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GMAT Section Order: You Get to Choose!

Since GMAC just announced that as of July 11th, 2017 you will be able to choose the order in which you take each section of the GMAT, I thought I would shoot off a quick blog post with some thoughts. Ready? Here goes…

First of all, they probably should have done this a long time ago. Let’s face it, it sucks having to spend the first hour of the test on sections that don’t really matter to business schools. I used to try to make the case to my students that you could view the AWA and IR as a bit of a warm-up, sort of like stretching and running in place before going for a long run. But I doubt that anyone is going to continue to do those sections first. I mean, a 10-minute warm-up would be nice but 1 hour is a little much.

My second observation is that the GRE will now have to counter this and I predict that they will eventually. GMAC experimented with test takers choosing the section order before implementing this new policy, so presumably ETS will have to do that first as well, but I’d imagine that ETS will feel the need to counter this new “user-friendly” feature of the GMAT and we’ll eventually see the same feature on the GRE.

A third observation that I just feel compelled to share is the very bizarre way in which GMAC put this new information out there. I got an email from GMAC with the subject line “Congrats on Taking Your GMAT Exam!” I was like, wtf, did I just take the exam and forget or did someone hack into my account and take the exam under my name? I was completely perplexed. I mean it did get my attention and motivated me to immediately open up the email, but after reading what the message was actually about I just thought that it was a pretty slimy and underhanded way to convey this new information. Maybe I have a higher opinion of GMAC than most, but it felt very spammy and not what I expected of the good folks at GMAC.

The last thing to mention is that obviously people will now need to strategize which section to do first, and I think that is an interesting conundrum. Again, I can’t imagine anyone doing the AWA and IR anything but last, but which section to do first, Quant or Verbal? I guess I’ll have to see how this plays out with the people I tutor, but I must say that I would personally do Quant first. I could imagine that if you are the type of person who loses focus easily and therefore has trouble with the Reading Comp passages or even the Critical Reasoning stimuli it might be better to do the Verbal first. But something about the Quant section almost feels like it serves as a bit of a warm up for the Verbal section and not the other way around, so I would opt for Quant first.

Now that I think about it, I guess there is a Verbal element to Quantitative questions, but there is not a Quantitative element to Verbal questions. And I guess if you couple that with the fact that schools care a little more about the Quant score than the Verbal one it will probably make sense for most people to do Quant before Verbal. If I had to predict I would say 80% of people will choose to do that. But again I think that for some people, especially those for whom fatigue and focus become an issue on Verbal, it may be good to tackle the Verbal section first.

In any event, this certainly gives test takers an advantage and I can already report that for the few students I have who were thinking of taking the test in the next couple of weeks, all immediately declared (upon hearing the new section order policy) that they will wait until after July 11th to take the test. And they were all very, very excited!!!

GMAT Verbal Time Management: Speeding up on CR & RC

In this post I want to address one aspect of dealing with time management on the Verbal section of the GMAT: shaving time off of Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension questions. I recently tutored a couple of students who really benefitted from this advice so hopefully it can help other readers out there!

First, it’s probably good to first understand that there are 2 general ways to save time on either section of the test: global time management strategies and question-specific time management strategies. Global time management strategies deal with how to manage yourself across the entire section – in other words, choosing to selectively dump questions, allocating a little more time to the early questions, etc. I plan to write a post about these “big picture” time management strategies for the Verbal section so stay tuned for that (and I have already written a couple for the Quant section so feel free to check those out here and here). But in this post I am getting more at ways to shave time off individual questions, in this case Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension.

Here is the most important thing to understand: it’s hard to do well on RC or CR if you don’t really, really understand the passages (the “passages” in CR are really referred to as “stimuli” so I will use that nomenclature from here on out). What I have noticed with the people I have tutored (and what I intuitively know to be true for myself as well) is that it’s just really hard to read more quickly than you are capable of reading without experiencing a significant drop in comprehension. Now, just to be clear, there are definitely ways to read more effectively, on Reading Comprehension passages in particular. But that is really about becoming better at that skill and becoming faster just becomes a natural outgrowth of understanding HOW to read the passages more effectively.

However, if you genuinely need 3 minutes to read a Reading Comp passage or 1 minute to really process a Critical Reasoning stimulus, then forcing yourself to do it faster is likely going to cause you to so poorly understand what you just read that you will not only spend more time going through the answer choices, but also get more questions wrong. I know this to be true for myself as well. I scored a 780 on the GMAT and I am NOT a fast reader. If you forced me to read something more quickly that I am capable of processing it, I wouldn’t understand much of what I read. Believe me, I have tried!

Well then, how do you shave time off Critical Reasoning and Reading Comp then? It’s really all at the answer choices. Here’s the thing. If you really properly read a reading comp passage or critical reasoning stimulus, you should have a pretty good shot of answering the questions quickly, probably on an initial read through the answer choices. This may not be true for a detail question on Reading Comp since often on those questions you really do need to go back to the passage and reread what was written about the detail in question, but on most of the other questions you may be able to be pretty fast and only sacrifice a little bit in terms of accuracy.

The above is true in particular for Critical Reasoning. Let’s take a question from the Big 4 (this is the nomenclature I use for strengthen, weaken, assumption, and useful to evaluate questions, all of which are very, very similar). If you understand precisely (and I mean precisely) what the conclusion is, understand what that conclusion is based on, and have an idea of what a potential gap is between the evidence and the conclusion, you will very likely sense the right answer when you read it. As important or more important, you will probably sense what is wrong (especially what is outside the scope or irrelevant) right away. So you may be able to read pretty quickly through the answers and have a very good sense of what the right answer is.

Now, if you had the time you might want to read back through some of the answers again, then go back to the stimulus and reread it, etc. And this may ultimately yield a different answer. But if you really read the stimulus in the right way from the outset, you can often end up with the right answer even just on your initial read through the answers.

There is a very easy way to experiment with and practice this: start a timer, read the stimulus really carefully and effectively (I often read the stimulus 2 or even 3 times before I really understand it at the level that I need to), and then read through the answer choices and select your answer (trying to be pretty fast at the answer choices). Stop the clock and see how much time you spent. Then WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE CORRECT ANSWER, restart the clock and spend as much additional time as you want, rereading the answer choices, going back to the stimulus, etc. Then compare your answers and the time spent. I have done this experiment with many of the people I tutor and the result is usually that with significantly less time people tend to get roughly the same number of questions correct. Sometimes they change their answer from wrong to right, but other times they change it from right to wrong, and it usually more or less evens out. And most of the time people end up picking the same answer in the end anyway, again often with significantly less time.

