GMAT, GRE and CAT have adopted the computer-based test, thereby changing the dynamics of competitive exams.

When open-ended questions ruled the world of educational testing, the test faced immense criticism for its subjectivity, after all the evaluator’s biases were too obvious to be ignored. Though there is no replacement for open-ended questions (the reason why they are still the best bet for knowledge assessment at school and college), a new era of objective multiple-choice questions (MCQs), useful for testing a large number of students, found its place at different levels. Though reasonably reliable, MCQs are not fool-proof either, and pose a two-way challenge — the chances of guess and the failure to test certain thinking skills if they are relevant to be tested. Unlike open-ended questions, MCQs cannot test creativity, self-expression or a respondent’s thought process. As an antidote to the ‘guess’ factor, many MCQ format tests come with negative marking.

The emergence of the computer as a medium of testing, especially in aptitude testing involving large numbers, has opened up many possibilities. With revolutionary software, we can present multiple format questions, adapt tests to the test-taker’s ability, reduce chances of guessing, evaluate essay responses, equate scores on different tests and so on.

The CAT question

The Common Admission Test (CAT) for admissions into IIMs and many other MBA colleges is now administered on computers (this year the test will be administered from October 16 to November 11). In the previous year, the test had two sections, with a time limit of 70 minutes per section. The Quantitative Ability and Data Interpretation questions formed one section, and Verbal Ability and Logical Reasoning constituted the other. The test permits you to go back and forth within a section, skip questions for later attempt, and work on any question within a section. The second section will appear only after the time limit for the first section is up. All questions are in the multiple-choice format. There are scroll bars to view data spread across more than one screen, and you can highlight text. A review screen will show if you have left any question unanswered. Negative marks for wrong answers serve as penalty. Statistical procedures, conforming to psychological testing standards, are used to equate scores of different test takers who take different combinations of questions, drawn from a large pool.


The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) conducted globally by Educational Testing Services USA, for admission into M.S., Ph.D. and business courses, has a new computer test format since 2011. The test has three sections — an Essay Section with two topic prompts, a Quantitative Ability Section with two sub-sections and a Verbal Reasoning section with two sub-sections. Not all questions in the math and verbal are in the conventional multiple-choice format. For some questions, you are required to enter a numerical value, click on one or correct answers, or highlight a sentence in a passage etc. You can move forward and backward within sub-section, answer questions in any order or skip a question.

A unique feature of the GRE is that the test is section adaptive. The first sub-section of each of math and verbal comprises moderately difficult questions. Your performance in this section determines the difficulty level of the questions in the second sub-section presented to you. This means that a good performance in the first sub-section will result in a tougher second sub-section, raising your chances of a higher score. The essays are graded two ways – language assessment using an e-rater and content evaluation manually by essay evaluators. The GRE test has evolved so much that scores on the paper-based test and those of the computer-based test are equated.


The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), administered by GMAC USA, is one step ahead of the CAT and the GRE in its format. In addition to the Essay, Quantitative and Verbal sections you have a new Integrated Reasoning ( IR) section. A vast majority of test takers find the Verbal Section of the test more complex and demanding than that of the other two exams discussed above. The passages are abstract, sentence correction questions tests the intricacies of English language and critical reasoning tests higher order thinking skills. The IR tests your ability to analyse, integrate and evaluate data presented in multiple format and in this section, you can drag columns and rearrange data.

Unlike section-adaptive GRE, the GMAT is question adaptive. That is, depending on your performance in a given question, the weightage of the next question will be determined. Hence you can neither skip a question, nor can you go back to a question. Each section is separately adaptive. There is no score deduction for unanswered questions; instead a cluster of wrong answers will invite lower weightage questions.

With each admission test posing a new set of challenges, test aspirants must adapt to the changing dynamics of competitive exams. The scores obtained in the CAT and other Indian exams are valid only for that year, whereas the GRE and GMAT scores are valid for 3-5 years. Since these exams test more or less similar skills, many MBA colleges in India take GMAT or GRE scores for admission. Though there are overlaps in preparation, an extra bit of learning will give you more options.

The writer is GRE, GMAT trainer at Semantics Chennai