In It to Win It


This is probably the shortest “ and most important “ article I’ve written in a year. It’s just a little story, but it’s the story of a crucial epiphany one of my students (and I) just had.

Last night, at the end of a class I was teaching, one of my students began asking questions about timing and guessing on the GMAT. He’s really struggling with the idea that he has to let some questions go and that he’s going to get a decent number of questions wrong. I told him he’s not alone; most students have significant difficulty accepting this idea “ and those who can’t accept it almost never reach their goal scores.

As we discussed the boring details of how the GMAT works, he acknowledged that he knew he had to do what I said (because I’m the expert =) ), but he was having a tough time because, normally, he’s in it to win it.

(For those who aren’t familiar with that expression, it means that, if you’re playing a game, you’re always going for it and trying to win.)

When he said that, a light bulb went off in my head, and I then said something to him that made a light bulb go off in his head. I said:

Yes, but are you playing the right game?

You see, he’s been playing the game he was taught to play in school “ there, getting things right is more important than the length of time spent. In school, grades are almost always based on percentage correct. The best students expect to get everything right.

But we’re not playing that game anymore. This is a new game with different rules. If you play by school rules, you’re not going to get the best score that you’re capable of getting.

My student got really excited (as did the few other students who’d stuck around after class “ it pays attention to listen even if you don’t have any questions yourself!). He had what we call an “Aha!” moment: he realized that this was not about making himself give up or be less competitive by accepting that he was going to give up on some questions. He realized that, instead, he needed to learn how to excel at this new game, and that all these things we’ve been telling him are basically the new rules of the game.

In other words, sticking to your timing, learning to make educated guesses, cutting yourself off on too-hard questions and making educated guesses instead “ all of these habits ARE the habits of someone who is In It To Win It! You’re not giving up when you do those things. You’re playing the game like an expert.

I’ve been saying the above in various ways in many articles for a long time, but never as clearly and succinctly as this. (At least, I hope it’s clear. Let me know in the comments!)

Here are some additional resources to solidify this new mindset and do what you need to do to win the game.

Scoring: read the Scoring section of ManhattanGMAT’s free e-book The GMAT Uncovered Guide. If you have an account with us (even a free account), the Guide is already sitting in the Downloads section of your Student Center. (Note: it’s in the Downloads section as of the date of publication of this article; it could move over time.)

Timing: read this article on Time Management and start doing what it says.

Educated Guessing: the above article on Time Management contains links to two other articles on educated guessing (one each for quant and verbal).

Key Takeaways for Being In It to Win It:

(1) Don’t play the game you were taught to play in school. The GMAT is a different game. Learn how to play it.

(2) Your goal is NOT to get all of the questions right “ that was the School game, not the GMAT game. You will be given questions that are too hard for you (I get them, too!). You will most likely get them wrong, of course, because they are too hard. The only choice you have is whether you take too long to get them wrong and thereby hurt yourself on other questions later in the section.

(3) You will get roughly 60% of the questions in a section right and roughly 40% wrong. (This does change at the highest and lowest scoring levels, but the vast majority of scorers will be in this 60/40 range.) You can score a 700 and still get only 60% of the questions right. Expect to get stuff wrong. Tell the computer Nice shot! and move on, mentally and literally.

  1. Nez November 30, 2015 at 7:18 pm

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  2. Ammad July 7, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    That was useful to know that i can get good score even if i get some of them wrong. To its the quality of question that you need to get right to score not the quantity. Interesting:)

  3. ramendra.awesome January 14, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks Stacey, for this amazing article!! I think this strategy will help me a lot, as I usually don’t give up on problems so easily. But this article made me realize that it’s not personal on GMAT. Best choice is to guess when stuck and move on.

    By the way, I am very new to the blog and wanted to know that if I had some doubts, so what will be the correct platform to discuss the same. May I mail the same to you? Sometimes I have trouble with questions and there is nobody to discuss with.

    Thanks again for the article!! If I do not get a reply on this post, I would understand! :)

  4. amirhakimi October 21, 2013 at 6:25 am

    It was great one, thank you Stacey!