A similar thing can be done with Reading Comp. I personally find that if I understand a reading comp passage really well (again there is a skill to reading the passages effectively that falls outside the scope of this post) I can answer most of the questions pretty quickly. On the actual test, to the extent that I have the time to do so, I would probably go pack to the passage to verify my answers in many cases, in part because when I am taking the GMAT I am aiming for a perfect score and don’t want to get a single question wrong. But if you asked me to just pick an answer and be pretty fast with it, I would pick the right answer almost every time without needing to spend a lot time. Even on detail questions when I would be most inclined to go back and find the relevant details, I can often sense the right answer because I remember the specifics just well enough and because I can sense in the wrong answers things that just don’t fit, have the wrong tone, etc.

And to repeat, this all comes because of a very good initial read of the passage – I just would not skimp there. So on a passage that has, say, 3 paragraphs, I might spend 2 or 3 minutes reading the passage. But if I needed to I could probably answer each of the questions in about 30 seconds. If there were 4 questions and if we include the time spent reading the passage, the total time spent would average out to about 1 minute per question (2-3 minutes for the passage and 2 minutes for the questions at 30 seconds per question). Now at only 30 seconds per question I might not get every question right, but that is pretty darn fast and represents a significant time savings without a huge loss in accuracy. So if you are running out of time on Verbal and need to shave some time off, this is one way to do it.

Part of the reason I was motivated to write this post is that I recently had an experience with a guy I tutored that really served to confirm these ideas for me. This particular student initially had issues with how he was approaching Verbal questions, but as we approached his test date, it was really all about time management. Given enough time, he would get Verbal questions right at an 80-90% clip, but on his first practice test after working with me, he did not do well on Verbal. Most tellingly, he described very vividly what others I have tutored have experienced: when he was doing RC and CR questions, he was so pressed for time and was therefore reading the passages and stimuli so quickly that he basically wasn’t comprehending anything, and everything we had worked on just went out the window. So I discussed the above strategies with him, had him practice them, and on the next practice test his Verbal score went from a 34 to a 44!!! That is a ridiculous jump and 44 is an absurdly high Verbal score.

Let me conclude by mentioning that what I am discussing in this post really fits with my larger, more general theory that time spent up front on things (both on the GMAT and in life in general, actually!!!) is time well spent in the long run. So on Problem Solving questions, I really try to get the people I tutor to stop knee-jerking into a path and spend more time thinking about the question and how best to approach it (or even whether to approach it at all or just dump it). On Data Sufficiency as well, I often find that the key for many people is what they take away from the question stem – people who rush through the question stem often either take more time in the end or get the question wrong.

It is a little counter-intuitive when you are in a rush to slow things down, especially when you are eager to get started answering or solving a question and you know that time is ticking. But the extra time spent up front understanding and strategizing often pays dividends in the long run, both in terms of getting a question right and in terms of the overall time you end up spending on the question.

Verbal as the Key to a High Overall GMAT Score

In my last post I described how Data Sufficiency is, for many, the key to a high Quant score on the GMAT. I decided to continue this theme to discuss a related but, I think, more important point and one that I love to explain to people because it seems that so few people understand this fact: the key to a really high GMAT score is a high Verbal score.

On a general level, most people just tend to neglect the Verbal section of the exam. This is understandable: on the Quant section there is probably more to “learn” for most people, and this requires more time. But another factor is that for most people it is just more enjoyable to practice Quant. Verbal is like the redheaded stepchild of the family. Kicked to the curb, neglected, under-appreciated…you get the point. Oh, and Reading Comprehension? Forget about it. People NEVER practice reading comprehension. I mean, who wants to voluntarily read about a group of Pakistani poets or a new finding about globular star clusters (I hope I am not offending any fans of Pakistani poetry or would-be astronomers out there…I am actually a closet astronomy nerd so I genuinely LIKE those passages!).

GMATers just tend to ignore or neglect the Verbal part of the exam, to their own detriment. But people! The Verbal section makes up half of your score!!! More importantly, most people don’t realize that at the top end of the scoring spectrum, the Verbal score actually weighs in more heavily that the Quantitative score!!! Over the years I have tutored lots and lots of people who have Quant scores of 46-48 and Verbal scores of 35 or so and who want to focus almost exclusively on bringing their Quant score up. Nooooo!!!!!!!

Here’s the deal. Most people will not get above 48 or 49 Quant. Those are great Quant scores (you can’t just look at the percentiles, which are a little bit skewed by international applicants, many of whom do have Quant scores of 50 or in some cases 51). So for most people, it’s good to almost think of 49 as the ceiling for Quant. For reasons I won’t expound upon here, there is not that much of a difference between a 47 and 48 Quant or between a 48 and 49 Quant (in terms of how difficult it is to achieve those scores), but there IS a pretty big barrier between 49 and 50 and an even bigger barrier between 50 and 51, a barrier that most people will not cross. So if you are already at 47 Quant, you are probably near the maximum of where your Quant score will ultimately go. And bringing the Quant score from a 47 to a 49 will not have that big an impact on your overall score.

If you are at a score of, say, 47 Quant and 35 Verbal, there is much, much more room for growth on the Verbal side. And bringing your Verbal score to 40+ or, if possible, to something like 43 or 44 Verbal will do absolute wonders for your overall score. I recently tutored a girl who on her first actual GMAT got a 700 with a 45 Quant and a 41 Verbal. Now, first of all, that is a great score. She wanted higher, however, and was a little disappointed in the Quant score in particular. On her second try she got a 46 Quant and 46 Verbal for a 740!!! Now, this girl is probably capable of a Quant score of 48 or 49, but even if she had gotten a 48 Quant and combined that with her original 41 Verbal, her score would only have been about 720. I mean “only” probably isn’t the right word here, but relative to the 740 that she actually got, obviously 720 is not as impressive.

Part of the issue here is that the percentiles on Quant and Verbal can be misleading. A 49 Quant is 77th percentile whereas a 40 Verbal is 91st percentile!!! So it is really tempting to look at the Quant percentile and feel like you just aren’t doing that well. But at 49 Quant most people are probably at their ceiling! And getting a 50 Quant, while impressive, is not going to do much, if anything, to the overall score. Conversely, it is tempting to look at a Verbal score of 35 (76th percentile) and believe that you have done really, really well on Verbal. Don’t get me wrong, 35 Verbal is a good score, but that percentile is misleading for 2 related reasons. One, it is skewed by the fact that so many non-native English speakers take the GMAT. Two, it hides the fact that there is a ton of room to bring that score higher and have a huge (and I mean huge) impact on your overall score!

Again, at 40 Verbal (which really is an excellent Verbal score) it would be tempting to think that you have kind of topped out since you would be sitting at 91st percentile. Think about it from the perspective of the aforementioned girl with the 45 Quant, 41 Verbal, 700 overall. Her percentiles were 59th percentile Quant and 94th percentile Verbal!!! I almost can’t believe it now that I am writing it – those percentiles are pretty shocking. It would have been very tempting for her to completely ignore Verbal and just focus on Quant. But man, 46 Quant and 46 Verbal for a 740 is amazing and it never would have happened if she had just focused on Quant.

