The GMAT isn’t designed to figure out which MBA applicants are best at math and which are best at English grammar. It’s designed to test students across a whole range of skills, only some of which are academic. As anyone who’s taken the GMAT can attest, the questions are hard mainly because there isn’t enough time to solve them properly. This is also true in general – what makes the test difficult is the extreme time stress you are under, and one of the most important skills you need to develop in order to get the score you want is good time management.
This makes sense, as time management is an essential skill for anyone who wants to have a successful career in business. But it’s also likely to be one of your biggest obstacles as you prepare for the test. So what can you do to help yourself beat the clock?
THE CLOCK IS YOUR FRIEND—NOT YOUR ENEMY
For many GMAT takers, the most difficult element of time management isn’t merely trying to focus and solve questions within the limited amount of time—it’s dealing with the stress of knowing the clock is always ticking.
If this sounds like you, try to reconceptualize your relationship to the clock. Whenever you work on GMAT problems, keep track of how long it takes you to complete them. Figure out what your average question time is for different topics, which questions take you longer and which take less time, and measure yourself against these personal benchmarks. Use this self-measure to develop an intimate knowledge of your own skills and tendencies. This way you can keep from getting surprised by the clock running out faster than you expect it to on test day.
LEARN THE TEST, MAKE A STRATEGY
Certain things about the structure of the test are always the same, including the specific number of the different kinds of questions. You can use this information to develop a baseline strategy you use as you head into test day. On average, you’ll have about 2 minutes per question in the Quant section and 1:50 minutes per question in the Verbal section.
Obviously, this is an average—the easier questions will take you less time to solve, letting you use more time to work on the harder questions. On the test itself, you should strive to divide your time evenly between the different questions, and the simplest way to do so is to look at the clock every 5 questions. If more than 10 minutes have passed, speed up! Looking a the clock every few questions will help you keep track of how much time has passed without creating the anxiety that comes with constant checking.
PREP SMARTER – LEARN THYSELF
There are a lot of things you can do to help you adjust to the time pressures of the test. Remember to incorporate the clock regularly into your test prep. Learning the material on its own is great, but it is not enough. You also need to learn your own relationship to the material, including what kinds of questions and what levels of difficulty tend to take the most time for you during the test.
It can greatly benefit you to practice multiple different kinds of problem-solving strategies for different GMAT problems. This is where powerful test prep software like ours can come in handy. As you’ve no doubt seen, there are many ways to solve every GMAT problem. At examPAL, we put a major emphasis on helping you to learn the different strategies out there. That way, you can choose for yourself which combinations of strategies to use which can help you remain as adaptable and efficient as possible when you take the GMAT.
TIME EVERY QUESTION YOU WORK ON
One thing you should do, especially if timing is a particularly difficult part of the test for you, is keep meticulous track of your progress with timing throughout your prep. Many students have made a point to log their time spent on every kind of question and every variety of difficulty. It is a good idea to experiment with different approaches to see what works for you. For example, you can try different strategies in the Reading Comprehension section (do you read the questions first? do you revisit the text after reading the questions?) and see how they affect your answers’ accuracy as well as your timing.
This is one area where your initial diagnostic test can come in handy. You should use this experience to evaluate not only your overall readiness for the GMAT, but also the specifics of your performance across many dimensions, including timing. For more on how to use the diagnostic test to your advantage, click here.
LEARN WHEN TO GIVE UP
This is technically a sub-category of learning the test. As you learn the different types of questions, and learn what types of mistakes you tend to make, you’ll have a better and better sense for whether a given question is easy or hard for you. In particular, you’ll develop a sense for ‘is this a question I have no idea what to do with.’ If it is — it is likely in your best interest to skip it and move on, as you will likely put a lot of effort for no discernible reward.
Something else that you should be aware of is that it is more harmful to your score to miss an easy question than it is to miss a difficult question. As such, if you are looking at a question that looks to be very ‘easy’, then make sure you get it right, even if that means taking an extra 5-10 seconds to verify your answer..
Another thing you should be aware of is that you’ll be penalized more substantially for missing multiple questions in a row. This means that, if you know you’ve probably guessed incorrectly for two or three consecutive problems, it might make sense to devote a little extra time to the next one. However, finishing all the problems before time runs out is a huge challenge for virtually everyone who takes the test. And since leaving questions unanswered at the end will incur substantial scoring penalties, this is something you’ll want to avoid.
So sometimes, when you just can’t figure out the solution to a problem in a timely manner, it will make more sense to skip the problem then to attempt it at all. This can be a hard thing for perfectionists to do, but remember: you don’t have to answer every question correctly in order to get a superior score. And since time is such a finite resource, it makes much more sense to reserve it for questions you have a good chance of answering correctly than to waste it on questions where this is less likely.
Of course, the pressure to answer all questions can conflict with the pressure to avoid guessing multiple times in a row, when we are running low on time with a few questions to go. You should build an awareness of this into your strategy, so as not to find yourself in a situation where you are forced to guess the last few questions. If, during practice you find that you cannot complete the section on time, don’t bother trying. Instead, develop a guessing strategy: guess 1 out of every 4 or 1 out of every 5 questions, which will keep your time usage nice and steady throughout the exam. If you finding yourself running short on time during the exam itself, try guessing one or two in a row before stopping to devote more time to the next one.
All things considered, incomplete answers are penalized far more than incorrect answers, making clear that guessing is far better than not answering.
PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE
Ultimately, the one thing we can’t stress enough is: take full-length practice tests. We know this can be kind of agonizing to do. But nothing evaluates and advances your readiness for the enormous ordeal that is the GMAT like actually practicing it under timed conditions. You might be able to get a sense of your own time management skills by answering questions individually or even by taking practice subsections of the test. But until you actually sit down and take a whole test under timed conditions, you have no idea how you can really expect to perform under the GMAT’s strict time constraints.
LEARN TO READ QUICKLY
Many people fail to appreciate that, with some intense effort, you can actually increase your reading skills to the extent that it gives you a significant advantage in taking the GMAT. We advise all students, in addition to working with practice GMAT problems, to read regularly. In particular, looking for reading sources similar in content and style to the passages you’ll see on the exam. See here for a list of suggested reading sources, most of which are publications such as The Economist, The Times, National Geographic, etc.
This is especially helpful for those of you who are non-native speakers, as it will help to increase your fluidity in working with written English. However, for non-native speakers and native speakers alike, the benefits go far beyond vocabulary and grammar. Reading regularly will help you increase your comprehension and, especially, your reading speed. This will help you improve your time management on every single section of the GMAT. In addition, reading improves writing: your Analytical Writing Assessment will also benefit from your newfound reading hobby.
KNOW WHEN TO SLOW DOWN
One useful technique is to try to get into the habit of taking a pause after reading every question. The benefit of this is twofold: first, it will keep you from making the most infuriating kinds of mistakes — those that come from misreading. Second, it will also allow you a brief moment of reflection in which you can strategize your answer and even try to visualize different approaches before picking the best one. Without the pause, you’re likely to start following the first approach that comes to mind, which isn’t always the most efficient one.