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GMAT Pacing Strategy: Mastering GMAT Timing

Seth Capron

Seth Capron - TestCrackers

Seth Capron is an mba.com Featured Contributor and a Kellogg ‘13 MBA. For the past 8 years he has taught and designed GMAT courses as a Co-Director at TestCrackers

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Understanding GMAT timing is key to getting a score that represents the best of your abilities, and many students who are good at the fundamental skills this exam is designed to test can still receive very disappointing results if they are not able to enact an optimal GMAT pacing strategy.

At TestCrackers, we’ve helped thousands of students succeed on the GMAT exam, and in the course of that have been able to identify common ways in which many people fundamentally get timing wrong and wind up hurting their performance, as well as the best ways to address these issues.

GMAT timing strategy as a set of errands

Bear with me for a moment: Imagine that you get off work at 7 pm and have to be home for your partner’s birthday dinner at 8 pm. You have a list of things that you expect to complete on the way:

  1. Buy eggs and milk
  2. Get gas
  3. Renew your driver’s license
  4. Return the car you rented
  5. Buy your partner a birthday present

The typical GMAT-taker does a really good job carefully buying the right eggs and milk. They look for a good price on gas and fill up the tank, but then realize they’re behind. They rush to the DMV and stress out a ton while the minutes tick away. Eventually they get frustrated as the clock strikes 8, and it suddenly hits them that they aren’t going to get a lot of credit for buying the right eggs when they show up late, without a present, and with extra fees for late return of the rental.

In the same manner, you don’t get a lot of credit for successfully completing questions at the beginning of the GMAT if you later run out of time and mess up the later parts.

GMAT timing benchmarks as a set of errands with benchmarks

Not wanting to repeat these mistakes, many students try to adopt benchmarks. With quick mental math, our student calculates that 60 minutes to do five errands means 12 minutes per errand. The following year they take off determined to do better.

Eight minutes later, the eggs and milk are tossed into the passenger seat. They screech into the gas station, cut off an older lady, and fill up the tank. They’re ahead of schedule, and remembering that haste makes waste, they carefully park at the DMV and get in line for their license. There is a long line, but they know they have some time to spare. #benchmarksuccess! 

The clock hits 7:30 pm. Still waiting in line, they read the receipt and notice that they bought diesel gas and oat milk. Not a big deal? They know that they’re behind schedule now, but they’ve already invested so much in this line and any moment now it will be their turn. 

At 7:45, they call their number! At the desk they tell them that they just need to present any of five options for proof of identity. The one they have with them isn’t among the options. They scream and run out.

At 7:55 they crash into the gate on their way into the rental lot. Eggs fly everywhere. “Here’s your car back you filthy animal” they yell as they fling the keys at the dumbstruck attendant. Sprinting now, they grab 2 dead flowers from a neighbor’s lawn and collapse inside their front door at exactly 8:00 pm. After several deep breaths and a swig of oat milk, they manage to say “Happy Birthday love, I got you these” as they hand off the dead flowers. #benchmarksuccess?

The secret to GMAT timing success

There are several key facts that could have avoided both the issues above and the corresponding problems on the GMAT. The vast majority of GMAT takers:

  1. Do not have time to complete all of the problems on the GMAT, and rather than accepting that, they try to fit in more than they realistically can, leading to careless errors, running out of time at the end, or both.
  2. Will see several problems that they do not know how to solve, spend a disproportionate amount of time on them, and often get them wrong anyway.
  3. Are unaware that top scores (up to 49 or 50 Quant) can be achieved with significant numbers of errors (nearly 10), so long as those errors occur without wasting a lot of time and are spread evenly across the exam.

Driver’s license renewal simply isn’t going to happen on this day, and neither are some of the GMAT problems that you see. The sooner you realize that and devote the time that you might have wasted on a doomed attempt to more productive purposes, the better off you will be.

Imagine that you knew from the start that you weren’t likely to complete all of the errands and knew that instead you just needed to do a good job on the ones that you had time for. You’d buy the right eggs, milk and gas. You’d look at the DMV and immediately say “Not today, Satan.”  And then you’d return the rental, buy a gift, and show up at home on time.

3 rules for an optimal GMAT pacing strategy

  1. It’s ok (and often even beneficial) to get hard questions wrong quickly; it is disastrous to take too long (over 3 minutes) on any question, regardless of whether you get it right or wrong.
  2. Top scores are possible while skipping as many as 2 questions out of every 8, so long as you use that extra time (ideally on questions you were likely to miss anyway) to reduce careless mistakes due to rushing and to maintain a very high accuracy on those that you don’t skip.
  3. Don’t speed up and slow down during the test, giving your passengers whiplash and destroying your carefully purchased eggs! There is one right speed for you to solve problems, and it isn’t your absolute fastest. Focus on maintaining a steady pace at which you can keep your accuracy very high, and then use skips when you see problems that you aren’t likely to correctly solve in 2:30 - 3:00 minutes.

Putting GMAT pacing into practice

To practice this, you need to change how you perceive time during an exam or timed set. On the problem level, focus on using the first 30 seconds not for rushing into frantic transcription and calculation, but for determining whether you have a good plan to set up a familiar framework and solve the problem. If you do and are confident in your ability to solve it, go ahead and do so knowing that you have a good plan for an efficient solution. But if you don’t, this is a great opportunity to skip! A timed, adaptive exam is not the time to take on a new challenge completely outside of your comfort zone; this is a great thing to work on outside of timed exams! A good GMAT prep course or self-study session will teach you to quickly recognize efficient frameworks that can help increase the number of problems that you can solve and reduce the time that you spend doing so.

On an exam level, it is useful to note benchmarks (by quarter): You have about 15 minutes to complete each 8 quant problems, and about 16 minutes to complete each 9 verbal problems. You should learn how to generally hit that benchmark through timed practice sets, but the key to effective timed sets is that adjustments must be made by skipping, not by rushing.

Remember, rushing leads to unforced errors on problems that you know how to solve, and this is punished severely by the algorithm. Used effectively, skipping leads to significant time savings on questions that you were likely to miss anyway, and that have limited impact on your score. Most students plan at least one baseline skip per quarter just to remove some of the pressure, and then may add another skip if they realize that they’re a little bit behind a certain benchmark.

Work smarter, not just harder

Despite what you may hear on internet forums, there is no magic bullet for instant GMAT success. The key to achieve your goal score is to focus on the following:

  1. Improving time management to get more credit for the problems that you successfully solve.
  2. Learning structures and frameworks that allow more accurate and efficient solutions.
  3. Drilling good habits that enforce use of these strategies at an adequate and efficient pace, but never at the breakneck speed that tends to produce careless errors.

If you’re willing to put in the work, and if you’re smart about how you do it, you can improve your score significantly. Shoot me an email at seth@testcrackers.org and I’ll be happy to share our free pacing guidelines for the GMAT and point you towards other helpful resources, whether you study on your own or with our courses and tutoring.

Seth Capron

Seth Capron - TestCrackers

Seth Capron is an mba.com Featured Contributor and a Kellogg ‘13 MBA. He scored in the top 1% on the GMAT, and for the past 8 years has taught and designed study programs as a Co-Director at TestCrackers, where he has worked to create highly-interactive small group GMAT courses, live online Executive Assessment courses, and customized private tutoring.  For more information or free study suggestions, give them a call at 415-323-5728 or write to contact@testcrackers.org

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