So you have been preparing for the GMAT and you have come to the point where you are no longer worried just about remembering the rules & formulae but have started worrying about your 3-digit GMAT scores.
You are looking at maximizing your chances of getting a high GMAT score and want to know every tip to help you get a boost on the day of the exam.
You have read other articles that have super technical stuff about how to precisely measure the time you will take on the test – and THAT is stressing you out because you can’t be so robotic in your approach.
You want to function at your peak capacity on test day – so you can get all your neurons firing in a synaptical surge to maximize your scores.
Has all of this been going on in your mind?
Worry not! I will be dissecting the best timing strategy to use on the GMAT.
I have been teaching GMAT since the early 2000s so you bet I have seen a lot of students: the ones who have gotten 760 in their first attempt and those who have gotten a respectable 690 in their third attempt.
This article is distilled from two decades of what I have learned from seeing students try to maximize their scores (note: many of these were very, very smart students who went on to do their MBA from top schools such as Harvard, Wharton, INSEAD. So this advice is gold).
And don’t miss the free GMAT micro-course at the end of the article!
Best GMAT Guessing Strategies
by Arun Jagannathan | Founder, CrackVerbal
All you need to know to save time and get a high score
We will be looking at the following:
- Is there a penalty for guessing on the GMAT?
- When to guess on the GMAT?
- How many questions can I guess for my target GMAT score?
- At what stage do I guess on the GMAT?
- How do I pace myself by guessing smartly on the GMAT?
- How long should I take before I decide to guess a question on the GMAT?
- What types of questions on the GMAT are more “guessable”?
Let’s dive in!
1. Is there a penalty for guessing on the GMAT?
On the GMAT, you need to answer all the questions – irrespective of whether the answer is right or wrong. But there is a penalty if you run out of time in the end and leave questions unanswered.
But there is no penalty for guessing. If anything, smartly guessing on the GMAT will help maximize your scores.
Doing well on the GMAT is not about solving all the questions in the given time. It is about smartly guessing to score the maximum marks in the given time.
Let me rephrase it:
A poor GMAT test taker will try to solve all the questions correctly – hoping they can do it under time. But in this process they will over invest time in some questions – leading them to blindly guess a series of questions and ultimately not scoring well.
The smart GMAT test taker will focus on getting as many correct answers as possible in the given time constraint. This means making some guesses along the way. Even if that means not chasing an unrealistic goal of a perfect 800 on the GMAT.
Really – our job isn’t to prove to GMAT (or the B-school) that we have freakishly crazy IQ levels. If we attempt a perfect 800 – chances are we might end up overthinking on questions and ultimately messing up our timing strategy.
So don’t think you need to solve 36 questions in 65 minutes in Verbal. Instead, think about how you can smartly guess a few of them.
Let me give you an analogy: if you are playing a video game, you may wisely use up your “energy” for completing your task or mission. But once in a while you will get a power boost – or an extra life – that helps you reset and get back your power.
The questions on which we guess will give you a similar “boost” of time and energy on the GMAT.
2. Should I guess or leave a blank / skip the question?
On the GMAT, you need to PICK an answer for ALL the questions in the given time. There is no option for you to leave it blank or skip the question.
So a very important skill is to be decisive and mark an answer – even when you are not 100% sure. This is the logic behind guessing.
Sometimes students find it hard to digest this concept of guessing because while practising from the Official Guide or any such resource, there is (correctly so) a focus on understanding what it takes to solve the question.
Sometimes we might invest more time in a question. Sometimes you may choose to wipe the slate (quite literally) and start solving the whole question again.
Sometimes you may skip a question but return to it later to see if you could solve it differently.
All of this is okay when you are practising.
This is the equivalent of going to a gym to prepare for an Olympic sport.
Here is a big BUT.
BUT remember that there is a good reason you won’t get an Olympic medal for hitting the gym. You win the medal for beating your opponent in a sport.
Hitting the gym is about training your muscles. Winning in a sport requires a lot more: strategy, quick thinking, making tactical sacrifices to gain a more significant advantage of the game, and so on.
In the case of the GMAT, what matters is we need to maximize the eventual GMAT score that gives you a high enough percentile (meaning you need to be better at this “maxing this game” than others).
This means we may not always be sure of what the answer is – and sometimes we may have to make some strategic guesses along the way.
3. When to guess on the GMAT?
You can apply the Pareto principle to GMAT questions:
80% of the questions you will solve in under 2 minutes.
But 20% of the questions will take disproportionate time on the GMAT.
The reason we end up with such time sinks is because we all suffer from a common cognitive bias called the “sunk cost” fallacy.
This is when you invest 60 seconds in trying to solve a question – realize you are getting nowhere…but still decide to invest an additional 60 seconds to get it right!
There are three types of questions on which you can guess on the GMAT:
- Tough Questions: These are questions that maybe are just not worth solving. Think of a very dense CR stimulus that you cannot process. Or a word problem that you cannot translate to an equation.
