I haven’t picked too ambitious a title there, have I? Let’s see how we do!
Time management is obviously an essential GMAT skill, and one of the (many!) skills we need for this test is the ability to maintain an appropriate time position. Time position refers to the relationship between the test taker’s position on the test (the question number) and the time that has elapsed to get to that point in the section. For example, if I’ve just finished Quant question #5 and 15 minutes have elapsed so far, am I ahead, behind, or on time?
Check out the table below to help answer that question:
|Positive||ahead of time (>3 minutes ahead)|
|Neutral||on time (+/- 3 minutes)|
|Negative||behind on time (>3 minutes behind)|
In my previous example, I would be behind on time because, on Quant, we’re expected to average about 2 minutes per question. After 5 questions, only 10 minutes should have elapsed—so I am 5 minutes behind, putting me in a negative time position.
Most people will find themselves in the negative position more frequently than the positive position. If we run out of time before completing the section, we’re going to incur a huge penalty because either we’ll answer a bunch of questions incorrectly in a row (random guessing just to finish on time) or we’ll actually leave questions blank (and that incurs an even higher penalty than the first scenario).
It can also be very problematic to be too far in the positive position, though. If you’re answering many or most questions way too quickly, then you’re also likely making a lot of careless mistakes, and that will kill your score by the end of the test.
Ideally, we’d like to remain neutral throughout the test, which means that we stay within two to three minutes of the expected time. Sometimes, though, we’re going to get off track. So how do we remain neutral as much as possible? And when we do get into a positive or negative position, how do we get back on track? That’s what we’re going to discuss in this series.
(1) Understand How the Scoring Works
If you don’t understand how the scoring works, you’re probably going to mess up your timing.
(A) Everyone gets a lot of questions wrong, no matter the scoring level; that’s just how the test works. Pretend you’re playing tennis. You don’t expect to win every point, right? That’d be silly. You just want to win more points than your opponent (the computer)!
(B) Getting an easier question wrong hurts your score more than getting a harder question wrong. In fact, the easier the question, relative to your overall score at that point, the more damage to your score if you get the question wrong. (Note: it is still very possible to get the score you want, even if you make mistakes on a few of the easier questions.)
(C) Missing three or four questions in a row hurts your score more, on a per-question basis, than getting the same number of questions wrong but having them interspersed with correct answers. In other words, the effective per-question penalty actually increases as you have more questions wrong in a row. This, of course, is exactly what happens to someone who maintains a negative time position on the test; even if you notice and try to catch up toward the end, you’re likely to end up with a string of wrong answers in a row.
(D) The largest penalty of all is reserved for not finishing the test—another possible consequence of maintaining a negative time position.
(2) Know Your Per-Question Time Constraints and Track Your Work
When practicing GMAT-format problems, ALWAYS keep track of the time for each question, whether you are doing one problem at a time or a set of problems at once. (Note: GMAT-format means questions that are in the same format as one of the official GMAT question types. If you are doing other type of problems—say, math drills—you do not necessarily need to time yourself.)
|Question Type||Average Timing||Min and Max|
|Quant||2 minutes||1 minute; 2.5 minutes|
|Sentence Correction||1 minute 15 seconds||45 seconds; 2 minutes|
|Critical Reasoning||2 minutes||1 minute; 2.5 minutes|
|Reading Comp: Reading||2 to 3 minutes||1.5 minutes; 3.5 minutes|
|Reading Comp: General Questions||1 min||30 seconds; 1 minute 30 seconds|
|Reading Comp: Specific Questions||1.5 minutes||45 seconds; 2 minutes|
So what does that all mean? If we want to finish the section on time, then we have to hit the average expected timing. At the same time, averages are only averages—you’re going to have some faster questions and some slower ones. The Min and Max numbers reflect a different consideration. First, I want to make sure that I’m generally spending enough time on questions that I don’t make a bunch of careless mistakes simply due to speed. On the flip side, if I’m spending more than about 30 seconds above the expected average, the chances are very good that the question is just too hard for me (and, if that’s the case, I’ve already spent too much time!).
