Are you ready for the third and final installment of our GMAT time management series?
In the first part of this series, we established some overall principles for time management on the GMAT:
(1) Why is time management so important on the GMAT?
(2) Know (generally) how the scoring works
(3) When solving problems, follow two principles: first Exam Mode, then Study Mode
In the second part, we covered the first step in our GMAT time management strategy, per-question timing:
(4) First, train per problem: Develop your “1 minute time sense”
Today, we’re graduating to our second strategy: per-section timing. We’ll talk about how to manage this in the actual testing center; a separate article (linked at the end) will take you through what to do for the GMAT Online. (Why aren’t I giving you the link now? Because I want you to learn the below before you look at the other article.)
We recommend taking your first practice test very early in your studies to get a baseline understanding of your strengths and weaknesses—but you don’t need to be able to do the below on that test. Save this for your second practice test (for those of you taking our course, you’ll take your second practice test about two-thirds of the way through your program).
Note: Our free GMAT Starter Kit study syllabus comes with one free practice CAT.
Ready? Let’s do this!
(5) Second, manage an entire section using benchmarks
The GMAT doesn’t time you per problem. You’ll need to figure out how to manage 62 minutes across 31 quant problems and 65 minutes across 36 verbal problems.
On most problems, you’re going to spend somewhere between 1 minute and 3 minutes.
You’ll also likely have a few on which you guess immediately (because the problem is a big weakness for you or looks horrible for some other reason). We recommend bailing (guessing almost immediately) on 2 to 4 questions in each section (Quant, Verbal, and IR). Know ahead of time what you really dislike and tend to get wrong anyway—so that you can quickly decide that something is not worth your time.
And you’ll hopefully prevent yourself from spending much longer than 3 minutes on any one question, since that’s usually a big waste of time. (Think about it: There is a faster solution, but you don’t know what it is. Better to let that one go!)
So how do you balance all of that to come out to 2 minutes on average? You’re going to use your scratch paper to help you keep track.
The GMAT scratch paper for the testing-center test is a bound booklet of 5 sheets of legal-sized paper (that’s the overly long paper often used for legal documents). This yellow graph paper will be laminated, so you’ll use a special pen to write on it. (If you’re in one of our classes, then you received your very own scratch paper booklet and pen as part of your books and other materials.)
While the booklet technically has 10 faces (front and back of 5 pages), the first page has a bunch of writing and instructions on it, so in practice you’ll have 9 faces on which to write. You can have only one booklet at a time, but you are allowed to exchange the booklet for a new one during the test. Ask for a new booklet during each break so that you start each section with a clean slate.
Quant Section Timing
Just before each new section of the test begins, you will have a 30-second introduction screen (also known as a “breather” screen). You won’t actually need to read these instructions; you’ll already be prepared.
Instead, you’re going to use that 30 seconds to set up your scratch paper. (Note: you cannot set up your scratch paper during the break; you are not allowed to write anything or even to sit in the testing room during your break.)
Here’s what to do:
Flip the booklet over (so that you’re on the back face of the very last page), and write Extra at the top (or just a big X). If you ever need more room, flip to the back.
Next, flip to the prior face (the front face of the last page) and write 0 or draw a smiley face or whatever message you like in the lower-right corner. This is where you’ll be done with the quant section! Draw two lines to split the page into quadrants.
Then move to the second-to-last page and write 8 in the lower-right corner. Again, split the page into quadrants.
Keep doing this, counting up by multiples of 8 and working from the back of the booklet to the front. When you get to the page where you write 56, split the page into 3 boxes, not 4. And now you’re ready to start!
As you take the test, the number in the corner of each page tells you approximately what the clock should read when you’re done with that page. If you’re within 3 minutes in either direction, you’re fine.
If you are more than 3 minutes behind (e.g., you get to the time-marker 40 but you only have 36 minutes left on the clock), then somewhere in the next set of 4, choose a hard question on which to bail immediately (within 30 seconds). As soon as you see that it’s testing a topic you don’t like, or the wording is confusing, or whatever, guess your favorite letter and move on. Boom! Now you’re within 3 minutes again and can continue normally.
(By the way, what is your favorite letter, A, B, C, D, or E? If you don’t have an immediate answer, pick one anyway. Congratulations, you now have a favorite letter! Whenever you need to guess randomly, always pick that same one—unless you have already eliminated that letter via educated guessing, in which case pick from among the remaining answers.)
If you discover that you are more than 3 minutes ahead (e.g., you get to the time-marker 40 but you still have 45 minutes left on the clock), then take a deep breath and work more methodically. Write all of your work down. Don’t rush so much that you start making a bunch of careless mistakes!
