Everything You Need To Know About Time Management, Part 1

by on July 26th, 2012

I haven’t picked too ambitious a title there, have I? Let’s see how we do! This article is an update of one that was originally published a couple of years ago; the main addition here is Integrated Reasoning, but I’ve also tweaked some of the strategies. If you’ve seen the old version, it’s probably still worth skimming this new one.

Also, this two-part article includes 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 information 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:

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!).

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 OG Archer 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:

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 OG Archer, 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 OG Archer, you can see this aggregate data on the Statistics tab (in Table or Graph format).

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; keep an eye out 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.


  • Hello Madam

    In my GMAT, I could not complete a few questions in quants, around 4 of them (could not even put guess ticks) and finally saw my score at 36. How much you feel not completing the test would have penalised me?

    • It varies depending on the details of the test, but not answering a question can lop off up to 3 percentile points per question. Not completing 4 questions might have dropped you 10 to 12 percentile points - a significant difference, in other words.

  • Hi Stacey,
    i tend to lose concentration as i progress in each section and that forces me to make stupid mistakes. e.g. in quant, i calculated value of X and marked it but i was asked value of 3X. in SC, i could not recognize main clause as there were many modifiers. in RC, my mind and eyes were glazed and fazed while i was reading and that led to lesser comprehension and incorrect answer. When i revised these question, i did all of them correctly in less than average time limit. However,on test,  i did them incorrectly and take more than average time.
    I know it might be stupid to ask what should i do to *NOT* to make those mistakes because simple answer to that is "try to concentrate" :) . however, since you have so much experience and must have seen students like me, i know you will have an advice better than the obvious one :)

    • It's not stupid to ask at all - it's a very good question.

      First, in general, you are of course going to get more and more mentally fatigued as you progress through a CAT. We all do. Second, you are going to make some careless mistakes over a 3.5 hour period - again, we all do.

      The key is to set up habits that will help us remain as mentally alert as possible and that will help minimize careless mistakes.

      Step 1 is to figure out what mistake you made and why. I don't mean, "I was tired." I mean: I was supposed to solve for 3X, but I solved for X because that's the "normal" way we were all conditioned to solve a problem, and I didn't have any mechanism set up to remind myself that I needed 3X, not X."

      And then you set up that reminder mechanism. This is what I do: when I'm writing every down, I skip a few lines, then write 3X = ______? with a big circle around it. Then I go back up to do the work and, when I'm done, I run right into my pre-set reminder.

      Another thing you could do is get in the habit of: (1) solving, (2) glancing at the question stem on the screen BEFORE picking the answer to confirm you've solved for the right thing, (3) picking your answer.

      Or you might come up with something else entirely. The point is that, because I solved for the wrong thing, I need to set up a "reminder" step at some point to help me avoid making the same mistake again.

      Next, to deal with the mental fatigue, think about all of the ways in which you can minimize the number of decisions you need to make throughout a test. Read this article for some examples and some ideas about what to do:

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