After you’ve mastered content, strategies, and techniques and spent ample time deliberately practicing with realistic GMAT questions, one of your next steps is to begin dialing in your timing strategy for GMAT quant.
In this article, I’ll lay out a number of GMAT quant timing strategies that you can follow to help maximize your GMAT quant score. But, in order to fully understand these timing strategies, let’s first discuss how you can earn a higher GMAT quant score by leveraging an understanding of the GMAT and the way the test is scored.
Scoring on GMAT Quant
The GMAT is an adaptive test. In general, as you answer questions correctly, you’ll be presented with more challenging questions, which are generally worth more points. And, in general, as you answer questions incorrectly, you’ll be presented with less challenging questions, which are typically worth fewer points. Your goal is, of course, to answer as many questions correctly as possible. As you correctly answer questions, you get the opportunity to answer more difficult questions, which, when answered correctly, can increase your score.
At the same time, it’s important to realize that your score will drop by a greater amount if you get an easy GMAT quant question wrong than it will if you get a difficult GMAT quant question wrong. So, although getting a difficult question wrong may not be ideal, getting an easy question wrong can really hurt your score.
How much an incorrect easy question hurts your score is somewhat related to how well you are scoring at that point. If you were not scoring so well, the CAT engine (the GMAT scoring algorithm) would probably not be too shocked if you got another easy question wrong, and your score would probably not drop a huge amount (although it would probably drop). However, if you were scoring really well just prior to getting an easy question wrong, the CAT engine could be confused about why you got an easy question wrong. Thus, you’d likely pay a greater price for this incorrect easy question. In other words, your score would drop by a greater amount.
So, all else equal, the better you’re scoring at that moment in time, the more your score will be negatively impacted by getting an easy question wrong.
Furthermore, on the GMAT, we know that strings of incorrect answers lower your score by a greater amount than wrong answers interspersed throughout the section do. For example, incorrectly answering questions 10 to 14, inclusive, on the quant section would likely drive your score lower than incorrectly answering five questions that were interspersed throughout the section. Thus, you want to avoid getting strings of answers wrong.
Strive For Excellence, Not Perfection
Now that we have discussed how the GMAT is scored, let’s discuss a big mistake that many test-takers make, which is thinking that they must correctly answer all 37 quant questions in order to earn a high GMAT quant score. In reality, you do not need to correctly answer all 37 questions to get a high score, and you can correctly answer far fewer and still do well.
In general, it’s been my experience that when people take the test with the mentality that they must correctly answer every quant question, they tend to score significantly lower than their skills suggest they will.
You already know that the GMAT is an adaptive test. In general, as you answer questions correctly, you’ll be presented with more challenging questions that are, in general, worth more points. Because the questions, on average, grow more difficult with each correct response, at some point the questions may become too difficult for you to correctly answer in the time allotted. In other words, you’ll reach your ability ceiling. If you waste your limited time and energy trying to solve questions that you have a very low chance of answering correctly—those that are above your current ability level—you’ll put yourself at a big disadvantage.
Why? First, you’ll spend your valuable time attempting to solve a question that statistically you have a low probability of getting correct. Second, and perhaps even more worrisome, because of the time you invest (or, perhaps, over-invest) in such a question, you may not have time to answer the questions that you do have the ability to correctly answer. Think about it: if you invest 3:30 each on a number of questions that are well above your ability level (and that you probably answer incorrectly anyway), what will happen at the end of the quant section? Likely you’ll be left with 2:00 or some other insufficient amount of time to solve, for example, six questions. Even if those questions are well within your ability level, and they may very well be, how well can you answer them with 2:00 on the clock? You may end up getting all six of those questions incorrect. You know that such a string of wrong answers will be detrimental to your score.
Thus, if you strive for perfection, you could end up NOT getting the questions above your ability level correct and NOT getting the questions within your ability correct, a lose-lose proposition. On a test as competitive as the GMAT, you can’t afford to adopt such a bankrupt strategy.
Instead, you must be comfortable letting go of questions that you cannot solve. To that end, a big part of testing well is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. In fact, it is valuable to have a clear understanding of those strengths and weaknesses right down to the level of specific problems.