Now some of you out there may be thinking, yeah, but at 46 my Quant score just would not be high enough – schools want to see a higher Quant score than that. I have two things to say to that. First of all 740 is 740. That’s just a ridiculous score. Even if they want to see something more like 47 or 48+, it’s very hard for me to imagine they are going to turn away someone with a 740 on the GMAT, assuming they like everything else about the applicant. Second, and here’s the more important point: if you want a really high GMAT score (like 740 or 750), you almost certainly MUST HAVE a really high Verbal score.

For example, a 50 Quant and 38 Verbal would yield about 720. And a 49 Quant and 41 Verbal would yield about 730. And the fact of the matter is that of all the people I have tutored over the years (many hundreds so far), many more have had Verbal scores of 44 or higher than scores of 50 or 51 Quant. And of the people I have tutored who have had scores of 740 plus, more often they have had scores like 47Q/44V or 46Q/46V or even 48Q/44V than scores like 50Q/40V or 51Q/39V (both of which would “only” yield about 740, by the way!).

More and more lately I have had people come to me with the goal of 750 on the GMAT. I used to chuckle a little at that, not because I thought people were not capable of it but because that just seemed like an unnecessarily high score to strive for. Nevertheless, recently I have had many people come to me with that expressed goal. They often think that they need more help with Quant than Verbal (again usually these people have something like 47 Quant and 36 Verbal – something in that range – and are duped by the percentiles). And usually I explain to them that we can and should focus on Quant to try to get them to 48 or 49, but that we NEED to focus more on Verbal if they want to have any shot of getting close to 750.

So as you plan you overall GMAT study strategy and think about how you are going to allocate your study time, remember that at the higher reaches of the scoring scale the Verbal score becomes increasingly important. And more generally, be mindful of how misleading those percentiles can be – its better to focus on the actual scores for the Quantitative and Verbal sections. Scores like 47 Quant and 38 Verbal are both excellent scores. But if that is the range you are in or even close to, understand that there is MUCH more room for growth on the Verbal side and that bringing the Verbal score up is going to be necessary to see a big increase in your overall GMAT score.

Data Sufficiency as the Key to a High Quant Score

Back in the old days the GMATPrep tests did not break down your performance by question type on the Quant and Verbal sections. Nor was there an Enhanced Score Report that did so on the actual GMAT. Now, with the existence of practice tests that indicate your performance on each individual question type and the Enhanced Score Report that does the same for the actual test, it is possible to understand how your overall score is arrived at and what your score is for each specific question type.

With that, I have noticed a trend with my students that I could not have known in the past and that probably has relevance for many GMATers out there: they tend to score higher on Data Sufficiency than on Problem Solving. Now, I don’t mean to imply that everyone scores higher on DS than PS – people who don’t really understand Data Sufficiency tend to underperform there – predictably. But what I would say and what I will explain below is this: for people who are not naturally great at Math, there is an opportunity to really excel at Data Sufficiency and have that score pull up the entire Quantitative score.

First, let me explain a little bit about the scoring. When people take practice tests on the official software or when the look at their Enhanced Score Report (ESR), what they tend to look at are the percentiles. This is especially true on the ESR since the percentiles are what appear on the center of the page, but if you look at the bottom of each page in the “Summary” section you will see hidden down there a breakdown of what your score was for each question type, and this information is what is most telling. Your overall score tends to be roughly the average of your scores for each question type. So if you scored 40 on Problem Solving and 48 on Data Sufficiency, your Quant score will probably be 44.

What I started to notice a while back in reviewing practice tests and ESRs with my students is that they usually do better on DS, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Now, they don’t necessarily come to me in that state – often it is the opposite on the early practice tests that they take and DS is much worse. But as we start to approach their test date and they are ramping up and taking a lot of practice tests, most of my students just score higher on DS. A very common scenario for me is to see something like 49DS/42PS for a Quant score of 45 or 46. And at the end of the day they may end up at 49DS/45PS for a 47 Quant.

Here is what is significant about that. Many of these students are not great at Math and are probably not capable of getting really hard Problem Solving questions right on a consistent basis. But the beauty of Data Sufficiency is that it is much more about logic and reasoning than it is about Math. So if you really understand the question type well you can dominate on DS without really being master of the Math that underlies the questions. And what I have found with my students is that it is much easier to get them to a place where they are killing it on DS than on PS, in part because PS questions, especially at the higher levels, really do require a little bit more Math know-how or even innate Math ability.

It is outside the scope of this post to really get into the specifics of how to dominate on Data Sufficiency (though many of my other posts expound upon some of those strategies). And obviously if you are aiming for a 49 Quant, you need to be equally dominant on PS questions. That said, I would argue that if you are not naturally good at Math, Data Sufficiency really presents an opportunity to far outperform your natural Math ability and end up with a score that puts you above those who are innately better at Math!

I tutor plenty of people who routinely get scores of around 40 on PS and in my opinion are unlikely to ever be hitting scores like 44 and above (they are just not that great at Math and have come a VERY long way to even get to a 40 on PS). Yet they will routinely get scores of 47 to 49 on DS. So they come away with scores of 44 or 45 on Quant. Again, for someone aiming for a 49 or 50 Quant, that might not seem that impressive, but for people starting at 30 Quant who are not very good at Math, a 44 or 45 Quant is pretty damn impressive! And for the people I tutor who are able to get to 44 or 45 or 46 on PS (again often people who are not great at Math), they will often end up with a 47 or even 48 Quant, in part because of the higher DS score.

So if you feel like you are the type of person who is just innately not that good at Math, consider that, in Data Sufficiency, you have an opportunity to really dial into the logic of the question type (along with its common structures, traps, etc.) in a way that would allow you to far exceed what you might expect from your pure Math ability.

The Black Swan of Data Sufficiency

Many of you may be aware of the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In the book Taleb uses the analogy of a black swan in nature to describe the problem of predicting highly improbable events. He comments that just because one has never seen a black swan in nature doesn’t mean that it does not exist (and he ties this analogy to the folly of predicting events in the markets based on past events). In this article I will to tie this concept to Data Sufficiency and they way (and certainty with which) we draw conclusions about the statements.

Different Data Sufficiency questions call for different approaches, but there are some for which picking numbers is either the best or the only viable option. On these questions the idea is to pick numbers to see whether only one answer to the question is possible or whether multiple answers are achievable. The best-case scenario, from a test takers perspective, is when you can prove that more than one answer is possible. In that situation you know that the statement is not sufficient and if you have really tested cases to prove that 2 answers are possible, then you know 100% that the statement is not sufficient. Case closed.

