Beware of Free GMAT Practice Tests!

Many test prep companies offer free practice GMAT exams, but these are often misleading and can even be detrimental to your GMAT preparation.  Read on to learn why official practice exams are the only ones you can trust as accurate diagnostic instruments, and why you might not want to take third party practice tests even if they are “free”.

Third Party GMAT Practice Tests Are A Marketing Tool

Practice GMAT exams from third party test prep companies, such as Manhattan, Kaplan or The Princeton Review, tend to be inaccurate, often giving you a lower score than what you would be capable of achieving on a live GMAT.  Which makes sense! Are you more likely to purchase GMAT preparation services if you think you already have a great score? Or are you more likely to do so if you think that you need to improve your score dramatically? For this reason, GMAT preparation companies have an incentive to make you think that you have a very low starting score and need to purchase a lot of help.

Second, test prep companies hope that you might never take an official practice test before taking a real GMAT.  If their extra-difficult practice test serves as your benchmark, and you score much higher on the live exam, you may attribute the “gain” to the study you did with that company, not to the fact that the practice exam was simply inaccurate in the first place.

It’s Too Expensive to Write Accurate GMAT Questions!

Even if test prep companies wanted to provide accurate practice GMAT tests, they would find that it costs too much to prepare them.  Creating standardized tests that measure the desired qualities (your fundamental quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning abilities) rather than other closely related qualities (like whether you took specific Math or English classes) is actually a science.  It’s called psychometrics, and GMAC employs a small army of trained psychometricians to create and validate accurate test questions. They can afford to do so because they generate testing fees of $50M+ per year, but your GMAT preparation company can’t afford to do the same.

Which means that they’re tempted to cheat by taking official GMAT questions published by GMAC, then modifying them slightly, and passing them off as their own.  These questions may be more accurate, but they will actually poison your ability to use official practice exams as accurate diagnostic instruments. If you’ve already seen very close variations on the problems covered by GMAC’s official practice exams, you’re likely to achieve an inflated score on those because of your familiarity with the questions.

Official Practice Tests and How to Use Them

The only accurate practice exams available are the ones published by GMAC itself, available at:

The first two practice exams are free, and the final four are available for $90.  These are well worth purchasing.

These should not be used in order to build your skills or for practice, but only as a way to measure your current level of GMAT preparation, and therefore how much additional study you might need before taking the live exam again.

We recommend that you take one official practice exam around the start of your GMAT study process, which will help you to understand how much study you’ll require (and whether you’ll be ready to apply by your target deadline).

You can almost certainly improve your score significantly if you devote time to focused study.  So don’t panic if your first score is low! It is quite ordinary to achieve +50 from a relatively cold practice exam, and common to achieve even larger gains.

A student looking at study materials preparing for a test

After that, you should take additional practice exams only after completing major blocks of study.  If you want to check whether your GMAT study has paid off, and you’re ready to take another live exam, that’s a good reason to take another one of the six practice exams.  But, if you know that you have NOT yet done the study that’s required to raise your score, there is no point in taking another practice exam. They are a limited resource that should be conserved and used only when you need to test your GMAT progress and validate that you’re ready to take another live exam.

After all, your live exam slots are even more precious!  Don’t forget that you have only five attempts in a calendar year, and eight lifetime attempts.  You should not use a live exam to check your progress when you could use an official practice exam instead.