Welcome back! In the first part of this series, we established some overall principles for GMAT time management:
(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
Today, we’re going to dive into per-question timing.
(4) First, train per problem: Develop your “1 minute time sense”
In order to maximize your score on the GMAT, you have to make good decisions about when to keep going on a particular problem and when to stop. And in order to do that, you need to have a very rough sense of how long you are spending.
Here’s the basic idea: On the GMAT, 1 minute is enough time to get oriented on a problem and make a good decision as to whether things are going well enough to warrant investing more time. One minute is also enough time to realize that things are not coming together and this time would be better spent on some other problem.
But you’re not going to want to check the clock every minute during the test. You’ll drive yourself crazy before the test is over! So how do you know that it’s been roughly a minute since you started working on this question? You’re going to develop something we call the 1-minute time sense.
Big caveat: You do not need to time yourself when you are just reading / studying or doing non-GMAT-format practice. Just learn at a pace that’s appropriate for you. Only use this 1-minute time sense when you are doing Official Guide or other GMAT-format questions in Exam Mode.
Why are we focused on 1 minute?
The 1-minute mark is the half-way point for all of quant and CR, as well as some RC problems. If you’re actually going to finish this problem around 2 minutes, then by the 1-minute mark (the half-way point), you’ve got to understand the information given and the question asked and you have to have a plan for how to move forward. If these things are true, then it’s smart to invest another minute or so on this problem.
If you don’t understand it or don’t have a good plan for solving the problem, then move to educated guessing (if you see a good path for that) or just guess randomly and move on.
On SC and some RC questions, the 1-minute mark is approximately the three-quarter point, not the half-way point. For these problems, by 1 minute, you should have eliminated at least 1-2 answer choices. Further, you should know that you’re pretty close to done. If those things aren’t true, it’s time to guess randomly from among the remaining choices and move on.
In all of those scenarios, you’re making the best decision based on the current circumstances. In other words, you’re maximizing your ROI (return on investment). When it’s worth it to invest more time, you do so. But when it’s not, you actually have the presence of mind (and the discipline!) to pull back and allocate that time elsewhere.
In other words, you’re exhibiting strong executive reasoning skills—and that’s really what the GMAT is testing, at heart.
Okay, so how do I develop this 1-minute sense?
Grab your phone and pull up whatever stopwatch / timer function you have. Play around with it. Does it have “lap” timing? (Note: On some phones, you may not see the “lap” button until you start the timer. Then, the start button turns into a lap button.)
If your device doesn’t have a lap button, then search for a stopwatch app that does allow lap timing.
When you push the lap button, the timer will mark the time at which you pushed the button but the timer itself will keep running. You can do this multiple times to get a bunch of time intervals.
Find something non-GMAT-related that engages your brain fully: write up a memo for work, do some research, read something in The Economist, and so on. Set up your stopwatch but cover the timer display so that you can’t see what it says. Start working, but push the button every time you think about 1 minute has passed. After some number of times (5, 8, 11? It doesn’t matter!), stop and check your data.
If most of your lap times are within 20 seconds on either side (40 seconds to 1 minute 20 seconds), you’re fine. If you’re consistently too fast, then try the exercise again, this time telling yourself to push the button at what feels (to you) like 1 minute 15 seconds. If you’re consistently too slow, push the button when you feel like it’s been only 45 seconds. Do this a few times a day for 5 to 10 minutes at a time, and after a week or two, you’ll get yourself pretty consistently into a “good enough” time range (00:40 to 01:20).
How do I practice this on GMAT questions?
Glad you asked. Set yourself up with a set of 4 quant or CR questions (it’s best to start with 2-minute-average questions when you’re still getting used to this).
Start your timer (remember to cover up the actual time) and dive into the first problem. When you think it’s been about a minute since you started, push that lap button. When you’re done with the problem, push the lap button again. (In fact, pretend it’s the real test: When you’re done, you have to click next and confirm to move on to the next question, so pretend that’s what you’re doing here.)
Repeat until you’re done with the problem set, then analyze. You should have 8 lap times. The first, third, fifth, and seventh are your first minute(ish) on each problem. These four times are ideally going to be within that 00:40 to 01:20 timeframe.
The second, fourth, sixth, and eighth lap times are the remaining time you spent on the rest of each problem. They don’t have to fall into the 1-minute timeframe. Some will be shorter and some will be longer—but your collective time overall has to fit the time limit for this block of questions (in this case, 8 minutes since you did 4 problems).
Look back over the whole set. In hindsight, did you make good decisions about when to keep going and when to let go? Wherever you think you didn’t, figure out what decision you should have made instead and what, specifically, should have prompted that decision. Next time you face a similar scenario, you’ll be able to make a better decision. We call this maximizing your ROI on the test; read more about how to do this here.
Sometimes, you’ll decide that you don’t know how to really do a problem, but you do think there’s a valid way to narrow down the answer choices before you guess. Educated guessing can be a great way to improve the odds that your guess ends up being correct (as long as you don’t spend too much time making this guess).
Spend 2 to 3 weeks internalizing and practicing these time management concepts. If you’re in one of our classes, come back to the third part of this series about a week before your second practice CAT. If you’re not in one of our classes, read the third part of this series before you take your next practice CAT, whenever that is.
In part 3, we’ll discuss how to manage your time across an entire section of the GMAT.
Note: We regularly hold free events, including GMAT Prep Hour and joint admissions events with admissions consulting firm MBA Mission; you can also sit in on the first session of any of our GMAT Complete Courses for free. Join us!
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.