How does the GMAT adaptive algorithm work? Sample ESR analysis

Consider a scenario – You just finished taking the GMAT and immediately, your GMAT scores flashed on the screen. You might end up with a score better than you anticipated or may be lower. In either of the two cases, you might want to ask –

How does GMAT scoring work?

If this is the case with you, then continue reading because all your questions around the GMAT scoring pattern will be answered soon. We’ll use sample GMAT Enhanced Score Reports (ESR) to understand the concepts better.

Here’s what we will be covering in this article –

  • How is GMAT a Computer Adaptive Test?
  • How GMAT scoring works
  • Case Study: The right test taking strategy
  • Importance of first 10-15 questions on GMAT
  • What you need to do to ace the GMAT
  • Things you need to avoid while taking the GMAT
  • Summing Up – The right GMAT study strategy for better accuracy & faster output
  • Test taking strategy for GMAT Verbal
  • Test taking strategy for GMAT Quant

GMAT adaptive algorithm


How is GMAT a Computer Adaptive Test?

A computer adaptive test (CAT) is one where the computer examines the test taker’s responses during the test and selects a subsequent question depending upon their performance in each question.

GMAT works on the same principle. The GMAT algorithm continuously adapts to your ability during the test to deliver subsequent questions depending upon your accuracy in the previous questions.

Therefore, if you consistently get your answers right, the average difficulty of the questions you get will be higher too, resulting in a higher score.

While, on the other hand, if you continuously get the questions wrong, the computer will begin to serve you easier questions to match your ability.

How does GMAT scoring work?

Scoring on GMAT does not work like any other test. In a linear test, all students are served with the same set of questions and are scored based on the number of questions they get right.

For instance, two students take a simple test having 30 questions of 3 marks each. First student gets 20 questions right out of 30 and the second one answers 22 questions correctly.

Now, you can easily calculate the final scores of both students by simply multiplying the number of questions they got right by 3.

So, Student 1 scored 60 marks out of 90 and Student 2 scored 66.

But, what if these two students took the GMAT?

Check out the ESRs of two students below – Student 1 made 7 mistakes and scored V41 (i.e. 93 percentile) & Student 2 made 8 mistakes in Verbal and scored V30 (i.e. 58 percentile).

Surprisingly, with only 1 extra mistake, Student 2 scored 11 points lower than Student 1 and it brought a difference of 35 percentile.

GMAT ESR Sample 1

Why do you think this might have happened?

GMAT is not being unfair here. This is simply how a computer adaptive test works.

If you study the snapshot above closely, you will see that in the 1st quarter, the Student 2 has made a total of 4 mistakes, whereas the Student 1 has made only 2 mistakes.

Implication: Difficulty Level of Questions Leads to a Higher Score

GMAT ESR Sample 2

This difference in the 1st quarter created a huge impact on the difficulty level of questions the two students received going forward. Student 1 was served harder and obviously high value questions compared to Student 2.

The Importance of First 10-15 questions

It is clear from the above example that the student who got his initial questions right ultimately scored higher.

Does this mean that the first 10 questions are more important? Yes.

So, are the questions that are served later not/less important? That is not true.

Confused? You will understand this better with the following example –

Given below are the ESRs of two students whose scores in Quant are Q48 and Q50 respectively. While both students had the same accuracy in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarters, Student 1 got 86% questions correct in the 1st quarter whereas Student 2 had an impressive 100% accuracy.

GMAT ESR Sample 3

What do you conclude from this observation?

A difference of 14% in the accuracy in first quarter brought an overall difference of two points in the student’s Quant score. Clearly, a higher accuracy in the first quarter helped Student 2 score better.

Now, let us check out the 3 ESRs below.

GMAT ESR Sample 4

All three students have 100% accuracy in the first quarter. Now, if you compare the performance of these students in the last 2 quarters, the average accuracy of Student 1 is 66%, 50% for student 2, and only around 35% for Student 3.

But even though their accuracy scores are quite apart, it did not impact their final scores to a great extent. If you compare this with the Verbal ESRs above, you will see how even a single mistake in the first quarter caused a difference of 7 points.

Verdict: Scoring on GMAT is different than a linear test

Since no two students are served the same set of questions on GMAT, calculating the scores based on accuracy is not feasible. GMAT being an adaptive test, scoring is unique for each student.

What do you need to do to ace the GMAT?

  1. Make the GMAT serve you tough questions – It is important to let the computer know that you can handle 700-level questions. To do that, you need to get a high accuracy in first 10-15 questions. Only then GMAT will start serving you the real tough ones. It is important that you do not time yourself while solving these questions.
  2. Get the tough questions right – Once the algorithm starts serving you the tough ones, try to get a streak of questions right and make GMAT believe that you’ve the capability to answer tough questions.

