CAT – Computer Adaptive Test


Unlike most standardized tests, the GMAT is not typically administered in a paper-and-pencil format. The vast majority of students can take the GMAT only on computer, in the form of a computer-adaptive test, or CAT for short.

Flexibility in Scheduling

When compared to the paper-and-pencil format, the CAT format has both advantages and disadvantages. One major advantage is flexibility in scheduling the test date. In the past, the GMAT was administered only on specific dates throughout the year. Now, due to computer-adaptive testing, students can schedule the test for whatever time is most convenient. Another advantage is that a computer-adaptive test uses significantly fewer questions to determine the score than a paper-and-pencil test, even though the total testing time is only slightly less on the CAT. In other words, you have more time per question on the CAT than you would on the paper-based test.

All Questions must be attempted

The main disadvantage of the CAT, however, is that you cannot skip any questions or return to a previous question to change your answer. Each question must be answered in the order it is presented, and you cannot view the next question until you have entered a response for the one already on your screen. The reason for this lies in how the test is scored: basically, the computer needs to know whether to present a harder or easier question next, and the only way to determine that is to record an answer for the current question first.

Pacing Strategy

The other significant drawback to the CAT is that the pacing strategy ideal for a paper-based test must be abandoned and replaced with a CAT-specific strategy. On the paper-and-pencil test, questions are presented more or less in order of difficulty: within each section, the questions start out fairly easy and become progressively more difficult. Most students breeze through the first several questions and spend most of their time working on the more difficult questions later in the section. This seemingly sensible approach would prove disastrous if applied to the CAT, since the first questions in a CAT section are not easy and the subsequent questions do not necessarily get increasingly difficult. In fact, one test-taker could easily see twenty extremely difficult questions, while a person sitting five feet away, taking the same test, might not see even one.

Score for each question

The questions on the CAT do not all count the same toward a student’s score; a correct answer on one question may raise the score much more than a correct answer on another question. By contrast, on a paper-based test all questions are weighted equally, regardless of difficulty. This is a critical difference, because it means that some questions on a CAT are more “important” than others and thus demand more time and attention from the student looking to maximize his or her score.

Computer-Adaptive Format3

Each of the first two sections consists of an analytical writing task; the remaining two sections (Quantitative and Verbal) consist of multiple-choice questions delivered in a computer-adaptive format. Questions in these sections are dynamically selected as you take the test; the multiple-choice questions will adjust to your ability level, and your test will be unique.

How does it work?

For each multiple-choice section of the GMAT exam, there is a large pool of potential questions ranging from a low to high level of difficulty. Each section of the test starts with a question of moderate difficulty. If you answer the first question correctly, the computer will usually give you a harder question. If you answer the first question incorrectly, your next question will be easier. This process will continue until you complete the section, at which point the computer will have an accurate assessment of your ability level in that subject area.
In a computer-adaptive test, only one question at a time is presented. Because the computer scores each question before selecting the next one, you may not skip, return to, or change your responses to previous questions.

What If I make a mistake or guess?

If you answer a question incorrectly by mistake or correctly by randomly guessing, your answers to subsequent questions will lead you back to questions that are at the appropriate level of difficulty for you.
Random guessing can significantly lower your scores. So, if you do not know the answer to a question, you should try to eliminate as many answer choices as possible and then select the answer you think is best.

What if I do not finish?

Pacing is critical, as there is a severe penalty for not completing. Both the time and number of questions that remain in the section are displayed on the screen during the exam. There are 37 Quantitative questions and 41 Verbal questions. If a question is too time-consuming or if you don’t know the answer, make an educated guess by first eliminating the answers you know to be wrong.

How is my score determined?

Your score is determined by:

  • the number of questions you answer,
  • whether you answer the questions correctly or incorrectly, and
  • the level of difficulty and other statistical characteristics of each question.

The questions in an adaptive test are weighted according to their difficulty and other statistical properties, not according to their position in the test.

Are all questions counted?

Every test contains trial multiple-choice questions being pretested for use in a real exam. These questions are not identified and appear in different locations within the test. You should, therefore, do your best on all questions. Answers to trial questions are not counted in the scoring of your test.

What Computer Skills do you Need?

You need only minimal computer skills to complete the GMAT exam. Familiarize yourself with:

  • using a mouse
  • entering responses
  • moving on to the next question
  • using the word processor
  • accessing the Help function

Before the day of your test, review the testing tools covered in the tutorials. Although you will be able to use a Help function during the test, the time spent doing so will count against the time allotted for completing a test section.

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