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My mother-in-law is amazing at baking. She’s the kind of person who can whip up a layer cake with no recipe, while having a conversation, reading the news, and playing a game of Scrabble.
Me, on the other hand—well, I once managed to melt a batch of lemon cookies. So, when I have to bake something, I triple-check the recipe like it’s instructions for doing heart surgery.
In real life, when you’re good at something, you can breeze through it. And when you’re lousy at something, you slow down and work harder. But that’s not how it works on the GMAT.
Let’s look at an imaginary student. Her name is Paris, and one of her GMAT weaknesses is word problems. Now she’s taking the real GMAT, and she’s halfway through the Quant section. A nasty-looking word problem pops up on the screen. Yikes.
But Paris isn’t behind on time, so she decides to read the problem and give it a shot. She thinks she gets what it’s saying—it still looks tough, but it might be doable. She dives in and gets to work. It takes her 3.5 minutes of hard work, but she gets an answer, and she’s ready to keep moving.
Let’s suppose Paris’s biggest strength is Data Sufficiency. Lucky for her, the very next problem is a Data Sufficiency problem. She knows she spent too much time on the last problem, so she decides to blow through this one, hardly writing anything on her paper. After 30 seconds, she has an answer, and she doesn’t even check it—she’s ready to keep rolling.
Paris just spent four minutes on two problems, just like you’re supposed to. The problem is, she just got both of them wrong.
The GMAT is all about high-level decisions. You can’t just go full-steam into every single problem: that’s how you run out of time halfway through the test and end up with a terrible score. You have to not only read the problem, but also choose how much time and energy you’ll put into it.
If you put your limited time and energy into a problem you’re probably going to get wrong, you just wasted that time! On the flip side, if you don’t put enough time and energy into a problem that you’ll probably get right, you’ve wasted an opportunity.
Let’s look at a different scenario. Paris is taking the GMAT again, but this time, she’s read this article. She knows that she needs to invest her time carefully. And she knows that word problems are one of her GMAT weaknesses—in other words, she’s likely to get them wrong.
When she sees the word problem, she goes ahead and reads it. (After all, you can’t skip every problem you might be weak at!) It doesn’t look easy, but because she has plenty of time, she decides to try it anyways. But, when the 90-second mark approaches, Paris makes an executive decision. She knows that she usually misses tough word problems—even when she spends a long time on them. She knows that she could get this one, but she also knows that she’s likely to get it wrong under pressure! So, she spends another minute making an educated guess, and then she moves on.
Next up is the Data Sufficiency problem. Because she didn’t overinvest in the word problem, Paris is right on time. She takes her time and writes out the math carefully. After a minute, she’s confident that she has the right idea. It takes her another thirty seconds to finish up the arithmetic, double-check her work, and pick the right answer.
She spent the same amount of time on those two problems as she did in the other scenario. But this time, she definitely got one of them right—and, if she guessed well, she might have gotten them both.
When I bake something, I slow down and take the time to get it right. But that’s not how you should approach the GMAT, because the GMAT isn’t like the real world.
On the test, if you know a topic is one of your GMAT weaknesses, you should actually be more aggressive about guessing and moving on quickly. It’s fine to get problems wrong—but it’s not fine to waste a bunch of time getting there.
On the other hand, if you know you’re strong in a certain area, don’t just blow through those problems. If you could get a problem right, you really don’t want to miss it for a silly, careless reason.
In short: when you’re actually taking the test, spend a little less time on your GMAT weaknesses than you feel like you should, and more time on your strong areas. It’s counterintuitive, and it doesn’t work when you’re baking a batch of cookies, but it does work to get you the best GMAT score! 📝
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Chelsey Cooley is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GMAT prep offerings here.