GMAT Tip of the Week: Punting For Field Position

What a weekend this will be! (Author’s note: you’re looking at about a paragraph of pure football content; not a fan? You can probably skip a paragraph and just pick up the GMAT tips, but trust me when I say that this paragraph is going somewhere). Perhaps the Ali-Frazier of the current era will take place tomorrow evening in Tuscaloosa, with #1 Alabama taking on #7 Florida.

Just down the dial, two of the early-season’s most impressive teams, Oregon and Stanford, will do battle in the Pac 10’s matchup of the season. Stanford’s coach, Jim Harbaugh, will take part in a weekend that prominently features several members of Quarterback U, Michigan: Heisman frontrunner Denard Robinson will get back on track after an injury-shortened game last week, and the NFL’s Monday Night Football showcase will feature Robinson’s predecessors Tom Brady and Chad Henne quarterbacking their respective teams. Are you excited yet?

The answer may well be no, as if you’re applying to business schools this fall you may be swamped in applications (perhaps to Stanford itself, with the deadline coming next week) and GMAT preparation. But if you’re looking for an excuse to take a study/essay break and watch some football this weekend, the slate of huge games can actually teach you a valuable strategic lesson as you ready yourself for battle with the GMAT:

Sometimes you have to punt for field position.

The term “punt” has become synonymous, at least in some connotations, with “quit”, but in football (as it can be on the GMAT) it’s actually a very strategic type of quitting. Coaches will elect to punt the ball away to the opposing team in order to gain valuable field position — the space that the team will need in order to be able to score on the next possession.

This strategy can work wonders for you on the GMAT, a test that quite often limits its version of “field position” — in this case time — giving you precious little of the resource that you may need most. In at least some cases, you’ll likely need to guess (“punt”) and move on so that you have time available for future questions. Punting on the GMAT can take on at least a couple of strategic forms:

Necessary Punting
There will almost certainly be questions that you simply cannot solve in 2-3 minutes, and after that duration of time you’ll need to cut your losses, guess, and save your time and mental energy for the next question. At an average of 2 minutes per math question and 1:45 for each verbal question, wasting an extra minute per question on a handful of questions can severely impact your ability to finish the exam on time. In addition to the severe penalties for leaving questions blank (it’s almost always worse than guessing), you’re losing opportunities to answer questions that you could likely answer correctly. What’s even more troubling is the impact that running behind on time can have on multiple questions – when you rush, you’re exponentially more likely to make careless mistakes and miss questions that you should answer correctly.

Accordingly, you’ll want to develop an internal clock – much like that of a top quarterback like Brady or Henne – that lets you know when you’re starting to approach that 2-minute mark (taking practice tests is crucial for developing this skill). Then, when your internal clock lets you know that you’re starting to push that 2-minute threshold, take a second to analyze your situation. If you think that within 30 seconds or so you’ll have the right answer – it’s just a matter of finishing the calculations or double-checking your work – then by all means finish the question…it’s like 4th-and-short in the opponents’ territory! However, if you assess that it’s more than likely that you’ll still be working without a finish line – you’re in 4th-and-long territory – you’ll want to make an educated guess, punt, and save your time for the remaining questions.

Quick Punt
This type of punting – you’ll see it in college football when a quarterback lines up in the shotgun on a makeable 4th down but then punts out of that formation to catch the defense without a returner – can be more strategic and a little less intuitive.

The “quick punt” strategy is one that you should consider employing if you know that timing will be a significant factor for you on the test. If you’re resigned to having to rush, the quick punt strategy can help you win the “field position” or time battle. Here’s how you can employ this strategy:

– Plan to “punt” on a predetermined number of questions (1 out of every 10 or 1 out of every 12…basically 1/4 or 1/3 of the test) and consider those punts to be assets – you own them and can feel free to use them at your discretion.

– When you see a question that looks difficult or time-consuming, use your punt within the first 30 seconds or less of looking at it so that you can bank nearly the full two minutes to spread over the rest of that section. This way, you have more time available for the questions that you know you can answer correctly. And because you’ve already predetermined that you’d guess, you psychologically don’t have to feel like you’ve quit or failed – you’ve just strategically deployed an asset.

– The advantages? That extra time will allow you to relax a bit and not worry about pacing. You’ll reduce your stress level and give yourself extra time to avoid those working-too-quickly errors. And because of the adaptive nature of the GMAT, it’s quite likely that the questions you identify as “puntworthy” are those that you would have answered incorrectly, anyway. You’re sacrificing minimal accuracy and giving yourself extra time. Furthermore, there’s a 20% chance or more that you’ll get that question right based on your guess, and a not-insignificant chance that that question is an unscored, experimental question, so you may not lose at all on this strategy.

As has been discussed in this space previously, the GMAT tests not only your ability to answer individual questions correctly but also your ability to manage the entire project of taking the test. By strategically electing to punt on a handful of questions, you can demonstrate your capacity for managing aggressive deadlines and workloads, and those skills are highly sought by business schools and employers. Punting isn’t always “quitting” — it’s a part of the game, and if you learn to play it effectively you can maximize your chances of winning.

Do you want to reach your maximum potential on the GMAT? A Veritas Prep GMAT prep course is just what you need. And, as always, be sure to subscribe to this blog and to follow us on Twitter!