The GRE CAT is a Totally Different Animal

lolCAT wishes you good luck

This weekend, I took my first practice computer-adaptive test — man is it a different experience.

As we hopefully all know by now, the computer-adaptive test is the computerized administration of the GRE.  You must answer each question as it comes up; you do not get to skip questions or go backwards.  The computer will choose the next question for you based on the difficulty of the current question and whether you got it right or wrong.

Anyway, the CAT was different.  It wasn’t bad, mind you, just different.  There were some idiosyncrasies that threw me off, but overall, I actually think I like the CAT better than traditional paper-and-pencil tests.

By far the two best things about the CAT were 1) the 45-minute math section and 2) being able to type out the essays.  The math section contains the same number of questions (28), but for some reason the ETS gives you 15 more minutes on the CAT.  It’s a great load off the shoulders when it comes to doing calculations by hand because you don’t have to rush as much.  However — and this is totally a subjective statement — I think some of the math questions on the CAT might be more difficult than they are on the paper tests, so maybe that’s why there was some extra time.

I don’t think I even have to elaborate on why it’s such a boon to be able to type the essay — it was like spending your whole life cooking over a wood-burning fire and then having a microwave handed to you.

So as I said, it was a different experience.  Here are my three biggies:

1. Different Interface
It takes some getting used to, but it’s not at all complicated or difficult to use.  Additionally, the real GRE CAT will provide you with a comprehensive walkthrough before the test begins, so even if you’ve never taken a CAT prior to your test (bad idea!), at least it won’t be a total shock.  If you’ve at least used your computer to check email before, you’ll be just fine.  (They even tell you how to use a mouse.)

2. Different Test-taking Strategies
No going back means you only get one shot at the question.  It can be unnerving at first, but for me, it was sometimes a relief not to have those unanswered questions hanging over my head.  Don’t know it?  Oh well — make a guess and move on.  The only time it was a problem was during the reading comprehension section, when I couldn’t decide on one answer.  It would’ve been nice to skip it and return later for a fresher perspective, but that luxury is gone.

3. Different Format
The CAT mixes question types together.  Instead of having one whole block of sentence completion followed by one whole block of analogies and etc., the question types will be mixed together (with the exception of reading comprehension, which is still grouped together with one passage).  The same goes for the math section, with quantitative comparisons mixed in with regular multiple choice (data interpretation is also still grouped together with one graph/chart).

If you’re taking the CAT version of the GRE, it’s absolutely essential that you practice at least once before the real thing.  There are several potential time wasters (instructions all over the place) that could take valuable seconds away from testing time.  The ETS offers two free practice CATs for you to download; you can find them here: *.  Take these!

*NOTE: The software is old, and as far as I can tell, it doesn’t work at all on 64-bit Windows, even in compatibility mode (correct me if I’m wrong!).  If you are running 32-bit Windows 7 or Vista, you will have to run the program in compatibility mode (Windows XP Service Pack 3 worked for me).  Also, it’s Windows-only, so Mac users will have to find a Windows machine to work on.

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