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How to crack GMAT exam questions in time

Written by Sameer Kamat

The GMAT exam is as much about speed as it is about accuracy. If you know all the tips to tackle the GMAT syllabus, but you don’t know how to crack GMAT questions in time, the scoring algorithm will penalise you. In this MBA Crystal Ball post, the experts from GoGMAT provide ideas on how to solve difficult GMAT questions that may seem simple at first.

GMAT tips: How to crack GMAT exam questions in time

With roughly two short minutes in which to read, solve, and answer each problem in the GMAT quantitative section, you can hardly be blamed for expecting simple and elegant solutions. The truth, however, is that this is not always the case. Although solutions (short-cuts) that allow you to bypass strenuous and extensive calculations often do exist, to count on it as you approach this vital section may lead you to search too long, or worse, follow a wild-goose chase.

If you really want to crack GMAT exam questions and get a high score, your aim should be to analyze each question individually without any preconceived notion or predetermined template for resolution. Don’t think too long—start solving immediately with the first solution method that comes to mind, and constantly reevaluate your progress and your options.

Remember that the GMAT quantitative section assesses a wide array of problem-solving skills, not just your aptitude with mathematics. Knowing how not to solve a problem can be just as important as knowing how to solve it. Correctly answering a question in this section is not a one-step process.

First, you must read and understand the problem quickly.

Then, you must associate each question with a certain category (even though its answer can draw on a number of different areas of mathematics or logic); this step is not always as easy as it seems and it already plays a part in informing your resolution process. You should ask yourself, for example, does this question focus on geometry, algebra, or number properties? While accurately identifying what is being tested doesn’t guarantee  correct answers, inaccurate identification it can lead you on a winding path to nowhere that will, if you pursue it unwaveringly, leave you frustrated and short of time for the remainder of the section.

The last step is the solution itself, i.e., doing the algebra, calculations, diagrams, or whatever is necessary to arrive at the correct answer. You may well be the best and fastest person on the planet in this last step, but if you neglect the previous steps your score will suffer either from incorrect answers (from, for example, misreading questions) or  insufficient time to answer all the questions.

Keep in mind that even though the GMAT does not contain university level mathematics (e.g., calculus), anything at a lower level is free game. There is no “typical” GMAT problem-solving process.. The format and content of questions can vary greatly, as can the ideal or possible solution methods.

Every question is unique. A question may draw on probability, number theory, geometry, algebra, or any combination of these and other math topics. It may be solved through a combination of pure logic and trivial arithmetic, or it may require you to perform several time-consuming calculations, approximations, or trials intended to test not your thinking but rather your speed, effectiveness, and ability to remain focused and error-free throughout a complex process. Both the elegant and the not-so-elegant solution methods integral to the quantitative section.

It is crucial therefore to accept that there is no Holy Grail solution methodology; seemingly far-fetched solutions may apply. The following GMAT practice question presents a real example:

A non-square rectangle is inscribed within a circle of radius r. Which of the following could be the rectangle’s perimeter? You are then presented with five plausible expressions for the rectangle’s perimeter.

In this case, you have no choice but to test and exclude each choice in turn until you find the correct answer. Consider what’s required to answer this question:

  •  You will have to be familiar with geometric properties and the Pythagorean theorem;
  • Either know the quadratic formula or be comfortable with factorization;
  • Know the table of trigonometric values by heart for the common non-trivial angles pi/6(60º), pi/4(45º) and pi/3(60º);
  • Be comfortable simplifying and manipulating algebraic expressions.

It seems very far-fetched and it’s certainly not pretty, but that is precisely what makes this question so hard. You can waste a lot of time trying to find a nice, quick abstract solution. Alternatively, you can begin to solve it immediately by the process of elimination. If you conclude prematurely that this method is far too time-consuming to be the right one, you can waste a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to find the nice, quick abstract solution, only to give up entirely—and you were on the right track to begin with!

As you solve, keep an open mind. Take a little time to think of other, faster approaches, but don’t go into a question thinking that an elegant solution necessarily exists.

It’s perfectly fine—in fact it’s advisable—to start working on a question, using the first solving method that comes to mind. Even when your mind goes blank, sometimes simply drawing diagrams or rewriting and simplifying expressions enables you to see the question in a different light, leading to a solution.