But what happens when you have tried a couple of numbers or sets of numbers and you keep getting the same answer? This is where test takers often go wrong. Often people will conclude that because they got the same answer in 2 or 3 situations, they will always get the same answer. This is the Black Swan of Data Sufficiency – concluding that because you have never seen a black swan (or, in this case, a different answer to the question) one does not exist.

This is the kind of unwarranted assumption that the writers of the GMAT want you to make and they often design data sufficiency questions to draw you into making one. And I think this gets at the relevance of Data Sufficiency – most people bemoan DS questions and the GMAT more generally, but a person who is going to prematurely conclude that there is only one answer to a DS question is likely to be the same person who will erroneously conclude that some event in the financial or business world will never happen.

So how does one avoid drawing such a premature and potentially unwarranted conclusion? Well there are a few ways. Most test prep companies teach students to make sure they pick special kinds of numbers in these situations, numbers like 0, 1, negative numbers, fractions, etc. And that is generally good advice. Those are often the kinds of numbers that will produce a different result when more common numbers (like 2 or 3) might continue to produce the same result.

But on harder questions what is really needed is some good, old-fashioned quantitative reasoning. The mistake that people often make is to pick numbers without applying any thought to why certain numbers are producing a certain result and what numbers might be used in order to get a different result. Instead they sort of uncritically lob some numbers in (or even worse “pre-select” the numbers they will use instead of choosing the second number based on what they saw happen with the first) and then get the question wrong. The key is to think conceptually about what is happening and why, or at the very least pay attention to the pattern of what is resulting each time you pick a number and try to adjust accordingly. The below question is a very difficult one, but it helps illustrate this point:

Quantitative Reasoning on Data Sufficiency

 

On statement 1, most people start picking numbers like 1 or 2 and see that you get a yes answer to the question and then think to pick negative numbers and see that in those cases you will get a no answer. So, not sufficient.

Statement 2 is a little harder. Most people will again pick a number like 2 (which, again, will produce a yes answer) but then often pick numbers like 5 or 10, which likewise produce a yes answer. At that point most people will erroneously conclude that because they have gotten the same answer on 2 or 3 tries, it MUST BE sufficient. This is the Black Swan of Data Sufficiency!!! It obviously could be the case that the statement is sufficient, but can we really conclude that because we have gotten a yes answer 2 or 3 times the answer will ALWAYS be yes? To do really well on Data Sufficiency you want to try to arrive at answers with as high a level of certainty as possible…and it’s not that you want to try a million numbers here. It’s more that you want to think about why the numbers you are choosing are producing that result or look at the pattern of what results from the numbers you choose to see if you can infer what types of numbers might lead to the result that you want.

So on this question, the first and most obvious thing to do is just look at the original equation in the question stem and consider that because you have 3 in the numerator and denominator of the two fractions 3 would probably be a good number to select! Doing so will produce a 2, which is not bigger than 2, so the answer would then be no!

But another thing that you can do here (and on other hard data sufficiency questions) is to pay attention to the pattern of what is outputted for every input that you select. When x = 1, the output is just over 3. When x =2, the output is just over 2. (You don’t even need to fully calculate these to see this – just some quick estimation will do.) So the output is starting to near 2. Now, if you start trying numbers like 5 or 10, you will see that the output starts to climb away from 2 and that the larger the value of x, the larger the output. So clearly large values of x are not going to get the expression to be less than or equal to 2. But why did the output dip down from 1 to 2 and then start to climb back up at a certain point? Where will the output bottom out? Here again, it helps to just look at the expression and guess that 3 might be a special case. But if the output dips down as you approach 3 and then climbs back up as you go to 4 or 5 or 10, then obviously it makes sense to try 3.

This is the kind of quantitative reasoning that the GMAT rewards. It’s certainly not easy, but it beats the sort of uncritical acceptance of the idea, “well, I tried 2 sets of numbers and got the same result, so the result must always be the same!” Again, that is the Black Swan of Data Sufficiency and some questions are designed to punish that kind of thinking. And with good reason. If you are going to draw those kinds of conclusions on the GMAT then maybe you will erroneously draw them in the real world too! Don’t do it!

To finish up with the above question, we now know that the statements are not sufficient individually. Taking them together, obviously the 2 things that allowed the expression to not be bigger than 2 (negative numbers and 3) are now no longer options. X must be between 1 and 3. At this point, you really need to apply the same kind of reasoning as above. When x = 1, the output is over 3. When x = 2, the output gets lower and is just over 2. When x = 3, the output equals 2, and then with values of x that are greater than 3, the output climbs back bigger than 2. So just with that alone, it would appear that the expression bottoms out at x = 3 and that with any values of x between 1 and 3, the output will be bigger than 2.

Do we know this to be the case? No. It’s possible that at x = 2.999 the output will be less than 2. So again we can’t conclude that because we have not see the black swan it does not exist. But in this case we have applied some pretty thorough reasoning and seen the pattern of what is happening, so it is very, very unlikely that there will be a value of x between 1 and 3 that will produce an output less than or equal to 2. And in the context of the time pressures of the test, it would be worthwhile to move on once we reach this kind of level of certainty. And indeed the correct answer is C.

Remember, the GMAT is a reasoning test – it tests quantitative and verbal reasoning. What the questions are designed to do is test your logical reasoning ability. Sure it helps a lot to have good foundational quantitative and verbal skills, but that is really just a foundation. Many questions are designed to punish people for leaning too much on that foundation and reward those who problem-solve creatively and think critically about the questions they face. So be careful about the conclusions you draw on Data Sufficiency and if you find yourself in a situation where you are picking numbers on a Data Sufficiency question, try to reason as you pick and think critically about the numbers you are picking and why you are picking them. And beware of the Black Swan of Data Sufficiency!

GMAT Sentence Correction: Right Answers Are Often Deliberately Bad

People studying for the GMAT are often completely thrown by a correct answer on a sentence correction question that just “doesn’t sound good.” In their minds they think, “there is no way that can be the correct answer – that just sounds bad.” Even if that thinking is true that does not mean that the correct answer won’t sound just downright bad! Making right answers sound bad is a deliberate tactic on the part of the GMAT writers and in this piece I will explain why the do it, how I know they do it, and what you can do about it!

I often ask people, “What do you think is a defining characteristic of hard questions?” Most people often respond with some of the things that tend to happen on harder questions but the simple answer is that from the point of view of the GMAT writers the single defining characteristic common to all hard questions (Quant and Verbal) is that hard questions are ones that most people get wrong! If most people get a particular question right (even if the writers predicted that most would get it wrong), it is, by definition, not a hard question. However, because of the scoring algorithm and the way the GMAT is scored, there need to be very hard questions (in other words, questions that most people would get wrong). But how do the GMAT writers write a sentence correction question that most people will get wrong? Well, they obviously have a variety of tactics, but one of the most common and fundamental is that to make a question hard the correct answer can’t be obviously correct – if it were then most people would recognize it as correct and pick it. So the writers often deliberately write the correct answer on a sentence correction question to make it unfamiliar, awkward, even unpalatable.

