My Timing Is Killing Me


gmat timingI’ve written a lot “ and you’ve read a lot “ about timing already, but I want to address something that I’ve been hearing lately from students particularly those who have been studying for a while and are really struggling to make progress on practice tests.

My best timing was on my very first practice test

I’ve spoken with a few students lately who’ve told me that they felt more comfortable with the timing before they started studying all of this stuff. How is that possible?

Actually, it’s fairly common. Here’s what happens: on your first practice test (before or shortly after you started studying), you know what you don’t know and so it’s much easier to let go of the too-hard questions. Once you start studying, you’ll see something and think, Oh, I studied that! I can get this one! But it turns out that one is still too hard only, this time, you won’t let go when you should. Do that a few times and the whole situation snowballs: you realize you’re behind on time, you start to panic and rush, that causes careless mistakes. Then you get stuck on another because you feel like you’re getting a bunch wrong so you don’t want to get this one wrong too now you’re wasting even more time, and then the section ends with a bunch of guesses or even blank questions.

I’m fine with OG / untimed / with shorter problem sets

I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that you’re better when the timer isn’t ticking. We all are. Unfortunately, the real test is timed, so our untimed performance doesn’t matter. Lots of people also discover that everything’s fine when doing sets out of the Official Guide, especially shorter problem sets. This, again, is to be expected “ the OG isn’t adaptive (so you aren’t getting harder questions when you do well), and it’s easier to keep track of your global time for 5 or 10 questions rather than 37 or 41.

So what do I do?

Task #1: Change your mindset

Believe it or not, this comes down to just one issue overall: your mindset.

This is NOT a school test. As long as you continue to try to tackle the test in the way you are now (trying to get every question right, or not letting go when you think you should be able to answer something), the timing is going to continue to kill your score.


“ You are NOT trying to answer everything correctly; this is true no matter how high a score you want

“ You should expect to guess on some questions; this is true no matter how much you study or how good you get

“ You should expect to see something that you really do, in fact, know how to do, but for whatever reason you’re blanking or messing up; let it go!

Read the article In It To Win It right now. I’m serious “ not when you’re done reading this current article. Right now. Then come back here. I’ll wait. 🙂

So what did you learn there? Put it in your own words before you keep reading.

Here’s a little follow-on story for you. At the U.S. Open this year, Serena Williams won one of her matches by a score of 6-0, 6-0. For those of you who don’t follow tennis, that’s the equivalent of an 800 on the GMAT; she destroyed her opponent. A total of 89 points were played in the match. How many would you guess Serena won?

Serena won 60 of the 89 points, or just about 2/3 of the points played. So I’m extending my analogy here “ you can absolutely win big even when you lose a lot of points, just as you can get a great GMAT score even when you miss a lot of questions.

Task #2: Fix your timing

Okay, have I convinced you yet on the mindset issue? If so, you’re ready to move to task #2. Luckily, I already wrote a 2-part article all about Time Management. A few things to note, below.

Fixing your timing will take a minimum of 4 to 6 weeks; it can be done, but it’s hard and will take time and effort. If you don’t have that long, you can still get better at timing “ but you won’t completely fix this issue in just a couple of weeks.

Read the whole article and then start with the exercises in Section 4 (building a 1-minute time sense). Stick with these exercises “ a lot of my students will start, but then stop when they have started to build a good time sense and then they risk losing all of the progress they made.

Other students will build a good time sense but never really shift over into the true execution phase: using the time sense to cut yourself off when needed. This goes back to your mindset: if you don’t truly believe that you can get a lot wrong but still get your goal score, then you’re going to keep messing up your timing because you’re going to refuse to let go when you should.

Let’s go back to the Serena analogy again: you’re at a dead run, full stretch, and the ball is still several feet beyond your racket. Do you keep going, even though the ball is already past you, and risk smashing into the fence or twisting your ankle? Now you’re injured for the rest of the match “ and it’s a lot harder to win when you’re injured. (Translation: you’ve already lost the point, even though it’s not officially over yet. You can keep going but the time you’re wasting puts you at risk of injuring yourself for the rest of the test.)

Task #3: Stop being stubborn and return to tasks #1 and #2

Right now, some of you are thinking, But _______. But I want to master this test! But I’m really competitive and I can’t just give up on a problem! But I’m a perfectionist and I want to conquer the exam! But guess and move on can’t really be a strategy for winners!

Whatever your fill in the blank is, if it starts with the word but, then you’re simply resisting the mindset change. If you really do want to conquer the GMAT, you have to learn how the game is played “ and it’s not played the way you’ve been trying to play. You won’t change things by trying to force the school test rules onto the GMAT game; that’s never going to work.

Okay, I’ve imparted all of the timing wisdom I’ve got for you here. Now go tackle this thing!


  1. Tyler January 28, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Thanks Stacy!

    I swear this article was made just for me!

  2. Bharath January 28, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    I agree with your point that wasting time on a question hard to crack is going to eat into the time left for other questions. However, I also think that accuracy matters. Because in the GMAT I wrote recently i spent 5-6 minutes each on 2 questions in Verbal and yet finished the test 5-7 minutes ahead of time and scored only 29 in that section. I felt that my accuracy was reasonably fine , but the score shows otherwise.

  3. Cindy P January 28, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    Good article and examples. I like it!!

  4. Stacey Koprince January 20, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    Thanks for giving me another Serena data point! The thing I love best about this example is the fact that, every few months, she always has another match like that – 0,0 or 0,1 and winning something like 2/3 of the points. So, first, I can keep updating my example to keep it recent. Second, and much more importantly, it just reinforces my point. This isn’t a fluke or a one-off statistic! It really is how the game works. 🙂

  5. tennisplayer January 20, 2013 at 4:50 am

    Stacey – excellent article. Love your tennis analogy. No need to win every point to do well in the game of GMAT. By the way, Serena had another 0, 0 game at the AO this week (1st round). This time, she won 52 out of the 70 points played.

    This article hits home because letting a quant question go is the hardest thing for me. I am trying to find the “balance” between strategic guessing / number plugging / moving on to the next question.