Timing Strategy for GMAT Verbal

by Target Test Prep, Sep 30, 2021

Because of the variety of question types in the Verbal section of the GMAT, pacing on the GMAT Verbal section is not quite as straightforward as pacing on the Quant section. I hear from students all the time who are concerned about how to properly divvy up their limited Verbal time between Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, and Reading Comprehension questions.

In this article, I’ll give you concrete strategies for pacing yourself through each Verbal question type and the Verbal section as a whole, tips for practicing your GMAT Verbal timing strategy, and advice for avoiding the most common pacing errors that test-takers make on GMAT Verbal.

First, let’s talk about how the structure of the GMAT Verbal section will influence your pacing strategy.

Pacing and the GMAT Verbal Section Structure

The GMAT Verbal section is made up of 36 questions that you have a total of 65 minutes to complete. Those 36 questions will be divided about evenly among Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, and Reading Comprehension — in other words, each question type will make up roughly 1/3 of the questions you see (give or take).

Of course, you won’t divide your time equally among the three question types because, as we know, Verbal questions vary significantly in length. For instance, reading an RC passage and answering its first question is going to take you longer than answering a typical SC question.

The important takeaway is that, while a simple calculation of 65 minutes / 36 questions = 1.8 minutes per question (or about 108 seconds) isn’t going to yield an effective pacing strategy for the GMAT Verbal section, you can allocate your time in a way such that the scale balances out at the end. So, let’s talk about how to do just that.

GMAT Verbal Time-Management by Question Type

On average, you can expect to spend the least amount of time on Sentence Correction questions, the greatest amount of time on Reading Comprehension questions, and an amount of time that lands somewhere in the middle on Critical Reasoning questions.

Does that general trend indicate that you will never encounter a Critical Reasoning question that you can answer in less time than your average Sentence Correction question, or a Sentence Correction question that takes you longer than your average Critical Reasoning question? Not at all. In fact, it’s quite possible that you’ll encounter those scenarios once or twice on any given GMAT.

Looking at our baseline average per-question time of 1.8 minutes, generally speaking, test-takers tend to take just under that average time for each SC question, around that average time for each CR question, and more than that average time for each RC question. However, since some questions are more difficult than others, some passages are longer than others, etc., even within each question type, your time per question will vary. Thus, it’s necessary to plan your pacing for each question type using a range of minutes, rather than one fixed number.

So, let’s talk about what that range should be for each of the Verbal question types, starting with Sentence Correction.

Sentence Correction

General Per-Question Time Range: 30 seconds to 3 minutes
Time for Most Questions: 1 to 1.5 minutes

If you are well-prepared for GMAT Sentence Correction, you can expect to spend a minute and a half or less on most SC questions. Some of the easiest SC questions you encounter may take you only 20 or 30 seconds to answer, while more difficult questions could take you 2 to 3 minutes to complete.

There may even be a time or two when you encounter a really difficult SC question that you need 4 minutes to answer. Now, that would be a relatively rare scenario, but the point is, not every single SC question you encounter is going to fall within the 30 second to 3 minute range. You want to use these ranges as a gauge for whether you are generally pacing yourself in a way that will allow you to complete the Verbal section, not as strict cut-off points. If you are seconds away from answering a tricky SC question and the clock ticks past the 3-minute mark, that is not your cue to automatically cut and run. In fact, you should keep this general principle in mind for all GMAT questions, not just SC questions and not just Verbal questions.

Likewise, if you find the answer to an SC question in 15 seconds, don’t assume that you must not have the correct answer because you didn’t spend “the minimum” 30 seconds on the question. There is no minimum amount of time you must spend on an SC question in order to find the right answer. As long as you are working methodically through each question and doing everything you need to do to find the right answer, if you can correctly answer an SC question in less than 30 seconds, great! Chances are, you will need the time you saved to answer a more difficult question later on.

Now, what if you find that you’re consistently at the top of the general time range when answering SC questions, say you typically need 2.5 to 3 minutes per question? Or maybe you’re unable to correctly answer SC questions in less than 2 minutes, regardless of difficulty level? In those cases, you very likely need to spend more time honing your SC skills before you sit for the GMAT. As I’ll discuss more later, a lack of speed is usually indicative of a lack of knowledge or skill. So if you haven’t truly mastered all of the concepts and techniques associated with GMAT Sentence Correction, you’ll probably see that reflected in the amount of time you need to correctly answer SC questions (in addition to achieving lackluster accuracy).

Critical Reasoning

General Per-Question Time Range: 1 to 4 minutes
Time for Most Questions: 1.5 to 2 minutes

For Critical Reasoning questions, a smart strategy is to plan to spend about 1.5 to 2 minutes on each question. However, be aware that some of the more difficult CR questions may take you up to 3 or 4 minutes to solve.

