GMAT Tip of the Week: Your 3 Step Pacing Plan

GMAT Tip of the WeekWhat makes the GMAT difficult? For most examinees, the time pressure is arguably the biggest factor; given unlimited time, most 700-level aspirants could get most problems right, but with that clock ticking and time of the essence we’re all vulnerable to silly mistakes, mental blocks, and the need to give up on hard questions.

So how can you overcome the pressures of pacing? Try this three-step method:

1) Take Your Time

This may seem a bit counter-intuitive if you’re pressed for time, but the GMAT scoring algorithm so heavily punishes you for missing “easy” questions that you can’t afford to fall victim to silly or careless mistakes. Most test-takers could finish between 32-34 quant questions and 36-38 verbal questions in the 75 allotted minutes, but it’s that 37 quant / 41 verbal question allocation that forces examinees to budget time. If, for example, on quant you’d be great if you could average 2:20 per question instead of the allotted 2:05, that extra 15 seconds you’d like per question may well be your Achilles’ heel if, in your haste to get down closer to 2 minutes per question, you fall victim to:

-Silly calculation mistakes
-Setting up an equation incorrectly
-Leaving a problem one step short and picking the trap answer
-Answering “the wrong question” (e.g. they asked for y, you solved for x)

These mistakes, as you’ve likely seen in your practice tests and homework sets, are quite common, so make sure that you’re aware of them and know to slow down to avoid them. Double check your work, which can largely go wrong in the first 20-30 seconds of a problem (setting up a problem incorrectly) or the last 20-30 seconds (answering the wrong question, skipping a calculation step because it looks like you’ll get right to one answer choice). Know your common mistakes and spend that extra 10-15 seconds double-checking for them. Too many examinees, knowing that they’d need 10% more time than they have, do a “90% job on 100% of questions” (a lot of wrong answers) instead of a “100% job on 90% of questions” (making sure that when they can get a question right, they do. As we say often on the GMAT, your floor is more important than your ceiling – missing easy questions hurts you much more significantly than correctly answering hard question helps you. So step 1 on pacing – make sure that you take the time you need to successfully finish problems on which you’ve done most of the work right.

2) Plan to Guess

Here’s where you get the time back. If you still know that the above strategy – take the time that you need – will leave you 5-6 minutes short of where you’d need to be to finish the section, then save that time by knowing that up to 3-4 times per section you’ll just guess early on a problem to bank that time for when you really need it. Why does this work? If you’re doing well on a section by successfully answering most of those questions within your ability level, you’re going to see some extremely difficult questions as your “reward” based on the adaptive algorithm. You WILL get questions wrong, and the key is to not invest too much time in questions that you were probably going to get wrong anyway. The problem with guessing is much more psychological than real – when you get stuck on a problem and “have to” guess, you get that panic feeling in your mind and it shakes your confidence for future questions. Plus you’ve probably spent up to your average pace-per-question (if not more) by that point, so you’re doubly worried…time is ticking away *and* you just had to blow a guess.

The remedy? Give yourself up to 4 “free passes,” questions on which you’ll just guess in the first 20-25 seconds if you realize that it’s probably beyond you and/or it will probably sap a lot of time. (For example, plenty of 750+ scorers have admitted that “hard to start” geometry problems fall into this category for them…geometry with detailed figures can be very time-consuming, so if they don’t see the path early on they know to just save that time for something more concrete) By consciously using a “free pass” instead of nervously venturing a guess, you own the guess as a strategy and not a cop-out, and you’ll save that time for when you need it and can best use it for correct answers.

3) Have a Pacing Plan

How do you know when you need to guess? Segment each section into approximate quarters and have benchmarks for where you’ll want to be. Since the clock ticks down from 75 minutes, have those benchmarks in mind the way you’ll see them:


After 10 questions —- 53 minutes remaining*
After 20 questions —- 33 minutes remaining
After 30 questions —- 14 minutes remaining
(which leaves about 2 minutes per question)


After 10 questions —- 55 minutes remaining*
After 20 questions —- 36 minutes remaining
After 30 questions —- 18 minutes remaining
(which leaves about 1:40 per question)

(*You can adjust these benchmarks to your liking; here we’re using a little more time in the initial 10 questions, not because “they’re more important” as the myth goes, but more because you can’t use any additional time at the end of the section, so if you’re going to err on pacing it’s better to get the early questions right and hustle a little later than it is to make silly mistakes early, banking time that won’t help you later.)

Whenever you’re more than a minute or so behind your desired pace, that’s when you’ll want to look at using a “free pass” within the next 4-5 questions to get back on track. By having a plan to check every 10 questions, you’ll avoid that pressure (and wasted time) that comes from calculating your pace-per-question frequently throughout the test (seriously, people do this – they’re so worried about not having enough time that they waste valuable time doing extra, irrelevant math problems!!) and you’ll have a contingency plan in place so that you’re not panicked if you are a little behind. If you’re behind, you have a “free pass” in your back pocket to help get back to where you want to be.

Pacing on the GMAT is tricky for everyone – that’s a major factor of what makes it “the GMAT.” But if you follow this process, you can make the best out of that limited time and maximize your chance of success. Remember, 75 minutes per section is hard for just about everyone, so even if you’re not comfortable with the pacing but you have a better plan for how to use that scarce resource, pacing can be your competitive advantage.

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By Brian Galvin