GMAT Timing: Strategies for the GMAT CAT

GMAT Timing is a challenge

My guess is that most people prefer standard pen and paper tests on which you can skip around the section and pick and choose what you want to work on. Well, unfortunately the GMAT is different. It's a computer adaptive test (CAT) that only lets you see one question a time, doesn't let you return to questions, and adapts the level of difficulty based on your past responses. The CAT format lures GMAT test takers into some terrible timing decisions. This post is about helping you think about your bad GMAT timing strategies that stem from cognitive biases that are hard wired into your brain.  Hugh??  Yeah, you are programmed to fail. Why is that?  Well, two big things, Loss aversion and single evaluation.

Hate Losing?

We are more sensitive to losing something that we have than from profiting from something in the future. That means that in a GMAT CAT during which you only see one question at a time you are more likely to sit (and waste time) on the loser that is in front of you than to consider moving forward to a potential winner later on in the test.

In fact, behavioral studies have shown that people are twice as sensitive to losses as they are to gains. That is huge!  So the fact that the question is in front of you at the moment has a profound effect on your decision making. Your brain desperately clings to the present whether that is good for your GMAT score or not. Most students (especially when starting out) spend too much time on the current failure rather than moving to the potential success (or two) later on in the exam. You are programmed to spend too much time on failures. You have to work to counter this GMAT timing bias.

See the Future to Improve GMAT Time Management

So what can you do to improve your GMAT time management?  Forget about the CAT!  Pretend that the GMAT is a pen and paper test. On a paper test, most people skip over tough questions and save them for the end if there's time. Makes sense right? The opposite happens on the GMAT. Students tend to spend time on challenging questions and then have to skip easier questions later on in the exam because of timing issues.

So imagine that the questions are in fact all laid out in front of you and that for every difficult question there will an easier one later on (there probably will be). You may get a question early on that preys on a weakness but later on the test may be full of content that you are very comfortable with. The GMAT machine does not know your strengths and weaknesses. On my last exam question 35 was very easy (and I had time to tackle it).

In your practice guess-and-move on tough questions so that you retrain your instincts (which in this case are not helping).  Forget about the GMAT as a computer adaptive test and focus on the idea that every GMAT test is identical: the questions just get shifted around. Spend time on winners (content that you know). Cut loose the losers (time/energy leeches that you get wrong anyways). Here's a question I ran from on the GMAT Prep Tests because I didn't have a plan: For every positive even integer n, the function h(n)

The Vacuum of GMAT Timing Decisions: Single Evaluation

Human beings have a tough time judging the value of things in isolation. Given one piece of jewelry you might have a very difficult time placing an exact value on it but given two pieces of jewelry you would be able to say which one you find more appealing. How does this affect your GMAT Timing? Well, on the GMAT CAT we are forced to do single evaluation of questions. That makes it difficult to decide how much time to devote to any particular question because you don’t know whether there will be a more appealing question later on.

How do you do a joint evaluation when you only see one question at a time?  As George Michael put it:  “You gotta have faith”.

GMAT Time Management
Purrrfect GMAT

Treat the CAT as a Pen and Paper Test

Every GMAT tests the same mix of skills.  You may be better at spatial reasoning than algebraic translation. Every GMAT CAT will have both. You have to imagine that the easier (for you) question already exists later on in the test. Imagine the GMAT as a paper test on which you would naturally ignore the tough questions and answer easier the ones.

You gotta have faith!

Of course the GMAT isn’t a paper test and you can’t see what is coming but you “gotta have faith” that there will be something better later on in the exam. GMAT time management is about preserving time so you can give every question a fair chance. From analyzing hundreds of practice tests I’ve noticed an obvious trend:  Students spend much more time on getting questions wrong than on getting questions right (to the point that they don’t even get to see all of the questions in the exam).  Once the balance shifts the other way, GMAT scores tend to go up.

GMAT Timing Strategy 2019 FAQ

If you have almost no time left is it worth guessing on the GMAT?

For most people it's better to spend the last 20 seconds guessing on the last bunch of questions than leaving them blank. The penalty for leaving these questions blank is usually (not always) higher than the outcomes from random guessing.

Is there a major penalty for leaving questions blank on the GMAT?

Yes and no. For some people depending on the score bracket leaving questions blank is actually a better strategy than guessing. However, most people will do better guessing than leaving questions blank at the end of a section.

New GMAT time per question in 2018?

Since the GMAT was updated and made shorter in 2018, the time per question is as follows:

GMAT Quant - 31 questions in 62 minutes. 1 minute 48 seconds per question.

GMAT Verbal - 36 questions in 65 minutes. 2 minutes per questions.

New GMAT timing is very similar to old GMAT timing except that:

  1. You have little less time per question on the verbal side
  2. With shorter sections there's less space to correct timing issues and each question counts a bit more

Keep in mind that the amount of time you should spend per question varies. Some questions require more time. Some less. So avoid sticking exactly to the average time per question. It's better to get a sense for whether you're working productively (or not). If you're not working productively on a question it's probably time to move on regardless of whether you've reached the average time per question but if you have a plan and are making headway then it makes sense to exceed the time per question.