Recently, while tutoring someone, I came across a sentence that really proved for me that this is a deliberate act on the part of the test writers. I pretty much knew it already, but I thought it was really interesting to see this deliberate tinkering in action. The sentence in question comes from the GMAT Prep exams. I had seen the sentence many times before, but this time I noticed that the correct answer was a little different from the one I had seen before – it was worse! So I looked into it and discovered that the sentence was in fact different in previous versions of the GMAT Prep software. After digging a little deeper I found what appears to be the original version of the sentence (from the New York Times). Low and behold we have pretty clear evidence of how the GMAT writers take a sentence, tweak it to make it less familiar and appealing, and then, when that isn’t enough, tweak it even further to make it borderline terrible (albeit correct), thereby increasing the level of difficulty even further.

So let’s start with what I believe to be the original sentence (again, from the New York Times):

 

“Also, unlike many other frogs that metamorphose from tadpoles to adults in one year, the high-elevation frogs take three to four years to reach adulthood, so they are restricted to deeper bodies of water that do not dry up in summer or freeze solid in winter.”

 

Ok, so standard comparison sentence and one that sounds pretty good in my opinion. Now let’s see how the GMAT writers changed the correct version of this sentence to make it less appealing and therefore harder:

 

Unlike frogs that metamorphose from tadpoles into adults within a one-year period, mountain yellow-legged frogs of the Sierra Nevada take three to four years to reach adulthood, and so they are restricted to deeper bodies of water that do not dry up in summer or freeze solid in winter.

 

Now, that sentence may not look that different to you, and it isn’t that different. But there are some subtle changes that make it more likely to be passed over by a test taker. The “mountain yellow-legged frogs” bit is just there because without it we don’t have the context to know what the sentence is talking about. But the less obvious and more important change is from the “so they are restricted” to the “and so they are restricted” version. Having done this question with many people I know that some people do not pick the correct answer because they believe that you can’t have two conjunctions (the “and” and the “so”) right next to each other. Indeed that usage is not that common and is therefore unfamiliar to many people, but it is acceptable and is not wrong. And since it is not wrong, it must be right!

To me that usage is not that unappealing, but what caught my eye with this sentence recently is how it was changed again to make it obviously less appealing and therefore more difficult. The most recent version on the GMAT Prep software changes the underlined part (in the correct answer) to:

 

“mountain yellow-legged frogs of the Sierra Nevada take three to four years to reach adulthood, with the result that they are”

 

Wow. I mean, maybe you readers don’t get as excited about this as I do, but my reaction is wow!!! That “with the result that they are” is pretty bad. That type of construction would typically be part of the wrong answer on most GMAT sentence correction questions. It is just not good! Here’s the thing. As unappealing as that construction is, it is not wrong! So I might initially disfavor that answer choice when I see it but I would not outright eliminate it. And on this particular question it is the right answer because the other answer choices just have other things that are definitely wrong with them.

Anyway, this is about as clear an indication as I have ever seen of how the GMAT writers try to ramp up the level of difficulty on Sentence Correction by purposely tweaking correct answers to make them unfamiliar, awkward, or even downright unappealing. So what can you do with this newfound knowledge?

The first thing is that you cannot eliminate answers because you think they sound “bad.” Wrong answers are wrong because there is something concrete wrong with them (either grammatically or on more of a logic/meaning level). So you might want to “disfavor” an answer that sounds awkward or unfamiliar, but I would not outright eliminate it. Answers are not usually wrong just because they are awkward. If an answer is absolutely hopelessly awkward to the point that it is flat out incorrect English grammar than that may be enough but usually there will be other things wrong beyond that.

It may also help you to EXPECT that the correct answer may sound a little bit off. That will be especially true on harder questions. Again there is a difference between unfamiliar or a little awkward on the one hand and hopelessly awkward or completely unidiomatic on the other. As you practice GMAT Sentence Correction questions try to learn where that dividing line sits. And again, worse case scenario, just leave the answer in play and come back to it at the end. If 2 answers are exactly the same and one is much wordier and awkward then it will be wrong. But if one answer is a little awkward but more logical and the other answer sounds better but has a concrete grammatical error that you can identify or even a logic/meaning issue, the more awkward answer will be correct.

GMAT Scoring Algorithm: The First Ten Questions

It is a pretty well-accepted fact that on the GMAT the early questions are slightly more important than the late ones, especially on the Quantitative section (everything I have seen in my 12 years as a GMAT tutor has confirmed this and there have been some good experiments done by others on the GMATPrep tests that seem to confirm the theory pretty conclusively…feel free to follow the link to read those articles). In this post I hope to help clear up some of the often misunderstood implications of this idea and help you understand how to manage your time given the slightly disproportionate importance of the early questions.

The first thing to clear up is that there is nothing particularly special about the number 10 that makes it the clear demarcation point. Whenever I think about this concept it makes me think of a conversation I had with my wife about getting pregnant. She was nearing 35 and remarked that she needed to get pregnant before she turned 35 (she was 33 or 34 at the time) because she read that you have a greater risk of having a baby with birth defects when you are over 35. But like the first 10 question concept on the GMAT, it is best to think of it on a spectrum. It’s not like you are not at risk when you are 34 and then all of a sudden you are at a huge risk when you are 35. You are at a slightly greater risk at 35 than at 34 but at 34 you are at a greater risk than at 33 and so on. Why do experts use the number 35 then? The same reason that people say the first 10 questions on the GMAT – it’s a nice round number. So again, the best way to think about it is as a spectrum. The first question is probably a little more important than the second one and the second a little more important than the third and so on. Once you get to AROUND question 10 it probably ceases to be as important, but it is a spectrum – I would be a little more willing to go for it on question 7 than on question 9 and perhaps a little more willing on question 9 than question 11. But at around the question 10 mark it probably ceases to be important.

The second thing to clear up is that this is all a question of degree…again it is a spectrum and is not black and white. It is NOT true that you have to get the first 10 questions right to get a really high score (in fact most people who get really high scores do not get the first 10 right). And no single question really matters that much – not even question 1. I actually just tutored someone last week who got question 1 wrong and then got the next 12 or so right and then proceeded to get a lot more wrong throughout the rest of the test (probably about 13 wrong total) and got a 49. And I have tutored many, many people who have gotten 3 or 4 wrong in the first 10 and gotten 48 or 49. The early questions do seem to matter more and certainly if you dominate on the first 10 or 15 questions you are extremely likely to have a very high score, but again it is a matter of degree – those questions matter a little more and doing well on them will help, but it is not necessary to absolutely dominate on the early questions to get a high score.

