The SBC GMAT Files

GMAT Time Management 101
I remember my first time playing the vintage arcade game Galaga. At the ”˜challenge stage’ you score the best percentage of shots/ships-hit by waiting a couple of beats to shoot, because the ships coming out in procession are delayed. Timing is everything, especially as those ships begin shooting back, albeit passively, at my ship at the bottom of the screen. This stage is largely predictable, and merely gets quicker as the game goes on – – so the pacing practiced in the beginning of the game informs the pacing later. Likewise, subsequent games exhibit the exact same pacing in the challenge rounds. You practice, you’re prepared, and you improve your score. It’s that easy. And pacing on the GMAT is specific in the same way. You need to have a plan, you need to practice it, and when you go into the test, you need to use it.

It comes down to Time Management. You’ve likely encountered this concept on the job, in school, and in the ever-challenging process of achieving a life-work balance. On the GMAT, in addition to mastering math and verbal concepts, it’s no surprise that you also have to master “time”. It is a timed test, after all. You may not be aware of the fact that how YOU treat time management is not only both very unique, but like any process, improves with practice and being mindful and ”˜present.’

There are a few theories floating around about GMAT pacing. I’m going to elaborate on some of the challenges a student may face, as well as cover what we’ve found to be the most effective solutions. Each student is an individual, and as ”˜captain of your own ship,’ you’ll need to determine for yourself what system consistently works best for you.

The operative word here is ”˜consistent’. You will need to be your own investigative scientist, with yourself as subject and data-producer, to determine who you are on the test. It is therefore best to keep an ongoing log of your performance. Not only is logging ”˜correct’ and ”˜incorrect’ answers important, but keeping track of how long it’s taking you to do certain kinds of questions is also key. If you’re working with an online program, it might do this automatically; if not, you can use your smart phone, iPad, or stopwatch to keep track of how long it’s taking you to complete specific question types. We don’t advise doing this every time you study, but at least once a week so you can chart your performance. A chart can look something like this:

Question #/Source Start/End `Time in minutes Type of Math Data Sufficiency/Problem Solving Did you Feel Rushed, Fine or Slow Correct or Wrong Notes
Example # 5
OG 13
11:30 ”“ 11:31 1 Number properties and Arithmetic PS Fine, it was easy! Correct Banked 1+ minute!

You can certainly add more fields, but this is the basic rundown for some good ole’ self -discovery.

This can also be made even more interesting, and more importantly, effective, if you set up some benchmarks for yourself. Start by considering this general rule:  You divide the total time by the total number of questions per section (75 min / 37 questions), giving you an average of a dash over 2 minutes per question. This allows you to enter on the chart whether you have finished the questions quickly, at a good speed, or progressed too slowly. You will soon be able to aggregate the data, and move towards working in blocks of 15 minutes. When you’re able to do 7 ”“ 8 questions for each block of 15 minutes, the movement through the questions should look something like this:

Time Remaining Complete Question
75 minutes 1
60 minutes 7-8
45 minutes 14-15
30 minutes 21-22
15 minutes 28-29

It’s been the belief of our company as well as many other experts that when you move to answering questions in ”˜blocks’ of time, rather than ”˜each question being 2+ minutes’, that you should cut yourself some slack if the first 10 ”“ 12 questions take longer. These questions, despite the GMAC official guide and reps saying otherwise, seem to count the most, so giving them some extra time should be in order. It’s okay to take longer, and if need be, guess at the end.

Just because every question theoretically gets about 2 minutes each, not every question is equal. Some questions are easier and don’t require a lot of time, and other questions are tricky, even convoluted, and will likely require more time. The challenge here is to go into the test with a self-awareness regarding which questions you’re likely able to answer quickly, and the ones you’ll need more time for. Keeping this log will also help you determine if there are certain questions you might be guessing on consistently. If you determine that you’re going to be automatically guessing on certain types of questions, then you can add those 2+ minutes to the ”˜pot’ and you’ll either have more time per question or apply the extra time for a certain type of question that you find you answer correctly when you have enough time to complete it.

Questions at the beginning of the test are (hopefully) the easiest ones for you, and the last questions will likely more difficult. The earliest questions (about the first 10) mostly lock in your score, so their difficulty remains fairly static. If you determine that you always get certain questions incorrect, whether they are the questions at the end or even a certain question number, avoid surprises, and go into the test knowing which question type/number you’ll be guessing on. The reason we say that you might be guessing on certain questions in the middle of the test, by their mere number, is that we’ve observed that students have rhythms. If you arrive at a certain question number that you often get wrong, time better served if you take a moment to breathe and ground yourself to prepare for the remainder of the test, rather than plow through all the test questions without that break. Again, collecting and analyzing your data will be instrumental in figuring out your best method to get a handle on managing time. Don’t forget, everyone is different when they go through the test.