Keep a time log that reflects the time spent on EVERY problem. (Note: if you’re taking our course, use the GMAT Navigator online program to time yourself and keep track of all of your data.) If you make your own log, it might look like a rough version of this:
|Question Type||Source||Benchmark||Time Spent||Time Position|
|Data Sufficiency||OG12 #43||2 min||2 min 10 sec||-10|
|Sentence Correction||OG12 #62||1 min 15 sec||1 min||+15|
|Reading Comprehension: Reading long passage||OG12 Passage #3||3 min||3 min 43 sec||-43|
On the Data Sufficiency question, the test taker had a negative 10 second position; on the Sentence Correction question, the test taker had a positive 15 second position, and so on. Group the question types together in the log (so, instead of mixing types as the above chart does, keep one log for Data Sufficiency questions, a separate log for Sentence Correction questions, and so on). Highlight questions on which you fell outside of the Min / Max time range.
If you use Manhattan Prep’s GMAT Navigator, note that you’ll have all of the timing data saved for you automatically, but you’ll still have to keep track of which questions fall outside of the Min / Max time range. Click on the Review Your Answers link to view a list of the problems, and record the too fast and too slow problems in a log of your own.
(3) Reflect On Your Results
The log will make you aware of your pacing on a single-problem level and will force you to consider the time as you work through a practice problem. Aggregate the data to determine those question types that are generally costing you time (a significantly negative time position overall). If you’re using GMAT Navigator, you can see this aggregate data on the Statistics tab (in Table or Graph format).
Next, note whether you’re getting these negative position questions right or wrong (across the various categories—for example, Rate problems or Modifier SCs). For those that you’re answering correctly, the primary question to answer is: how can I become more efficient when answering questions of this type? For those that you’re answering incorrectly, the initial question is simply: how can I get this wrong faster? (I’m getting it wrong anyway—so if I can get it wrong faster, which shouldn’t be that hard to do, then at least I won’t be hurting myself on other questions in the same section.)
How do you get things wrong faster? Well, I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but what I really mean is: do NOT spend extra time on these questions (wrong and slow) no matter what. You may be able to learn how to make a decent educated guess—and you should certainly try! Longer term, you may then decide to study that particular area/topic more closely in order to try to get better.
Also notice those questions that are buying you time (a significantly positive time position overall). First, make sure that you are not making many careless mistakes with these; working quickly is never a positive thing if you sacrifice a question that you were capable of answering correctly. You may actually need to slow down on some of these in order to minimize your careless mistakes.
If you do find areas that are both highly accurate and very efficient, excellent; these are your strengths and you should be very aware of those while taking the test. For instance, if you discover that you’re in a negative time position, you should still take your normal amount of time to answer any strength questions; don’t sacrifice the ones you can answer correctly! Instead, make a random guess on the next weakness question that you see in order to get yourself back to a neutral position.
(4) Develop Your 1-Minute Sense
While keeping a single-problem time log will help you become aware of your pacing on all question types, you can’t check the clock after every problem on the real test. You’ll drive yourself crazy before the test is over! What to do, then?
What we’re going to do is develop a time sense so that we can make appropriate, timely decisions as we move through the test. Let’s talk first about why and how we use this time sense; then, we’ll talk about what we need to do in order to develop it.
WHY are we developing a 1-minute sense?
One of the key timeframes on this test is the 1-minute mark on a question. For Quant, CR, and some RC questions, this represents the halfway point, and there are particular things that we need to have accomplished by that time in order to have a reasonable shot at finishing the question correctly in 2 minutes. For SC and some RC questions, the 1-minute mark represents the wrapping-up point—we should be close to done with the problem.
For two-minute questions (Quant, CR, and Except or Roman Numeral RC), we spend the first minute actively trying to get to the right answer. By the 1-minute mark, we need to be on track. This means that we need to know what we’re doing, have a very good idea of what else needs to happen in the second minute, and have confidence that we’re capable of doing that work. If we’re not on track at the 1-minute mark, then we need to move from our best strategy (trying to find the right answer) to our second-best strategy (trying to find wrong answers). We spend up to 1 more minute eliminating wrong answers, then we guess and move on.
