GMAT Tip of the Week: 3 Essential Test Day Strategies

GMAT Tip of the Week

The GMAT is an intimidating test. Here are 3 strategies to help you succeed on test day:

1) Check your work and be thorough.

Because of the Item Response Theory powered adaptive scoring engine, the GMAT comes with a substantial “penalty” for missing questions below your ability level. As the test attempts to home in on your ability level, it knows that approximately 20% of the time when you completely guess on problems that are beyond your ability, you’ll guess correctly. So the system is designed to protect against “false positives.” So even if you don’t get that hard problem right “accidentally,” but rather by investing extra time at the expense of other problems, the algorithm will continue to hit you with hard enough problems to undo the benefit of your getting that one outlier problem right. The same isn’t as true for “false negatives’ – problems below your ability level that you get wrong. There, that’s all on you – and getting easy problems wrong hurts you more than getting hard problems right helps you. So while your energy and attention may well naturally go toward the problems you find the most challenging, you simply cannot afford more than 1-2 silly mistakes on test day. Those wrong answers give the computer substantial data that your ability is lower than you’d like it to be, and the system responds by showing you even easier questions to determine just “how low can you go?”.

So make sure that if you’re on the verge of getting a problem right, you leave no doubt. Whatever silly mistakes you’re susceptible to – solving for the wrong variable, answering in the wrong units, miscalculating certain cells on the multiplication table – take the extra 10 seconds to double check and solidify your work. Yes that may mean that you have less time available for other questions, but the biggest score-killer out there is the “leaky floor” via which you’re in such a hurry to save time for hard questions that you make mistakes on easier ones. If you know that you should get a problem right, you have to make sure that you do.

2) Know when to give up and guess.

By the same token, you can’t get stubborn on hard questions. Everyone misses problems on the GMAT – the adaptive algorithm ensures it, by continuing to throw you challenging problems to test the upper limit of your ability. If you’re doing the little things right – double checking your work, being patient to avoid careless errors – you’ll see hard problems throughout the test. And no one hard problem will determine your score – the test expects that you’ll miss several, and you know that you’ll guess correctly on at least a few, so you can’t afford to spend 3-4 minutes on a question particularly if you’re not likely to get it right anyway. Often you have to lose the individual battle to make sure that you win the war – if your conscience starts to tell you “you’re spending a lot of time on this problem” and you can’t see a direct path to the correct answer at that point, it’s wise to give up and strategically guess so that you save the time to work on problems that you can or should get right later.

3) Have a pacing plan – and make sure it comes with a Plan B.

One of the easiest ways – and a surprisingly common way – to waste time on the GMAT is to try to calculate your pace-per-question as you’re going through the test. Which is crazy if you think about it – if you’re that worried about how long you’re taking, why would you spend *extra* time doing additional math problems that don’t count? So have a pacing plan well before you enter the test center. For most, it will look similar to:

Quant Section
After question 10 you should have approximately 53 minutes left
After question 20, approximately 33 minutes left
After question 30, approximately 13 minutes left

Verbal Section
After question 10, approximately 56 minutes left
After question 20, approximately 37 minutes left
After question 30, approximately 18 minutes left

If you find that you have less than that amount left at any point, it’s certainly not time to panic, but it is time to start thinking of how you’ll earn that time back. And by a fair margin the better way to do it is NOT to start rushing (which leaves you vulnerable to silly mistakes on several problems) but rather to give yourself one “free pass” over that next set of 10 problems. There, if you see a problem that after 15-20 seconds just doesn’t look like it’s one you’d likely get right, then guess. That saves you the time and means that you’ll probably (but not definitely) get that problem wrong, but it also allows you to continue to be thorough on future problems and avoid those score-killing “leaky floor” mistakes.

Students often get in a hurry when they start to feel the pressure of the ticking clock, and that pressure and haste leads to multiple mistakes. If you strategically make one big mistake instead of several small ones, you’ll maximize the likelihood that that big mistake doesn’t matter (it’s on a crazy hard problem) because you’ve done the little things well enough to have earned monster problems that are assessing your ceiling.

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By Brian Galvin