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.