As the name suggests, a Computer Adaptive Test (CAT) is a test that is administered through a computer rather than on pencil and paper. But CATs like the GMAT are a bit more complex than their pencil-and-paper counterparts. Let’s look at the big differences between CATs and traditional paper-and-pencil tests that you may be used to seeing.
The Test Can Change with Your Performance
The biggest and most significant aspect of a CAT is that it can change and adapt as you’re taking the test. On a typical pencil-and-paper exam, the entire exam is printed out and handed to you, and everyone receives the same exam with the same pre-determined set of questions. On a Computer Adaptive Test, each question is presented to you one at a time, which allows the test to change depending on whether you get the answers right or wrong.
This is a very important aspect of CATs. When you begin a CAT, the computer assumes that you have an average ability, and it gives you questions of medium difficulty. When you answer these questions correctly, the computer increases its estimation of your ability, and it gives you more challenging questions as a result. Conversely, when you answer questions incorrectly, the computer decreases its estimation of your ability, and it gives you less challenging questions.
The difficulty level of the questions that you answer are incorporated into your score. Answering more difficult questions correctly contributes to a higher score. So, practically speaking, what does this mean to you as a test taker? The first few questions of a CAT are very, very important! Spend a little extra time, if needed, to double and even triple check those first few questions to make sure that you get them right in order to maximize your score!
Let’s look at an example scenario.
John Smith and Jane Doe are both taking the GMAT. They happen to receive the same first question. John Smith answers it correctly, but Jane Doe does not. For the second question, John Smith will receive a slightly more difficult question, and Jane Doe will receive a slightly less difficult question. For the rest of the test, Jane Doe answers every single question correctly. John Smith answers them all correctly, except the last one. Who will have the higher score?
In this scenario, even though both students only got one question wrong, John Smith will almost definitely receive a higher score than Jane Doe. Because Jane answered the first question wrong, the computer immediately dropped her difficulty level, which means that the rest of her questions will have difficulty levels below those of John’s questions. Lower difficulty levels mean a lower score. Even though John missed the last question, his questions were, on average, more difficult than Jane’s so he will have a higher score.
You Only Get One Chance to Answer Each Question
Another big difference between CATs and pencil-and-paper tests is that you only have one chance to answer a question. You can’t go back to questions you have previously answered, and you can’t skip questions and then return to them later. You have to answer each question as it’s given to you. Make sure you pick the answer you mean to pick!
Get Your Score Right Away!
Because the test is computerized, you can receive your score as soon as you’re done with it! You won’t receive the official report until a few weeks later in the mail, though. Even better – you can cancel your scores if you’re not happy with them! After you view your unofficial score, you will be given two minutes to decide whether you want to keep them or cancel them. If you don’t decide within that time limit, your scores will automatically be cancelled (you have 60 days to reinstate a cancelled score, if you want to).