Imagine that you’ve solved a large number of realistic practice GMAT quant questions and carefully logged and tracked the questions with which you struggle. Then, let’s say that a week before your GMAT you spend time carefully reviewing these types of questions. Maybe you discover that you’re very weak on remainder questions presented in the form of data sufficiency questions, or perhaps you discover that you consistently incorrectly answer work problems involving quadratic equations. Whatever you discover can be used as a tool. Here’s how:
When you are presented with such questions (or very similar questions), give them a reasonable attempt (say 30 to 45 seconds), but if you’re lost or really confused by the question, make an educated guess and move on, realizing that you have a low chance of correctly answering that question no matter how much time you spend on it. By skipping such questions, you not only preserve energy and brainpower, but you also gain valuable time to solve questions that you can actually answer correctly. You might say that this is a pessimistic strategy, that you lack confidence or are acting like a quitter. But that’s not true! It’s being realistic about your current strengths and weaknesses, and employing intelligent, efficient test-taking strategies that will help get you the score you want.
For example, let’s say that question 10 is clearly a very challenging probability question, similar to ones that you’ve struggled with in the past. You give the question a “fair attempt.” In other words, you spend about 30 seconds giving the problem your best possible effort. After 30 seconds, if the problem is unfolding just as the past problems like this have–not well–you eliminate some answers that can’t be correct and then make an educated guess. The good news is that now you (1) have not wasted your time on a problem you would probably get wrong and (2) have banked 1:30 of extra time going into question 11. This extra time can be used to fight battles you will likely win. Furthermore, if you were already behind on time, you can use the extra 1:30 to catch up again.
Now, if you’re having to guess on too many of the questions, it’s very likely that you are just not prepared enough to take the GMAT, and you may need to do some more work.
Don’t Overinvest Time on The First Ten Questions
This brings us to another important point about the GMAT: you can’t game the test by overinvesting time on the first 10 or 12 or 15 questions in the quant section. Are these first questions important? Yes, they are. If you were to answer all of them correctly, would you be scoring very well on quant at that moment? Yes. However, overly investing time on these first “x number of questions” is a mistake.
For one, it would be naive to think that because of your answering the first 10 to 15 questions correctly, the algorithm would have you pegged as a “high scorer,” and thus regardless of what happened on the remaining questions, you would get a great quant score. Furthermore, by overspending on those initial 10 to 15 questions, you most likely would end up guessing on many questions at the back end of the quant section, which in turn would hurt your score.
For example, let’s assume that you used 40 minutes to answer the first 10 questions correctly, how will the rest of the quant section go with only 35 minutes remaining to answer 27 questions? You will be unable to correctly answer many of the questions that follow because you won’t have sufficient time. These incorrect answers will degrade your GMAT quant score substantially. Furthermore, as you near the end of the quant section, more than likely you will be forced to guess on some of the final questions, further dropping your score. So, even though at question 10 you had a very high score, by question 37 there is a very high likelihood that your score will have dropped to a very low level. In fact, your GMAT quant score would likely end up being substantially lower than it would have been had you worked intelligently through the section, devoting a reasonable amount of time to each question and overinvesting time in none.
Don’t make the mistake of overinvesting time to answer the first 10 questions correctly. This is a poor strategy.
Losing a Battle to Help Win the War
There may be times when you encounter a problem that you feel you can solve. However, because you either make a small calculation mistake or are just a little out of practice with this type of question, you’re having a hard time getting the answer and the time is getting away from you. In these cases, it’s tempting to continue investing time and energy into the problem. However, at some point you may have to make an educated guess and move on, because regardless of whether you can answer the question correctly, you can’t afford to spend five minutes doing so. At that point, it wouldn’t matter that you got the question correct, because of the likelihood that you’d end up running out of time and having to guess on later questions.
This is not to say that if you are truly close to an answer, you should still guess at some arbitrary point in time. If you are close to an answer, it could very well make sense to finish answering the question even if you are behind the clock. The point is that if you are not clearly close to an answer, at some point you may have to make the call to guess and move on.
You must be disciplined. You must be willing to lose a battle to maximize your chances of winning the war. If you’re caught in a question that you’re struggling to answer and time is getting away from you, even if every bone in your body is telling you that you can answer the question, make an educated guess and move on.
Don’t Randomly Throw Away Questions to Catch Up on Time
There is an idea that you can “jettison” random questions if you find yourself behind on the clock. For example, assume you were on question 15 of the quant section and you had 35 minutes remaining. The idea is that you’d sacrifice question 15 (and maybe question 16) to catch up on time. I don’t recommend this strategy. It doesn’t seem prudent to throw away questions that you may be able to quickly answer. Furthermore, it’s possible that in blindly throwing away a question, you might throw away an easy question, one that the test expects you to get right, and therefore the test will penalize you heavily for missing it. So, don’t use such a strategy in an attempt to catch up on time.