You may reach what seems like a dead end only to notice that you’re stalled at a stage where it is now the work of a moment to check each answer choice, though it would have been prohibitive at the outset. The exam is multiple choice, so it doesn’t matter at all how you find the answer, so long as you find it in time.

Look at this simple example that illustrates the point:


What is the probability that the sum of one roll of three eight-sided dice (1-8) is odd?

A)    1/3

B)     1/2

C)     5/8

D)    5/7

E)     3/4

You could begin to attack this problem the same way you approach most probability problems, by listing all the possible outcomes. You might write down the eight possible outcomes of the first die and then, in tree diagram style, add the possible outcomes for the second die to each of the first eight.

This, however, is where you should notice, shortly after you started writing down the sums of the first and second roll outcomes, that these sums alternate in an even-odd fashion and that they will do so regardless of the number of dice rolled or their number of faces (so long as it is even).

At this point, you need not complete your diagram (this would take you a very long time indeed); you already know that the answer must be ½, or B. As you see, you didn’t have to spot the elegant solution immediately in order to answer the question quickly; you simply stumbled upon it as you worked. It might have taken you longer to realize the simple logic behind the question if you had tried to find it without starting to explore the obvious method immediately on paper.

Study wide and deep—the material applicable to solution may be broader than you think (e.g. formulas, properties, trigonometry table, and so forth). We hope this article gives you tips on how to crack GMAT exam questions in time. If you’re well prepared, solve pragmatically, and you will succeed.


GMAT Preparation Tips by GoGMAT
GoGMAT, founded in 2009, is an adaptive GMAT preparation platform developed by the best instructors in the industry (with 740+ GMAT scores and strong teaching experience). Find out more here: GMAT preparation courses

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Sameer Kamat

About Sameer Kamat

Founder of MBA Crystal Ball | Author of 'Beyond The MBA Hype' | Cambridge MBA Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter @mba_cb


  1. Amit Bhattacharya   |  Tuesday, 23 July 2013 at 11:32 am

    Dear Mr. Kamat,

    Greetings from Kolkata, India!

    I am an aspiring MBA candidate and want to get admission to part-time MBA courses in the US or UK. For this reason, I have decided to sit for the GMAT in 2014 and would like to receive tips from you in this regard. Also, I am looking for a reliable ranking system to follow in order to shortlist the institutes. An advise from you in this regard is also highly solicited.

    Best Regards,

  2. Sameer Kamat   |  Saturday, 03 August 2013 at 8:00 pm

    Greetings Mr Bhattacharya…and thank you for adding India after Kolkata – always helps to be clear about the hierarchy :-)

    There’s plenty of GMAT preparation related content on our site.

    We have our own little business school ranking to get you started. You could also check the FT rankings, Businessweek rankings etc. But remember that bschool shortlisting is a more complex process. So don’t just use rankings to come up with your list.

    I’m not sure how you can target part-time programs across two countries. Ideally, these are work + study options, so you need to be physically present in the country.

  3. Kiran   |  Tuesday, 03 September 2013 at 11:40 am

    Dear Mr Kamat,

    I’m Kiran from Chennai, India.

    I am looking forward to pursue my MBA from UK or US. I am working in a MNC from IT industry. In my total tenure of 5 years, as a Telecom Solution Designer, i have won 8 awards.

    In my graduation i have published an IEEE paper in my specialisation. I have an aggregate of 8.65 GPA distinction in my Engineering and always performed above 90% in academics during my school (till +12).

    Please could you help me in giving guidance on the scores range the college i can land up. I’m aspiring to do my MBA from a reputed University, in which case please advice me on the score in GMAT i should aim for.

    P.S: I have worked onshore in UK for 1 year on an assignment. Would this count in any case for a better college?

    Warm Regards,

  4. Sameer Kamat   |  Wednesday, 04 September 2013 at 5:17 pm

    I left the corporate job to get rid of the formalities. But this Mr Kamat thingy is bringing back those memories. Somebody get back to calling me by the first name. Alright, back to answering the main questions:

    Mr Kiran (ah, revenge!): Most Indians, specially engineers working in the IT sector, score above 700. If you can cross that psychological barrier, good for you. Yes, your international experience will help.

