Clients frequently consult me after they’ve invested countless (sometimes frustrating) months into studying for the GMAT without achieving the results they desire. Very often, the lack of results can be traced back to common mistakes in their study process. Among these, one of the most common is failing to master the delicate art of timing during practice and on the GMAT exam. Clients routinely spend too little time digesting and understanding problems during practice, while simultaneously spending too much time on individual problems on the exam. The solution to this conundrum is mastering and honing two opposite modes of timing: Study Mode and Exam Mode.
Common GMAT Study and Preparation Mistakes
Clients report that before working with me, their approach to solving problems looked something like the following:
Setting a stopwatch, and proceeding to solve a quant question. Reaching the 2-minute mark and picking an answer, even when not 100% certain. Checking the answer key, and discovering that the answer chosen is wrong. Quickly reading the answer explanation and then moving on, after investing maybe five minutes into the entire process.
There are several aspects of this approach that are problematic, but let’s start with the positive. First, timing yourself while solving problems is a crucial practice. It’s important to develop a sense of how long two minutes feels and to cultivate the habit of committing to an answer within two minutes. On the GMAT, you will regularly find yourself having to choose an answer and move on (even when you’re not confident) in the interest of keeping pace with timing. To excel on the exam, you must become very comfortable “pulling yourself away” from problems and making educated guesses.
Overall, this approach addresses about 30% of the full picture by providing good training for time management on the exam. However, it completely and totally misses the other 70%, and the larger purpose of solving problems: fostering learning and deeper understanding. At best, this 2-minute GMAT problem-solving strategy facilitates superficial, skin-deep learning. In order to grow your knowledge and skills, and progress to higher scores on the GMAT, you must truly and thoroughly understand the problems you solve: top to bottom and inside out. You must think deeply about what the problems are asking, consider the information given and the unknowns from multiple angles, and strategize in 360 degrees to find the most efficient paths possible to the solution. Learning and growth take time to develop, and you simply cannot achieve deep and thorough comprehension in two minutes.
In GMAT prep, there is an important tension between the need to practice and perfect 2-minute time management for the exam, and the necessity to spend ample time assimilating and internalizing content in order to learn effectively. Success on the GMAT requires you to practice and simultaneously master two opposite modes of timing that I refer to as Study Mode vs. Exam Mode.
GMAT Preparation: Study Mode
In Study Mode, you push yourself to spend more time, persist, and not throw in the towel on a problem you believe you can’t solve. You allow yourself time to spot patterns, make connections, develop insights, and generally see the bigger picture. I challenge my clients to persevere long past the point they would typically give up during practice. They are often very surprised to find that with persistence, they can make significant headway on even difficult problems they never imagined they could tackle.
When learning, it’s better to devote ten minutes to a single problem, cultivating a thorough understanding and ultimately solving it correctly, than to rush to finish the problem in two minutes. Rushing inevitably leads to mistakes, and you are likely to miss the full educational value of the problem if you don’t allow yourself the time to “connect the dots” and truly understand it.
It’s never a waste of time to think deeply about a problem and practice solving it with multiple strategies. You could even spend as long as 30-45 minutes trying to understand all the intricacies and subtle layers of a really challenging and perplexing question. In Study Mode, treat GMAT Quant problems like puzzles or brain teasers, and keep persisting!
GMAT Preparation: Exam Mode
This is the polar opposite of Study Mode, but is equally important to master. In Exam Mode, you must pull yourself away from problems and become familiar and comfortable with the feeling of guessing and moving on. The experience of taking a shot in the dark and guessing is generally uncomfortable and undesirable for most people. But becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is an absolute necessity for success on the GMAT. The main objective of Exam Mode is to train yourself to excel at the art of completing problems within the 2-minute timeframe. On the GMAT, it is all too easy to fall into the seductive trap of getting “sucked in” to a problem because you believe that with some extra time you can solve it (which is usually not the case).
If you over-spend time on a problem (sometimes clients report sinking as long as 6 or 7 minutes into a single question), you will pay for it later and run out of time on other questions – even easy questions you most definitely could have aced. Wasting too much time on questions/running out of time on other questions is a surefire way to sabotage the rest of your exam and tank your score.
Some clients truly struggle with making educated guesses and moving on and continue to run out of time on exams even after they’ve completed five or six practice tests. The more pain and difficulty you have with time management on practice exams or the GMAT, the more you must practice, practice, practice Exam Mode.
GMAT Test Prep: Striking a Balance
So what’s the optimal approach to solving practice problems, keeping in mind the competing needs and requirements of Study Mode and Exam Mode? I suggest striking a balance as follows:
Time yourself and begin solving a quant problem. Observe when you’ve spent 1 minute 30 seconds, and start narrowing down an answer as you approach two minutes. At the 2-minute mark, mentally commit to an answer (even if it’s a guess), but let the clock keep running. Continue working on the problem for as long as it takes you to get as close to 100% certain of the answer as possible.
Check your work as you go, catching any careless errors you may have made, and verifying that your thinking process is correct. It may take 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or even longer for the problem to “click,” but you shouldn’t check the answer until you’ve exhausted every possible approach you can think of to solve the problem. Record your guess at 2 minutes, as well as the total time it took you to solve the problem.
Finding Success at the GMAT
Taking the recommended hybrid approach provides the best of both worlds. You can exercise and perfect 2-minute time management, while simultaneously allowing yourself the thinking time required to push your comprehension and learning to the next level. As you study for the GMAT, practice Exam Mode again and again so that it becomes automatic and second nature to commit to an answer in two minutes. But also allow yourself unlimited time in Study Mode to deep-dive into each question you solve, and build a thorough understanding. You will likely be blown away by the dramatic results you see when incorporating this strategy into your study repertoire!
An MBA graduate from INSEAD, Priya also undertook the exchange program with Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Chicago. She has 10+ years of experience across Singapore and India working on roles in financial markets sales and strategy with Standard Chartered Bank and DBS bank. Most recently Priya has also been involved in developing product strategy for a growth stage FinTech start-up in India. In addition she has led initiatives to coach young graduates for careers in banking. Earlier she worked in the APAC office in supply chain function for a global Oil and Gas major. She has a minor degree in Communications alongside her Bachelor’s degree in Engineering as a Singapore Airlines scholar from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.