Pacing yourself properly is one of the keys to success at the GMAT, and there are many elements in the pacing equation. For example, the speed at which you work, the time you allot per question, and the degree to which you adjust these depending where you are in the exam are all important. One of the most important things you need to do, however, is train yourself to overcome the sunk cost fallacy. A failure to do so is one of the main reasons that people run out of time on the GMAT.
So what is the sunk cost fallacy and how does it apply to the GMAT? Most important, how do you overcome it?
What Is the Sunk Cost Fallacy?
A sunk cost is money, time, or effort that has already been spent and is thus unrecoverable. Because it is unrecoverable it should not be a factor in making decisions about the future. For example, let’s say you bought a (non-refundable) ticket to Phantom of the Opera. When the night of the show comes around you receive a dinner invitation from friends and realize you’d really much rather have dinner at your friends’ house than go to the show. If you go to the show anyway because you already bought the ticket and don’t want to waste the money, you’ve committed the sunk cost fallacy. That money was already gone and nothing was going to put it back in your pocket. You should have done the thing that gave more pleasure — in this case dinner with friends. Now you’re out the money and the more enjoyable experience you could have had. So how does this apply to the GMAT?
You’ve probably noticed that it’s hard to let go of a question on the GMAT once you’ve started working on it, and the longer you work the harder it gets. You become invested in the question and it’s psychologically difficult to give up and guess even if you realize that you’re not making any progress. Some part of you is thinking, “If I give up now, then all that time I just spent was wasted. I need to get to an answer to make this investment of time pay off.” This is the sunk cost fallacy speaking. Any time you’ve spent on a question — whether it’s 30 seconds or 3 minutes — is time that can never be recovered. It’s gone. The only thing you should ever be thinking about in these situations is, “What is the best use of my time right now?” Sometimes the answer will be that you should keep working because you’re almost at the solution. But much of the time the answer will be that you should cut your losses, take an intelligent guess, and move on. If it was a mistake to spend this much time on the question, don’t compound the mistake by spending even more time, especially since these questions are the ones you’re least likely to get right. After all, why do you think you spent so much time banging your head against the question in the first place? Because it’s too hard for you! On an adaptive test some of the questions are going to be too hard. That’s just how it works, unless you’re capable of achieving a near-perfect score.
How to Overcome the Sunk Cost Fallacy
So what are some things you can do to help overcome the sunk cost fallacy and make it easier to let go of questions?
1) Remember the experimental questions
Let’s recall that approximately one quarter of the questions on the GMAT are experimental and don’t count toward your score in any way. One way to help yourself let go of a question that’s taking too long is to consider that it might be experimental. The ultimate waste of time is spending time on a question that won’t affect your score at all even if you do get it right.
2) Think about the questions you won’t get to
Instead of focusing on the pain of having wasted time on this question, think about the pain of running out of time and not getting to other questions at all, especially questions that might have been better suited to you and might actually have earned you points.
3) Accept that some wasted time is inevitable
No one can take the GMAT with perfect efficiency. It’s just not possible to spend all 150 minutes of multiple-choice testing time in a time-optimum way. Some number of those minutes are going to be spent working on questions that, in retrospect, you’ll wish you’d left alone or guessed on much earlier. Of course you want to minimize wasted time, and part of your preparation is learning to identify which questions are worth your time and which aren’t. But it’s easier to accept that you’ve wasted time on a question, and let it go, if you go into the test knowing that this is guaranteed to happen sometimes. Think of it like a machine. There’s no perfectly efficient machine either. You’ll always have some heat and energy loss due to friction. Some “lost minutes” are the unavoidable friction of the GMAT.
If you keep these things in mind you’ll find it easier to overcome the sunk-cost fallacy, and refrain from throwing good time after bad.