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Tips for Taking a Computer-Based Test

By Joey, IvyWise Master Tutor

If you’re looking to apply to graduate school or live outside the US and want to take the ACT, you might soon be faced with a computer-based standardized test. Computer-based testing (CBT) is increasingly the norm, as test-makers feel they can be delivered and administered more securely, with the trend moving towards exams entirely unique to individual test-takers.

Happily, CBT means more choices and tools for you as you leave the messy world of misbubbled Scantrons behind! Here are three key tips for excelling at a computer-based test.

Don’t Forget: It’s the Same Test
While the GRE and GMAT switched almost entirely over to CBT a number of years ago, and the ACT moved to a CBT format for international students only last September, the core elements of these tests have remained intact for far longer than that. This also holds broadly true for other computer-based tests like the TOEFL iBT. Your time in high school or college has given you the foundation to succeed, which you can build on just as you would with a paper-based test: by familiarizing yourself with the content covered on the exams and which test-taking strategies work best. Print guides and paper exams retain their relevance as sources of knowledge for the task ahead of you.

For international ACT test-takers especially, it’s important that you don’t fall for anxiety-inducing myths about the CBT approach. Although your essay (if you choose to write it) will be scored only alongside those of other CBT students—because it’s easier to pen longer and better-edited essays at a keyboard than by hand—it will be graded according to the exact same rubric used for US students. Likewise, your raw scores on each section will be converted to scale scores in accordance with ACT’s overall data – you aren’t held to a unique standard set by other international students.

Know the Protocols
Whichever computer-based exam you’re taking, review the instructions you’ll receive in advance. Beyond the unique specifics of arriving at a CBT center—such as having to stow your belongs in a locker prior to taking the GRE—you’ll feel much more confident going in if you know how each section of the test will unfold onscreen. The GMAT’s timer begins the exact same moment as its tutorial, for instance, so you won’t want to spend your precious minutes reading about how to navigate between questions. Even more crucially, the GMAT now lets you select the order in which you move through its sections—which is amazing—but you only have sixty seconds to make that decision at the computer. Figure out your preference beforehand!

This research can turn up all sorts of useful information: while the ACT CBT strives to be as close to its paper-based counterpart as possible, the GRE and GMAT both utilize “computer-adaptive testing” to home in on your score range by tailoring question difficulty to your on-the-fly performance. Moreover, though, they do this differently, with the GRE’s algorithm (which determines your range only after you’ve completed a full section of the exam) in sharp contrast with the GMAT’s adjusting after each question. One practical consequence of this: while early GMAT questions should be approached with great care, you’re better off guessing on late questions than letting the clock run out with them left blank. The penalty for unanswered questions outweighs the by-then small impact of wrong answers on your adaptive difficulty.

Some tidbits aren’t worth fussing over (e.g., how the GRE will provide you with scratch paper while the GMAT and ACT generally offer test-takers dry-erase whiteboards), but others easily overlooked can have a major impact. The GRE and GMAT both offer on-screen calculator tools that function similarly, with a key difference: only the GRE’s respects the order of operations! If the prospect of all this research into minutiae is starting to feel overwhelming, an experienced tutor can be an excellent person to turn to.

Practice with Your Tools
We’re on our various devices a lot these days, but when was the last time you stared intently at a computer screen for almost four uninterrupted hours? You don’t need to read the research to know it’s incredibly fatiguing—and not in the same way as a paper-based test. No practice drill out of a book can train you for this experience, so sit down for at least one or two full computer-based practice exams. Thankfully, the ACT, GRE, and GMAT each offer a realistic replica of their software online, with additional tests available for purchase or as accompaniments to textbooks.

The ACT has by far the most robust set of tools for you to familiarize yourself with: an answer-masker or eliminator that helps you put the process of elimination into action, a magnifier for spotting tricky intersections on Science graphs and the like, a highlighter you could use to mark noteworthy Reading excerpts, and more. Both the ACT and the GRE offer useful ways to flag questions for later review and hop around within a given section (not possible on the GMAT due to its particular adaptive algorithm), so use those to your advantage. If you have accommodations, ensure you understand how they operate on your exam.

The list goes on: while the GRE’s calculator can handle a task like 7 + 3 x 20 with no problem as mentioned before, you’ll have to learn the function of the MS (memory store) button on the GMAT’s calculator if you want the answer 67 instead of 200. (Either way, don’t forget to practice your mental math!) I could sit here telling you how the GRE calculator also has a “Transfer Display” button that will immediately copy over a number to an empty answer box or how its essay word-processor will let you undo only the most recent command you’ve given it, but you’re truly better off discovering these things on your own as you practice. Doing so will also help ease potential anxiety over the omnipresent timer in the corner of the screen, which can take students by surprise in terms of the stress it imposes.

If you’ve studied for your exam, know the protocols the computer will present to you, and can wield your tools firsthand, you should have no issues excelling on test day! Given how quickly computers can score your exam, you luckily won’t have to wait long to find out how your hard work paid off.

Again, preparation is key for these types of exams, whether on a computer or paper. If you’re planning on taking the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, or other standardized admissions exam, ensure that you know the test format, content, test-taking strategies, and any of the unique tools that may be available to you if taking a CBT. At IvyWise we work with students to help them prepare for any admissions exam. Contact us today to learn more about our test prep services for K-12, undergrad, and grad admissions exams.