- Tricky Questions: These questions leave you confused about the required task. Think of an SC question in which you end up eliminating ALL the answer options. Or a DS question for which C looks like the most obvious answer.
- Tedious questions: These are questions that you know you can solve, but they just take a LOT of time. Think of an inference question in RC for which you have to comb the passage multiple times. Or a quant problem that you know requires you to derive an answer after a lot of number crunching.
Once you recognize the question types – and you get a sense that it might require a greater investment of time and effort than you are prepared to give – it is best for you to recognize you should guess and move on.
But it is easier said than done. All of us have been guilty of overspending on some questions. Just remember that on the GMAT, this can prove to be costly. We end up digging ourselves into a deeper hole.
If you end up randomly marking an answer at the end of two minutes – it is not guessing – it is giving up. In this case, the GMAT is in control.
It is essential to realize that guessing is a strategy in which YOU are in control.
After a point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in so best for you to recognize when you should just pick an option and move on. Trying this out in your practice tests and sticking to a pacing chart is an excellent way to fathom your sense of judgement.
So let us understand how much we can guess on the GMAT.
Took the GMAT but didn’t score well the first time? Here are some tricks & tips that might help you retake the test:
4. How many questions can I guess for my target GMAT score?
First, let us pick a hypothetical goal (and yes, let’s make it a lofty one).
You need to score possibly in the 80th percentile range for both quant and verbal – giving you a total GMAT percentile score in the high 90s. For example, a Q50 (87th %ile) and a V40 (80th %ile) will give you a respectable 740 (96th %ile).
This is a score at which no business school will reject you based on your GMAT scores (of course, there are other reasons for rejection such as profile, interviewing skills).
Remember: while taking the GMAT (or any practice test), your focus should be on scoring enough questions right to get to your goal of the 87th%ile in Quant and 80th%ile in Verbal.
Our job is to signal to the GMAT scoring algorithm that we are one among the 7500 students in 2022 who will end up scoring a 740+ – calculating it as the 97th %ile from among roughly 2,50,000 students.
About 7-8 mistakes in Verbal spread evenly across the test, and about 4-5 mistakes in Quant should get you a Q50 V40 – leading to a 740.
That means you can get 1 in 5 questions wrong in Verbal and 1 in 6 in Quant and still get to your dream score!
Note that it is not just the number of mistakes but also their position that give you your GMAT score.
That leads us to the following question:
5. At what stage do I guess on the GMAT?
Here are a few things we know about the scoring algorithm.
This is based on extensive research by:
- Asking our sources at the GMAC – the body that conducts the GMAT
- Running simulations on GMAT Exam Pack – the closest approximation to the real test
- Reverse-engineering actual student ESR reports – which tell us the number of mistakes (and their position) needed to hit a particular score.
We know that:
- The first quartile questions will be at 600 level, and if you get (most of them) right then, the GMAT will promote you, so you start seeing more challenging questions.
- GMAT also has the experimental questions in the middle quartiles – not at the start or the end.
- At the last quartile (unless you make a string of errors or worse: not end up finishing the test), the GMAT algorithm will not change your GMAT scores by a lot.
Let me just clarify one thing here:
There is no substitute for knowing your stuff – conceptual clarity and application of logic.
But all things considered, it is better to guess a little later in the test (say towards question #10).
So because of the way the GMAT algorithm works, we need to factor in sufficient time for the initial part of the test. Just not too much.
So that leads us to how we pace ourselves, so we know when to guess.
6. How do I pace myself by guessing smartly on the GMAT?
Think of GMAT not as one test but as a series of mini-tests.
For Quant, the calculation is pretty simple. You have exactly 2 minutes per question. So we can break the test into four tests of roughly 7-8 questions.
For Verbal, you can again break the test into four mini-tests of 9 questions each (given you have more questions to solve in this section).
As the GMAT has a countdown timer, it can sometimes get confusing. So as soon as you get started on the GMAT, write down the following numbers on your scratchpad/whiteboard:
45 – Q7-8
30 – Q14-15
15 – Q21-22
This is when 45 / 30 / 15 minutes are left in the clock – how many questions you should have solved. Having 9-10 questions in Quant to solve in the last 15 minutes would set you up for a good score, provided you have done well in the initial three sets.
45 – Q9-10
30 – Q18-20
So in Verbal, you can have an extra buffer of 5 minutes that you can use at the start of the test. Especially if you face some “inertia” at the beginning of the test – the feeling that our brain is taking more time to process information before getting into the “flow state”.
This pacing in Verbal will leave you with enough time to end the test at a comfortable pace without having to resort to too many blind guesses.
Having a pacing chart to guide you during the test will help you quickly decide when to speed up (and possibly when to slow down).
