There’s something uniquely anxiety-inducing about the GMAT.
Yes, it matters a lot for your business school application. Yes, it has those awful data sufficiency questions. Yes, it’s long and boring.
But what really puts the fear in test takers? The GMAT is computer adaptive.
It’s spooky stuff. The computer, on its own, decides how well you’re doing on the test and gives you harder or easier questions based on your performance. If you do well early on, the test gets harder. If you miss a bunch of questions, it gets… well, it gets harder but less hard.
So maybe you’ve found yourself taking a practice test going “Is this getting really hard or just kind of hard? Could it be harder than it is? Am I totally blowing this?” You could imagine that in some societies, computer adaptive testing is used as a form of torture.
Because your performance early in the Quant and Verbal sections sets how difficult the questions get, there tend to be a lot of myths floating around about the first 10 questions.
This article will tackle some of those myths and tell you what you really need to think about when working through the GMAT.
The Mystique of the First 10
Some people say the first 10 questions are the most important of the test and you should spend a lot of time on them. Other people, skeptics, tend to say that all of the questions are equally important.
And yes, experiments with the official GMAT mock tests have shown that answering only the first 10 questions correctly yields a higher score than answer only the last 10 questions correctly.
Does that mean that the first 10 questions are the only ones that deserve your time? Obviously not, since if you want a high GMAT score you need to answer as many of the questions correctly as possible.
But, still, is there something special about those first 10 questions?
Mountains and Ants
Before we make a final ruling about the first 10, let’s talk about some ways of thinking about the GMAT overall. We’ll call it the mountains versus the ants.
Some folks look at the GMAT as a mountain you must climb. It has its challenges and a ton of questions, and you have to master all of it to get that top score you’re looking for. Climb to the top of that mountain and you can see your top MBA program, dream job, and perfect life out in the distance.
But you don’t really have to look at the GMAT like climbing Everest. With mountain climbing, you either succeed or you fail. The GMAT isn’t a pass/fail exam, though. There are a whole range of scores and your job is, basically, to get a good one to get admissions officers to take a look at your test.
So while you might be looking at the GMAT as some mountain to climb, the business schools you’re applying to look at it as a way to sort through a giant pile of ants.
After all, once you hit submit on your application, it looks identical to all of the other applications that admissions team has to sort through.
The GMAT exists as an efficient method for helping business schools tell applicants apart from each other. Someone who gets a high score on the test has significantly more impressive performance than someone who got a low score, because it meant that they not only answered the easy questions early on correctly, but did an amazing job on the hardest material the computer adaptive test threw at them.
So maybe it could help you to start thinking about yourself more like the ant who has to look different than all the other ants. Maybe instead of gunning for that top GMAT score right off the bat, you should focus on how impressive it is to not just get a bunch of questions correct early on, but keep on getting more questions correct.
Therefore, your job prepping for the test is to get ready for anything you might see, not to be the perfect test taker.
How The Algorithm Works
The first questions are powerful in the way a first impression is powerful. Your success on them tells the algorithm just how ready you are for the really serious stuff. If you’re killing it, then the computer effectively gives you access to the material that can get you that really good score.
Let’s say the first question is one that, according to the GMAT’s statistics, the vast majority of 700 to 800 scorers get right, but only a minority of 200 to 300 scorers get right. It’s an easy question.
If you get this kind of question wrong, it might be a powerful indicator to the GMAT’s algorithm that your ultimate abilities fall below the 700 to 800 range. The algorithm will then use the next questions to further assess your abilities. If you get them all right, well then you’re back on track to see the really hard stuff.
That’s right, a simple mistake early on doesn’t ruin your chances of getting a score in the 700s.
Don’t just pick up your stuff and leave the testing center! After all, there’s a reason there are more than ten questions on the exam. If the test was efficient enough to place your score after ten questions, why would there be more than 10 questions on the test?
The later questions respond to the earlier ones and attempt to locate your score more specifically in the range your earlier answers specify. But the later questions also give you an opportunity to tell the test that some of your early wrong (or right) answers were mistakes—that you belong to a higher (or lower) score category than what the early questions indicate.
This is your chance to correct the test’s first impression of you. You have the opportunity to get a great score on the entire test, not just the first 10 questions.
Finishing Strong: The Tortoise and the Hare
Some people argue you should give the first ten questions a disproportionate amount of your time. But this plays too much into the myth about the first ten questions, and ends up hurting you in the end.
There are way better timing strategies than overemphasizing the early stuff.
Start with an equal amount of time for each question (that is, about 2 minutes each on both Quant and Verbal questions) and adapt as you go.
Take slightly more time on questions that seem hard but within your reach. On the flip side, don’t take all day on questions that are easier for you and be ok with quickly moving on from questions that stump you.
In other words, you should be as adaptive as the test itself. This is what the PALgorithm practice technology helps you learn to do.
Remember, the biggest threat to a great score is simply running out of time.
Taking a lot of extra time to answer a question rarely helps very much. If you can’t figure out a quantitative question in 2 minutes, you’re probably not going to figure it out. If you’re close, take the extra seconds to get it right, but only if you’re actually on your way to solving it.
Obviously, when it comes to reading comprehension questions, you need some time to read the passage initially, so the strict 2 minutes per question rule isn’t going to apply, really.
And always remember….
This is a meticulously engineered exam designed to help yield maximal information about your personal abilities relative to every other person taking that GMAT. Your best timing strategy will develop from preparing: prep hard, prep smart, and develop an intelligent strategy for allocating your time and energy.
With practice, you’ll get a clear sense of how many questions you should solve (not necessarily all of them) and how much time they’ll take (not the same amount for every kind of question).
Just don’t underestimate the psychological damage that can come from an overemphasis on the first ten questions! If you give everything you have to those questions, you’re setting yourself up to run out of time and precious brain power.
Go in knowing that your performance on the first 10 counts, but that you really need to be winning every single question you possibly can. Give yourself the opportunity to see those questions by scoring well early on and leaving enough time for the later stuff.
This test is a numbers game, and you’re going to need all the points you can get.