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Your GMAT Pacing Plan: The Study Phase

Making Notes from Book ca. 2000

The following article comes from Veritas Prep.  Since its founding in 2002, Veritas Prep has helped more than 100,000 students prepare for the GMAT and offers the highest rated GMAT Prep course in the industry.

One of the greatest challenges you’ll face on the GMAT is that of time.  It’s not just that the pace-per-question metrics are aggressive – you’ll have a hair over 2 minutes per problem on the quantitative section and about 1:50 per question on the verbal – but you’ll also have to deal with the Computer-Adaptive-Testing reality that you’ll only see each question once, and you can’t skip a problem or return to it later.

Because of that, you’re right to be concerned (let’s not say “worried”) about pacing on the GMAT.  How can you make sure you’re ready?  First let’s talk about how to prepare for it in the study phase.  Begin with:

1) Take the time to master concepts first

A critical mistake that students make early in their study process is that they immediately start trying to complete every problem in two minutes or less.  But think about any task that you do quickly today: you probably weren’t always able to rush through them via second-nature.  It takes time to develop skills and hone them to the point where you can do them quickly AND accurately.  So take that time in practice and let yourself struggle a little without feeling that clock pressure and just flipping to the back of the book to read someone else’s answer.  If you take 10 minutes and have that breakthrough – “THAT is why I need to set this up as a ratio” – then that’s a concept that you’re not “hoping to remember” but instead one that you know and can rely upon on the test.  Too often students are so time-conscious in their first few weeks of studying that they never truly grasp certain concepts and therefore waste valuable time on test day performing incorrect steps or fixing their mistakes.

2) To thine own self be true

Also remember that no GMAT concepts are “one size fits all” when it comes to time.  Part of your study process should include determining where you need to slow down and use a little extra time (maybe geometry questions require you to frequently go over the 2-minute average by 20-30 seconds) and where you’re so confident that you can bank time for future questions (perhaps you become a master of mental arithmetic).  Even while you’re developing a little more consciousness about pacing, keep in mind that your average pace per question is an average, not an absolute!

3) Practice speed deliberately

In order to develop speed, remember that speed doesn’t just come from “doing things faster” but instead by performing drills and activities designed to increase that speed responsibly.  To build speed, try a few drills designed to help you work more quickly but also to help you identify where you cannot afford to.  A few drills that may help:

  • “Quick First Step”: For a set of 10 quant problems, give yourself 30 seconds (or 45 if 30 seems too fast at first) to begin each problem, and then move on to the next. Then when you’re done, go back and finish the problems and see which mistakes you made while setting the problems up.  This drill helps in two ways: for one, it forces you to use that first 30 seconds productively (instead of reading the problem, saying “wow this is tough,” and then getting started, which is a common habit!) and secondly it helps you recognize mistakes that you make when you’re setting a problem up.  A disproportionate number of mistakes happen in the first 30 seconds of a problem (you set it up wrong or didn’t read carefully) and in the last 30 seconds (in your haste to finish you missed a step), so this will help you determine which types of problem setups will require a little extra time to double check your work before you dive into calculations.
  • “Limit Your Scratchwork”: For a set of 10 problems, give yourself half as much scratchwork space as you normally use for 10 problems, and force yourself to perform more steps in your head. If you can become quicker with mental math or the combination of two steps into one, you can save time.  But again, go back to your work afterward and see where you tend to make mistakes when doing so.  Part of your goal is to determine where you can responsibly skip or combine steps and where you’re substantially better off showing all your work.
  • “90 Seconds”: For a set of quant problems, give yourself a pace of 1:30 per question – 75% of what you’d normally have – and have a timer let you know when that time is up. Forcing yourself to work faster than normal will again bring your hasty mistakes to the forefront so you know what to double-check when you’re pressed for time on the test, and will help you to feel much more comfortable when you do have 2 full minutes and that last 30 seconds feels like a luxury.
  • “Two Minutes Is a Long Time”: If you’re worried about the time limit and you know that it’s psyching you out, try doing something like pushups or wall-sits or just brushing your teeth for a full two minutes. Sometimes reminding yourself how long two minutes really is is a great start toward making the test seem more manageable.

4) Take practice tests and analyze your pacing

Taking practice tests alone is a good way to get a good feel for how you pace yourself in a more authentic environment.  But you can also learn an awful lot from returning to your test and looking at how you performed with regard to both pacing and accuracy.  On the problems for which you spent significantly less time than average, did you get them right?  Or did you make silly mistakes?  If you made mistakes, note those and remember to slow down when you see them again.  On the problems for which you spent longer than average, did you get those right?  If so was there a step you could have seen sooner?  A way to improve that pacing?  And if you got them wrong, were you even close, or could you have cut your losses and guessed even sooner?  By the time you get to test day, you should have a good feel for when you need to give up on problems that are just wasting your time, and a good feel for when you need to slow down to avoid one of your common errors or to double-check your work.

5) Slow is smooth and smooth is fast

Remember that one of the worst ways to spend your time on test day is returning to your work to figure out where you went wrong.  Methodically performing calculations and showing your work may take you an extra 20 seconds, but getting to an answer and realizing that there’s no answer choice that matches it could require minutes of redoing the problem or undoing steps until you found where you went wrong.  So don’t let the ticking clock shake you from your game.  Pacing is an important element of the GMAT but no one has gotten into Harvard by quickly answering 30 of 37 questions incorrectly.  If you’re struggling with pacing, arguably the most effective way of improving that is just becoming more comfortable with the skills so that they take you less time and minimize your mistakes.  Want to get faster on the GMAT?  In the study phase the answer to that may just be “be patient.”

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