One of the most common GMAT prep products is the diagnostic test. It’s advertised on the cover of almost every prep book and touted as one of the premiere elements of any high-end prep class. But there are some reasons to be skeptical about the benefit of these diagnostic tests. Here we take a look and try to help you figure out how to determine which diagnostic test, if any, is right for you.
THE MAIN PROBLEM: MOST DIAGNOSTIC TESTS SUCK
This is true for a few reasons. Diagnostic tests that attempt to mimic the actual GMAT often fall far short of the mark because, instead of using actual GMAT questions, they use their own proprietary materials. The GMAC — the organization that creates and administers the GMAT — doesn’t license their actual materials to any other company. So any practice or diagnostic tests aside from those created and sold by the GMAC are going to be approximations at best.
Even more problematic is the fact that most diagnostic tests — even the good ones — only ultimately end up telling you that you’re not ready for the GMAT yet. But if you’re just starting your GMAT prep, you should already know that!
Ideally, your GMAT prep will include regular practice tests. So it’s not as if you won’t be able to evaluate the progress you’re making toward your target score.
BUT DON’T YOU NEED TO KNOW WHERE YOU’RE STARTING IN ORDER TO SET A TARGET SCORE?
To some extent, you will probably already have a reasonably good idea of your own standardized test abilities. You should also get an idea of what the normal range of scores for accepted applicants are at your target schools. This information should be enough for you to set a target score for yourself as you start your GMAT process, even without a formal diagnostic test at the beginning.
But we understand that many people want to start off with as precise an idea of their current GMAT abilities as possible. If you’re intent on taking some sort of diagnostic test, the only one we recommend is the official practice exam created by the GMAC (2 such exams are freely available once you’ve created an account). Alternatively, there’s a sample test printed in the OG, which is structured somewhat differently from the actual GMAT (more on the usefulness of this test below).
All things considered, there should be no reason to look elsewhere for a diagnostic test, especially one that asks for payment. But if you insist on looking further, we offer some criteria below for determining which diagnostic test is right for you.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD GMAT DIAGNOSTIC TEST?
The right materials might differ for every student, but every student will want to ask themselves the same questions in determining whether a particular diagnostic test is right for them or not.
QUESTION ONE: HOW ACCURATE ARE THE TESTING MATERIALS?
This probably seems like a no-brainer. Accurate testing materials—that is, questions and answers that mimic the material on the actual GMAT—are essential if you want your diagnostic test to yield meaningful results.
Even if you are somewhat familiar with the GMAT, it probably won’t be obvious how accurate your diagnostic tests really are. You might also draw reasonable conclusions about the accuracy based on the nature and reputation of the suppliers of your diagnostic test materials. For example, the Official Guide (or the OG) is the only licensed source of official GMAT materials. This is because the GMAC—the organization responsible for the actual GMAT—is also the company that prints the OG.
Still, other companies strive to provide accurate and worthwhile testing materials. Don’t be afraid to do your homework—the world of GMAT preparation is deep and very digitally connected, and there are helpful reviews of all kinds of practice materials all over the internet.
QUESTION TWO: HOW USEFUL ARE THE STUDY MATERIALS THAT SUPPLEMENT THE TESTING MATERIALS?
In addition to assessing your current level, the diagnostic test is a valuable opportunity to just practice solving questions under time constraints — which is why it is extremely important that you take the diagnostic test in conditions as similar to the real exam as possible (without pausing, same break structure, etc.). All diagnostic tests come with answer keys, obviously. However, there is a vast difference in the quality and depth of the study materials that come with the answer keys. Some diagnostic tests are clearly designed just for diagnosing your current scoring abilities—and so come with very limited explanations of how to determine the right answer, if they come with any explanations at all.
Other tests are clearly designed as learning opportunities in and of themselves. These tests often come with detailed explanations of how to determine the right answer—in addition to explanations for why the wrong answers are incorrect. The best diagnostic tests contain multiple solutions to support students with different learning styles.
At examPAL, we aim to provide the best quality of prep materials in this regard. That’s why examPAL’s practice materials always contain detailed solutions, in order to help students customize their prep according to their own styles of thinking and problem-solving.
So, as you consider a diagnostic test’s suitability for your needs, ask yourself — do the study materials, in addition to helping you determine what you got wrong or right, also help you understand the different possible solutions so you can apply them toward your next test? Also ask yourself—is there a sufficient variety of explanation to satisfy your own unique learning style?
QUESTION THREE: HOW CLOSELY DOES THE STRUCTURE OF THE TEST MIMIC THE STRUCTURE OF THE GMAT?
There are several companies making diagnostic tests that mimic the actual GMAT very closely. You’ll want to be sure you take multiply timed, full-length diagnostic tests that are administered on the computer and that use the same Computer Adaptive Structure (CAT) the actual GMAT uses. This is a distinctive structure where the difficulty of the questions you face is determined by the accuracy of your responses as you proceed with the test.
OKAY, SO I PICKED OUT MY DIAGNOSTIC TEST. HOW CAN I MAKE GOOD USE OF IT?
The primary thing a diagnostic test will help you do is assess your test-taking ability on day zero, which will help you to set a realistic but ambitious target score for your actual GMAT.
The first thing you can help yourself do to get the most out of your diagnostic test is to make it as useful as possible by simulating actual GMAT conditions as closely as possible. Try to recreate a testing environment and even take your diagnostic test at the same time of day you will the actual GMAT in order to maximize its validity.
You can use this diagnostic score and your target score to build a sort of planned trajectory over the course of your GMAT prep. You can test your progress along this trajectory with regularly planned practice tests–once every two or three weeks is usually a good pace–taken under the same conditions as your diagnostic test (that is, replicating the actual GMAT as closely as possible).
Additionally, you should keep track of not just what scores you’re earning on these tests but also on your performance breakdown by content, question type, and difficulty. This will help you to continue customizing your GMAT prep as you go.