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Written By: James Supplee - GMAT Director

Letting the CAT Out of the Bag:  What is a Computer Adaptive Test (CAT)?

Those raised in the pre-Internet age might be surprised to know that the millennial generation (current age of about 15-35), for all their fluency with digital devices, prefer to take tests with good old-fashioned pen and paper. When you think about it, though, it makes sense: why would anyone want to squint at a computer screen for 4-5 hours, unable to underline or circle important material, notate graphs and charts, and cross out incorrect answer choices? Plus, recent research confirms the learning-related benefits of physically writing things down. So the pencil-and-paper test preference would seem to be a slam dunk.

And yet, the GMAT (pre-business school) and GRE (pre-graduate school) tests are both given on computer, and the ACT (used for college admission) is moving in that direction as well. Why? Simply put, it makes things easier on the testing companies, because computer-administered tests are easier to score than paper tests.

Students should also note that computer tests may be adaptive, that is, able to react in real time to the test taker’s performance. The GMAT, for example, is in almost all cases given as a CAT, a computer-adaptive test, in which the computer provides a harder question after a correct answer and an easier question after a wrong answer. A complicated algorithm allows the computer to home in on a student’s ability with significant accuracy. The CAT has been compared to identifying an address by asking if it’s east of point A, west of point B, north of point C, or south of point D. With enough data points and the right questions, you can eventually pinpoint an address in just this way.

The GRE, meanwhile, doesn’t adapt to every single question, but rather adapts by section: if you crush your first of two GRE math sections, for example, you can be sure that the second one will feel like a workout with the meanest personal trainer you ever met.

This doesn’t mean those taking computer tests will wither like a leaf in a blazing drought, but it does mean they should be prepared. Clayborne can help you endure like granite, but don’t take that for granite (get it?)! Contact us today to find out more!  

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