Again the way I like to think of it is as a spectrum where the questions go from slightly greater importance to slightly less importance as you move from question 1 forward. People tend to overcompensate and spend WAY too much time on the early questions and then find themselves completely out of time later on the test and are then forced to guess on 10 or more questions. That generally will not lead to a high score. So what should you do? Well it depends a little on the level that you are at…

If you are not at a very high level on Quant then spending loads of extra time on the early questions is particularly ineffective. Here’s why: Assuming that you do get some of those really early questions right (like maybe 1 through 3 or 1 through 4) you are then going to be seeing very hard questions. If you are really not capable of answering those questions correctly then spending extra time on them is a foolish waste of time. There is no sense in getting yourself in front of 800 level questions and spending a lot of time on those questions if you are really at a 600 level. Even if you get some of those questions right you will probably be way behind on time and then you will eventually find yourself getting 600 level questions wrong later on in the test. At that point not only will you not get the equivalent of 800 on Quant but you probably won’t even get 600 Quant because the algorithm knows that even if you were able to get some 800 level questions right, anyone who is really at an 800 level would also get nearly all 600 level questions right.

If on the other hand you are at a pretty high level on Quant (let’s say you are scoring 40 or higher on Quant) then it probably does make sense to spend some extra time on those early questions. But only to a point!!! First of all, if the question is one that you just don’t think you can answer in a reasonable amount of time then it just isn’t worth it – guess and move on. Spending 5 minutes and then getting a question wrong is just about the worst thing you can possibly do on the GMAT. What I recommend is being A LITTLE more willing to spend time on those early questions and that extra willingness should progressively diminish as you approach the 10 question mark.

So for example, let’s say question 3 looks really hard but you think that you can probably answer it in 3 or 4 minutes. On question 3 I would probably go for it. If that same question appeared at question 23 and if I was already 5 minutes behind I would probably choose to guess and move on. That is how the particular placement of a question on the test may affect whether you try to answer it – at question 3 maybe you would go for it and at question 23 maybe you would not.

To take another example, however, if I was at question 7 and was thrown a really difficult question that I wasn’t sure I could answer I might choose to just guess and move on. It would depend on how likely I thought I was to get the question right, how long I thought it would take, and how far ahead or behind I was at that point. If I was 50/50 and thought it was going to take 4 minutes I probably wouldn’t do it (at question 7). If that same calculus presented itself on question 1, however, I might go for it. I might even go for it at question 7 if by some chance I was ahead a little on time, but if I was already behind I probably wouldn’t go for it.

So what we are talking about here is a SLIGHT willingness to spend more time on the early questions. You should NOT feel as though you need to get those first 10 right – that probably won’t happen anyway and trying to make it happen is likely to screw up the entire section. And again this strategy of spending a little more time on the early questions makes more sense for someone who is at a higher level. In either case remember that it never makes sense to spend a lot of time on questions that you are unlikely to get right. Instead find a way to guess cleverly – even if it is question 1.

One more thing I would like to add to round out this discussion. The strategy of spending a little extra time on the early questions depends on counterbalancing that by spending less time on the questions that follow. In my opinion you should probably not spend more than about 5 extra minutes on those first 10 questions. So if you should be at the 55 minute mark by the end of question 10, I would not want to be any further than the 50 minute mark at that point. It’s not that hard to make back those 5 minutes across the course of the rest of the section, but again you have to be aware of the need to do so and plan accordingly. If you “strategically dump” a few questions scattered through the rest of the section (say, for example, questions 13, 17, 25, and 31 just for argument sake) you should be totally fine. And if you were able to do it on what you knew to be very hard questions, questions that you would have been unlikely to get right anyway, all the better!

All of this takes some practice. Some people are able to perfect it pretty easily. Others need to take 4 or 5 practice tests before they understand how to strike the right balance. So be patient and give yourself some time to implement it properly. The key is to be aware that it is a balancing act and that you can’t go too far in spending extra time on those early questions!

GMAT Scoring Algorithm: Quant vs. Verbal

In this post I would like to expound upon a theory of mine that gets at the slight differences in the scoring algorithm on the Quant and Verbal sections of the GMAT. In a previous post I commented on the fact that although on the Quant section the number of questions you get right has very little to do with the score you receive, on the Verbal section the number of questions right matters much more. I don’t think there is any official explanation for this phenomenon, but I have long had a theory that I think makes pretty good logical sense. Understanding the nuances of the algorithm can help you learn what exactly you need to do to achieve a high score on each section.

Quantitative questions, by nature, are completely unambiguous. If x equals 10, then x can’t also equal 15 (well ok it can in a quadratic equation and in some other special situations, but you get the point). Verbal questions, on the other hand, are by nature a little less black and white than Math questions. Of course GMAC writes questions that are technically unambiguous, but the problem is that it is tough to make a Verbal question really, really hard without crossing the line a little into ambiguity, so there tends to be a limit to how hard a Verbal question can realistically get. That problem does not exist on Quant. There is almost no limit to how hard the test writers can make a Math question and it will still be completely unambiguous, completely black and white.

This helps explain the differences in the algorithm on each section. On Quant, the questions can pretty much just keep getting harder and harder until nearly everyone would get the questions wrong. Really only at the very top reaches of the Quant section (say scores of 49-51) will people get less than 10 questions wrong. So for most people the differentiating factor in scores on the Quant section is just the level of difficulty of the questions that test takers are able to get right consistently. If your breaking point is 650, your score is 650 (or whatever that would correspond to on the 6-51 scale that the section is scored on). If your breaking point is 720, then your score is 720. The number of questions that you get wrong is not really a factor except, perhaps, in differentiating between people who get a 49 and 50 and 51.

But since there is more of a limit to how hard a Verbal question can get (again before it starts to drift over the line into “ambiguous/unfair question territory”), the number of questions right and wrong starts to become more of a differentiating factor. That’s because many test takers get up into the very hardest Verbal questions so at that point the main way for the algorithm to differentiate between a 38 Verbal and 40 Verbal or 42 Verbal and 45 Verbal is just by number of questions wrong. This is a bit of an oversimplification since the level of difficulty of the questions may vary a little so that would still be a factor in the score, but at the higher reaches of the Verbal scoring spectrum the score really becomes much more about number of questions wrong. And to be at a really high Verbal score (like 40+) you really can’t have many questions wrong. For a 40 you might have 8 or 10 wrong, but for a 44 or 45 you are probably talking about 5 or 6 wrong or even less and then for 47 Verbal or 49 Verbal you are looking at 1 or 2 wrong total!