Whenever you are slowing down, and you need to pick up the pace – make a few guesses in each of the quartiles without worrying about your scores dipping too much.
This brings us to the following question: when do I decide that I need to guess on a GMAT question?
7. How long should I take before I decide to guess a question on the GMAT?
Let’s do the math here:
You have a total of 127 minutes (62 minutes for Quant and 65 minutes for Verbal) to complete 67 questions (31 questions in Quant and 36 questions in Verbal)
That means 113.73 seconds per question on average. Or 120 seconds for every quant question and 108 seconds for every verbal question.
GMAT is testing your “smartness” in two ways:
- Are you able to get to the answer?
- Are you able to get it in under two minutes?
Now trying to solve every question in 108 seconds or 120 seconds may not be wise to attempt. This is not an archery competition – this is the GMAT.
To give an extreme example of how averages are statistically deceiving, let me cite an example.
Assuming only the very old (80+) or the very young (below 1 year) wear diapers, the average age of people wearing diapers is maybe 40 years. But then not a lot of 40-year olds are walking around wearing diapers!
You get the idea.
That means there will be some sinister CR boldfaced questions that require you to invest three laborious minutes. At the same time, there will be SC questions where you can apply clear rules like subject-verb agreement to get to the correct answer in under 60 seconds.
Of course, you could argue that you will try to shave off 10-20 seconds of the next set of questions, but it is easier said than done.
Let us be reasonable to ourselves: we are humans – not machines – so it is not possible to fine-tune ourselves so much. It is effectiveness (getting the question right) that is our goal and not efficiency (getting it under the time limit).
It is better to agree that we will invest slightly more time in a few questions while intelligently guessing a few of them.
The intelligent thing is to figure out WHICH types of questions you should guess the answer.
8. What types of questions on the GMAT are more “guessable”?
Now, if we specifically look at each of the question types, you could either make:
- An educated guess – you are stuck between the last two (or three) options, and investing more time is not helping you. You mentally flip a coin to pick an answer.
- A blind guess – you have read the prompt and question a few times but cannot understand what’s said. You mark a random option and move on to the next.
Here is an analysis of the kind of guesses you can make on each question type:
Sentence Correction Strategy
Making educated guesses
The deal with SC questions is you can be stuck in the last two options, to and it can feel like a stuck record as you keep playing the two options on a loop in your mind. If all things fail, you may just want to use your “ear” to pick an answer – just don’t waste more time sitting on the fence by weighing the options in your mind.
Making blind guesses
The best questions to guess will be the ones in which the complete sentence is underlined, and the answer options have different sentence structures. These questions typically require you to mentally juggle the sentence structures and ensure you are retaining the meaning of the sentence. A tough task indeed – especially if you are running into time trouble.
Critical Reasoning Strategy
Making educated guesses
In CR, you should be able to remove at least a few answer options using common traps such as out of scope, extreme answers, and vague phrases. However, if you are down to the last two and cannot process it further – you might want to pick an answer and move on. The more time you spend on the options in CR – the more confused you can get.
Making blind guesses
If you have not gotten a good sense after reading stimulus, guess early. Do not get to the answer options and waste more time. There is very little chance you will miraculously get to the correct choice. You will waste time and drain valuable mental energy on the test.
Reading Comprehension Strategy
Making educated guesses
Inference questions – while reading answer options, beware of each word. On tougher questions, the GMAT will play on the scope by adding just one word. It is vital that you put the last two options under a microscope and understand the correct contextual meaning of the words.
Making blind guesses
The best questions to guess are the ones that start with “Which of the following predictive statements the author would agree with”. Especially if you think the passage is very dense and you are not sure where to look for the answer. Remember that we cannot afford to guess all the questions in an entire passage, but we can maximize our ROI by guessing one question among the three / four questions for any given passage.
Problem Solving Strategy
Making educated guesses
If you can get to the equation but are somehow getting lost in actually solving it – ask yourself: what are the values that CANNOT be the answer. This will help eliminate a few, and you can guess what is left.
Making blind guesses
If you cannot construct an equation / or know the rule to solve the question, then it might be wise to recognize this early and guess without wasting too much time.
Data Sufficiency Strategy
Making educated guesses
Typically the trap is when you see that both the options together will help answer the question, i.e. the answer is C. Just ensure you understand that either of the two statements alone won’t get you the answer.
Making blind guesses
If this is a concept or a question you have never seen before, then with time pressure, there is a chance that your brain may not be able to process the problem well. It’s best to let go of such questions.
I hope the words resonate with you and prepare you better for the GMAT.
I am happy to answer any questions on the GMAT strategy in the comments below. Please do let me know if you have any questions – or would just like to comment to let me know you found this article helpful.
I have also launched a new micro-course where I will share with you insights about how to prepare for the GMAT in 2022 – especially if you are a busy working professional. Click below to access the free videos.
– GMAT adaptive algorithm – Sample ESR Analysis