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GMAT Scoring – How the GMAT is Scored

Think like a Big Leaguer and Improve Your GMAT Score

If I told you that you could put yourself into position to improve your GMAT score before even answering the first question, would you believe me?

Believe it or not, learning the ins and outs of how the GMAT is scored will enable you to do just that. With opening day of baseball season right around the corner, let’s take a look at how a player’s batting average sheds some light on the GMAT scoring algorithm as well as how to take advantage of it with a couple of important GMAT test-taking strategies.

(Don’t worry, if you’re not a baseball aficionado, I’ll explain everything in easy-to-understand terms).

The first thing you have to understand about the GMAT is that it’s a Computer-Adaptive-Test, or CAT. There are two components to this term: 1) You’ll be taking the GMAT on a computer (no scantrons or #2 pencils); and 2) The questions you receive will adapt to you based on how you’re performing. They’re not set in stone or pre-determined. Specifically, if you get a question right, the computer will recognize that you’re doing well and challenge you with a harder question next. If you get a question wrong, the computer will give you a slightly easier question next. And so on throughout the 37 questions of the GMAT quantitative section and 41 questions of the GMAT verbal section.

Now, what does all this mean and why is it important?

Let’s turn to baseball for some help.

Imagine that a rookie ball player enters the League and we have no idea how he’s going to perform or what his batting average is going to be by the end of the season. We’ll call him George MATthews for fun (his friends just call him G-MAT for short). There’s no track record on George. He has all season to “reveal” his true batting ability to us. His batting average will fluctuate up and down throughout the season as he gets hits or makes outs until it ultimately settles on a final batting average on the very last day of the season that represents his true “ability” in terms of being a Major League baseball player.

Now, here’s what’s important to understand: The exact same thing happens to you when you sit down to take the GMAT! You’ll walk into the testing center with a certain GMAT test-taking ability, and it’s up to you to reveal that throughout the course of the test. Or, more accurately, it’s up to the computer to figure that out (more on that in a moment). Regardless, you’ll get some questions right. You’ll get some questions wrong. Your score will fluctuate accordingly until ultimately, at the very end of the test, you will have revealed your true GMAT abilities and the computer will spit out your final GMAT score.

Let’s take a closer look at how this works.

When you sit down at the computer to begin the GMAT and the computer gives you your very first question, it will assume you’re an average GMAT test-taker and give you an average-difficulty, 500-level GMAT question. (It’s too bad we can’t tell the computer beforehand that you took a Dominate the GMAT preparation course and that you’re therefore above average!). If you get it right, it will give you a harder question. If you get it wrong, it will give you an easier question.

BUT, here’s where it gets interesting. Will the computer give you a slightly harder/easier question, or a significantly harder/easier question for question #2?

Let’s turn back to baseball for the answer.

Let’s say that our rookie friend George has a batting average of .500 heading into Game #2. He went 1 for 2 in his first game, which means he’s batting 50%. Now, let’s assume he has a great day and goes 2 for 2 in Game 2. Now, he’s collectively 3 for 4 and his batting average goes up a lot, all the way to .750! That’s a .250 improvement in just one day!

The same thing happens on the GMAT. If you get the first question right, the second question you receive will be of significantly higher point value. Put another way, you will have improved your GMAT score a lot just by getting the first question right! Your second question, in fact, might be a 560-level GMAT question. If the GMAT were a 1-question test, your final GMAT score would be 560 as a result of getting that first question right.

Now, the improvement won’t be quite as great if you get question #2 right (but still significant), and even less again if you get question #3 right, and so on. In fact, by the END of the test, your GMAT score won’t be changing by very much at all.

Let’s go back to the baseball analogy. Let’s assume it’s the very last game of the baseball season and George is batting .500 again. This time, however, he has a whole season under his belt and his .500 batting average is represented by being a collective 100-for-200 on the season. Like in game #2, let’s assume he also goes 2-for-2 in his final game! A great way to end the season, right?

But how much will his batting average improve this time? Not very much. In fact, he’ll now be 102-for-202, which is an average of .505. His batting average improved by .250 just by going 2-for-2 in game #2, yet going the same 2-for-2 at the end of the season only improved his final batting average by a whopping .005.

The same will be the case for you on the GMAT based on the way the GMAT scoring algorithm works: Just as George can influence his batting average more during the early part of the season than later in the season, so too can you influence your ultimate GMAT score by more early in a section than later in a section. In fact, by the time you get to the last few questions, your score may only be fluctuating by 5 or so points at a time, whereas your score was changing by 5o or 60 points with each right or wrong answer early in the section (see the graphic above).

So, what GMAT test-taking strategies does this new-found knowledge about GMAT scoring lend itself to? Hopefully you now recognize that you should:

1. Spend a little more time answering questions early in a section. Notice I didn’t say, “Get the earlier questions right!” Obviously, if you had 100% control over that, life would be really good. But what you do have control over is whether or not you avoid making careless errors by using your scratch paper correctly, taking your time, and double-checking your work.
2. Guess at the end of a section (if you’re running out of time). The downside risk of getting wrong answers later in a section is relatively low, as we’ve just seen, so you might as well guess in the event you get a few of the last few questions right. More importantly, the test-makers really don’t like it if you leave questions un-answered. In fact, there’s a stiff penalty for doing so. You’ll lose more points by leaving the last few questions un-answered than you will by guessing on them and getting them all wrong. So, if you’re running out of time, you might as well take a stab at the remaining questions and hope luck is on your side!

Remember our good friend George as you’re taking the GMAT, apply these two crucial strategies to improve your score (before even sitting down to answer the first question!), and go out and dominate the GMAT!

*Note: For a comprehensive GMAT overview and more detailed explanation of GMAT scoring and test-taking strategies, consider enrolling in one of our online GMAT preparation courses.