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  13. Ryan Doolittle March 17, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Great article! “Yes, but are you playing the right game?” makes the new and more effective paradigm crystal clear to the reader.

  14. Raj February 19, 2013 at 10:14 am

    A gr8 article Befitting the context :)

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  17. Cindy P January 28, 2013 at 11:34 am

    great explanation! Tks

  18. Stacey Koprince January 20, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    On the real test, if you have an answer selected but time runs out before you can confirm it, the test will still accept your answer.

    (Note: on our practice tests, you will lose that point. We’re extra-mean about it because we want you to get your timing to the point that you’re not rushing so much at the end!)

  19. Ivan January 17, 2013 at 6:05 am

    Hi, Stacey!

    Will a test-taker be penalized if he or she lefts one last question is a section with option chosen but answer not submitted?

  20. Stacey Koprince January 7, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    There isn’t a standard penalty for getting any one question wrong or for getting a certain number wrong in a row – it depends on many factors, including your scoring level leading into the string of wrong answers.

    The general rule is: the more wrong you have in a row, the more steeply your score will go down (think of it as a line curving downward, not just a straight line). The other general rule: the worst possible place to get a long string in a row wrong is at the END of the section… because you don’t have any chance to bring the score back up again. (That’s why it’s so important not to run out of time.)

    It’s not great to have a string of 5-6+ wrong in a row anywhere, of course, but if it happens earlier in the section, at least you do still have some room to recover / lift your score back up. :)

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  24. ij December 20, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    Hi Stacy..

    A qstn here. If 60% correct answers is what all required then what penalty it has for starting 5-6 rong questions?

  25. Sundeep December 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    Excellent, as always.. And extremely helpful.. Thanks :)

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  27. Dayanand November 22, 2012 at 11:58 am

    I really like this approach, I think its like playing timed chess with the computer.. will try this in upcoming tests for sure.

  28. Stacey Koprince October 25, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    I hope so! Good luck!

  29. Chris October 25, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Stacey, Great article! I’m really glad I read it. I’ve been struggling with Quant (inconsistent between the low and high 30s) and am looking forward to trying this strategy on my next CAT. I’ve been frustrated because I can answer 700-800 level Quant questions under two minutes about half of the time while having no problems with 600-700 questions. After some analysis I noticed that I became ‘decisively engaged’ on about 3-5 questions each CAT, up to 5 minutes in one case, that resulted in quickly guessing on the last 4-5 questions. I also saw that I usually knew how to solve most of those final questions. Furthering my confusion my Verbal scores have steadily increased with each CAT and I usually have extra time at the end of the section. I’m currently scoring in the mid 600s. I hope this is what it takes to hit that 700 mark! Thanks for the advice! This may be the key to breaking out of the 600s.

  30. Stacey Koprince October 18, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Just to make sure – the 10 figure is approximate, not definite.

    The 10 non-operational (experimental) questions are not tied to / included in the scoring calculation for you, nor will they match the difficulty levels you have been “earning” on the test (the non-operational Qs haven’t yet been assigned difficulty levels). They also don’t factor into the 60%-ish correct (60% for most people, a little higher or lower at the higher and lower ends of the scoring scale).

    There is one exception: if you do not finish all of the questions, then ALL of the unanswered questions are counted against you, even if some of those would have been experimental had you answered them. In other words, NEVER leave a question blank.

  31. Saumya October 17, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    Thanks for the reply.
    To add on the matter of 70-80% correct answer, do GMAC consider 10 experimental questions for calculating accuracy percentage? eg. Among 41 Verbal questions, 31 questions are normal, and 10 questions are experimental (though, not explicitly mentioned in the set) ; while counting correct answers, do GMAC also include the response of 10 experimental questions and set the score-percentile mark(70-80%) accordingly? However, I read somewhere that these 10 exp. questions are not contributed to the score calculation. Can you please throw some light on this discrepancy of my understanding?