Remember, you’ll spend well under that baseline average of 1.8 minutes on plenty of SC questions, so taking 3 to 4 minutes to muscle through some tough CR questions is perfectly all right — and to be expected. You want to take the time you need to answer difficult questions because those are the very questions that will help significantly drive up your GMAT score.

That said, as with Sentence Correction, if you find that you consistently need 4 minutes to answer CR questions, or that you’re unable to ever correctly answer them in that 1.5 to 2-minute range, chances are you may need to spend more time brushing up on CR concepts and strategies before you sit for your exam.

Reading Comprehension

General Per-Passage Time Range (incl. questions): 3 to 9 minutes
Time for Most Short Passages (incl. questions): 4 to 5 minutes
Time for Most Long Questions (incl. questions): 6 to 8 minutes

The “common wisdom” in GMAT circles is that test-takers should spend 1 minute per paragraph reading an RC passage and 1 minute answering each question associated with that passage. Sounds pretty simple, right? Unfortunately, the first half of that equation doesn’t take into account that paragraphs in RC passages can vary pretty widely in length, regardless of whether you’re dealing with a short passage or a long one.

For example, one paragraph in an RC passage could be just 40 words long and another could be 260 words. Would you spend the same amount of time, 1 minute, reading each of those paragraphs? So, while the 1-minute rule of thumb does make sense for answering each question associated with a passage, it isn’t a wise strategy to shoot for a 1-minute reading time for every paragraph you encounter in RC passages, since the word count of RC paragraphs varies substantially.

To illustrate this point, let’s game out some scenarios. First, let’s look at a couple of scenarios involving short RC passages.

1-Paragraph Short Passage

You are presented with a short RC passage that features 1 paragraph consisting of 215 words, and you take approximately 1 minute and 45 seconds to read that paragraph. You then answer 2 questions about the passage, taking about 1 minute per question.

Total Time: 3.75 minutes

3-Paragraph Short Passage

You are presented with a short RC passage that features 3 paragraphs consisting of about 70 words each, for a total of 210 words. You take approximately 40 seconds to read each paragraph, for a total of 120 seconds or 2 minutes of reading time. You then answer 3 questions about the passage, taking about 1 minute and 15 seconds to answer the first question and 45 seconds to answer the second question, and 1 minute to answer the third.

Total Time: 5 minutes

Notice that the total word count for both of the passages in our examples above was about the same, and thus the time spent reading each passage was similar, despite that fact that the first passage was only 1 paragraph long and the second passage was 3 paragraphs long.

Let’s look now at a couple of scenarios involving long RC passages.

2-Paragraph Long Passage

You are presented with a long RC passage that features 2 paragraphs consisting of about 180 words each, for a total of 360 words. You take approximately 1.5 minutes to read each paragraph, for a total of 3 minutes of reading time. You then answer 3 questions about the passage, taking about 1 minute to answer each question.

Total Time: 6 minutes

4-Paragraph Long Passage

You are presented with a long RC passage that features 4 paragraphs consisting of about 95 words each, for a total of 380 words. You spend approximately 45 seconds reading each paragraph, for a total of 180 seconds or 3 minutes of reading time. You then answer 4 questions about the passage, taking about 1 minute to answer each question.

Total Time: 7 minutes

Notice again that, although the first long passage above consisted of just 2 paragraphs and the second consisted of 4, the word counts of the passages were similar (360 vs. 380), and thus the reading time was the same for both passages (about 3 minutes).

Notice also that the 4-paragraph passage took less than 4 minutes to read, and the 2-paragraph passage took more than 2 minutes to read. There was not a 1:1 relationship between number of paragraphs and number of minutes to read the passage. While that ratio could very well play out in some cases, there is no rule that it must.

Of course, you’re not going to be counting words as you’re reading RC passages in order to gauge your time during the GMAT. However, you will be able to eyeball RC passages and get some sense of whether you’re, for example, spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get through what look like relatively short paragraphs in a passage.

You’ll also have the comfort of knowing that, if you’re faced with, for example, a long passage featuring 3 paragraphs that all look fairly long, you don’t have to start panicking if you need longer than 3 minutes to read the passage.

As you practice with more and more RC questions, your sense of what an appropriate amount of time is to read passages of different lengths will become more finely tuned, though keep in mind, there is no exact science for how long passages of different lengths will take you to read. After all, every passage covers a different topic, and some passages will be denser than others. This is yet another reason why it’s important to think of your RC pacing in terms of ranges of time, rather than fixed numbers.

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