Best GMAT guessing strategies?

If you have time to do a process of elimination that can make your guessing much more effective that's great. Spend a bit of time to narrow down the choices. However, if you only have 1 minutes left and 7 questions to go avoid getting sucked into this process as that minute will evaporate pretty much instantly and you'll be left with 6 unanswered questions. That's not the end of the word, but most people would do better guessing than leaving questions blank. Also consider that rushing will get you sucked into GMAT traps. I'd much rather a student guess randomly than use faulty logic to do a process of elimination potentially eliminating the correct answer. Much better to spend no time and have a 20% chance guessing than investing time and ending up with a 0% chance.

What are some GMAT time management tips?

  1. With 1 minute left guess on whatever number of questions you have left.
  2. Fill in the answer on the last question of each section right when you get to the question even if you have time to work through the question. Why? If the test ends and you forget to hit submit that last question is counted if you have selected an answer. Most people would do better to at least have a guess logged in than to leave the question blank.
  3. Avoid rushing on questions trying to do a process of elimination. This can lead to eliminating the correct answer because rushing can lead to faulty logic which can lead you into a GMAT trap. Guessing takes much less time and gives you a 20% chance. If you do have some time left that can be applied to solving then better to guess on a bunch and then work carefully on a couple near the end of the test. Better to work properly on fewer questions than to spread your time thinly.

Any tips for GMAT verbal timing?

GMAT verbal timing is usually a bit easier and less strategic than quant timing. Why? More people feel the time pressure on the quant and so require more strategy to overcome timing issues. A few things to thing about for GMAT Verbal timing:

  1. It's great to get your feet on solid ground so I'd recommend giving yourself a bit more space for the first 15 questions or so.
  2. Even if you're great at verbal there still may be a few tough questions you struggle to resolve in a reasonable amount of time. Don't let these stragglers ruin your verbal timing! If you're stuck between answer choices and don't have a good way of differentiating between them you may need to start from scratch. What?! I thought we were trying to save time? Well, we are, but sometimes you need to zoom out to choose the best way forward. You may have baked in an assumption or misread something, both things that may be blinding you from the correct answer. You may also just need to cut your losses and move on. Guessing and moving on is often a great option. Better to cut loose with a 50/50 shot then to dump more time into uncertainty on a question on which you're struggling. You'll need that time later. And, down the road there may be a whole gang of easy questions. Keep in mind that those "easy" questions won't be so easy if you only have 45 seconds a piece to answer them.
  3. If from your HW/practice tests you know that you have have a clear verbal weakness consider bailing on those questions a little earlier than you would from questions in your strong areas.

Keep in mind that these GMAT verbal timing tips are very broad.  With your specific verbal profile you might need to adjust the approach.

GMAT math timing strategy?

GMAT math timing strategy is very specific to the GMAT profile. For some people we advise having very little in terms of timing strategy. If a student isn't struggling with time or is naturally skipping and guessing when appropriate why meddle? However, there are other people who need a highly structured GMAT quant timing strategy. Here are some general tips for quant timing:

  1. Remember that no single question matters (even the first question on the section). So avoid getting stuck. Skip freely. You're aiming for 70%+.
  2. On the same wavelength as the first point: difficult questions don't make or break your score. You're much better off not clinging to challenging questions but rather dotting your I's and crossing your T's on the easy/medium ones.
  3. If you fall behind on time you're much better off skipping questions to get back on track than rushing to make up time. The latter causes you to make careless mistakes and in the end is counterproductive.

Again, GMAT quant timing strategy really depends on your profile.

GMAT Timing Table

Here's a table providing general timing for Quant and Verbal. We rounded the numbers on the verbal table to make it easier to read.

Question #Quant TimeVerbal Time
162 Minutes65 Minutes
260 Minutes63 Minutes
358 Minutes61 Minutes
456 Minutes59 Minutes
554 Minutes58 Minutes
652 Minutes56 Minutes
750 Minutes54 Minutes
8
48 Minutes52 Minutes
946 Minutes50 Minutes
1044 Minutes49 Minutes
1142 Minutes47 Minutes
1240 Minutes45 Minutes
1338 Minutes43 Minutes
1436 Minutes41 Minutes
1534 Minutes40 Minutes
1632 Minutes38 Minutes
1730 Minutes36 Minutes
1828 Minutes34 Minutes
1926 Minutes32 Minutes
2024 Minutes31 Minutes
2122 Minutes29 Minutes
2220 Minutes27 Minutes
2318 Minutes25 Minutes
2416 Minutes23 Minutes
2514 Minutes22 Minutes
2612 Minutes20 Minutes
2710 Minutes18 Minutes
288 Minutes16 Minutes
296 Minutes14 Minutes
304 Minutes12 Minutes
312 Minutes11 Minutes
329 Minutes
337 Minutes
345 Minutes
353 Minute 36 Sec.
361 Minute 48 Sec.

Have a different idea for GMAT timing? Have a questions about GMAT timing strategies? Comment below!

 

 

One Response to GMAT Timing: Strategies for the GMAT CAT

  1. This post and the previous post both hit it on the head for me! The inability to let go of questions has definitely hindered my performance on this test!

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