  32. Stacey Koprince October 17, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    At nearly all scoring levels, people will answer only about 60% of the questions correctly. When you get above about the 80th percentile or so in ONE section, then you start to answer a somewhat higher percentage of questions correctly, perhaps 70% or 80% (if you’re scoring 90th+ percentile). But you will ALWAYS get many more questions wrong than you would normally expect for a regular “school” test (that is, a test where the score is based on percentage correct). The score on the GMAT is NOT based on percentage correct. Expect to miss a lot of questions.

  33. Saumya October 17, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Hi Stacey,
    Can you please explain what do you mean by –

    (3) You will get roughly 60% of the questions in a section right and roughly 40% wrong. (This does change at the highest and lowest scoring levels, but the vast majority of scorers will be in this 60/40 range.) You can score a 700 and still get only 60% of the questions right.

  34. Stacey Koprince October 12, 2012 at 1:27 am

    Hi, guys

    Just wanted to say thanks for all of the kind words. I’m glad that you found this article so helpful. Good luck with your studies!

  35. Minh October 12, 2012 at 12:53 am

    this is one of the greatest articles about gmat that i’ve ever read! :) Thank you Stacey!

  36. Megna October 10, 2012 at 12:04 am

    An extremely helpful article! Thank you Stacey :)

  37. Stacey Koprince October 9, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    That’s great, Tahir, congratulations! I’m sure you also studied / learned more, but if you were losing points at the end of your earlier tests because you were running out of time / having to guess on multiple Qs in a row, then guessing as you went along instead would have saved you that score drop at the end of each section – essentially, a score increase!

  38. Tahir October 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    So right before I took a mock test, I read this article and was VERY intrigued with this new information I have never heard before. So going through the test, I guessed maybe 5 Quant and 6 Verbal questions and moved on quickly. My old mindset would have me trying to figure the problem out. I actually scored 70 points higher than my 3 earlier mock tests. Don’t know if this was the reason but clearly something helped.

    Thank for this info!!!

  39. Ashwin October 8, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Wonderful article!

  40. Geetika September 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Thanks Stacey for that wonderful guidance. I am one of the 60/40 scorer and after reading your article I am feeling a lot confident that there is still hope for me to achieve that 700+ score in my GMAT which is in 2 weeks. I will try this in my MOCK test tomorrow.


  41. Melodania March 20, 2012 at 3:37 am

    My exam is in 3 weeks..And this piece definitely brought a smile on my face,and a new sense of confidence!Thanks and Cheers!!

  42. jatin vyas February 3, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Really its amazing and exciting !

  43. jatin vyas February 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Really its amazing and exciting ! Helpful for prepration

  44. Subhaa February 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks for the article. very Helpful

  45. christi24 February 3, 2012 at 11:12 am

    I’m ready to take another practice test after reading this :) thanks!!

  46. Ben Hudelson February 3, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Fantastic article. I really needed to read the 3rd key takeaway. Thank you so much.

  47. jbg January 8, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Wow…this article, and your site, is totally eye popping. I took a competitor’s course and blew $1,200. Embarrassingly, I still haven’t broken 500 on any of the 8 practice tests I have taken even though my % right has increased on say the first 25 to 28 questions…its mind boggling, but the fact is that I always rush thru the last 12 to 15 questions and get 90% of those wrong! No one really explained the “in it to win it philosophy, and while not a quick fix, i’m excited to try those tests again w/this mindset in mind. Thanks for dropping that knowledge.


  48. Aishwarya Iyer December 20, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    Lovely article :)

  49. RJ December 19, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    Stacey, Thanks for recommending! Great article! It helps me relax and feel more confident about the problems I can’t solve! I like the 3 tips to win at this game and the “nice shot” mindset when you are looking at a too hard question.

  50. Syed December 9, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    I completely agree that this is a different game. This game is against time*Questions and not just agianst questions. As soon as you realize that the question is pretty complicated, make an educated guess of the last two options and move on.

    The idea is to get those easy & moderate questions right, and educated guess on those few difficult questions.

  51. Gunjan Sharma December 3, 2011 at 4:54 am

    Wow! Good One….That one will perhaps motivate me to compromise on Probability

  52. swati December 1, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Great article…very motivating… Too inspiring for a person like me who is about to play this game in 2 weeks time… But I don know how will it work…