You know those scenes in movies when there’s a timebomb that’s going off in 5 minutes and 14 seconds, and all the sudden everything starts going wrong? That’s basically what it feels like when you’re taking the GMAT on a bad day. That timer keeps clicking away and somehow the questions just keep getting harder and harder.
You are hopefully spending a lot of time preparing for the GMAT by mastering the content tested and working to understand each type of question that you’ll see on both the Quantitative and the Verbal section. But at the end of the day, no matter how prepared you are on a content level, you’ll need to know how to handle the timing on the test.
There’s a lot of advice out there about best timing practices for the GMAT, but most of it is needlessly complex. Some people will tell you to keep track of the exact minute you should be at once you’ve completed a given question, or ask you to do all sorts of complicated mental math during the exam.
Things you’ll need to build a good timing strategy:
- A good understanding of question types and how long they take you to solve.
- Knowledge of as many different solution strategies as possible
- A guessing strategy
If you can juggle these three simple factors, and put in a lot of practice applying them before taking your actual GMAT, you’ll get through the GMAT without breaking a sweat. Make sure you’re focused on timing while completing practice sets and practice tests so that your timing strategy is second nature by the time you take the real GMAT.
But First, The Basics of Timing
You may have heard that the GMAC (the organization that makes and administers the GMAT) recently made the GMAT a bit shorter. Indeed, the GMAC shaved a half-hour off the test, cutting down the number of both Quantitative and Verbal questions.
But the amount of time you have per question has not changed. The breakdown still works this way:
- 30 minutes for 1 Analytical Writing topic
- 30 minutes for 12 Integrated Reasoning questions
- 62 minutes for 31 Quantitative questions
- 65 minutes for 36 Verbal questions
The key takeaway here is that you have roughly 2 minutes per question on the Quantitative and Verbal sections. But you do not want to spend exactly 2 minutes on each Quantitative and Verbal question.
Why? Well it boils down to that first part of your 4-part timing strategy: question type.
Different Verbal Questions will Take Different Amounts of Time
Yes, you generally need to average out to 2 minutes per Verbal question, but if you think about it, you’re going to need to take some time to read through the passages that pertain to Reading Comprehension questions, while some Sentence Correction questions will come together in a snap.
Now, be advised that because this is an adaptive test, the questions in the beginning of the section will be easier and the questions at the end of the section will be harder. You want to spend more time on the easier questions (more on that in the next section), so these suggested times are maximum amounts of time to spend on questions.
On Reading Comprehension take up to 3 minutes to read through a passage enough to understand it thoroughly, then spend about 1 minute on each question related to that passage. Generally, you’ll have 3 to 4 questions about any given passage. If you spend 3 minutes reading and 1 minute each on 3 questions, you just spent 6 minutes on those three questions, which averages out to 2 minutes per question.
If you’re concerned that you take a lot time reading, get in the habit of using a stopwatch when reading through passages on practice problems. You’ll be able to see how much time you’re actually taking to read, and improve from there. The best way to become a faster reader is to read a lot, so get in the habit of reading for 1 hour a day, focusing on high-quality publications like The New Yorker, The Economist, Scientific American, Wired, or the New York Times.
With Sentence Correction questions, try to clock in at under 1.5 minutes each. Sentence Corrections require the least amount of reading of all of the questions in Verbal, so you should be able to shave off some seconds there. Are you getting stuck on these questions? Keep reading for the process of elimination section below.
Critical Reasoning questions demand about 2.5 minutes each. These require less reading than Reading Comprehension and more reading than Sentence Corrections. Take the time you need to understand the argument being made and form your own judgements about it, and you’ll find that you spend a lot less time mulling over all of the answer choices.
Different Questions Require Different Strategies, Too
This is where our PAL system can come in handy. There are basically three options for thinking through each GMAT question: the Precise way, the Logical way, or the Alternative way. You can read more about this here, but in brief Precise methods use equation manipulation or formal application of grammatical / logical rules; Logical methods use underlying logical properties, text and sentence meaning to infer an answer; and Alternative methods are centered on getting to the right answer without understanding exactly why it is correct (such as elimination).
For example, you may want to use a Precise approach to figure out what’s grammatically incorrect about a Sentence Corrections questions, a Logical approach to reason through Critical Reasoning and Data Sufficiency questions, and an Alternative approach to plug answer choices into a given equation on a Problem Solving question.
Developing a flexible set of strategies is key for making sure you know how to spend the right amounts of time on each type of question. Read more about this here.
Especially if you’re a mid-range GMAT scorer, you’ll also want to develop an arsenal of strategies to deal with questions that are hard for you to solve normally.
Have an Arsenal of Alternative Strategies
The most common types of Alternative strategies are the ones that turn GMAT questions upside down.
For example, plug in answer choices on the Problem Solving questions as often as possible. There are a lot of algebra questions on the GMAT that basically boil down to “which of the following is the value of x?” Fortunately, you can just go ahead and try each of those answer choices as a value for x instead of trying to develop and solve the corresponding equations.
Instead of immediately solving every Quant question like your high school algebra teacher would want you to, take a moment to look at Quant questions logically. Are there any answer choices you can eliminate right off the bat? Would estimation or approximation help at all? Is there only a small piece of information that’s relevant?
Again, becoming well-versed in our PAL system is a great way to develop a set of alternative strategies.
But Also Know When to Guess or Skip
The last part of a good timing strategy is knowing when to cut and run. You will get some questions wrong on this test and that’s ok. Even 99th-percentile scorers miss a couple of questions.
When should you skip a question? Skip a question whenever you stop making progress on it. Give every question about 30 seconds or so of good, honest effort. If you still have no idea what to do after you put that thought into it, get ready to cut and run. Additionally, skip a question if you’re falling behind on your overall timing. A good strategy is to look at the clock every 5 questions. If more then 10 minutes have passed, youre behind! Time to skip a question…
But what does skipping entail exactly? You cannot leave a question blank, but you also want to avoid randomly guessing if possible. In these cases the process of elimination is your friend. Always remember when you’re looking at a set of answer choices that the majority of them are incorrect! If you feel like you can’t identify the correct answer, at the very least eliminate the ones that absolutely don’t work.
But What If My Timing Just Goes Wrong?
Ok, so you developed a good 3-point timing strategy and practiced it on practice tests at home, but something about taking the GMAT in the testing center just threw you for a loop. What do you do when everything is going wrong?
First things first, do not stress at the end of a section. If you’re running out of time, then you’re already in the hardest part of a given section.
Hopefully you spent good time winning those easy and medium questions. If you did, then your score is likely already in a good place. Any difficult questions you can pick up are just icing on the cake.
Knowing that, only pay attention to the difficult questions you think you’re capable of answering correctly. This is where a good process of elimination and guessing strategy is going to come in handy. If you have 4 questions left, maybe 2 of them are ones you’ll eliminate and guess on and 2 are questions you’ll actually try to complete correctly. That’s totally ok!