I want to debunk a few common GMAT myths about timing and scoring on the test. I’m going to try to do it in the best way that I, as a graduate of an MBA program, know how: with the help of Microsoft Excel!*
The histogram you see here shows the amount of time, in seconds, that I spent solving questions on my GMAT practice tests (“CATs”). I pulled the data from my last four tests.** The green bars represent questions that I answered correctly, the red bars questions I answered incorrectly. I’m showing you just the Quant section, since Verbal questions typically vary more in the amount of time they take because of the different question types, but I can tell you the lessons to be learned here apply just as well to the Verbal section as to the Quant.
Spend some time lingering on this data set. Does anything surprise you? I mentioned earlier that I wanted to use this chart to debunk a few GMAT myths—here they are:
Myth #1: You need to get GMAT problems right in under 2 minutes to do well on the test.
Fact: 2 minutes per question should be your target average, not your target maximum! In the chart above, 47% of questions took more than 2 minutes. If, when you study, you are currently using a timer that counts down from 2 minutes, then you are meaninglessly cutting yourself off on nearly half the problems you’re doing! (Not only that, but you should expect problems to take longer when you study than when you take the test; the whole point of studying is to learn the skills you need before you actually take the real test. By the time you actually take the test, you will hopefully have learned to execute each skill pretty well, so it naturally will not take as long.)
Myth #2: When you spend more time on a question, you are more likely to get it right.
Fact: 60-150 seconds is most people’s “happy zone” on Quant. (Admittedly, for me it’s more like 30-120 seconds, but then again, I have been studying for the GMAT for 9 years.) If you look at the data, you’ll notice that when I spend an inordinate amount of time on a question, I tend to get that question wrong anyway. Interestingly, these questions also tend to be the most difficult questions I see on the test, which mean they end up being outliers and thus have less impact on my score than other questions. My rule of thumb is that once I’m approaching 4 minutes or so, I should probably just give up. That’s why you see very few questions at the higher end of this histogram: lose the battle, win the war.
Myth #3: People who score 700+ on the GMAT get most of the questions right.
Fact: My scores on these four Quant sections were 46, 47, 48, and 51 out of 51. My scores on these CATs ended up being 720, 750, 750, and 780 out of 800 overall. Yet there’s a lot of red on this histogram.
Myth #4: People who score 700+ on the GMAT work more quickly than people who don’t.
Fact: There are 31 questions here that I got right in over 2 minutes. Getting questions right on the GMAT takes hard work, brain energy, creativity, and backup plans, even for GMAT teachers! So while it is important not to spend too much time on a question, it is maybe even more important to read every question carefully and devote 100% of your attention and effort to that problem. Positive mindsets result in good scores.
What are the takeaways from all this? (1) When you study, use a stopwatch that counts up, not a timer that counts down. (2) When you take the actual test, it’s okay to go over 2 minutes on a question, but unless it’s the end of the test and you know you’ve got some time to burn, you probably don’t want to go over 4 minutes. (3) The perfect is the enemy of the good! I got 36% of my questions wrong. (4) Those 36% really were pretty hard, and I really did try my best to solve them.
*Fun fact: I once had a boss who nicknamed me “The Data Hammer.”
**For those of you who did the math and noticed that there appear to be more than 124 data points, note that these CATs were all taken back when the Quant section was 37 questions long. 📝
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Ryan Jacobs is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in San Francisco, California. He has an MBA from UC San Diego, a 780 on the GMAT, and years of GMAT teaching experience. His other interests include music, photography, and hockey. Check out Ryan’s upcoming GMAT prep offerings here.