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This is the original version of a piece that has since been updated. See Stacey’s latest series on GMAT time management.
In the first part of this series, we discussed time positions (positive, negative, and neutral) and addressed our first three major considerations for timing:
(1) understanding the scoring (and what implications that has for timing)
(2) per-question timing and tracking your work
(3) reflecting on your results so that you can improve
If you haven’t already read the first part, do so now before you continue with this article. Today, we’re going to talk about our final three major timing strategies.
(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.
Note: 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.
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, Critical Reasoning, and some Reading Comp 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, shhh, don’t interrupt me! I know exactly what I’m doing! If, instead, 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… or But I studied this! I should be able to do it! 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.
First, start with something non-GMAT-related that still engages your brain fully. Have to write up a report or memo for work, do some research, read a paper? Set up the stopwatch/program and cover the part that shows the timer so that you can’t see what it says. Start working, but push the button every time you think one minute has passed until you’ve pushed it ten times. Then check your data.
Anything between 45 seconds and 1 minute 15 seconds is great. Anything faster than 30 seconds or slower than 1 minute 30 seconds is too fast or too slow. Note your tendencies and, later on this afternoon, adjust accordingly when you do this again.
Now, try this out with actual GMAT problems. Set yourself up with a set of 5 Quant or CR practice problems. (It’s best to practice this with 2-minute questions to start.) Start your timer and cover it up again. 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 the first minute has passed, 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, remember to push that button when you think it has been a minute since you started in the first place.)
As you progress in your studies, you can start to set up longer sets of questions, 8, 10, 12, 15.
Early on, you can also download what’s called an interval training program—this is a stopwatch that beeps at you when a certain interval has passed. You can set the interval to 1 minute, for example, and it will beep at you every minute. You’ve just set up your own Pavlov’s Dogs experiment with you as the dog (though we’ll skip the salivating, thanks). 😬 If you find yourself really struggling with the previous exercises, during which you have to decide when to push the button, try this interval training exercise so that you get used to being prompted when it has been one minute. (Just don’t get dependent on this, since you can’t do this during the real test. After a couple of weeks, you’ve got to wean yourself off of the interval timer.)
Once your time sense is relatively reliable, you’ll be effective in implementing 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), which could cost us other questions in the section
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 on track 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 on track 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): Doing 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.
For Integrated Reasoning, we’re going to use the first two methods in general as shown above, but the details are different enough that this section gets its own pair of tables.
Integrated Reasoning Method #1: Check based on time. You can check either once or twice, your choice. If you’re within 1 question of the question number listed, you’re on track.
|Time left||You’ve finished Q#|
|Check Once||15 minutes||6|
|Check Twice||20 minutes10 minutes||48|
Integrated Reasoning Method #2: Check based on question #. Again, you can check either once or twice, your choice. If you’re within a couple of minutes of the timeframe listed, you’re on track.
|You’ve finished Q#||Time left|
|Check Once||6||15 minutes|
|Check Twice||48||20 minutes10 minutes|
(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.
During a test
As soon as you notice a timing problem, you need to deal with it. Don’t ignore it and assume it will get better later; most likely, it will only get worse.
If you discover that you are behind on time (you are moving too slowly), 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 3+ 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 2.5 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? 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.
After the test
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 information. Here’s a summary of our major tasks:
(1) Understand how the scoring works
(2) Know your per-question time constraints and track your work
(3) Reflect on your results
(4) Develop your 1 minute sense
(5) Transition to Benchmarks
(6) Know how to recover from bad timing
Now go get started! 📝
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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.