You’ve studied, poured over forum postings and blogs, religiously entered your incorrect answers on an Excel sheet to learn from your mistakes, replicated (to the best of your ability) testing conditions, practiced on the “official” and a smattering of third party tests, and… you’re psyched! The score you need to be accepted to your dream business school feels comfortably within reach.

Then comes test day and the big letdown; your official score is nowhere near what you achieved on any of your diagnostic tests up until now. It’s not even close to where it needs to be to get noticed by the schools you’d love to get into. You feel deflated and confused. How did this happen?

You’re not alone. A discrepancy between the diagnostic test and real test scores is a common reality check. It is debilitating at worst; frustrating and sobering at best. And frankly, we regularly hear all about it.

This article sets out to explore why this might happen and what you can do to make your next real test experience your best, and last, one.  For those of you who are beginning study, consider this a cautionary tale; and consider these suggestions to perform your best when it counts the most. And while I focus on the GMAT, the disparities and solutions are easily applicable to a host of standardized admissions tests (ACT, SAT. GRE. LSAT, MCAT….etc..)

The Top 10 Reasons for a Disparity between Diagnostic vs. Real Test Scores

There are many reasons why a student’s real test score doesn’t match up with their practice tests, including, but not limited to, these 10 reasons:

1)   You’ve not taken enough diagnostic tests for an accurate data set of your performance.

2)   Your study program is primarily comprised of taking diagnostic tests rather embarking on a more diverse study protocol that includes a systematic review of content, deployment of best test-taking strategies, effective time management, and an optimal mindset.

3)   You’ve repeatedly taken the same diagnostic tests, seeing the same questions (even if you’ve used onlineGMAC CAT tests), and thus have an inflated score.

4)   You’ve placed your faith in third-party tests (and/or materials) which are either harder, easier, or just nuanced differently than the real test questions. (Plus, many 3rdparty tests are based on real questions, and “echoes” of the original source.)

5)   You crammed the day before the test (this is akin to running a marathon the day before a marathon), and now you are tired and not as focused as you’d like on test day.

6)   You didn’t sleep well the night before the test… or the night before the night before the test!

7)   You regret telling people that you were taking the test and now feel added pressure to ‘report’ to them on how you performed. You are nervous about being judged if you don’t score well.

8)   You did not integrate self-care in your study plan; you have not been eating right, sleeping well, or regulating your emotions.

9)   While the testing environment and conditions are predictable, they are impossible to replicate.

10)You felt nervous, anxious, unfocused, and had waning confidence —  you’ve even heard yourself saying, ‘I’m not a good test taker.’ You ignored optimizing the mindset aspect of test taking. Oh, and then there was that panic attack on that one question….

To improve your next test-taking performance, here are 8+ things to consider incorporating immediately (or to at least help you gain a realistic expectation of how you’re going to score). 

1)   Use Official Materials

 Official materials for any admissions test are the bible for diagnostic testing. Third party materials, considered supplementary materials, are great for learning content and practice.

Test companies like GMAC, ETS, The College Board, etc., have a few goals in mind when it comes to their product and who it serves. Top among these goals is predictability and accuracy for the business schools, graduate schools, and colleges who depend on the test score to be used to compare all the people who are taking the test not only in that year, but in several years (these test scores are accurate for 5 years.)

Therefore, test companies spend a lot of money to create tests with predictable outcomes of scores, so their scoring curves, algorithm, and questions need to be stable, and their practice materials are typically comprised of the same test questions, simply retired. It’s the closest content of what you might see on the test day. Third party test material is good for learning content; however, not as much testing is done on them. These tests questions might be easier, harder, or just different from the original.

 Also, plan on taking many of the official tests that are available; and from whatever material you use, systematically learn from your mistakes.

 2)   Make A Plan:

Set up a schedule, whether you’re working with a professional, taking a course, or DIY, so that time for study is on your schedule. Include when you’ll take diagnostic tests, as well as worthy pursuits to support you in this process; including time to get some exercise, socialize with friends and family, and for self-care — especially for optimizing your mindset. For examples on how to best do this, see Visualization below, and also our Full Potential Manual. And no matter what, no cramming the day before test day!  It won’t help as much as you think it will, and a day doing things that aren’t test related will help keep you refreshed for test day.

Along with your ‘planning’, be intentional in your communications about the test. Some of our students have confided in their bosses or friends about taking their GMAT. Consider who you want to tell and why. While people typically want the best for you, sometimes it’s best to wait until after you succeed so everyone can celebrate together.

3)   Practice and Get Real about Consistent Results

Wish as we may, there is no substitute for leveraging your content mastery and integrating new skills — except practice. No short cuts here: you simply must do homework; not just nod to the new content you’ve learned.

Along the lines of materials, practice, and scheduling, include in your strategy a plan to take the official test at least twice.

Many GMAT students send us a list of their results from multiple tests, and earnestly claim the highest score is their ‘actual score.’ Yes, that score is their score that time they took the exam, but we assume a 30 point +/- spread with every score. As long as your scoring is inconsistent, you cannot assume you’ll perform close to your highest score, or your worst. Don’t be surprised on test day. Be realistic.

We recommend you average your scores; then each time you do a diagnostic, aim for higher than that score. Then repeat. You will get consistent results when you’re consistent in your study and integration of content and strategy. High hopes and prayers won’t get you there.