  5. Kiran   |  Tuesday, 10 September 2013 at 8:00 am

    Hi Sameer, Thank you for response, It is very encouraging to me that my international experience will do some help.
    I have recently published a technical paper in IEEE on the subject i studied/ specialised in engineering. Please would this be of any help as well?

    Awaiting your kind response.

    Warm Regards,

  6. Sameer Kamat   |  Saturday, 21 September 2013 at 8:29 pm

    Kiran: The technical paper will be a good accessory to the overall profile, but not a game changer if it was too technical. Practical skills are generally valued more unless you are aiming for an academic career after graduation.

  7. Kiran   |  Monday, 23 September 2013 at 7:33 am

    I simply like this site.. Thank you Sameer.

  8. Sameer Kamat   |  Thursday, 10 October 2013 at 9:16 am

    I simply like your simple compliment. Simply, thanks, Kiran :-P

  9. Antony   |  Thursday, 31 October 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Hi Sameer;

    I am a Chartered Accountant with 2.2 years of Big 4 Audit experience. Gave the GMAT with some preparation and scored 630. Do I stand a chance for ISB 2014 intake???

  10. Rajat   |  Tuesday, 21 January 2014 at 6:19 am

    Hello Sameer,

    I am planning to apply for a MBA program in IRELAND, would this be a good option. I have total 6 yrs of experience, worked with companies like American Express, Computer Sciences corporation and HCL. Would really appreciate if you could suggest me about the reputation of Dublin Business School.

    Rajat, New Delhi, India

  11. Sameer Kamat   |  Thursday, 30 January 2014 at 6:57 pm

    @Antony: We can’t talk about chances based on this data.

    @Rajat: We don’t have much experience with that bschool. Try talking to current students to find out more.

  12. Kiran   |  Saturday, 22 February 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Hi Sameer

    Apologies for coming to you many times and please take that this chap is stuck with you failing to find any other Guru.

    Request your help on below 4 questions:

    While I can definitely improve my score if I prepare for few more weeks/months , which I would consider doing it in case of not happy with options present to me, please consider that it is an obligation that I should give my GMAT in next few days.

    Question 1:
    Could you please advice me on the universities i can give while giving my GMAT exam. Among the 5 universities which GMAT asks the aspirants to apply before taking test, i would like to have 2 probable top universities(universities from top of your published list where there is still a chance for profiles like mine), 2 universities(coming from top to bottom list of universities ranking) where my profile will be considered, 1 university from your list (coming from top to bottom list of universities ranking) for which my profile can suit definitely (safest option, you know!).

    Anticipating score: 650
    Profile (repeating it for your ease): 5+ experience from MNC in IT industry, 10th – 87%, 12th (or +2) – 93.1%, Engineering from Vellore Inst. Tech in Electronics – 8.62 CGPA with distinction, Extra curricular activities – published a scientific research paper in IEEE, lead an idea to bring a technical newspaper in our University, stood 1st in a singing competition held in our organisation.
    Achievements: Won total 9 awards in the career including 2 prestigious awards from a customer for leading and implementing ideas which brought huge benefits to them.

    Preferred location for MBA: US, Canada

    Question 2: Is there any change for above profile to be considered in ISB (Indian School of Business, Hyderabad), apologies if i’m sounding too optimistic.

    Question 3: In case I retake exam, after further preparation what score I should aim for that will definitely help me land in ISB.

    Question 4:
    Provided i give my best for the above like recommendation letters from my Engg faculty ( who are doctorates with many international publications), Senior Management from my current organisation etc, kindly help me on the other aspects that I should work on for a better chance into good MBA program from top US/Canada universities and ISB.

    Thank you

  13. Sameer Kamat   |  Tuesday, 25 February 2014 at 7:29 pm

    @Kiran: I’m afraid I can’t suggest universities. We do that as part of our MBA MAP after considering many other subjective things.

    Your questions about ISB are also bordering on the hypothetical side. There’s no fixed number that anyone can suggest. The only general advice I could give is to get above the median for the schools on your radar.

    Sorry that I couldn’t be of much help here, but the nature of your questions don’t allow me to provide any concrete inputs, buddy.

    Go ahead and crack the GMAT. Tackle the application when the time is right.

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