There are a few implications to be drawn from this. First of all, since you are likely to get a lot of questions wrong on the Quant section, it really does not make sense to spend undue time on questions that you are likely to get wrong anyway. Furthermore, running out of time at the end of the Quant section is not that big a deal (assuming that you actually select answers to all of the questions to not incur the unanswered questions penalty). Again, you are going to get a lot of questions wrong anyway so coming to question 34 with 2 minutes left and having to make some educated guesses on the last 3 or 4 questions will not impact your score that significantly.

On the Verbal section, on the other hand, you need to be much more careful about time management and not put yourself in a position of having to guess on the last 3 or 4 questions. That will impact your score more detrimentally, especially if you were tracking toward a really high score. If you had only 5 questions wrong up until question 35 and then had to guess on 36 through 41 and got 5 of those last 6 wrong for a total of 10 wrong on the Verbal section, that would be a big deal and would lower your score significantly.

Another upshot is that you need to be a little more certain of your answers on Verbal questions than on Quant questions. Most people probably feel like the opposite is what often happens since the nature of Verbal questions is that they feel ambiguous, but of course they are not and you need to be that much more rigorous in the way you choose your answers to ensure that you limit the educated guessing to a bare minimum. You just can’t afford to get Verbal questions wrong with the same frequency that you can Quant questions. What that means, practically speaking, is that you can’t run out of time on the Verbal section and that you need to choose answers because you KNOW they are right, not because you THINK they are right. That is obviously easier said then done, but see my post on The Principle of No Ambiguity for some more insight on that idea.

Knowledge is power and on the GMAT having a better understanding of the scoring algorithm is the kind of knowledge that helps lead to a better score. In a future post I am going to come back to the issue of pacing strategies on the Quant section so stay tuned!

GMAT Time Management: The 2 Kinds of Strategic Guessing

There are 2 different kinds of guessing that test takers should apply on the Quant section of the GMAT – both of them are crucial to success on the GMAT. But in my years of tutoring, I have found that most people just aren’t aware of how different guessing techniques apply on the test…and as a result their scores suffer.

Unstrategic Guessing

When most test takers say they are “guessing” on the GMAT, what they really mean is that they are giving up after spending a couple of minutes on the question and then just selecting an answer. And although everyone will find themselves in that situation on the GMAT at one point or another, that kind of unstrategic guessing is to be avoided. The problem is that you end up spending a lot of time with nothing to show for it. Spending 2 or 3 minutes on a question and then having to make a completely blind guess is a killer and yet people fall into the trap of doing that all the time on the GMAT. You shouldn’t be committing to spending 2+ minutes on a question unless you believe you have a very good chance of answering it correctly or at least narrowing down the answers to make a good strategic guess.

The Different Types of Guessing Explained

Really there are 2 types of strategic guessing that you should try to apply, especially with regard to Problem Solving questions (I will explain more about Data Sufficiency below). The first is when you read a question, realize that you don’t really know how to attack it, and give up and guess immediately. The guess itself might not seem strategic, but the decision to immediately let go of the question and guess is! The other situation is when you think you have some chance of making headway on the question and are willing to spend a minute or 2 in order to make a better educated guess or, if you are lucky, discover the path to the answer. Both of these kinds of guesses have a place on the GMAT, especially from a time management perspective, so let me explain when they each cab be useful.

Guessing to Gain Back Time

There will almost certainly be questions on your GMAT (perhaps many) that are clearly too hard and that you probably shouldn’t even attempt to solve. This is a difficult pill for many people to swallow but it is just a fact of the test. Many test takers foolishly waste time trying to solve every question. But they would be better off spending a little extra time on questions that they probably can answer and quickly dumping questions that they cannot. Many people spend 1.5 or 2 minutes minimum on every question so they never give themselves a chance to gain back time for the questions that they spend 3+ minutes on. But, if when a question comes on the screen you can quickly identify it as a low percentage question and if it seems like spending some time on it is not even likely to yield an educated guess, then you should immediately dump the question and move on.

Yes, you will probably get the question wrong, but that is the great thing about the quant section of the GMAT: you can get a lot of questions wrong and still have a great score. Why waste time on something that you will likely get wrong anyway? If you can spend 20-30 seconds and then dump a question, and if you can do that on 3 or 4 or 5 question on the test, you can gain back 5 or 6 or 7 minutes that you can then apply to other questions (ones that you can answer but that require more than 2 minutes).

An example of the above is a hard combinations/permutations question. These questions are usually very difficult and they also don’t lend themselves to strategic guessing. Plus, they are easily identifiable. Most people see those questions and say, “oh shit!” Yet most people still attempt to solve them even when it is pretty clear that they are in over their head. Do yourself a favor: if you recognize that the question is one that you don’t really know how to solve and if you don’t think that playing with it is likely to lead to an answer or to a very good educated guess, just guess and move on!

Guessing to Not Lose Time

This probably sounds the same as the type of guessing that was just described, but it is actually a little different. Whereas the above guessing is aimed at gaining back time, the other kind of guessing is not going to gain you back time, but it will prevent you from falling further behind on the test – sort of like damage control. Now, I am not talking about spending 2 minutes, realizing that you are not going anywhere, and then making a fairly random guess. In tutoring I have seen that many GMATers have a very good internal clock set at 2 minutes – basically what they do is “go for it” on every question and then at around 2 minutes if an answer isn’t in sight they just give up and guess (usually unstrategically). Again, that is not a very good way to succeed on the test.

If when you first look at the question you are not sure if you can solve it but if you see that you might be able to eliminate some answers and make a pretty good educated guess, then it would probably be worth spending a little time on it in order to make that guess. This takes some time, however, and that is why this guessing method is a little different from the previous one. In this case you will need to think through the question some, you may need to play with the answer choices a little, do a few calculations, etc. That will probably cost you close to 2 minutes. But if that allows you to come up with a pretty good educated guess then it is probably worth that time.

An example of this type of scenario would be a geometry question. Some geometry questions are very hard, but because figures are always drawn to scale unless otherwise noted on Problem Solving questions (not the case on Data Sufficiency), one can often make an educated guess just by looking at the figure, using some logic, and glancing at the answers to see what is reasonable. So in that kind of case it might be worth spending 1.5 or 2 minutes on the question to see if you can make some headway or make a good educated guess.

Data Sufficiency

Data Sufficiency is a little different, in my opinion, when it comes to guessing. If you understand Data Sufficiency well it is usually possible to make a pretty good educated guess on almost every question. Therefore, I would almost never do a 30 second dump on a DS question. I might not spend 2 minutes because in some cases it would be clear that the question is really hard and/or really time consuming, so I might be looking to move on and not waste a lot of time on the question, but I would not just make a blind guess in order to move on. I would just try to quickly eliminate what is obviously wrong and then make an educated guess based on the 2 or 3 possibilities that seem most likely after a quick assessment. In the end that may take only 1 minute or maybe a little bit more, so DS often presents itself as an opportunity to make back a little time if you are falling behind. And if you are really “Data Sufficiency savvy” and especially if you avoid the sucker answer, you have a very good chance of getting the question right anyway.