Get real and honest with yourself. Until your practice results are in your target range, consistently, it’s unlikely that you’ll earn the score you want on the actual test.

4)   Getting Sleep  

 In an ideal world, you’d feel as comfortable in the test center as you do at home or office taking your diagnostic. Likely, upon entering the test center your adrenaline starts to soar and cortisol flows, and this burns through energy. Unless you’ve taken steps to regulate this biochemical response, you can get extremely anxious or eventually “crash.”

One way to regulate is to make sure you get sleep the night before the test. A restful sleep will help you think clearly when engaging with the test. Even more important, however, is the night before the night before. While magnesium sprays, herbal teas, and CBD are safe and recommended to try, don’t experiment close to the test date. Figure out what promotes restful sleep first, and then do it prior to the test.

5)    Combatting Test Day Fatigue

Make sure you’ve taking several lengthy tests before test day to get accustomed to the perseverance and focused required. Observe whether you get tired during certain sections or question types, then experiment with ways to stay focused. For example, if you get tired reading, you might need to read faster to engage more. You can also find reputable online test prep apps or platforms that have a timing mechanism to cut you off while practicing questions, ensuring you don’t get fixated on any one question for too long.

Another way to combat fatigue is to choose what order you want to complete the sections, taking the least important sections last, so being tired then won’t affect your score as much. You can do this on the GMAT, but not necessarily other high stakes tests.

6)    Up-Level Nutrition

Along with good sleep and combatting test day fatigue, up-leveling your nutrition during study and for test day will support your efforts on the real test day. For some of you, this means making minor adjustments, and just integrating more fruits, vegetables, and whole, non-processed foods. If these improvements are difficult, you can always lean on food delivery services. There are so many great options now, from Blue Apron, Home Chef, and Plated, to prepared meal delivery services like Freshlyor Trifecta Nutrition.  This takes out the daily guess work and time to shop, and offers healthier options than restaurant takeout/delivery. Search online for the best meal kits or prepared delivery services in your area.

 7)   Visualize Success

Among the most potent ways to calm nerves and feel your best on test day is to visualize it. Visualization helps to prepare you to feel confident, focused, and on your game. It primes your mind for the desired experience and outcome. You imagine the experience of going to take the test, feeling and performing your best, and earning your score goal. This is a similar technique that high performing athletes use in conjunction with training and practice. It helps them perform their best and motivates them to push harder. It also gives you the opportunity to imagine feeling calm and focused even when you see questions that are difficult or triggering.

Visualization works because the brain cannot tell the difference between something imagined or something real. The imagery you pull up actually stimulates the same brain regions used to perform the similar activity. You have the power to condition and habituate yourself for successful outcomes!

How to Use Visualization for Successful GMAT Performance:

  1. Imagine the experience and outcome you want on your upcoming GMAT (or another standardized test). Mentally rehearse this, seeing the event unfolding how you’d like. If the mental images turn negative, stop the mental tape, rewind, and restart your visualization to be the outcome you’re seeking.
  2. Activate all your senses and use a first-person perspective; visualize your testing performance in detail. What do you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste as you go into the test center? Move through the test, and how you feel afterwards. Feel yourself going through the experience, from sitting in the chair, looking at the computer, and working out questions on the scratch pad. Imagine feeling confidence, focus, and perseverance.
  3. As you finish taking the test, notice that you feel pride in your performance. Then visualize your score and feel the excitement in your accomplishment (and also imagine celebrating later!)
  4. Practice this visualization daily. This skill becomes easier with practice and repetition.
  5. If you want to take full advantage of the power of visualization, tape yourself speaking through the steps of being at the test center taking the test, then listen afterwards. Our GMAT Full Potential Audio series has a visualization you can use, or you can meet with one of our Full Potential coaches to incorporate this essential skill into your study.

8)   Resources to Help you Get Out of your Own Way

It’s not uncommon to feel nervous when you get to the test center. This could increase to a state of panic or even “paralysis”; as in you feel like a deer in headlights. If your scores drop, it could be that you felt anxiety and it affected your performance. Find a professional who can help you establish some grounding behavior choices (i.e. getting to the test center early) and emotional support to help you to perform your best. Anxiety is a real thing (we devote time to discuss coping skills and support to students who need it), and if you haven’t dealt with it before now, it’s likely going to show up again. Our GMAT Full Potential Audio can help with your specific test anxiety, listen to a sample, here. (We have 10 titles) While we DO encourage students to implement a mindfulness protocol, typically its benefits are both long term and can also take a while to integrate; so if you feel you’d benefit from support more quickly, we recommend Neuro-linguistic programming, Hypnosis, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), and other holistic modalities that address symptoms over source.

If you’re still not you’re not sure why your test score was so low, order the GMAT’s Enhanced Score Report (ESR). It can’t reveal everything, nor can it tell you why you got something wrong, but it can indicate some things like whether your timing was off, if you consistently answered a question type wrong, or if you kept making mistakes on easy or medium questions. It’s more data for you to consider as you begin to prepare for your next official test.

If you are still perplexed and need support going forward, feel free to reach out. We are happy to hear about your particular situation and help you find solutions so you can reliably perform your best.