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This is the original version of a piece that has since been updated. See Stacey’s latest tips on GMAT time management.
I haven’t picked too ambitious a title there, have I? Let’s see how we do!
First, just a note: these two articles are long and have a lot of detail. You aren’t going to be able to remember everything and start incorporating it right away; instead, you’re going to keep coming back to this article as you get further into your studies. Bookmark this right now so that you can find it again easily in the future.
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? Use this chart to help you decide:
|Positive||ahead of time (3 minutes ahead)|
|Neutral||on time (+/- 3 minutes)|
|Negative||behind on time (>3 minutes behind)|
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.
It’s more common to find ourselves in the negative position and that really hurts our scoring chances. 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 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 need to time yourself.)
Save this chart somewhere (don’t worry, you don’t need to memorize it now!).
|Question Type||Average timing||Min and Max|
|Quant||2 minutes||1 minute; 2.5 minutes|
|Sentence Correction||1 minute 15 seconds||30 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 minute||30 seconds; 1 minute 30 seconds|
|Reading Comp Specific Questions||1.5 minutes||45 seconds; 2 minutes|
|Integrated Reasoning||2.5 minutes||1 minute; 3 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 have access to Manhattan Prep’s GMAT Navigator tracking program, use it 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:
|Q Type||Source||Benchmark||Time Spent||Time Position|
|DS||OG12 #43||2 min||2 min 10 sec||-10|
|SC||OG12 #62||1 min 15 sec||1 min||+15|
|RC reading||OG 12 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 (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 GMAT Navigator, note that the timing data will be 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 (or simply count them up to get a sense of where you are too fast or too slow).
(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) and those that are buying you time (a significantly positive 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 the negative position questions right or wrong (across the various categories—for example, Rate problems or Modifier SCs). For those that you’re answering correctly, ask yourself: 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, 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.
Okay, that’s all for today, but you aren’t done yet! Click here for part 2, where we’ll discuss developing your 1 minute sense, using benchmarks to track your time throughout a test section, and what to do if you find yourself too far ahead or behind during the test. 📝
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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.