What’s Your Guessing Strategy for the GMAT™ Exam?

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Taking the GMAT exam? Turns out there's a strategy for when and how to guess on the exam. Here's what analysis from thousands of actual GMAT tests tells us.

What do you do if you have to guess on the GMAT exam? We looked at thousands of actual GMAT records, and it turns out there’s a strategy.

One potential strategy is to mark “C” for the remaining questions. We’ve all been there, seemingly paralyzed as we watch the seconds tick away and realize we don’t have enough time to finish a test. Conventional wisdom has always told us to guess. “Mark ‘C,’” they say—it’s as good a choice as any. Surely “C” is the right answer for some of the questions. After all, the chance of getting it right is better than getting it wrong by default. Or is it?

Today we look at this age-old strategy to determine if it’s the best guessing approach for the GMAT exam.

Is it better to skip a question or guess?

The sponsors of many standardized tests like the GMAT caught on to the guessing game years ago. As a result,“formula scoring” was introduced as a correction for guessing, or a way to neutralize its benefits. It works by penalizing wrong answers more aggressively. If you leave a question blank, you receive no credit for the item. However, if you answer a question and get it wrong, you get no credit and you are penalized a quarter of a point for five-option multiple-choice questions and one-third of a point for four-option questions.

Random guessing then becomes ill-advised, and the test prep mantra became: Try to eliminate the obvious wrong options before you guess to improve your odds. If you don’t have time to even read the questions, you cannot improve your odds by narrowing down your answers. Chances are your score will be no better for random guessing, and it could be even worse.

How does guessing affect your GMAT score?

What about the computer-adaptive GMAT exam? Should you guess? Formula scoring and the correction for guessing were designed for tests where all the items carry the same weight and where you are allowed to skip questions. Throw computerized adaptive testing into the mix and you have an altogether different picture.

On the one hand, you might think that once you get near the end of the section, the algorithm already has a pretty good handle on what your score range should be, so a question here or there shouldn’t matter. On the other hand, if you are randomly guessing near the end, you may get a question wrong that should have been easy for someone at your score level, sending the algorithm into a tizzy as it wonders where it went wrong and adjusts your score accordingly.

The reality is, because everyone gets a different set of questions, random guesses at the end of a section will have different effects on the score. And because no one knows what item you would have gotten next if you don’t complete the items at the end, then there is no good way to estimate how that would affect your score.

Now you’re thinking: “Why did I read this if you’re just going to say you don’t know what would happen?” Well, we don’t know exactly what would happen for you, but we can give you some guidelines based on our research.

Not sure how the GMAT exam is scored? Head over here for a quick overview.

Tips for guessing on the GMAT exam

First, for the obvious: The best defense is a good offense—adopt a smart study strategy, put a prep timeline in place, and practice pacing. Then, come test day, keep track of your time, so you don’t have to worry about running short on time and needing to guess as much. But if you do end up pressed for time, the findings from our study may help you decide what to do.

Based on an analysis of thousands of actual GMAT records, the question of whether to guess or leave questions blank (at the end) depends on the number of items you have left, the section you are on (Verbal or Quantitative), and your relative ability. Here is how it breaks down:

  • If you only have 1 or 2 items left in either section, it doesn’t make much difference if you guess or skip the question. You should finish the item you are on to the best of your ability and not worry about the others.
  • If you are on the Verbal section and you have five or fewer questions left, it also doesn’t matter if you guess or skip the questions. Again, finish the item you are on to the best of your ability and don’t worry about the others.
  • In the Quantitative section, your odds improve if you guess and complete all the questions rather leave the final questions unanswered. After all, there are fewer questions in this section, so each item left blank in this section comprises a higher proportion of the test than in the verbal section. Guess as smartly as you can, but guess nonetheless—do not leave items blank.
  • Think about your unique abilities in each section. If you’ve taken practice exams ahead of time like you should, you’ll have an idea of your abilities and can adopt a more educated guessing strategy. If your scores tend to be relatively low on a section, leaving the questions blank may actually result in a higher score than getting even the easy questions wrong by guessing. If you are near the top of the scale, you have farther to fall if you omit the items and therefore you should guess. Low ability—omit; high ability—guess; medium ability—see above.

Practice means less guessing on the GMAT exam

Why guess when you can know? If you’re prepared for the GMAT exam, you’ll move through the test more smoothly and will not be put in a position to have to guess. Or if you are, you can better narrow down answers and make more educated guesses. For tips on how to get the most out of your GMAT prep, these 10 study tips will help.

Want to learn more about how to tailor your GMAT exam prep to meet your specific needs? Explore GMAT prep options tailored to fit your individual needs.

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