I haven’t picked too ambitious a title there, have I? Let’s see how we do! In this first part, we’re going to talk about how the timing works and what implications that has for studying and taking the test. In the second part, we’ll discuss practical strategies for GRE time management training.
Time management is obviously an essential GRE skill. If you get too far behind, you won’t be able to finish all of the problems. For example, let’s say that I’m answering problems on which I’m supposed to average about 2 minutes per problem. If I have finished 5 problems and 14 minutes have elapsed so far, am I ahead, behind, or on time?
After 5 problems, I should have spent about 10 minutes. I’ve actually spent 14, though, so I am 14 – 10 = 4 minutes behind. Yikes…that’s two problems I’m not going to get to at the end unless I find some way to deal with it. (We’ll talk later about how to handle this.)
If you run out of time before completing the section, you’re going to incur a huge penalty because either you’ll have to guess randomly on a bunch of problems just to finish on time or you’ll leave problems blank (which doesn’t incur a penalty—but you do lose the opportunity to get those problems right and earn points!).
On the flip side, sometimes, people get anxious about the test or the timing and find themselves going too quickly instead. If you’re answering many or most problems way too quickly, then you’re also likely making a lot of careless mistakes, and that will really hurt your score, too.
You’re going to go for a steadier approach, staying within a couple of minutes of the expected time as you work your way through the test. The question is: How do you remain on track as much as possible, and how do you get back on track if you find that you’re too far ahead or behind? That’s what we’re going to discuss in this series.
(1) Understand how the scoring works
If you don’t understand how the scoring works, you’re probably going to mess up the timing. So let’s start there.
Note: If you’ve studied for the GMAT, be aware that you’re going to handle the timing somewhat differently on the GRE. The GRE is what is called section-adaptive, not question-adaptive like the GMAT. More on this below.
You’ll start by typing two essays and then you’ll move to the multiple-choice quant and verbal sections. The first quant section and the first verbal section you receive will contain a range of problems, some easier, some harder. Answer the ones you can and let go of the ones that are too hard—make a guess pretty quickly and move to another problem. This is really important; unless you are actually prepared to get an almost-perfect score, some of the problems in the set will be too hard.
Your first section will then be graded based upon percentage correct. (Note: the test does not impose a penalty for wrong answers, so do put in an answer for every problem!)
Then, you’ll receive a second quant and a second verbal section, and these second sections will be chosen based upon how well you did in the first section. The problems in the second set will be within a more narrow range of difficulty. Roughly speaking, you can think of this as earning an easier, medium, or harder second set. Here’s a visual example for the Verbal section:
Right now, everyone’s thinking: How do I ensure that I earn the hardest possible second section? Well, you study hard, for starters. ☺ But, annoyingly, you can’t ensure any particular outcome. That’s true of any test; you do your best and see what you get. The next thing everyone says is: How do I know which section I get for the second set of problems? You don’t. There’s no way to tell.
All of that feels really…anxiety-inducing. But it’s actually true for every test you’ve ever taken. You study diligently and you do the best you can on test day. The GRE isn’t any different, even if it’s set up in this somewhat weird way.
You’ll receive at least two quant and at least two verbal sections. It’s also possible to receive an unscored experimental section, either quant or verbal. In this section, the test writers are testing out future problems; your performance on these problems won’t count towards your score. They won’t tell you, though, that the section is experimental.
The experimental section can appear in any order after the essays. If you receive three quant sections total, then you’ll know that one of those three was an experimental section, but you won’t know which was which. Likewise if you receive 3 verbal sections, one won’t count, but you won’t know which one. Just do your best on every section.
By the way, it’s also possible that the test will give you four sections and then ask you whether you’ll also answer a fifth Research section, which could be either quant or verbal. In this case, the section will be last and the test will explicitly tell you that it doesn’t count towards your score. This is less common than the experimental scenario—you’re given an extra unscored section but you don’t know which one it was.
(2) Know your per-problem time constraints and track your work
When practicing GRE-format* problems, ALWAYS keep track of the time for each problem, whether you are doing one problem at a time or a set of problems at once.
*GRE-format means problems that are in the same format as one of the official GRE problem types. If you are doing other types of problems—say, pure math drills—you do not need to time yourself.
You have 35 minutes to answer the 20 problems in each quant section and 30 minutes to answer the 20 problems in each verbal section. It gets more complicated, though: Different types of problems tend to take more or less time on average, so you’re going to need to train for that, too.
I’m going to give you all of the various averages for the different types of problems but later, we’re going to talk about some strategies to make this a lot less complicated during the test itself.
