Everything You Need To Know About Time Management (Part 1)

Stacey Koprince —  July 25, 2012 — 18 Comments

I haven’t picked too ambitious a title there, have I? Let’s see how we do!

gmat time managementFirst, just a note: these two articles are long and have a lot of detail. You aren’t going to be able to remember everything and start incorporating it right away; instead, you’re going to keep coming back to this article as you get further into your studies. Bookmark this right now so that you can find it again easily in future.

Time management is obviously an essential GMAT skill, and one of the (many!) skills we need for this test is the ability to maintain an appropriate time position. Time position refers to the relationship between the test taker’s position on the test (the question number) and the time that has elapsed to get to that point in the section.

For example, if I’ve just finished quant question #5 and 15 minutes have elapsed so far, am I ahead, behind, or on time? Use this chart to help you decide:

Positive ahead of time (3 minutes ahead)
Neutral on time (+/- 3 minutes)
Negative behind on time (>3 minutes behind)

I would be behind on time because, on quant, we’re expected to average about 2 minutes per question. After 5 questions, only 10 minutes should have elapsed “ so I am 5 minutes behind, putting me in a negative time position.

It’s more common to find ourselves in the negative position and that really hurts our scoring chances. If we run out of time before completing the section, we’re going to incur a huge penalty because either we’ll answer a bunch of questions incorrectly in a row (random guessing just to finish on time) or we’ll leave questions blank (and that incurs an even higher penalty than the first scenario).

It can also be very problematic to be too far in the positive position, though. If you’re answering many or most questions way too quickly, then you’re also likely making a lot of careless mistakes, and that will kill your score by the end of the test.

Ideally, we’d like to remain neutral throughout the test, which means that we stay within two to three minutes of the expected time. Sometimes, though, we’re going to get off track. So how do we remain neutral as much as possible? And when we do get into a positive or negative position, how do we get back on track? That’s what we’re going to discuss in this series.

(1) Understand how the scoring works

If you don’t understand how the scoring works, you’re probably going to mess up your timing.

(A) Everyone gets a lot of questions wrong, no matter the scoring level; that’s just how the test works. Pretend you’re playing tennis. You don’t expect to win every point, right? That’d be silly. You just want to win more points than your opponent (the computer)!

(B) Getting an easier question wrong hurts your score more than getting a harder question wrong. In fact, the easier the question, relative to your overall score at that point, the more damage to your score if you get the question wrong. (Note: it is still very possible to get the score you want even if you make mistakes on a few of the easier questions.)

(C) Missing three or four questions in a row hurts your score more, on a per-question basis, than getting the same number of questions wrong but having them interspersed with correct answers. In other words, the effective per-question penalty actually increases as you have more questions wrong in a row. This, of course, is exactly what happens to someone who maintains a negative time position on the test; even if you notice and try to catch up toward the end, you’re likely to end up with a string of wrong answers in a row.

(D) The largest penalty of all is reserved for not finishing the test “ another possible consequence of maintaining a negative time position.

(2) Know your per-question time constraints and track your work

When practicing GMAT-format problems, ALWAYS keep track of the time for each question, whether you are doing one problem at a time or a set of problems at once. (Note: GMAT-format means questions that are in the same format as one of the official GMAT question types. If you are doing other type of problems “ say, math drills “ you do not need to time yourself.)

Save this chart somewhere (don’t worry, you don’t need to memorize it now!).

Question Type Average timing Min and Max
Quant 2 minutes 1 minute; 2.5 minutes
Sentence Correction 1 minute 15 seconds 30 seconds; 2 minutes
Critical Reasoning 2 minutes 1 minute; 2.5 minutes
Reading Comp: Reading 2 to 3 minutes 1.5 minutes; 3.5 minutes
Reading Comp General Questions 1 minute 30 seconds; 1 minute 30 seconds
Reading Comp Specific Questions 1.5 minutes 45 seconds; 2 minutes
Integrated Reasoning 2.5 minutes 1 minute; 3 minutes

So what does that all mean? If we want to finish the section on time, then we have to hit the average expected timing. At the same time, averages are only averages “ you’re going to have some faster questions and some slower ones.  The Min and Max numbers reflect a different consideration. First, I want to make sure that I’m generally spending enough time on questions that I don’t make a bunch of careless mistakes simply due to speed. On the flip side, if I’m spending more than about 30 seconds above the expected average, the chances are very good that the question is just too hard for me (and, if that’s the case, I’ve already spent too much time!).

