
There are a lot of myths out there about an adaptive test – that if you get the first five or six in a row right, it means you are guaranteed a high score; or that if you get them wrong, it means you are guaranteed a low score. All of this is incorrect. Here is how the scoring algorithm really works – it resembles a game called “20 Questions”. It is first going to ask you a question: “Are you above 500?” If you get the question right, it is like you saying “Yes, I am above that level.” And if you get that wrong, it is like you saying “No.”
If you answered “Yes,” the next question would be “Are you above 600?” If you answer “Yes,” then they will give you a harder question to determine just how far above 600 you are and if you answer “No,” then it will go back below and will say “Okay, we determined you are above 500, but below 600. Now let’s see where you fall in that range.”
False negatives and false positives
Here is the catch – the GMAT knows that you will lie to it. Sometimes, while the answer should be “Yes, I am above this level,” you will make a careless mistake and then, the test will have to adapt. Therefore, getting the first question wrong does not mean you are already in the loser’s bracket below 500. It just means that the test needs to adapt to that piece of knowledge. If you get the next few in a row right, it will realise that this was a false negative. When you guess correctly, or if you spend 4-5 minutes on a hard question and get it right, but not really in the amount of time it should have taken you, that is called a false positive or a “lucky guess”. Over time, the test will realise that you lied to it by getting that question right and it will start to readjust to your level.
If someone sees 4-5 questions ahead of time and then gets those same questions right on test day, the algorithm will find them out. It will see those as false positives and will ask enough subsequent questions to get the person back down to where their level is.
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What to expect
So how can you help yourself and actually adapt to the test? Firstly, recognise that it will give you false positives – the system is designed to filter those out. For every question you see, you have a one-out-of-five guess. And if you can even narrow that down a little bit more, you can guess correctly a few times and still not really know what you are doing. In that sense, stubbornness on the GMAT is punished. If you spend 4-5 minutes on a question, even if you get it right, the algorithm will get you eventually. It will get you down to your overall ability level. Therefore, that effort will probably be in vain because as it returns you back to normal, you will have less time to spend on those questions that are assessing your floor.
The other thing you should know is that you will get questions wrong. The test is designed to see how high you can go. You may need to intentionally give up on a couple of questions so that you can save time and not get punished at that lower level. Therefore, if you know that pacing will be a challenge for you, it is not a bad idea to have two or three punts in your pocket and recognise that you may reach a question that may take you too long to answer. If you use that time to make sure you are catching silly mistakes with the three-to-five-seconds checklist at the end of each question, that may be a better investment of time for you.
You need to recognise this about GMAT scoring – the test will adapt to your level. To make sure that it adapts to the level that you want it to, do not be stubborn and do not make silly mistakes. That is how you can adapt to the adaptive test.
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