Instead, if you’re running behind, try to catch up by making an educated guess on a question(s) that you would have a hard time correctly answering anyway. Don’t just randomly guess on a question because you are behind on time. You don’t want luck entering into your GMAT score. After all, with five answers choices, the probability of randomly choosing the correct answer is not high.
You Must Leave Time to Answer Every Question on GMAT Quant
The one non-negotiable. You MUST answer all questions presented on the GMAT. Do not leave any question blank in any section or your score will be harshly penalized. Do whatever you need to do to ensure that you answer all of the questions. In the best scenario, you’d have carefully paced yourself throughout the exam so that you have sufficient time to work systematically on the final questions presented to you in the quant section. Whatever you do, be sure to answer all of the questions on the quant section of the GMAT; otherwise, you’ll face a stiff penalty.
You Probably Don’t Have Time to Check Your Work
Working accurately on the quant section of the GMAT is extremely important; you must work carefully, systematically, and accurately. With that said, you likely won’t have time to double-check all of your work.
The problem with trying to comprehensively check your work is the following: let’s say you answer a question correctly, but spend 30 additional seconds checking your work, and let’s say you do this for every problem on the quant section. This work-checking will take you something like 30 seconds/question x 37 questions = 1,110 seconds, or about 18 minutes, which represents the time you’d need to solve the final nine GMAT quant questions!
Because you don’t have time to check you work, it becomes even more important to work carefully through each question.
Develop an Internal Time Clock to Help You With Pacing
It’s very helpful to have an intuitive understanding of what two minutes feels like. One way to help you develop this intuition is to be sure you practice timed sets of GMAT quant questions in the later portion of your study. Use a timer when you solve questions. Begin the timer when you start work on a question. When you think that two minutes are up, look at the timer to see how close you were to the actual time. Your goal is to get a comfortable intuition for what two minutes feels like. The more you practice this simple exercise of “when is two minutes up,” the easier it will be for you to have a feel for this important benchmark.
Develop A Progress Clock
In addition to developing an accurate internal time clock, it’s also important to develop an internal progress clock. An internal progress clock allows you to intuitively understand how far you’ve progressed in a GMAT quant question. Are you close to getting a correct answer? Far? Halfway? Knowing approximately where you are in the progres of a GMAT quant problem can help you determine whether you should keep working or make the best possible guess and move on to the next question.
Remember that sometimes you will need to cut your losses on a problem even if you know you can solve it. For example, let’s say you’re 1 minute and 30 seconds into solving a problem that you understand well. You arrive at an answer, but your answer is not among the answer choices. Maybe you made a careless mistake in your calculations. Maybe you fell into a trap. Maybe you solved for x when you needed to solve for y. Maybe you have done everything correctly but you have a few more steps to answer what the question is asking. Knowing yourself and knowing the common reasons why you get into such situations can be very helpful because such an awareness will allow you to made the executive decision of whether to keep working the question or move on.
Remember, under no circumstances should you spend five minutes (or four minutes, or 3:45, etc.) on a question that has stumped you, because “you feel you should get it right.” As the time for that problem is running out, you must make the best possible guess and move on to the next question.
Let’s now discuss some strategies that you can use to keep proper pacing on the quant section of the GMAT. The easiest of these approaches is what I refer to as the time-remaining approach. Let’s discuss this approach first.
The “Time-Remaining Approach” On The Quant Section of the GMAT
One simple way to keep time on the quant section of the GMAT is to know in advance approximately what your time should be at a given question. Because the GMAT quant section contains 37 questions that must be answered in 75 minutes, each question should take you, on average, two minutes. Thus, you can memorize what your time should be at key question numbers. For example, perhaps you feel comfortable checking in on your time every five questions. After question 5, 10 minutes, on average, should have gone by, meaning that you should have about 65 minutes on the clock. After question 10, 20 minutes, on average, should have gone by, giving you about 55 minutes on the clock. After question 15, you should have about 45 minutes on the clock. After question 20, you should have about 30 minutes on the clock. After question 25, you should have about 20 minutes on the clock. After question 30, you should have about 15 minutes on the clock. After question 35, you should have about five minutes left on the clock for the remaining two questions.
Some students want a pacing strategy that is a little bit more flexible. If you fall into this category, you can consider a strategy that will allow you to calculate your time at any question, rather than at pre-set question numbers. Let’s discuss that strategy now.