The third point is to acknowledge that your timing will vary when answering the different question types. Problem Solving requires a different skill set than Data Sufficiency, though I cannot make a blanket statement of which will take you longer. Therefore, until you see your performance indicating otherwise, stick to 2+ minutes per question. On the other hand, the three question types in Verbal pose a different challenge. Sentence Correction should take you the least amount of time. Less than 2 minutes. The Critical Reasoning will take a little longer, so you can stick to the 2-minute rule.  However, Reading Comprehension, by the very nature of needing to read the material, changes the rules completely.

Since the average person reads 150 ”“ 200 words per minute, and typical GMAT passages, based on the OG and our personal experience taking the test, range from 200 ”“ 600 words, it would take the average person 1 ”“ 4 minutes to read it. This is obviously not always optimal, as it takes away time from answering questions, which is what you’re getting credit for when they are correct. We unilaterally recommend that students learn and use advanced reading techniques. To date, we’re the only company to address this, so if you want more information on how to increase your reading speed up to 400%, without sacrificing comprehension, get in touch with us. Heck, if you want to see how fast you read, now, go to our Reading Speed test here:

It’s worth mentioning that to earn a great score on the GMAT doesn’t mean that you have to answer every question correctly. Everybody is getting questions wrong, no matter how well they’re doing. The scales on Math and Verbal go up to 60, yet 51 (verbal) and 45 ”“ 51 (quant) put you in the 98th/99th percentiles on Math and Verbal respectively (and there seems to be no way to earn higher than a 51 on either section). There is an ”˜urban legend’ about a MIT math professor who pulled off getting a 60: but we’ve been unable to confirm this as true. So test takers getting in the 750-790 scoring range are still getting a bunch of questions wrong. And even the extreme minority that get an 800 are getting some questions wrong.

For test takers farther down the scale, percent accuracy is virtually meaningless – due to the computer adaptive nature of the exam. What matters is WHICH questions are answered correctly, not how many. The exception to this would be in the first 10 questions or so, where the difficulty is relatively static as the CAT locks onto your scoring range.

Going into the test knowing which questions you’re likely going to get wrong (because your investigative work has indicated it as such), you can guess, and not worry about it. Plus, you gain that extra time to dedicate to those questions that you are more confident you’ll get correct.
Your score suffers more when you get easier questions wrong rather than harder ones, and when you get multiple questions wrong in a row, as compared to wrong answers interspersed throughout the section: even if you get the same total number of questions wrong. If you don’t have your pacing in check, and are guessing on the last few to several questions, this happens. Still, if guessing is your only option at the end of taking the test, do it!  You are most penalized if you actually don’t finish the test, and leave questions blank, which can only happen at the end of each section. If you don’t have time to finish, it could be the result of spending too much time on one or several questions, no preparing with enough diagnostics or pacing-like exercises. You always want to make sure every question is filled in with an answer, even if that means guessing randomly without even looking at the question.
If a student finds themself behind on time, speeding up too much can be a recipe for disaster. The questions are designed to be tricky – so half an answer is sometimes no better (or even worse) than a guess. The takeaway from this is that everybody is feeling brutalized by the GMAT as they proceed through it. So if a student gets thrown out of their rhythm by perceived difficulty – they’re fighting a phantom. PERCEIVED DIFFICULTY IS NO INDICATION OF PERFORMANCE (after the first ten or so). One of our students who took the test recently said that while prepared, he felt like he was being flayed alive by the verbal section  – – and he scored in the 99%. Confidence has to come from preparation, technique, and a positive mindset; not allowing yourself to engage in the process of trying to ascertain ”˜where’ you’re at score wise, while you’re taking the test itself.

A catastrophe we’ve witnessed, and that you should avoid, comes about when a test taker encounters difficult questions (which you will, like everyone else), real or perceived, and has slowed down, then feeling the intense pressure to succeed, speeds to ”˜catch up’. Failing to appreciate that perceived difficulty is not a good indication of performance, the applicant slows down in an effort to answer every question correctly. The applicant then starts running out of time and speeds up excessively with later questions. The sloppy performance on the latter portion of the exam is punished harshly, and the student receives a poor score.

We’ve seen this with students scoring in the 640-680 range on diagnostic tests, but gunning for that 700+ score. They sit for the GMAT and get a 550 because they don’t let go of hard questions. This is an instance of cracking under pressure – but it has a particular anatomy in relation to time management and the computer adaptive nature of the GMAT.

Ultimately, you need to craft and develop a time management protocol to adhere to, the same way you’d chart any time-bound process: cooking, running and exercise, typing, getting ready in the morning, and yes, playing Galaga! As with any aspect in your life, your pacing skills will improve with practice, and your score will benefit.


(718) 306-6858

Latest Blog Post

Haas MBA Students Tackle Difficult Workplace Conversations

Cool course alert at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business! Even brilliant, über-accomplished people can have a common Achilles heel: avoiding conflict whenever possible. This fall, UC Berkeley Haas MBA students enrolled in ...