Note: when you’re on track, there’s no question in your mind. If I were to interrupt you on such a question and ask whether you were on track, you’d tell me, yes, I am, don’t interrupt me! If you are thinking, Well, I know this part over here; I’m not totally sure where that’s going, but with a little more time, I’m sure—No. Stop. You are not on track.
For most other questions (SC and general or main idea RC questions), the 1-minute mark is almost the time’s-up mark. If you’re getting that 1-minute feeling and you’re not on track, guess from among the remaining answers and move on. (Do not spend time trying to figure out how to guess at this point—time’s already up.)
Finally, for normal specific detail and inference RC questions (not Except or Roman Numeral), our expected timeframe is about 1.5 minutes. When you get that 1-minute feeling and aren’t on track, start to eliminate more aggressively. You have a little time to decide what to eliminate, but you can’t spend up to another minute on these.
HOW do we develop a 1-minute sense?
You need access to a stop watch (physical or electronic) that has lap timing capability. (Most electronic stopwatches will do this; only some physical stopwatches will.) When using lap timing, pushing the lap button will not stop the stopwatch; rather, it will mark the time at which you pushed the button, but the stopwatch itself will keep running. You can push the lap button multiple times, and the timer will record all of the times at which you pushed the button while continuing to run.
Set yourself up with a set of 5 or 10 Quant or CR practice problems. (It’s best to practice this with 2-minute questions to start.) Start your timer and cover it up so that you can’t see what it says (but still give yourself access to the lap button). Dive into the first problem; when you think it’s been about a minute since you began, push that lap button. When you’re done with the problem, push the lap button again. Start your second problem; when you think it’s been about a minute since you began, push that lap button. When you’re done, push the button again. Keep repeating this process until you’re done with your set. (Note: if you’re done with the question before you think it has been a minute, check your work. If you were really that fast, you have the time to check, right? Make sure you didn’t make a careless mistake simply due to speed. While checking your work, still push that button when you think it has been a minute since you started in the first place.)
Now, go back and look at the data. For the 1-minute part, anything between 45 seconds and 1 minute 15 seconds is good. Anything outside of that range is too fast or too slow. Note your tendencies and, tomorrow, adjust accordingly when you do your next set of problems. Most people find it takes three to four weeks of regular practice with this in order to develop a time sense that is reasonably accurate most of the time.
Note: you can also train yourself when you’re doing anything that requires extended mental concentration, even if it’s not GMAT-related. Have to write up a report or memo for work or do some research? Set up your timer and push the button every minute until you’ve pushed it ten times. Then check your data.
Once your time sense is relatively reliable, you can start to implement your am I on track? and if not, I’m moving on, or I’m moving to guessing strategy. This also requires you to know how to make good educated guesses, of course. Check out these two articles for help: Educated Guessing on Quant and Educated Guessing on Verbal.
(5) Transition to Benchmarks
You probably noted that our timing is still a bit loose above; we might finish one 2-minute question in only 1.5 minutes and another in 2.5 minutes. That’s fine, as long as we are generally spending long enough (at least 1 minute) to minimize careless mistakes and yet not too long (more than 2.5 minutes) so that we don’t take time away from other questions.
On a full test or test section, it’s best to monitor time using Benchmarks. There are several ways to do this; try these out and use the one that works best for you.
Method 1: Checking the clock at certain times to see whether you’re on the right question (all question ranges assume +/- 1 question; that is, you’re okay if you’re within 1 question of the expected range):
|Time Left||Math – Near Question…||Verbal – Near Question…|
Method 2: Checking the question number at certain points to see whether you’ve used the right amount of time (all times assume +/- 2 minutes; that is, you’re okay if you’re within 2 minutes on either side). Note: check after finishing the listed question.
|Q Number (After Finishing)||Math – Time Left||Verbal – Time Left|
|10||55 minutes||56 minutes|
|20||35 minutes||37 minutes|
|30||15 minutes||19 minutes|
Method 3 (Quant only): Do a little math to calculate your position. Here’s how it works: glance at the question number. Multiply that number by 2. Subtract the resulting number from 75. Now look at the clock. Are you within 2 minutes of that number?