Practice setting up your scratch paper this way during your practice tests. You’ll need to be able to set it all up in 30 seconds (it’s harder than it sounds!) and you’ll need to practice how to react appropriately if you discover that you’re too far ahead or behind.
Verbal Section Timing
The different verbal question types have different average time lengths, so tracking your timing is not going to be quite as clean as it is on quant.
Here’s how to set up the scratch paper for verbal:
(Note: You can also turn the booklet horizontally—landscape layout—and work that way. Even though it’s the same size, a lot of people prefer that…including me! If you’re thinking that the computer keyboard will get in the way…just move it aside. You only need the keyboard for the essay.)
Since the verbal questions have different averages, you’re going to do more problems before you check the time. This allows you to better balance across the different kinds of questions you’ll see on the test.
This time, you’re going to use only the last 4 faces of your booklet. You’ll count up by multiples of 16 minutes, and you’ll do 9 questions on each page.
We have to account for one more thing: the time it takes to read passages for Reading Comprehension problems. We typically see 4 passages on the test. The timing shown here assumes that you will start one new passage on each of the 4 pages. In other words, you will start one passage somewhere in the first 9 questions. You’ll start the second passage somewhere in the next 9 questions. And so on.
The test could, though, space out the passages differently. So here’s what you’re going to do. First, you’re going to write a little R after each of your time-markers: 0R, 16R, 32R, and 48R.
When you start reading a new RC passage, go cross off that R in the corner of the page. You’re expecting one RC passage and now you’ve gotten it.
The “default” scenario is that you’ll get one new passage in each block or quadrant of your scrap paper, as in the top right example here:
If you start the expected one passage on that page, check your time against the expected 48 and carry on normally. If you’re within 3m you’re fine; if you’re not, take action. As on the quant, if you’re too far ahead (too much time on the test clock), slow down a little and make sure you’re working systematically. If you’re behind (not enough time on the test clock), bail on a question in the next set to get back on time.
If, on the other hand, you start a second RC passage on that page, write down another R (and don’t cross it off). That’s your signal that you should expect to be a little short on time compared to the time marker written on that page. Expect to be about 2 minutes down—so if the time marker says 48, for example, then you should really be at about 46. Check your time against that 46 to see whether you need to make any adjustments. If you’re more than a few minutes off, take action.
There’s one more scenario: What if you haven’t crossed off the first R? That means you didn’t start any new RC passage on that page, so expect to be a little ahead of your time marker. In the example above, you’d expect to be at about 50 minutes; if you’re more than a few minutes off, take action.
One last note for verbal: on the graphic above, we show the ABCDE written out for each question. If you prefer, you can write out the letters just once vertically and then continue tracking your work on subsequent problems to the right (without repeatedly writing the letters). Just continue to use your symbols to eliminate or circle the empty spaces that represent A, B, C, D, and E.
You will definitely need to practice this setup multiple times before you get into the real test. Use this procedure on all of your practice CATs from now on. You can also use this whenever you do problem sets. Make quant problem sets in multiples of 4 from now on (4, 8, 12, or 16) and verbal problem sets of 9 or 18.
Then, analyze your timing both globally and per-question. Where did you make good decisions? Where should you have made different decisions? Figure out exactly how you should have known to make that different decision so that you can re-train yourself for next time and master GMAT time management. GMAT time management
Integrated Reasoning Timing
The timing for Integrated Reasoning is a lot more straightforward than the other two sections. You’ll have 12 problems to solve in 30 minutes, but we recommend bailing (guessing immediately) on about 3 of the problems, so you really have 9 problems to do in 30 minutes.
Do the problems in groups of 4, just like quant. You’ll have three groups, so you’ll only need three pages of the scratch paper booklet. In the bottom right corner of the three pages, write 20, 10, and 0. Draw a cross on the page to split it up for the four problems.
Since you’re going to bail on 3, assume in general that you’re going to bail on approximately one problem in each group of 4—so you have 10 minutes to spread across 3 problems. Put a big X at the top of the bail problem’s quadrant—but not through the whole quadrant. You can use the remaining space in that quadrant just in case one you need more room for one of the other problems.
If you do all 4 on that page (ie, you don’t bail on any), expect your time to be a little lower than the page is telling you. For example, if the page says 20, you’d expect your time to be more like 17 or 18. Just note that this means you’ll need to bail on two problems on another page in order to catch back up.
The GMAT Online Timing
All of the per-question principles are exactly the same for both formats of the exam. The only difference has to do with how you’re going to use your scratch paper to manage your time.
You also have access to both a physical whiteboard and an online one for the GMAT Online—and you’ll want to use the former for some things but the latter for others. The time management for the GMAT Online article covers both of these topics.
Good luck, merry time management, and happy studying!
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.