The “Calculate the Time on the Fly Approach”
Maybe you don’t like memorizing key time vs. question positions, or maybe you’d like to be able to determine your time position at any question number on the quant section of the GMAT. There is a simple method for accomplishing this.
You simply look at how many problems you have remaining and multiply that number by 2. For example, assume you are on GMAT quant question 4, meaning you have 34 questions left to complete. You should have 2 minutes x 34 questions = 68 minutes remaining on the clock.
However, let’s assume the clock says 62 minutes, meaning that you are 6 minutes behind your target time. You don’t have to catch up right away. At the same time, the fact that you are behind is a signal. Perhaps it means that you have to pick up your pace in general. Perhaps you have to be ready to quickly guess on a question that looks particularly challenging given what you know about your strengths and weaknesses. It could even turn out that you will soon see some questions that fit your strengths, and therefore you will catch up naturally.
Whatever the case may be, by checking your time on the fly as you answer some more questions, you will be able to see whether you are making up time and adjust your strategy accordingly.
There is one final GMAT quant pacing strategy that you can utilize. This strategy is the most sophisticated of the three.
Sophisticated GMAT Quant Timing Strategy
If you really think about it, not all GMAT quant problems are created equal, and thus not all will take you two minutes to solve. If you are well prepared, many questions, even tough questions, may take you as little as 30 seconds. On the other hand, some questions, ones that require a detailed setup or more careful analysis, reading, and translation, may take you between two and three minutes to solve.
If you’ve been preparing properly, you know that there are many GMAT quant questions, including difficult ones, that have simple, elegant, fast solutions. For example, consider the following problem and its solution:
Notice that with some practice, you could easily answer this fairly challenging question in 30 seconds or less. Now, let’s assume for argument’s sake that this question is the first one you encounter on the GMAT, and because you were well prepared, you solve it in 30 seconds. At the completion of this question, you have “banked” 1:30 onto the clock. In other words, you could, in theory, devote 3:30 to solving the question and still be within the average time parameter of two minutes per question.
For illustration purposes, let’s say that you were presented with the following for question 2 (you got question 1 correct, so question 2 is a bit more difficult):
If you’re well prepared, question 2, although challenging, could also be solved very quickly. Take a minute to review the solution. Let’s assume that this question takes you 45 seconds and that you correctly answer it. Going into question 3, you have an extra 1:15 plus the 1:30 that you banked from question 1, giving you an extra 2:45 for question 3, should you need it. In other words, you could theoretically spend 2:00 + 2:45 = 4:45 on question 3.
Now, let’s say that question 3 is a tough word problem and you’re a little slow at solving these types of questions. Assume it takes you 3:30 to solve question 3, but as a result of investing the extra time, you provide a correct response. This question took significantly longer than two minutes, but that’s perfectly OK because you banked extra time leading into this question. In fact, it’s very likely that had you tried to solve this question in two minutes, you would have been unable to solve it correctly. Going into question 4, you’re still ahead on the clock by 1:15 seconds.
Let’s say you were dealt the following for question 4 and it took you 3:15 to solve:
Going into question 5, you’d be even with the clock. You also would have correctly answered the first four questions.
The major point here is that it’s unrealistic to expect to spend exactly two minutes on each GMAT quant question. Some will take you much less time, some more time. Even after getting many questions right, you could still see some relatively easy questions mixed in with the harder ones. So, those students who are seeking a more sophisticated approach to pacing on the quant section of the GMAT could consider following a strategy like the one described here.
Whatever method you use for monitoring the clock, the truth is that sometimes you will be ahead of the clock and sometimes you will be behind it. You may decide to be especially careful at the beginning of the quant section, as you get warmed up; you could end up with some extra time toward the end that you decide to spread over answering the last six questions. There is no magic formula for making these kinds of calls. Having a feel for what question you should be on at certain intervals is a matter of familiarity with the test.
Learning to effectively deploy an optimal strategy will take time, care, and practice. Don’t expect to master this overnight. It’s not unusual for students to take six to eight practice GMATs before taking the real GMAT. It is through taking each of these practice GMATs that you have the opportunity to hone your timing strategy. With each practice GMAT, you should find it easier to manage the clock and optimize your timing so as to maximize your score.
A Final Word
You now better understand how the Quant Section of the GMAT is scored, and you have a number of timing strategies that you can consider implementing on test day. Be sure to give yourself ample time to familiarize yourself with and practice these strategies. Doing so will provide you with a significant asset to help you earn a higher GMAT Quant Score.