Well, everything you need to know about time management on the GMAT, anyway.
First, a note: this three-part series is long; there’s a lot going on. You aren’t going to be able to incorporate all of this from day one. Rather, expect to return to this article as you get further into your studies. Make a note right now that you want to review this before every practice test (and probably after, too!).
Second, another note: This post addresses overall time management as well as time management for the test-center based exam. After you’re done with this, you’ll also want to read a different post about time management and whiteboard usage for the GMAT Online (that one is linked toward the end of this series).
In this first part of the series, we’re going to get oriented on some overall principles for GMAT time management. Let’s dive in!
(1) Why is time management so important on the GMAT?
The GMAT is ultimately a test of your decision-making, aka your executive reasoning skills. In school, when you got really good at something, the test felt easier and you were able to answer questions faster. On the GMAT, the test adapts to your level (for the Quant and Verbal sections). As a result, no matter how good you get, the test is going to feel hard and you’re going to feel pressed for time.
If you run out of time with a bunch of questions to go, then your score is going to nose-dive right at the end of the section. The GMAT is essentially a “where you end is what you get” test, so a score drop at the end is deadly. You have no time to recover and lift your score back up.
At the same time, it can be problematic to go really fast. Speed often translates into careless mistakes, and if you miss too many questions that you really did know how to do, your score is going to be lower than it could have been.
So, generally speaking, your goal is to be roughly on time throughout the section. You don’t have to stick super-rigidly to the exact timing. On certain questions, you will be somewhat faster or slower than the average. But overall, you’re not going to get too far ahead or behind.
We’re going to use this rubric: If you’re within about 3 minutes of where you’re supposed to be, then everything is fine. Keep doing what you’re doing. If you’re more than 3 minutes fast or slow, take action.
That begs three questions:
(1) How do I know where I’m supposed to be?
(2) What action do I take if I’m too slow? Too fast?
(3) How do I mostly stay on time throughout the test in the first place?
This series will address the answers.
(2) Know (generally) how the scoring works
The Quant and Verbal sections of the GMAT are weird. The scoring is totally different than what you were used to in school. If you try to take the GMAT the way you took schools tests, you’re probably going to mess up the timing and that’s probably going to prevent you from maximizing your score.
You don’t have to really learn how the GMAT algorithm works, but there are certain things you need to know.
(A) Everyone gets a lot of problems wrong, no matter the scoring level. Pretend you’re playing tennis. You don’t expect to win every point, right? That’d be silly. You just want to win more points than your opponent! On the GMAT, most people answer about 60% of the problems correctly in each section, regardless of scoring level.
(B) Getting an easier problem wrong hurts your score more than getting a harder problem wrong. It’s important not to put yourself in the position of rushing and making tons of careless mistakes on things you knew how to do. (Note: It is still very possible to get the score you want even if you make mistakes on just a few of the easier problems.)
(C) Missing 4 or more problems in a row hurts your score more than getting 4 “spread-out” problems wrong. This, of course, is exactly what happens to someone who runs out of time towards the end of the section.
(D) If you don’t even answer the last 4 problems, the score drop will be greater than if you answer the last 4 but get them all wrong. It’s okay if you don’t get to the very last problem in the section; just one blank problem can’t kill your score. However, your score will drop a lot if you run out of time and fail to answer a bunch of problems at the end.
The overall message? It’s crucial to learn how to balance your time well on the GMAT.
(3) When solving problems, follow two principles
These two principles apply when you are solving Official Guide or other GMAT-format problems.
Principle #1: At first, work in Exam Mode. Practice the behavior you want to exhibit on the GMAT.
The first time you do this problem, do not let yourself spend 5 minutes because you’re just practicing and you want to see whether you can figure it out. If you do this, you’re training yourself to spend 5 minutes on the real test, too. Make the decision: “Right now, on the real test, I would pick answer (D) and move on.” Write down answer (D). Then, go to the next principle.
Principle #2: After you’ve made your GMAT decision, work in Study Mode. Spend all the time you like trying to figure stuff out.
After you’ve told yourself that you’d pick (D) right now, feel free to move into “figure it out” mode. If you want to spend half an hour working on that problem before you look at the answer, do so!
Also, you’re now in open-book mode. Look up anything you like to help you figure out what to do! Just don’t look at the explanation until you’re truly stuck. Whatever you’re able to figure out for yourself, you’ll be much more likely to remember when you need that move again later.
If you follow these two principles (Exam Mode first, then Study Mode), you’ll get the best of both worlds. You’ll be training yourself to make GMAT-appropriate decisions while also giving yourself the opportunity to figure out as much as you can on your own.
Mull over this information; re-read it as needed. If you’re in one of our classes, I’d recommend waiting another week until you read the second part of this series. (And I’d recommend the same even if you’re not in one of our classes!)
In part 2, we’ll dive deep into the details about how to train yourself to manage time on a per-question basis.
Note: You can also find this series, along with other free study resources, in our free GMAT Starter Kit study syllabus.
Stacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, EA, GRE, and LSAT for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests.
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