The majority of students preparing for the GMAT will spend hours reviewing math concepts, grammar rules, critical reasoning arguments, and reading comprehension passages. While content mastery is critical for success on the GMAT, it often comes at the expense of one of the most important, yet most under-practiced, skills necessary for high GMAT scores: time management.

Effective time management is essential for two reasons:

(1) The GMAT scoring algorithm makes severe deductions for unanswered questions. Poor time management usually leads to random guessing and, even worse, unanswered questions at the ends of sections. Because of the way the GMAT scoring algorithm works, random guessing and omitting questions can have a serious negative impact on scores.

Consider the following illustration, which uses real numbers. Test takers John, Jane, and Dave are of equal ability. John has poorly managed his time and is forced to leave a number of questions blank at the end of the section. Jane has a bit more time at the end and manages to guess randomly on the last few questions. Dave, however, has managed his time well and is able to spend the appropriate amount of time on all questions:

    41 Question SectionScore (%)
John36 answered / 5 left blank29%
Jane36 answered / 5 random guesses43%
Dave41 answered / 0 random guesses55%

All other things being equal, effective time management has given Dave a 26 percentile point boost!

(2) Getting a handle on time management gives the test taker a psychological advantage. The dreaded GMAT clock, always ticking in the corner of the screen (or ticking in the back of the test taker's mind if she decides to hide the clock display during the exam), is a major source of anxiety for most test takers. Should I spend more time on this problem? Should I just guess and move on? Am I going to be able to finish if I keep working on this problem? For many students, this hypersensitivity to the clock can have a negative impact on confidence, and can certainly take energy and focus away from the question at hand. This is common. However, familiarity with the key elements of time management can relieve these anxieties, and consistent time management practice can actually turn the clock to the test taker's advantage.

So, if time management is so important, how does one become an effective time manager? The prevailing belief held by most test takers is that time management will sort itself out on test day. I'll keep an eye on the clock, or I'll be sure not to spend too much time on any given problem. While this sounds okay in theory, this mindset doesn't make a whole lot of sense from a practical perspective. Imagine a football quarterback deciding he doesn't need to practice managing the clock for the 2-minute offense, or a speaker deciding she'll be able to effectively manage the pacing of an important presentation without rehearsing ahead of time. In the heat of the game, in the midst of the speech, or in the waning minutes of the GMAT exam, the confluence of anxiety and pressure is enough to throw the under-rehearsed athlete, presenter, or test taker out of synch. Just as with any skill worth learning, time management requires some thought and some practice.

Rehearsing the following three skills will lead to better time awareness, and ultimately more effective time management:

  1. Maintaining a Positive Time Position (am I ahead, behind, or right on track?)
    What is a positive time position and how do I make sure I can achieve this on test day?
  2. Determining Your Payoff Ratio
    Should I spend the extra 30 seconds on that difficult data sufficiency question? How about an extra minute on that tough critical reasoning question? Will the extra time pay off?
  3. Using Quick Elimination Strategies
    When I do find myself in time-short situations, how can I dig myself out?

This strategy series will address the three time management elements listed above.

Maintaining a Positive Time Position

Time position refers to the relationship between the test taker's position (question number) and time elapsed for the section. Two test takers' time positions (using the quantitative section of the GMAT as an example, 37 questions, 75 minutes) are illustrated below:


The dashed line represents the benchmark time position for the quantitative section of the GMAT. This benchmark is calculated by taking the total time and dividing it by the total number of questions on the section (75 min / 37 questions = approximately 2 min/question). The green test taker is working at a pace above the benchmark (positive time position) and is able to complete all questions in the section. After 15 minutes, she has completed 9 questions, after 30 minutes she has completed 18 questions, and so forth. The red test taker is working at a rate below the benchmark (negative time position). Maintaining a positive time position is obviously important for completing the entire section in the allotted time. In this case, the red test taker has fallen behind the benchmark pace and is only able to finish 33 out of the 37 quantitative questions. As was discussed in the previous edition of this strategy series, this test taker will incur severe penalties for leaving questions blank.

For some, maintaining a positive time position comes naturally. However, for most of us, the time pressure is too tight, and the stakes too high, to ignore. So, how does one work out of the red zone and into the green? Collect data, reflect, and transition.

When practicing GMAT problems, ALWAYS keep track of the time. Try to work within the following time constraints for any individual problem:

Quantitative: 2 minutes
Sentence Correction: 1 minute 15 seconds
Critical Reasoning: 2 minutes
Reading Comprehension: 6 min / 3 question passage, 8 min / 4 question passage, etc.

