clock with GMAT time management pie chart



Proper time management is key for earning your target GMAT score.

It can be easy to race through questions and make silly mistakes. Likewise, it can be easy to spend too much time on a few questions and then have trouble finishing the section. Proper time management can help you avoid both these extremes.

Your time management strategy will be different for the Quantitative and Verbal sections than for the Integrated Reasoning section. Let’s start with Quantitative and Verbal.

Why Early Questions Matter on the Quantitative and Verbal Sections

Proper time management begins with knowing a little bit about how the GMAT algorithm works for the Quantitative and Verbal sections. Both the Quantitative and Verbal sections are computer adaptive, which means that correct responses result in harder questions, and incorrect responses result in easier questions. But, of course, there’s a little bit more to computer adaptive testing than that.

Early in the section, the algorithm doesn’t have a good estimate of your true score for the section. At that beginning stage, the amount by which the difficulty of the next question changes can be considerable. As you progress through the section, the amount by which each next question changes in difficulty becomes a lot smaller.

To earn a good score, you need to do more than get a lot of questions correct. You also need to see the hardest questions in the question pool. Each time you get an early question wrong, you dig a hole that makes it less likely that you’ll get to see those hardest questions. In a sense, your goal is to push your first mistake to as late in the section as possible. The same goes for your second and third mistakes.

To be clear, it’s a myth that the first x number of questions in the section determine your score. Every question counts toward your score. Just as you would expect, people who earn the highest scores do tend to get most or all of the questions in the section correct. That said, earlier questions affect your score a bit more than later questions do. If you get too many early questions wrong, you essentially place a cap on what your score can be because you won’t have time to build up to the point where you see those hardest questions.

1. Your GMAT Mantra: Speed Up As You Go

How does the GMAT algorithm affect time management?

The adaptive algorithm means that spending an equal amount of time on each question is not the best overall strategy. Spending an equal amount of time on each question essentially means that you’d be giving relatively too little attention to questions closer to the beginning of the section (which have a greater impact on your score) and relatively too much attention to questions toward the end (which have a less significant impact on your score).

The better strategy is to shift some time from the end of the section to the beginning. In other words, speed up as you go . How much time you shift depends a bit on your starting score. In general, plan to spend around 25 minutes on the first ten questions. That’s sufficient time to work more carefully—by doing things such as rereading the question before selecting your answer—while still allowing time for the questions at the end of the section.

2. Five-Question Check-Ins

Keeping track of how much time you have left in the section requires some advance planning. You don’t want to look at the onscreen clock after every question. At the same time, you need to check your remaining time often enough to compensate if you are answering questions too slowly or too quickly.

When taking practice tests, get into the habit of checking the remaining time after every fifth question. Then, compare your actual time used to your planned time used. If you are more than one minute under your planned time, slow down! If you are more than one minute over your planned time, speed up.

3. The Three-Minute Rule

Three minutes is the maximum amount of time that you should spend on any question. After three minutes, it becomes increasingly likely that you’ll get the question wrong. Even if you do answer the question correctly, however, you may be forced to rush through the next few questions, and that could cause some careless errors.

Taking too long on one or more questions could also mean that you don’t have time to finish the section. It’s important to finish the section, however, because there’s a fairly severe penalty for not finishing. In fact, if you find that you don’t have time to work on two or three of the questions at the end, it’s better to guess than to leave those questions blank.

As you practice, take note of what three minutes feels like. If you find yourself at the three-minute mark when solving a question, you can take appropriate action. If you just need a few more seconds to finish a calculation, finish the calculation. But if you are still trying to figure out the right way to solve the question, then see whether there are any answers you can eliminate, guess, and move on.

4. The One-Minute Rule (And Its Corollary: Use All Your Time)

It should go without saying that test-takers should use all the time allotted for each section. You don’t get points added to your score for finishing faster. In fact, you’re more likely to damage your score by finishing with five or ten minutes remaining.

One way to avoid finishing too early is to follow the one-minute rule. If you get an answer to a question in less than a minute, then reread the question before selecting your answer. Check your calculations. The harder the question, the more likely it is that the test writers have prepared one or more wrong answers based on the way the question could be misread. Rereading the question can help you to avoid trap answers.

Time Management and Integrated Reasoning

Time management for Integrated Reasoning works a little differently—but it is just as necessary!

Most test-takers find that the true challenge of the Integrated Reasoning section is how quickly the time seems to evaporate. The individual questions may seem doable, but there often doesn’t feel like there’s enough time to complete them all. Most questions also have multiple parts but do not offer partial credit. If a question has three parts and you answer one part wrong and the other two parts correctly, you get no credit for the question. All-or-nothing scoring, coupled with a fast-paced section, is a recipe for making the sort of silly errors that wouldn’t happen with a more generous amount of time.

So, what should you do?

First, practice. Familiarity with the question types and the section in general will often help you to improve both speed and accuracy.

Second, analyze your time utilization. After you’ve completed an Integrated Reasoning section, take a hard look at how you managed your time. Look for small savings. Did you need to sort that table? Did you need to use the calculator? While it may only take a few seconds to sort a table, every second counts in the Integrated Reasoning section.

Third—and most importantly—realize that you may do better by simply not working on one or two questions. Working on all 12 questions may result in getting most questions only partially correct. That could result in a low score, such as a 2 or 3. On the other hand, you may find it easier to get all parts of a question correct if you work on only 10 or 11 of the questions. That could result in a score of 5 or 6.

Remember that most schools place a lot more emphasis on the Quantitative and Verbal scores than the Integrated Reasoning score. So your goal for Integrated Reasoning may be to get a score that is high enough that it doesn’t send up a red flag for the admissions committee.

To set yourself up for success, choose a section order that will build your confidence. Then, be realistic about what you need, what you want, and what you can attain. Savvy time management can go a very long way toward helping you earn a high GMAT score.