Learning the right approach to solve any question from any topic is important to get your questions right consistently.

Going through multiple resources and learning multiple methods to solve one type of question is not the right thing to do if you wish to solve questions accurately in the given amount of time.

At GMATWhiz, we always encourage our students to follow a methodical approach by

  • first learning the concepts,
  • then solidifying these concepts, and
  • then practising questions.

A lot of students skip the second step and jump directly to solving questions which is not the most productive method if you want to reach a 700+ on GMAT. To learn the right approach for each section on GMAT, sign up at GMATWhiz below.

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Note: Your strategy to approach Quant will be slightly different from Verbal. Continue reading to learn more about it.

3 Things you need to avoid while taking the GMAT

  1. Try not to make consecutive mistakes – As explained above, making consecutive mistakes will make the computer serve you with easier questions. Thus, lowering your overall score.
  2. Never leave questions unattempted – A lot of students ask us if it is okay to skip questions if they do not know the correct answer. We strongly recommend against it because GMAC heavily penalises you for skipping questions. it is better to get it wrong than not answering at all.
  3. Try the strategies on a few mocks before hand – Having a strategy to take and ace the GMAT is important. But what is even more important is to practice your strategy on a few mock tests. Only then you’ll be more confident during the test.


The right GMAT study strategy for better accuracy & faster output

Now that we understand how the GMAT works and how you can make the algorithm serve you with questions of high value, it is time to discuss a few more tips to build a fail-proof plan –

I. RC is very critical in Verbal

A lot of students feel confident about their reading comprehension skills but end up taking too much time. Ironically, the most popular approaches these students use to solve RC questions appear to be time saving but are usually the opposite. For example –

  1. Reading the first and the last lines of a paragraph
  2. Skimming through the passage and jumping to solve questions. Referring back to the passage for each question
  3. Reading the questions first

The most effective method to solve RC passages is Drawing Inferences.

Learn the same in this video:
Watch video

II. Skill is more important than Accuracy

The skills vs accuracy debate arises because unlike other tests where accuracy will suffice to score well GMAT is a test of ability.

But what do we mean by skill? Skill simply means your ability to solve a question of any difficulty level accurately. Therefore, it is, very important to learn the right methods to solve each question and master it to get every question from that topic right.

III. Pace your test right

On an average, you get 2 mins per question on GMAT. But linear timing will not benefit you

Since first 10-15 questions (for first two quarters) are comparatively more important, it is important to not focus on timing yourself or cutting corners at this stage to save time for later

Rather, you should prioritize getting your questions right. Remember, timing should be
naturally low for easy questions and high for hard questions.

If you’re not able to do initial questions in a timely manner, it is because your problem lies elsewhere and needs to be corrected before taking the test.

IV. Proper Study Plan

A lot of times, students ask us if it is okay to skip a few topics. There are many reasons why it is not the best thing to do, especially since many topics are interlinked and you never know which question from which topic will be served at what difficulty level.

We always suggest our students to follow a proper study plan and pace their prep correctly.

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The Right Prep Strategy for GMAT Quant (for scores up to Q47)

To reach a high score on GMAT Quant, you need to understand the importance of each quarter. While skipping questions will be detrimental to your score, you can be selective while solving them in the later stages. Check out the right strategy to approach Quant –

  1. Get your first 15 questions right. Do not try to save time at this stage
  2. Try to maintain decent accuracy in the 3rd quarter
  3. If you are short on time, solve the questions selectively

Watch this detailed video to learn the right test taking strategy for GMAT Quant:

Watch video


The Right Prep Strategy for GMAT Verbal (for scores up to V42)

Unlike Quant, Verbal questions cannot be solved using tips and tricks. Instead, they require their due time. Here’s how you should approach Verbal to score a V40+ –

  1. First 26 questions matter the most on Verbal
  2. Give questions their due time
  3. If needed, solve only 50% questions in last quarter

To learn the right test taking strategy for GMAT Verbal in detail, watch this video
Watch video

Would You Like to have a One-on-One Discussion with Our Strategy Expert – Piyush?

Piyush has 9+ years of experience mentoring thousands of students with their GMAT prep. With a vast knowledge in test taking and timing strategy, Piyush has guided his students to GMAT success and beyond.

To discuss your troubles and clear your doubts around GMAT scoring algorithm and more, schedule a free call with Piyush using the link below –

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About the author: Piyush Beriwala is the founder of GMATWhiz. He has spent over 8 years in the education field and trained over 5000 students. He has earlier worked with TIME, KPMG and e-GMAT.

Also read:
5 most common GMAT mistakes that you should avoid at any cost
How to start preparing for GMAT: 6-step plan
How to score over 700 on the GMAT
GMAT Guessing Strategies

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