Keep a time log that reflects the time spent on EVERY problem. A time log might look like a rough version of this:

Question TypeBenchmarkTime SpentTime Position
Data Sufficiency2 min2 min 10 secNegative by 10 sec
Sentence Correction1 min15 sec1 min Positive by 15 sec
Reading Comp6 min5 min 30 secPositive by 30 sec

More than anything, this 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. In addition to highlighting those question types that are costing you time (data sufficiency in this case) and those that are buying you time (sentence correction and reading comp in this case), the time log tears the mask off the scary clock. In other words, once you know how much time you're spending on a problem, you will be less anxious about it. Less time anxiety means more focus on the content of the question at hand.

At this point, a common response from students is, Okay, I've been keeping a time log and I've discovered that I am consistently behind on Data Sufficiency problems. I know that I'm working too slowly, but how do I fix that? This is obviously a great question; awareness is one thing, but increasing speed is another. Speed comes when the problem solving process runs like a finely tuned machine. Have you practiced critical reasoning diagrams enough to make them second nature? Can you sketch a reading comprehension passage in your sleep? Do you immediately consider options for rephrasing, and do you automatically draw a grid, for data sufficiency problems? Do you search for splits and re-splits on sentence correction questions? Speed is all about process. If you find you're losing too much time on any particular question type, reflect on, and rehearse, the process. Be sure to keep a time log as a measure of progress.

While keeping a single-problem time log will help you become aware of your pacing on all question types, it's certainly not a practical way to monitor the time during the actual exam. First, checking the clock after each problem on the actual exam is too much of a distraction. Second, to be an effective time manager, you must be flexible. You may be able to complete a slightly easier math problem in fewer than 2 minutes, and you may need slightly more than 2 minutes for the more difficult problems. For these two reasons, it's much easier to monitor time on the actual exam using these 15 minute benchmarks:

Time LeftMath-Near Question...Verbal-Near Question...
75 minutes11
60 minutes7-88-10
45 minutes14-1516-18
30 minutes21-2224-26
15 minutes28-2932-34

Keeping track of the timing for question blocks, as opposed to individual questions, allows for flexibility: less time on the slightly easier questions, more time on the difficult questions.

Once you feel comfortable with the single-problem time log, begin to transition to the 15 minute benchmarks. To practice, take a block of 7 or 8 math problems and allot yourself 15 minutes. Are you maintaining a positive time position for an 8 question block? Do the same for a block of verbal questions and monitor your progress.

On the actual exam, use these 15 minute benchmarks to monitor your time position. If you've kept a single-problem time log while practicing, reflected on the results to fine-tune your problem solving process, and transitioned to the 15 minute benchmarks, more than likely you'll find yourself in the green.

Determining Your Payoff Ratio

Is it worth is to spend an extra 30 seconds on that difficult data sufficiency problem? How about an extra minute for a tough critical reasoning question? These are not questions you want to be struggling with in the heat of the exam. Ideally, you should know ahead of time whether those extra 30 seconds are likely to get you the correct answer. You should know in advance whether spending an extra minute on a critical reasoning question will pay off. In general, you should have a sense for your payoff ratio before you walk into the exam.

Consider the following approach for determining your payoff ratio on data sufficiency problems, for example. Choose a group of data sufficiency problems that are at the top end of your ability level. Give yourself the standard benchmark time of 2 minutes per problem. When 2 minutes have elapsed, choose an answer, regardless of where you are in the problem solving process. Then, give yourself 1 additional minute and mark a second answer when this minute has elapsed. Track your results in a table similar to this one:

Question #2 min answer3 min answerCorrect answerPoints

As in the example above, give yourself 1 point when the third minute helps you change an incorrect answer to a correct answer (#3 and #5). The gamble has paid off in these cases. Subtract a point when the third minute caused you to change a correct answer to an incorrect answer (#1). The gamble was costly in this case. Give yourself zero points when there is no answer change (#2), and when an incorrect answer is changed to another incorrect answer (#4).

Next, add up your total points and divide by the number of questions (1/5 = .2). This is the payoff ratio for this particular question block. What does this number mean? Well, for the extra 5 minutes spent on these 5 difficult data sufficiency problems, this person only saw a payoff of one more correct answer. Was it worth it? Probably not, considering that, all other things being equal, this person is now time-short by 5 whole minutes.

This begs the question: For what payoff ratio does it become worth the extra time spent? How about .3? Or .4?

