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by Vault Education Editors | June 25, 2009


Raise your hand if you were one of those kids in college who would do whatever you could to get a copy of the previous year’s final. You’d beg your roommates, your teammates, your fraternity brothers or sorority sisters. You’d try to bribe your residential advisor with a lovely bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Cheap. You even contemplated doing things with your teaching assistant that you’d never do sober.

Now put your hand down. You’re reading an article on the GMAT, and you look kind of silly.

But let’s be honest—we all love to get our hands on old tests or practice tests when preparing for an exam. So when there are tens, if not hundreds, of practice GMATs floating around, what is a future b-schooler to do? And what’s the best way to make use of those tests?

First of all, don’t overuse the tests. Taking a full practice GMAT should not be your preferred Saturday activity for the next three months. Sure, there’s merit in building your endurance by sitting and working for three and a half hours, but simply doing problems does not add much to your knowledge base. So when you do take a test, use it to assess your stamina, measure your progress, and as an opportunity to gain exposure to more and different questions.

But if you want to be really effective, use practice GMATs in the same way you used those old exams in college—as study guides. Sure, it took you a whole afternoon just to get through the darn thing, but now you should spend at least twice as long going over it. (Not on the same day, though. Seriously, you should have a life. Get some fresh air. Listen to the birds chirping. Remember what it feels like not to be looking at a computer screen.)

Here’s how to make the most of your review:

1) Don’t just check your answers—check the problems. It’s great that you got the correct answer, but what can you learn from the problem? If it’s from the quant section, can you categorize the problem? Do you know what strategy to use? Are you comfortable with other approaches? If it’s a verbal question, can you explain why your answer is right? Can you explain why all of the other choices are wrong?

2) How was your timing? Were you getting caught up on certain problems, and were you forced to rush through others? Practice tests can provide a great "reality check" about how quickly 75 minutes can fly when you’re having fun…. er…. working really intensely. If you’re having trouble with timing, practice the questions again with a stopwatch and see where your problems are cropping up.

3) Were there new or different types of problems? Keep a list or make flashcards of the many different ways you’ve seen the GMAT ask whether a number is prime or not prime, odd or even, positive or negative, etc. The faster you can recognize what the GMAT’s telling you, the better off you’ll be on the real test.

4) What’s your gut telling you? Are you ready for this? If not, it’s okay to postpone your test date. It’s also a good thing to plan to take the test twice—remember, you’ll need a month between test dates. So make sure that you’re prepared, but relax and treat that first real exam as though it were just another practice run.

At the end of the day, practice tests can be a great aid, but they’re no replacement for simply studying the content covered on the GMAT. You can study that biology test from two years ago all you want, but chances are good none of the questions will appear verbatim on this year’s exam. The same is true for the GMAT—once a question is out in the open, you’ll never see the exact same one on a real test. But you can bet that where you once saw “Joe” and “Bob” walking toward each other (on the road between Town X and Town Y, of course), Sally and Shari will be taking a very similar stroll.

So take a practice exam. Take two. Take three. Don’t take 50. But do take the time to go over all of the questions, to really learn the question types, and to become familiar with the necessary strategies and approaches. And just as your piano/baseball/voice coach always told you, practice does make perfect.

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