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Guessing Strategies for the GMAT

Learn what sophisticated GMAC research reveals about last-minute time-crunch guessing strategies on the GMAT.

 

It’s All About Timing

Of course, learning to solve problems under time pressure is an important part of preparing for the GMAT.  Of course, you should do everything you can do to maximize your ability to perform at the highest level on as many questions as possible.  Of course, that’s what any responsible person preparing for the GMAT will strive to do.

All true, but as our friend Robert Burns (1759 – 1796) reminds us, the best laid plans of mice and men go oft astray.  As well as you prepare, as diligently as you practice, you may find yourself at the end of a section on a real GMAT running out of time. What should you do?  Guess randomly or omit the question?

 

Guessing vs. Solution Behavior and Strategies

First, I need to clarify what I mean by “guessing.”  By “guessing”, or “random guessing”, I mean you have no earthly clue which of the five answer choices is right.  The right answer could equally be any of the five as far as you are concerned.  This would most often occur if you are doing rapid guessing in the last few seconds of a session — answering, say that last 5 question in the last 10-15 seconds, for example.  (We’ll talk about the wisdom of that below.)  Conceivably, a question could occur in the middle of the test which utterly befuddles you, but given that you have been preparing diligently for the GMAT, the likelihood of something so arcane as to stymie you completely is remote at best.

If you study the question, and can eliminate some answers, but don’t know which of the remaining answers is right, this is called “solution behavior“.  On average, solution behavior will benefit you.  It is always, 100% of the time, much better than either random guessing or omitting.  If you have any clue about a question, and can narrow the answers down to three or two choices, then guess from among those and move on.  NEVER leave such a question blank.  I cannot underscore that enough.

 

On the Verbal Section: Omit (AKA Skip)!

GMAC, those folks that design the GMAT, did a study in 2009 trying to answer the question about guessing or omitting in the final moments of the test.  They looked at patterns in tens of thousands of GMATs, and culled through the data.  You can read the whole paper at the link below, but I really summarize everything you need in this blog article.

It turns out, on the verbal section, it appears there is no substantial difference between guessing on the last few question or omitting them.  Your score will be, on average, the same regardless of which way you choose.  This is invaluable information, because it implies undoubtedly the best strategy to use in that situation.  I quote the GMAT gurus in the article: “If an examinee found herself with only a minute remaining to answer the last four items of the verbal section, it would be to her benefit to spend time trying to answer at least one of the remaining questions with thought while feeling confident that leaving the remaining items blank would not affect the score much differently than random responding” (p. 12).  Thus, when running out of time on the Verbal section of the GMAT, your focus should be: remain calm, and simply do your best working thoroughly with each question one at a time, even if that means there are two or three questions you simply don’t see.    That’s the univocal strategy for the precious last minutes on the GMAT Verbal section.

 

On the Quantitative Section: Know Thyself!

The data from test takers is far more nuanced on the quantitative section.  Here, the advice varies widely, depending on your abilities.  I will assume you have at least a rough idea about whether you are a top scoring math student or someone who really struggles with math.

For folks who struggle with math, who are anticipating a relatively low grade on math (i.e. below 25), it turns out that, as in the verbal section, it is advantageous to omit questions — i.e. those questions you don’t get to because time is running out.  Again, if you have enough insight to eliminate even one answer choice, that’s no longer guessing but rather solution behavior, and you should guess from the remaining answers.  But if you truly have no clue, and especially if you are running out time, plan to omit questions, and do you best with the ones which you can either solve or apply solution behavior.  There’s no reason, in the final minute to race to last question in a wild hi

(BTW, if you are really anticipating a GMAT Quant score that low, then please sign up for Magoosh!  I swear, we can help you!)

For folks at the other end of the spectrum, folks very talented in the quantitative section and shooting for one of the highest scores, the advice is the polar opposite: omitting a question is one of the worst things you can do.  If you are that caliber of math student, probably few GMAT PS or DS questions will outright stump you, but if you don’t work quickly, running out of time might be a problem.  If worst comes to worst, and you have less than a minute to do the last handful of questions, you will be much better served by randomly guessing than leaving anything blank.

What about the many folks in between, folks headed for a decent score on GMAT Quantitative, but not planning to blow the doors off?  Well, if you’re really good at math, omitting answers hurts you a lot.  If you medium at math, omitting answers hurts you a little.  Basically, you are better off answering every question, even if that means random guessing in a last mad dash at the end.

 

Summary

Those are the most sophisticated data-driven recommendations on GMAT guessing strategies available.  Of course, if at any point you can practice solution behavior — that is, you can intelligently eliminate some answer choices and after that get stuck — then you should always guess from the remaining choices and never leave such a question blank.  And, of course, the more you practice against the clock, and practice a wide variety of questions such as we have at Magoosh, and learn time-saving strategies such as the ones we teach at Magoosh, then the less the dilemma of a last-minute crunch will be your problem at all.

 

Work Cited:

Talento-Miller, Eileen and Ranimn Guo. Guess What? Score Differences with Rapid Replies versus Omissions on a Computerized Adaptive Test.  GMAC Research Reports, RR-09-04, February 1, 2009. Original paper available here.