Keep a time log that reflects the time spent on EVERY problem. (Note: if you have access to ManhattanGMAT’s GMAT Navigator tracking program, use it to time yourself and keep track of all of your data.) If you make your own log, it might look like a rough version of this:

Q Type Source Benchmark Time Spent Time Position
DS OG12 #43 2 min 2 min 10 sec -10
SC OG12 #62 1 min 15 sec 1 min +15
RC reading OG 12 passage #3 3 min 3 min 43 sec -43

On the Data Sufficiency question, the test taker had a negative 10 second position; on the Sentence Correction question, the test taker had a positive 15 second position, and so on. Group the question types together (so, instead of mixing types as the above chart does, keep one log for Data Sufficiency questions, a separate log for Sentence Correction questions, and so on). Highlight questions on which you fell outside of the Min / Max time range.

If you use GMAT Navigator, note that the timing data will be saved for you automatically, but you’ll still have to keep track of which questions fall outside of the Min / Max time range. Click on the Review Your Answers link to view a list of the problems, and record the too fast and too slow problems in a log of your own (or simply count them up to get a sense of where you are too fast or too slow).

(3) Reflect on your results

The log will make you aware of your pacing on a single-problem level, and will force you to consider the time as you work through a practice problem. Aggregate the data to determine those question types that are generally costing you time (a significantly negative time position overall) and those that are buying you time (a significantly positive time position overall). If you’re using GMAT Navigator, you can see this aggregate data on the Statistics tab (in Table or Graph format).

one way to manage time on the gmat...Next, note whether you’re getting the negative position questions right or wrong (across the various categories “ for example, Rate problems or Modifier SCs). For those that you’re answering correctly, ask yourself: how can I become more efficient when answering questions of this type? For those that you’re answering incorrectly, the initial question is simply: how can I get this wrong faster? (I’m getting it wrong anyway “ so if I can get it wrong faster, then at least I won’t be hurting myself on other questions in the same section.)

How do you get things wrong faster? Well, I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but what I really mean is: do NOT spend extra time on these questions (wrong and slow) no matter what. You may be able to learn how to make a decent educated guess “ and you should certainly try! Longer term, you may then decide to study that particular area / topic more closely in order to try to get better.

Also notice those questions that are buying you time (a significantly positive time position overall). First, make sure that you are not making many careless mistakes with these; working quickly is never a positive thing if you sacrifice a question that you were capable of answering correctly. You may actually need to slow down on some of these in order to minimize your careless mistakes.

If you do find areas that are both highly accurate and very efficient, excellent; these are your strengths and you should be very aware of those while taking the test. For instance, if you discover that you’re in a negative time position, you should still take your normal amount of time to answer any strength questions; don’t sacrifice the ones you can answer correctly! Instead, make a random guess on the next weakness question that you see in order to get yourself back to a neutral position.

Okay, that’s all for today, but you aren’t done yet! Click here for part 2, where we’ll discuss developing your 1 minute sense, using benchmarks to track your time throughout a test section, and what to do if you find yourself too far ahead or behind during the test.

Stacey Koprince

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Stacey Koprince is an Instructor and Trainer as well as the Director of Online Community for Manhattan Prep. She's also a management consultant who specializes in corporate strategy. She has been teaching various standardized tests for more than fifteen years and her entire teaching philosophy can be summed up in five words: teaching students how to think.

18 responses to Everything You Need To Know About Time Management (Part 1)

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