The answer to this question is probably not as satisfying as you might hope. The payoff ratio is not necessarily meant to be used as a strict guide for allocating time. Rather, the quantitative process of determining your payoff ratio is meant to lead to a qualitative understanding of how you are using your time. When I spend an extra minute on data sufficiency problems, it doesn't usually change my answer, or The extra minute on reading comprehension questions really allows me to find the proof text I need to choose the right answer. This awareness alleviates anxiety, and allows you to make quick and sound decisions during the exam.

Take some time to find your payoff ratio for each question type, and see if this knowledge helps you to better manage your time.

Quick Elimination Strategies

Despite best intentions to manage the clock, many test takers will find themselves in time-short situations on the GMAT. Under these circumstances, it is helpful to have practiced some quick elimination strategies ahead of time, strategies that can improve your odds in 30 seconds or less. Here is a breakdown of some of these strategies:

The data sufficiency grid can help eliminate either 2 or 3 answer choices in a matter of seconds. Consider the following problem:

Is x > y?

(1) x = 3
(2) x2 = 9 and y2 = 16

Because of the sometimes tricky even exponents in statement (2), this problem could prove to be too difficult to answer in a time-short situation. However, we can use the data sufficiency grid to make some quick eliminations:


If statement (1) is not sufficient, we can cross off the top row (A and D). If statement (1) is sufficient, we can cross off the bottom row (B, C, and E). To understand why this is true, review the stock answer choice explanations given with every data sufficiency question.

In this case, statement (1) can be evaluated quickly. Because statement (1) gives no information about y, it cannot possibly give us any information about the relationship between x and y. Statement (1) is not sufficient. Therefore, A and D can be eliminated. Our odds of choosing a correct answer are now 1 in 3, as opposed to 1 in 5.

While this is a simple example, it illustrates the power of the data sufficiency grid.

Often, there is insufficient time to consider every element of a difficult sentence correction question. Looking for splits is one way to make quick eliminations in time-short situations. Consider the following example (simplified for the purposes of illustration):

Neither the children nor the mother were ready to leave the old house behind.

(A) were ready to leave the old house behind
(B) were ready to leave the house that was old behind
(C) were ready leaving the old house behind
(D) was ready to leave the old house behind
(E) was ready to leave the house that was old behind

At the end of the verbal section, with just seconds remaining, it might be too difficult to consider all of the issues presented in this question. However, splitting the answer choices based on the verb will allow for some quick eliminations. Answer choices A, B, and C use were while answer choices D and E use was. Which is correct? Making this determination, without spending the time to consider the rest of the sentence, will allow for an elimination of either 2 or 3 answer choices. In this case, was is the correct verb, so A, B, and C can be eliminated in a matter of seconds (with the use of neither...nor, the part of the subject closer to the verb, in this case mother, dictates the subject-verb agreement: ...the mother was...).

The wording of a reading comprehension answer can sometimes be enough to make an elimination. The GMAT rarely uses extreme or limiting language in its correct answer choices. Consider the following answer choices to a sample reading comprehension question:

(A) It is the only explanation for the seasons.
(B) It is too limited to offer a reasonable explanation for the seasons.
(C) It cannot be verified until more money is spent on research.
(D) It is one possible explanation for the seasons, though other possible explanations exist.
(E) All scientists believe it is a reasonable explanation for the seasons.

In answer choice (A), the word only is a limiting word, much too definitive to be a likely correct answer. The same goes for all scientists in (E). Answer choice (D), on the other hand, is much more diplomatic, leaving room for discussion. Answer choice (D) does not make any definitive statements. Believe it or not, this makes (D) the most likely correct answer on the GMAT!

That said, it is dangerous to think that ALL extreme words will make an answer incorrect. However, if you are in a time-short situation, and if you have no other recourse, making quick eliminations based on extreme or limiting language can improve your odds.

Just as with time management in general, these quick elimination strategies must be practiced ahead of time. Here's a practice method for honing your quick elimination skills: the 30-30 method.

Choose 30 problems of a particular problem type. Give yourself 30 seconds for each problem. Instead of trying to find the correct answer, see how many quick eliminations you can make using the strategies outlined above (and any other strategies you may have discussed in class). At the end of 15 minutes, count up the number of correct eliminations you made, and give yourself one point for each. A total score of 60 or higher means you are using your strategies well.

In conclusion, effective time management is extremely important for GMAT success. Time management is not something that will spontaneously work itself out on the day of the test. Rather, it is something that must be practiced. If you are able to monitor your time position, make sound pacing decisions based on your payoff ratio, and dig yourself out of time-short situations using quick elimination strategies, you will be on your way to higher GMAT scores.