For example, I’m on question 11. Multiplying by 2 gives me 22. 75 – 22 = 53. If the timer says 51 to 55 minutes left, I’m okay; if the timer is outside of that range, I’m going too quickly or too slowly.
Note that the time block for method 1 is 15 minutes and the time block for method 2 is 20 minutes. As you progress in your studies, you can begin to set up 15-minute or 20-minute blocks of practice questions and do mini tests to start practicing the timing in a block. (Use the per-question timing averages to determine how many questions you should have in a 15-minute or 20-minute block.)
(6) Know How to Recover from Bad Timing
Okay, everything we’ve talked about so far has focused on what we do want to do. What do we do if things get off track? There are two levels to this: what to do immediately during an actual testing/timed situation, and what to do during your study afterward, before you take another test.
What to Do During a Test
As soon as you notice a timing problem, you need to start dealing with it. Don’t ignore it and assume it will get better later; most likely, it will only get worse.
First, here’s how you know you’re going too slowly:
Method 1: You are more than one question lower than the expected range for that timeframe. For example, you check the clock at 45 minutes to go on Quant, and you are on question 12. You’re supposed to be on question 14 or 15. You’re 2 questions away; you need to take action.
Method 2: You are more than 2 minutes slower than the expected time. For instance, you check the clock after finishing question 20 on Verbal, and you have 33 minutes left. You’re supposed to have around 37 minutes left, so you’ve lost 4 minutes. Again, you need to take action.
Method 3 (Quant only): Works like Method 2, above.
You are going to need to sacrifice something in order to get back on track; you don’t have a choice about that. You do have a choice about what you sacrifice—and there are better and worse choices you can make. Do NOT sacrifice things you know how to do. Don’t tell yourself that you’ll do this question 30 seconds faster because you already know how to do it, so you can just speed up. You’re risking a careless mistake on a question that you know how to get right, plus you’re going to have to do that on several questions to make up the 2 minutes that you’re behind, so you’re really giving yourself a chance to miss multiple questions that you know how to do.
Instead, the very next time you see a question that you know is a weakness of yours, skip it. Make an immediate, random guess and move on. There—you’ve only sacrificed one question, and it was a weakness anyway. Depending upon the question type and how quickly you moved on, you saved anywhere from a little under 1 minute to a little under 2 minutes. If that’s enough to catch back up, great. If not, repeat this behavior until you are caught back up. Don’t worry if you see two big weakness questions in a row. Maybe you got lucky and got that first one right. Maybe one is an experimental. Even if they both count, getting two wrong in a row won’t kill your score—you can recover because you still have more questions to come—and you’re not sure that you could’ve gotten them right anyway, because they were weaknesses.
What about going too quickly? We can tell in the same way, except the data is the opposite of what it was above. For Method 1, you are more than one question higher than the expected range for that timeframe—so you’re on a higher question number than expected. For Methods 2 and 3, you are more than 2 minutes faster than the expected time—so you have more time left on the clock than expected.
In this case, you do need to slow down a bit, because you might be making careless mistakes simply due to speed. Make sure you’re writing everything down. Check your work on the questions that you know you know how to do. (On the ones you absolutely don’t know how to do, though, just go ahead and move on—you don’t need to spend more time on those.) Use your 1-minute sense! If you’re ready to move on before it’s been about a minute (and you think you got it right), now would be a great time to check your work.
Okay, the test is over, and you realize that you messed up the timing. Now what? Now you go all the way back to the beginning of this article and start practicing all of the things we discussed until you’re better able to balance your timing throughout a test section (and note that this can take weeks and even months, depending upon how severe your timing problems are and whether they are also related to holes in your content knowledge and skills).
That was a lot of stuff!
Here’s a summary of our major tasks:
- Understand how the scoring works
- Know your per-question time constraints and track your work
- Reflect on your results
- Develop your 1 minute sense
- Transition to Benchmarks
- Know how to recover from bad timing
Now go get started! 📝
Stacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests. Check out Stacey’s upcoming GMAT courses here.