*Note: For RC passages with multiple problems, you will also need time to read the passage. If a passage has 3 problems, your total time is 6 minutes. You’ll need a couple of minutes of that time to read the passage before you can answer the problems, so you’ll need to average about 1 to 1.25 minutes per problem.
So what does that mean in practice? If you want to finish the section on time (yes, please!), then you have to hit the average expected timing across all the problems. At the same time, averages are only averages; you’re going to have some faster problems and some slower ones. How do you find the right balance?
I want to keep two things in mind when trying to hit my averages. First, I want to make sure that I’m generally spending enough time on problems that I don’t make a bunch of careless mistakes because I’m rushing. That means spending at least approximately 45 seconds on any one problem that I’m going to try to answer (I’ll also have some on which I guess almost immediately).
Second, if I’m spending more than about 30 seconds above the expected average, the chances are very good that the problem is just too hard for me (and, if that’s the case, I don’t want to spend extra time on this one!).
So I want to spend enough time (at least ~45s) but I don’t want to spend too much time (no more than ~30s above average for that type).
That’s the ideal. If you mess up your timing badly enough, you might find yourself in a scenario where you still have 5 problems to go with a minute left on the clock—basically just long enough to put in a random guess for each problem. If you find yourself in this situation, do guess! There’s no penalty for getting one wrong. But ideally, you’re going to train yourself to avoid that situation in the first place.
Start a time log that reflects the time spent on your practice problems. Your log might look like this (though you can organize it however you want):
|Q Type||Source||Average (min)||Time Spent (min)||Time Position|
|*RC, 3 Qs||OG passage #3, Q1-3||6:00||Read: 2:32
*For RC passages with more than one problem, time yourself separately on the read-through of the passage and for the problems.
On the Quantitative Comparison problem, the test taker had a negative 15 second position. That’s within 30 seconds of the average time, so that’s probably fine; just check your data to make sure that you are also sometimes faster than the average on QC. Ditto for Sentence Equivalence.
The RC passage shows an issue though. The average time is about 6 minutes, but you spent closer to 7. Examine the detailed data to see where you could have worked more efficiently. It looks like problem 3 and the initial read of the passage are the two opportunities for improvement (though you’d have to dive into the actual passage and problem to tell for sure).
Don’t do what the chart above does and mix the problem types all together. Rather, keep a separate log for each problem type. Highlight problems on which you fell outside of the “Min / Max” time range (< 45 seconds overall or > 30 seconds above the average time for that problem type).
You’re going to use that data in two ways: first, to figure out how to improve your performance on individual problems, and second, to create your “bail” categories—the types of problems on which you’d rather just guess right away and move on.
By the way, you can get access to some free practice problems and other study materials in our GRE Starter Kit study syllabus.
(3) Reflect on your results
The log will make you aware of your pacing on a single-problem level and will force you to consider the time as you work through a practice problem. Aggregate the data to determine those problem types that are generally costing you time; we’ll call these “negative-time” problems.
Next, note whether you tend to get these “negative-time” problems right or wrong (across the various subcategories—for example, Rate problems or Inference RCs):
- For those that you’re answering correctly, ask yourself: What can I do to become more efficient when answering problems of this type? What do I need to learn or practice or review? (And then go do it!)
- For those that you’re answering incorrectly, ask yourself: How can I get this wrong faster in future? (I’m getting it wrong anyway—so if I can get it wrong faster, then at least I won’t be hurting myself on other problems in the same section!)
How do you get things wrong faster? Well, I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but what I really mean is: Do NOT spend extra time on these “wrong and slow” problem subtypes. You may be able to learn how to make a decent educated guess—and, when you can, certainly try! Longer term, you may then decide to study that particular area or topic more closely in order to try to get better. Right now, though, cut yourself off.
Also make note of the “positive-time” problems, the ones that are saving you time. First, make sure that you are not making many (or any!) careless mistakes with these; working quickly is never a positive thing if you sacrifice a problem that you were capable of answering correctly. You may actually need to slow down on some of these in order to minimize your careless mistakes.
If you do find areas that are both highly accurate and very efficient, that’s great! These are your strengths and you want to know that while taking the test. For instance, if you discover that you’re behind and need to sacrifice some problems in order to catch up, don’t sacrifice your strengths! Still take your normal amount of time to answer these. Instead, make a random guess on the next “weakness” problem that you see in order to get your overall time back on track.
Okay, that’s all for today; keep an eye out for part 2, where we’ll discuss practical strategies to keep your timing on track: developing your “1 minute” sense, using benchmarks to track your time throughout a test section, and what to do if you find yourself too far ahead or behind during the test.
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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