About the Author

Mike McGarry is a Content Developer for Magoosh with over 20 years of teaching experience and a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard. He enjoys hitting foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Follow him on Google+!

8 Responses to Guessing Strategies for the GMAT

  1. Brad April 8, 2012 at 5:17 am #

    I agree, we are really better off answering every question than leaving it blank. At least we get to have a probability of scoring on that question when we try to take a wild guess among the choices. I used to leave some questions blank when I am running out of time :-(

    • Mike
      Mike April 9, 2012 at 11:39 am #

      Brad: yes, but remember the very important Math vs. Verbal distinction, Again, this comes from an immense amount of data that GMAC analyzed. Leaving any questions blank on Math is not a good idea, but leaving a couple questions blank at the end of verbal does not appear to hurt you any more than random guessing. That translates to a very different end-game strategy for Verbal vs. Math. Does that make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • Gareth October 8, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

        Mike, I’m a little confused as to the best advice re: folks who aren’t so great at math and omitting questions. You say here:

        “If you don’t know, simply leave the question blank instead of randomly guessing.”

        Yet on Magoosh, and a number of other sites, they seem to stress that leaving any answers on the quant section blank will DRASTICALLY affect your final score, and that random guessing may be a better approach.

        Any clarification here appreciated.

        • Mike
          Mike October 8, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

          Dear Gareth,
          I’m happy to respond. :-) There are a number of intertwined issues at play here. First of all, folks radically underappreciate the significance of what I call “solution behavior,” which is explained in greater detail here:
          http://magoosh.com/gmat/2013/when-to-guess-on-the-gmat/
          Even if math is not your forte, on most questions, even if you can’t solve them, you should be able to eliminate one or two answer choices. That’s a VERY VERY different situation from random guessing: that’s solution behavior, and given a choice of skipping the question or engaging in solution behavior, you should choose the latter 100% of the time. Statistically, solution behavior is ALWAYS to your advantage. It should be exceedingly rare that you look at a GMAT Quant question and have absolutely no idea about eliminating any answer choices. If that happens with any regularity, I would say you are probably not ready for the GMAT yet.
          Random guessing means you have absolutely no idea how to approach the problem: it might as well be written in Swahili. Any of the five answers could be right as far as you are concerned. That’s random guessing, and again, it shouldn’t be a common occurrence during the course of the test.
          The time this comes up is at the very end, when you are running out time — 3 minutes, say, for the last 7 questions.
          What I am saying is: GMAC’s own research verifies — not getting to the last few (i.e. omitting them) does not do substantial damage to an already weak Quant score — it is no worse than rushing through and doing random guessing just so that you don’t leave them blank. Focus on the problems where you think you have a chance in those last minutes, and don’t worry about finishing the final couple problems. Again, this is only true if you are anticipating a low Quant score.
          I revised the post a little: I can see that line you quoted was confusing. Obviously, if you are looking at a GMAT question, and you are completely lost with it, there’s never a reason to skip it — you have some minimal chance of guessing right if you randomly guess. Your odds increase if you can engage in solution behavior. The questions I am talking about omitting are the ones that you don’t see, the ones you never get to, because time has run out.
          Does all this make sense?
          Mike :-)

          • Gareth October 9, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

            Hi Mike, thanks for responding. Yes I think that does make sense. So when the various GMAT guides have made mention of how badly omitting questions will hurt your score, this is only really a factor if you are anticipating a GOOD score? Whereas a low-mid range score it won’t be so much of an influence? is that basically right?

            • Mike
              Mike October 9, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

              Dear Gareth,
              It may be that the guides you mention have in mind questions in the middle of the test, and once again, it’s true, if you see a question in the middle of the test and can’t eliminate anything, it’s better to randomly guess than to leave it blank. The only “omitting” that’s OK, and that only if you are expecting a low-range math score, is the “omitting” of not getting to the last few questions at the end. BTW, on Verbal, that’s always OK, regardless of your expected V score. If you are expecting a middle-to-high Quant score, it’s better not to omit a single question: random guessing in a mad dash in the final seconds is better than leaving even question #37 unanswered.
              Of course, with proper preparation, I would hope that: (a) you can answer the vast majority of questions, and (b) you can do so with time to spare. My friend, embrace an attitude of excellence, which would render all these questions about guessing & omitting absolutely irrelevant.
              Does this make sense?
              Mike :-)

              • Gareth October 9, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

                Yes that does make sense, Mike. Thanks for your advice. I am a little over two months out from my GMAT test and while my verbal scores are both excellent, my math still leaves a lot to be desired (hadn’t done a math equation in almost 20 years before studying for this!). But am working on this a little each day and slowly improving – so hopefully no need to omit or randomly guess come test day!

                Cheers,
                Gareth

                • Mike
                  Mike October 9, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

                  Gareth,
                  You are quite welcome, my friend. :-) I wish you the best of good fortune in your studies!
                  Mike :-)


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