Best GMAT Section Order: How Do I Choose?

by Target Test Prep, Sep 23, 2021

GMAT test-takers look to gain any edge they can to boost their scores (rightfully so), so it’s no wonder that students preparing for the GMAT often ask me how to choose the best GMAT section order to earn a high score.

In this article, we’ll explore your options for the order of sections on GMAT exams and consider various strategies related to GMAT section order and give you a simple and effective plan for choosing the section order that is right for you.

First, let’s review some of the nuts and bolts of GMAT section order, including how and when you’ll make your section order selection on test day.

An Introduction to Section Order Selection

Since 2017, GMAT test-takers have had 3 options for the order in which they see the 4 sections of the GMAT on test day. These options give test-takers the flexibility to tailor the test-taking experience, whether taking the online or in-person GMAT, to their skills and preferences. For some test-takers, GMAT section order is a key part of their test-taking strategy. For others, section order does not noticeably affect how they perform on the test. Since every test-taker is different, the impact of section order on a person’s test-day performance varies, and the best GMAT section order for one person may be the least preferred order for someone else. With that in mind, it’s essential to have a section order strategy in place before test day, so you can use the ability to choose your section order to your greatest advantage.

The other thing to keep in mind is that there is no magical section order that will produce a certain score or give you an automatic advantage over test-takers choosing another section order. In fact, before giving test-takers the option to choose their GMAT section order, the makers of the GMAT ran a pilot program to make sure that reordering the sections of the exam would not have a statistically significant impact on test-takers’ scores. After all, why would the test-makers offer a “cheat code” to students sitting for such a competitive exam? Choosing the default section order, for example, is not “preferred” by the test and therefore going to result in a higher score than “customizing” your GMAT section order would. So, choosing a section order for your GMAT is really about what is right for YOU.

Before we look at strategies for choosing the best GMAT section order for you, let’s review the 3 options you’ll be given on test day and the procedure for selecting your preferred order.

Choosing a section order for your GMAT is really about what is right for you.

The 3 Options for GMAT Section Order

As you may know, before you begin your in-person or online GMAT, you will navigate through some introductory screens on the computer. The Select Section Order screen is the final screen that you will see right before you start your exam. The 3 section orders you will be able to choose from are as follows:

GMAT Section Order Options

You will have 1 minute to choose your section order. If you do not make a selection within 1 minute, the default section order will be selected for you by the computer. So, this is yet another reason why it is so important to decide on your preferred section order before you sit for your GMAT. The last thing you want is to be scrambling to make a potentially score-altering decision as your exam is about to begin.

Keep in mind that since the Quant section is 62 minutes, the Verbal section is 65 minutes, and the AWA and IR sections are 30 minutes each, regardless of which section order you choose, essentially you will have an 8-minute optional break between every 1-hour stretch of test-taking.

Now, let’s take a look at some important questions that all test-takers should ask themselves when deciding what is the best GMAT section order for them.

How to Craft Your Section Order Strategy

Your GMAT section order strategy should take into account your test-taking style, your strengths and weaknesses related to GMAT content, and which sections your desired schools emphasize most when evaluating applicants. At the crossroads of those factors, you will find your ideal section order.

It’s important to be brutally honest with yourself when evaluating these factors. The more in tune you are with your test-taking habits and behaviors, and the more honestly and objectively you evaluate your strong and weak areas, the better equipped you will be to assess which section order plays to your strengths.

So, let’s take a look at some key questions to ask yourself related to each of these factors.

Know Your Test-taking Style

The following 6 questions will help you to evaluate your test-taking style:

  1. Do I tend to get fatigued at a certain point during the exam? Am I exhausted by the time I reach the last section? Do I experience a mid-exam slump?
  2. Does my mind feel fresher at the start of the exam or after I’ve had some time to “warm up”?
  3. Do I tend to feel more anxious at the start of the exam and calmer as I get “into the groove” of answering questions?
  4. Do I feel antsy or distracted toward the end of the exam, knowing that I’m almost finished or wondering how well I’ve performed?
  5. Do I feel particularly refreshed or energized after the first break? After each break?
  6. Am I better able to focus on the rest of the exam when I get “the hard stuff” over with first, or does completing easier sections first give me more confidence to tackle harder sections?

You may find that some of the issues raised by these questions don’t really apply to you or that some feature much more prominently in your test-taking experience than others. The point is when studying for the GMAT and after taking practice exams, you want to evaluate not only your grasp of GMAT content and time-management skills, but also your mood, mindset, energy level, and ability to focus when solving different types of GMAT problems (just don’t attempt to evaluate those things during a practice test — concentrate on finding right answers to the questions in front of you!).

I’ll discuss using practice tests to help determine the best section order for you in detail shortly. For now, let’s look at how your GMAT strengths and weaknesses may affect your section order strategy.

Know Your GMAT Strengths and Weaknesses

Ask yourself these 4 questions when evaluating your GMAT strengths and weaknesses:

  1. In which section am I generally strongest?
  2. In which section am I generally weakest?
  3. Do I tend to perform about equally well in Quant and Verbal, or do I consistently perform better in one of those sections?
  4. Which section do I feel most nervous about completing? Least nervous?

Again, you must be as objective and honest with yourself as possible when evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. In what sections do you tend to require the greatest effort and the clearest thinking in order to correctly answer questions? Are you really as rock solid in Quant as you think you are, or have you been stumbling onto correct answers? Do you need to be laser focused and completely mentally alert to wade through Reading Comprehension passages, or are you such a practiced and efficient reader that you actually find them enjoyable?

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