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GMAT exam – How important are the first few questions

In a computer adaptive test like the GMAT exam, how you tackle the first few questions is very important. It can set the difficulty level for the rest of the questions. Our friends at GoGMAT continue their GMAT Preparation series on MBA Crystal Ball and focus on another GMAT time management strategy.

GMAT Exam tips – How important are the first few questions

If the traffic police pull you over for driving with a broken tail light, you can expect to be admonished, instructed to repair the light, and perhaps even fined, but that’s about it—which explains why you don’t inspect both your tail lights every day. You do, however, monitor your speed continually and pay close attention to the amount of alcohol you consume before driving.

As an intelligent driver, you do this for reasons of safety. In the back of your mind, however, you’re also thinking about the very serious consequences you could face if you’re caught speeding or driving while intoxicated. Knowing which actions merit the greatest punishment helps you avoid them. The same principle applies to the GMAT exam: get to know the exam, understand exactly how it is scored, and you will realize that some mistakes are to be avoided at a greater cost than others.

In both the GMAT Verbal and GMAT Quantitative sections, the exam seeks to pinpoint your ability in just about 40 questions. Since no information is available a priori about which interval you are expected to score in, the first questions need to establish a provisional estimate of your ability. It follows that the first question is never a hard one, as such a question would be answered incorrectly by such a vast majority of test takers—including those with very high scores—that it would yield very little information the algorithm could use to start building an initial assessment of your true score range.

Logically then, the first question will tend to be of low or average difficulty. You probably already know that the difficulty of each question you get after the very first depends on how you’ve done in preceding questions. So what happens if you get the first question wrong? Getting the first question wrong will give you an easier second question, which if answered correctly will bump up the difficulty of the third question, and so forth. Since the first question is necessarily not a difficult one, getting the first three questions wrong implies that you’ve answered at least two easy questions incorrectly. This hurts your score to a much larger degree than would errors on the same number of hard questions.

The first questions are particularly important not necessarily because they carry a greater weight in the scoring algorithm—which, in fact, they may not—but rather because they skew the initial assessment of your ability, thus determining the difficulty and value of subsequent questions.

Another way to comprehend this is to understand that, since the algorithm does not know at the outset the true interval where you belong, it has no way to distinguish between a careless mistake in a question you normally would have answered correctly versus a genuine error resulting from your inability to arrive at the correct answer in a timely fashion. Getting several of the first questions wrong “pigeonholes” you in a lower score bracket from which you will have trouble emerging, no matter how many hard questions you manage to answer correctly.

In essence, because you answered so many “easy” questions wrong in the beginning (the previous paragraph explains why they would necessarily be “easy” questions), it will be very difficult to convince the algorithm that you deserve a high score. We could borrow the words of George Orwell and say that theoretically, all questions are equal, but some questions are more equal than others.

It pays to devote some extra attention to the initial set of questions. Don’t rush to an answer, and after you’ve selected an answer, review it to ensure that you’ve not made a silly mistake. When both time and question type permit, plug your answer back into the question to verify that it is indeed correct. This added care uses precious time and should be reserved for the first five or ten questions, where avoiding wrong answers is so crucial.

Note, however, that it is all right to get just one or two of the first ten GMAT questions wrong. If you get the first five correct, the sixth is already going to be quite difficult, so it may actually be counterproductive to try to get every single one of the first ten questions right. Just make sure you don’t blow the first two, and try to avoid having to guess two or more successive GMAT questions among the first ten.

Another infraction that the GMAT scoring algorithm punishes severely is incorrectly answering a series of successive questions. Getting ten hard GMAT questions wrong is akin to driving with a broken tail light if your errors occur throughout the section; it’s equivalent to driving 100 mph over the speed limit with a 0.3 blood alcohol content if the errors occur on ten successive questions.

The reasoning behind this is the same as that behind the importance of the test’s initial questions. With each question you answer incorrectly, you will get an easier question next. It follows that several wrong answers in a row implies that you’ve answered average or low difficulty questions wrong, and you already know how much that affects your score.

Let’s keep it simple and assume you’ve done extremely well on the first ten GMAT questions, answering all of them correctly. The eleventh question is sure to be difficult. If you answer that one wrong, you might get a medium difficulty question next, and after answering that one wrong you might get an easy question. With just three questions wrong in a row, you could have severely damaged your excellent start by answering an easy question wrong.

Try to gauge the difficulty of the question, and if it seems too easy, recheck it quickly. You might have missed something that makes the question harder than you thought. Even better, you might realize that the question is indeed easy but you overlooked something in your answer and thus have the opportunity to change your selection and avoid a costly wrong answer to an easy question.

Finally—and this should inform the way you attempt to avoid the previous two serious mistakes — remember that leaving GMAT exam questions unanswered also significantly depresses your score. If you find yourself behind schedule midway through a section and you are confident that you have performed well up until then, try to ascertain quickly whether a given question is hard. When you’re sure that it is, make up time by guessing if you the solution isn’t self-evident. Sacrificing hard questions will hurt your score much less than leaving questions unanswered.

Read this related post on GMAT time management strategy – The two readings rule


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 & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

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