Conclusions

The key in all of this really is to assess your chances on any particular question (and I mean really assess and think about how you would solve it or whether you think you even can) before diving in and spending time on it. In my years of tutoring I have found that very few people really do this. They usually just “go for it” on every single question and then dump the question, making a pretty unstrategic guess, after about 2 minutes.

This is a recipe for failure, especially for people who tend to work slowly or who just can’t seem to get to right answers in about 2 minutes (and there are many, many people who fall in that category). The way the scoring algorithm works, you are likely to get about half of the Quant questions wrong anyway, so it really pays to take some time up front to consider what your best option is: should you go straight for it or perhaps completely dump the question and gain 1.5 minutes back, or maybe spend a little bit of time working with the question so that when you do guess you have a better than 20% chance of picking the right answer. Applying this overall strategy will put you in the driver’s seat and prevent you from feeling like you are constantly behind, frantically rushing, and never having enough time to really think clearly in a way that allows you to effectively answer the questions that you know you can answer.

Why Isn’t My GMAT Score Increasing? Reason 3

In a couple of previous posts I discussed some of the main reasons that people don’t see much of a score increase when preparing for the GMAT. In this post I will turn to yet another common cause of artificially low GMAT scores: poor time management!

Over the years I have tutored a number of students whose lower than desired GMAT scores have been almost entirely the result of poor time management. One girl in particular stands out. She came to me with a 560 score on the official test, but after I had my first session with her it was clear to me that she should be in the 700 range. Unfortunately she had no idea how to properly manage her time on the test, particularly on the Quant section, and the result was a score that was really well below her potential. I tutored her for about 6 weeks focusing almost entirely on time management and she managed to score a 710, which is probably the score she should have had in the first place had she known how to manage her time better!

First of all, one must have an understanding of how the scoring algorithm works on the GMAT. The exact algorithm is unknown and is undoubtedly far more complicated than I will be able to convey in this post, but there are some generalizations that can be made and an understanding of these general principals will go a long way toward achieving a better score.

Most people understand that the number of questions right is not the main determinant of a person’s score. Actually, at the higher levels of the Verbal section the number of questions right definitely does matter, so you need to be careful on Verbal not to put yourself too far behind because a string of wrong answers at the end of the test will definitely lower your score, especially if you were doing really well and tracking towards a very high score. But on Quant, most people get around half of the questions wrong and even people who score at the top end of the scale still get between 1/3 and ½ of the questions wrong. It is the level of difficulty of the questions that you are able to answer consistently right that really determines your score.

It is important to understand and really accept this fact – people whose score is artificially low because of poor time management often do not fully appreciate this fact and it is often the principal reason that their scores suffer. You can’t think of the GMAT the way you think about most tests (where, in order to score well, you need to get almost every question right). Because the questions will just keep getting harder and harder, it is a simple fact that at a certain point the questions will be too hard for most test takers and at that point it becomes foolish to waste time on questions that you are likely to get wrong anyway. This fact about the GMAT is one of the things that makes the GMAT so great, in my opinion. Just think of it – you know you are going to get about half of the questions wrong anyway, so it takes a lot of the pressure off on a questions-by-question basis. In my opinion this is much better than a test in which you need to get almost every single question right in order to do well (the GRE is actually an example of this and that is one reason that for some people the GMAT is a better test than the GRE).

Even if you believe that you are capable of answering all or most of the questions correctly, you need to be able to do it in a reasonable amount of time. If you can’t and if you try anyway, one of two things will probably happen (both bad): One is that you will spend a ton of time on the question and obviously if you do that too many times you will run out of time before you get to the end of the test. The other is that you will spend 2 minutes on the question, realize that you can’t answer it in a reasonable amount of time, and then make a guess, having now wasted 2 minutes. One of these scenarios is what plays out for most people who have time management issues.

The first step in correcting this is realizing that you will likely get ½ the questions wrong no matter what you do. So it doesn’t make sense to “go for it” on every question, especially if it’s a question that you recognize is hard and/or will take a long time to solve. My next post will cover strategic guessing and the different ways you can guess, both to save time and maximize your score, so stay tuned for that. A second consideration that will help is to realize that 2 minutes per question is just an average (75 minutes divided by 37 questions), but that does not mean that you should aim to spend 2 minutes on EVERY question. I wrote another post about this titled “The Myth of 2 Minutes Per Question” so I don’t want to rehash all that I wrote there, but basically it is fine to spend 3 or 4 minutes on some questions (if you are reasonably confident that you can get them right in that amount of time). If you couple that with some strategic “let-gos” (questions that you quickly dump once you realize that they are really hard or time consuming), you get a much better result than spending 2 minutes on every question since you can spend 3 or 4 minutes on some questions, thereby allowing you to get those right and much less than 2 minutes on other questions that you probably wouldn’t have had right even if you had spent 3 or 4 minutes!

One last thing I will mention and come back to in a later post: the early questions definitely matter a little bit more and warrant slightly greater attention. Again this topic deserves its own blog post, but it is a pretty accepted fact in the GMAT world that the first 5 or 10 questions on the test have a greater impact on your score (and all of my experience over the last 11 or 12 years tutoring people for the GMAT supports that). Now, some people go overboard with this and spend way too much time on the early questions and then completely run out of time way too early in the test. Basically what I advise my students is that you should be A LITTLE MORE WILLING to go for it on the early questions. So if you are close to an answer and you need an additional 30 seconds, I would take it. Or if it’s a question that you are not sure that you can answer but you think maybe you can or you anticipate that it will take a long time but that you can do it, then I would go for it if you are on question 2 or 3 or something like that. BUT, you should not feel like you have to get all of the early questions right – that is almost certainly not going to happen and aiming for that will almost certainly cause you to fall way, way behind. The other thing to throw in here is that the questions decrease in importance the further you move away from question 1, so you should be less and less willing to spend extra time as you move further into the test and by around question 10 it doesn’t really matter anymore.

Remember, time management is an issue for almost everyone who takes the test. I scored a 780 on the GMAT and even I have to push myself on both sections to make sure I finish on time. Even if you are slow in the way that you work, it just means that you need to learn how to be more selective in choosing which questions to really go for it on so that you have time to answer the ones that you really can answer. The flip side of that is that you obviously need to be willing to let go (quickly let go) of questions that are low percentage questions for you or that will clearly take a long time to answer. My next post will expand upon how exactly to judge when to skip a question and the different types of guessing that can be employed in order to save time and maximize your score. Stay tuned!