GMAT Reading Comprehension: Timing is Everything

by on November 8th, 2012

PocketwatchWritten by Stephanie Wertkin.

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Timing is everything.

In business: Did you buy or sell when the price peaked? In relationships: Did you meet a guy just when he was getting out of a long-term relationship? In science: Did you publish an article on the heels of similar research?

The GMAT is no different. Timing — and an understanding of how best to pace yourself on the test — can potentially impact your score by up to 100 points. Here’s how to make sure you’re a master of timing on the Reading Comp section.

Computer Adaptive Tests (CATs) have time constraints beyond what you may be used to from taking other standardized tests. Namely:

  • You can’t go back. If you finish a section early you cannot return to previous questions to double check your answer.
  • You can’t skip a question and plan to return to it later. You have to pick an answer choice (or guess) and move right along.
  • You are penalized more for unanswered questions than for questions you get wrong.

For many test-takers, the clock in the corner of the screen is a constant source of concern while taking the GMAT. “How much time should I spend on this question? At what point should I just guess and move on? How much time can be sacrificed per question if it means getting the right answer?”

Don’t let stress over the clock have a negative impact on your confidence or your GMAT score! You do not want the time crunch to take focus away from answering the questions correctly.

Consistently practicing time management skills will allow you to become more comfortable with this aspect of the test and refocus your energy on reasoning skills necessary to pick the correct answer choice.

At Knewton we recommend spending around 6 minutes on a reading comprehension passage with 3 questions, and around 8 minutes on a passage with 4 questions.

In 2-3 minutes you need to read the passage carefully, absorb the information, and take notes.

During your GMAT prep, put yourself on the clock. Start getting used to reading a passage in 2 minutes (if the passage is between 25 and 40 lines) or 3 minutes (if the passage is more than 40 lines). After your time is up, force yourself to move on to the questions. For each question, time yourself once again. After 1 minute 30 seconds has passed, force yourself to choose an answer, even if you’re guessing.

While practicing pacing skills, you can return to the questions later and see if you would choose the same answer if you had unlimited time. As you continue to practice, the answers you choose in the time constraint situation should more and more begin to mirror what you would choose if allowed unlimited time.

My high school basketball coach used to say, “Practice makes permanent.” Why didn’t he say “Practice makes perfect?” If you continue to practice for the GMAT without forcing yourself to pay attention to time constraints, you may get really good at answering questions — you might even get close to perfect. But you would be practicing wrong! “Practice, Practice, Practice” only works if you are practicing the right way. And on the GMAT, time matters!

Start getting used to spending 6-8 minutes reading and answering questions for a passage and it will become easier to work with the time you have without feeling pressured.

One more note: be mindful not to focus exclusively on pacing too early in your study preparation. First, focus on developing the skills necessary to pick the right answer in the Reading Comprehension section. Then, practice applying these skills in a timed environment.


  • Please dont get me wrong but
    summary of this whole article seems to be "time is very important is GMAT RC"...
    does it require restating or highlighting...

    to be frank i think not...not only in RC in every GMAT question time management is important...

    The problem is "how to manage it" not knowing "time management is important"
    more over 6 minutes for 3 questions and 8 minutes for 4 question ...that seems to be clear mathematical calculation....if the article would have said may be 3 minutes for reading 1 minutes for "main objectiive of the passage"...another 1 minute for specfic type of question as a reader i would have been more happy....

    so,all in all,i am confused about real motive of writing this article

    no offence
    just what i felt after reading it with the hope that i will get some time saving tricks...or time management tricks

    • Hi Frank,

      Thanks for the feedback. We try to post tips for people at various stages in their preparation, so you're right that this one's more of an introduction to timing in the RC section (i.e., how much time you should be spending on passages of different lengths). When you're starting to dive into your GMAT studies, it's good to simply be reminded that some of your practice should be "on the clock."

      I like that idea for a more detailed breakdown of how much time to spend on each part of the reading process. We'll keep that mind for next time...


  • As said earlier please dont take it otherwise...
    your effort is really praise worthy....

    May be i wrote those:
    i was excepting much better techniques and tricks(considering your caliber,name and fame)
    and may be it was out of my frustation as well coz there was huge difference what i expected and what has been provided....

    any ways look forward to see better article in future as well.Keep up good work
    thank you

  • I have a question:
    In your article you say to take time in the beginning, read the passage and take notes. I have heard many times though that it is better to read the question first, skim the text for what is being asked and answer accordingly...
    Is there a "best practice" here, does it vary according to the question type or is it an individual preference?

    Thanks for an answer in advance!


    • Hi jackhero,

      Great question. We do recommend reading the passage first, as opposed to tackling the questions one at a time and scanning the passage as needed.

      The "read the question then skim" approach might work for detail questions -- where you're dealing with particular lines or isolated ideas -- but for global questions you'll need to take the passage as a whole into account.

      If the first two questions ask you about the role of a statement in the passage or the meaning of a word in context, your ability to answer will be much better informed if you have an understanding of the passage in general. If the third or fourth question then ask you about the tone, purpose, or main idea, you can answer without going back and reading the entire passage again.

      Ultimately, it saves time to read the passage before working on the questions. That said, it's not a bad idea to look at the very first question that appears on the screen when you get to a passage, since it will probably reduce answer time for that particular question.

      Hope that helps!


    • bravo!

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