Whether your GMAT prep consists primarily of self-driven study with texts, group GMAT courses, or one-on-one instruction, one crucial thing to keep in mind is that any effective prep regimen will focus extensively on time management. The best GMAT tutors and most effective GMAT prep courses will actually make this as important a part of your practice as any of the academic content.
This might seem counterintuitive at first. If you’ve taken an official or a practice GMAT before or even if you’ve just glanced at practice materials, you’ve probably noticed that many of the questions involve challenging content, whether it be the Verbal Reasoning section, Quantitative Reasoning, Integrated Reasoning, or Analytical Writing. It might seem natural, therefore, to focus your prep regimen as much as possible on studying the content in greater depth, solidifying your knowledge of the fundamental skills and concepts needed to arrive at the right answers.
It is true that you should devote a lot of time to skills and concepts, but failing to emphasize time management as an equal part your study plan ignores the ways the GMAT is actually structured and what you’ll have to do in order to achieve a top score.
In order to help you maximize your GMAT performance, we’ve compiled a list of GMAT time management strategies and tips to cultivate in your test prep as well as your actual test-taking tactics.
In this article, we’ll begin by looking more closely at how the GMAT is structured and scored, as well ask you to evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses. This will allow you to build a strong foundation for effective GMAT time management. You won’t be able to demonstrate effective time management on the GMAT if you don’t know exactly how the test is structured and scored.
In our next article, we’ll look more specifically at how you can build time management skills during your study process and, of course, manage your time effectively on the GMAT itself to maximize your GMAT score.
UNDERSTAND WHAT THE GMAT IS TESTING
If the GMAT is primarily a test of academic skills, then why is time management such an integral component of scoring well? The answer lays in the structure and scoring of the test itself.
The first thing to understand about the GMAT is that it’s not strictly designed to be a measure of your academic performance. You’ve had your whole educational career and all the tests you’ve taken along the way to demonstrate those skills. The GMAT is specifically designed to assess students’ readiness for higher education in business, entrepreneurship, and management.
The GMAT can be summarized, then, as an assessment less of your academic skills than of your executive reasoning skills. It’s presumed that most everyone taking the GMAT—the majority of whom are, in theory, pursuing careers in management and entrepreneurship—will have basic proficiency in many academic skills (though of course all test-takers differ in their natural capacities for these skills). What’s more variable, and what the GMAT is designed to measure, involves your ability to encounter a challenge or problem, to assess your own ability to respond to it, and to apply effective decision-making skills. These decision-making skills must enable you to decide how to allocate resources toward meeting the local challenge of each individual problem as well as the more global challenge of the overall test.
This ability to apply larger strategic thinking and problem-solving skills toward a series of challenges, while making informed decisions about how to invest or allocate your resources (which include both your academic skills and the time allotted to you), mimics the work of managing teams and projects in business and entrepreneurial settings.
Now, let’s understand how the GMAT scoring system works.
UNDERSTAND HOW THE GMAT IS SCORED
First, the basics.
The Quantitative Reasoning section offers 62 minutes for answering 32 questions. This works out to an average of 2 minutes per question, but the questions vary in difficulty, so don’t expect to give every question the same amount of time.
The Verbal Reasoning section offers 65 minutes for answering 36 questions—just under 2 minutes per question.
The Integrated Reasoning section offers 30 minutes for 12 questions, while the Analytical Writing section offers 30 minutes for a single question.
But, scoring well on the GMAT is not all about being right. It’s more nuanced than that.
In contradiction to what you’ve been led to expect from other standardized tests, the GMAT’s scoring system is not based on getting every single question right. In fact, most test-takers, even top scorers, don’t answer more than 50-70% of questions correctly.
How is can this be? How can the best scoring GMAT test takers only get 60% of the questions right?
The GMAT adapts to you.
One essentially unique quality of the GMAT is that the test is different for every test-taker, on every occasion. The test is adaptive—that is, the sequencing of the questions you’re given and their difficulty is customized along the way to find the exact edge of your comprehension. Then the test is designed to measure your ability to perform well and to make informed strategic decisions at that level where you are consistently challenged. Accumulating correct answers will continue eliciting more difficult questions, while incorrect answers lead to easier questions. Before too long, the algorithmic testing software will have determined the edge of your capacities and will continue feeding you questions in the range of difficulty appropriate to your skills.
One implication of this is that if you take too long to answer somewhat “easy” questions correctly, you may not leave yourself enough time to correctly answer more difficult questions that move you into a range where you can earn a higher score.
Not all wrong answers are treated equally.
If every question contributed equally to your score, it would make more sense to focus on trying to answer every question correctly. But this isn’t how the GMAT works—nor is it how business situations tend to work. Perfection in business applications and on the GMAT is generally impossible, and effective managers must learn how to navigate no-win scenarios while choosing the lesser of two (or more) evils.
GMAT questions are not all equally difficult, nor are they all weighted differently. As you answer questions correctly, the question difficulty gets harder. But after incorrect answers, the questions become easier.
Now here’s the tricky part: missing easy problems hurts your score significantly more than missing harder questions does. And if you haven’t managed your time well, then you will find yourself having to rush, which will make you likelier to miss easier questions and will hurt your score even more. Further, answering consecutive questions incorrectly hurts more than breaking your incorrect answers up with correct answers.
And one final dagger to be aware of: any questions you don’t finish are considered consecutive wrong answers.
All told, this is why it’s imperative that you practice excellent time management while taking the GMAT.
One of the most important elements of GMAT time management is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. This is why we strongly recommend maintaining a GMAT problem journal in which you log every practice problem you work on over the entire course of your GMAT prep. In this journal, you should keep track of the kind of problem, whether you answer it correctly or incorrectly, and how much time it takes. And outside of your timed practice tests, we recommend approaching each problem twice, in two different ways.
First you should approach the problem in Test Mode, that is, presume you’re working the problem under testing conditions, with a running clock and no ability to seek help from outside sources. Then, after you’ve selected an answer, reapproach the problem in Prep Mode, by which we mean feel free to work more slowly to explore different possible solutions, and when you get stuck, feel free to revisit your prep materials to refresh your understanding of different concepts.
But you should still wait until you’ve done everything possible to actually reach a solution yourself before visiting the actual correct solution provided in the text, otherwise you won’t actually embed the new concepts you’re working with and you’ll fail to gain an accurate picture of your abilities.
In our next article on effective GMAT time management, we’ll move into more specific strategies and tactics to employ while you are taking an actual GMAT exam.