How the GMAT CAT Differs from the Paper Exam

By Lisa Zimmer Hatch, Scott A. Hatch

The quantitative-reasoning and verbal-reasoning sections on the computerized GMAT can be taken only in computer-adaptive test (CAT) format. The CAT adapts to your ability level by presenting you with questions of varying difficulty, depending on how you answer previous questions.

If you’re answering many questions correctly, the computer gives you harder questions as it seeks to find the limits of your impressive intellect. If you’re having a tough day and many of your answers are wrong, the computer will present you with easier questions as it seeks to find the correct level of difficulty for you.

With the CAT format, your score isn’t based solely on how many questions you get right and wrong but rather on the average difficulty of the questions you answer correctly. Theoretically, you could miss several questions and still get a very high score, so long as the questions you missed were among the most difficult available in the bank of questions. At the end of each section, the computer scores you based on your level of ability.

With the CAT format, the question order in the verbal and quantitative sections is different from the order on paper exams that have a test booklet and answer sheet. On the CAT, the first ten questions of the test are preselected for you, and the order of subsequent questions depends on how well you’ve answered the previous questions. So if you do well on the first ten questions, Question 11 will reflect your success by being more challenging. If you do poorly on the initial questions, you’ll get an easier Question 11. The program continues to take all previous questions into account as it feeds you question after question.

Because each question is based on your answers to previous questions, you can’t go back to any question. You must answer each question as it comes. After you confirm your answer, it’s final. If you realize three questions later that you made a mistake, try not to worry about it. After all, your score is based on not only your number of right and wrong answers but also the difficulty of the questions.

You’ve probably figured out that the analytical writing assessment isn’t in CAT format because it’s not a multiple-choice test. But you may not know that the integrated-reasoning section also isn’t a CAT section. You receive questions in a preordained order and that order doesn’t change based on your answer selections. Like the CAT sections, though, after you’ve submitted an answer to a question, you can’t change your answer.