So you’ve been told over and over that guessing is an important part of the GMAT. But knowing you’re supposed to guess and knowing when you’re supposed to guess are two very different things. Here are a few guidelines for how to decide when to guess.
But first, know that there are two kinds of guesses: random guesses and educated guesses. Both have their place on the GMAT. Random guesses are best for the questions that are so tough, that you don’t even know where to get started. Educated guesses, on the other hand, are useful when you’ve made at least some progress, but aren’t going to get all the way to an answer in time.
Here are a few different scenarios that should end in a guess.
Scenario 1: I’ve read the question twice, and I have no idea what it’s asking.
This one is pretty straightforward. Don’t worry about whether the question is objectively easy or difficult. If it’s too hard for you, it’s not worth doing. In fact, it’s so not worth doing that it’s not even worth your time narrowing down answer choices to make an educated guess. In fact, if it’s that difficult, it may even be better for you to get it wrong!
To make the most of your random guesses, you should use the same answer choice every time. The difference is slight, but it does up your odds of getting some of these random guess right.
Scenario 2: I had a plan, but I hit a wall.
Often, when this happens, you haven’t yet spent 2 minutes on the problem. So why guess? Maybe now you have a better plan for how to get to the answer. I know this is hard to hear, but don’t do it! To stay on pace for the entire section, you have to stay disciplined and that means that you only have one chance to get each question right.
The good news is that no 1 question you get wrong will kill your score. But, 1 question can really hurt your score if you spend too long on it! Once you realize that your plan didn’t work, it’s time to make an educated guess. You’ve already spent more than a minute on this question (hopefully not more than 2!), and you probably have some sense of which answers are more likely to be right. Take another 15 seconds (no more!) and make your best educated guess.
Scenario 3: I got an answer, but it doesn’t match any of the answer choices.
This is another painful one, but it’s an almost identical situation to Scenario 2. It means you either made a calculation error somewhere along the way, or you set the problem up incorrectly to begin with. In an untimed setting, both of these problems would have the same solution: go back over your work and find the mistake. On the GMAT, however, that process is too time-consuming. Plus, even once you find your mistake, you still have to redo all the work!
Once again, though it might hurt, it’s still in your best interest to let the question go. If you can narrow down the answer choices, great (though don’t spend longer than 15 or 20 seconds doing so). If not, don’t worry about it. Just make a random guess and vow to be more careful on the next one (and all the rest after that!).
Scenario 4: I checked my pacing chart and I’m more than 2 minutes behind.
Pacing problems are best dealt with early. If you’re more than 2 minutes behind, don’t wait until another 5 questions have passed and you realize you’re 5 minutes behind. At this point, you want to find a question in the next 5 that you can guess randomly on. The quicker you can identify a good candidate to skip, the more time you can make up.
This is another scenario where random guessing is best. Educated guessing takes time, and we’re trying to save as much time as possible. Look for questions that take a long time to read, or that deal with topics you’re not as strong in, but most importantly, just make the decision and pick up the time.
Remember, this test is not like high school exams; it’s not designed to have every question answered. This test is about consistency on questions you know how to do. Knowing when to get out of a question is one of the most fundamental parts of a good score. The better you are at limiting time spent on really difficult questions, the more time you have to answer questions you know how to do.