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When to Guess on the GMAT?

When should I just guess and move on?

This has to be one of the most common questions my students pose when preparing for the GMAT and learning how you should study for GMAT math. Because the test can’t tell the difference between a guessed correct answer and well worked out correct answer, it’s important to have a good grasp of when to guess on the GMAT.

Two types of guessing

First of all, let’s be very clear when it comes to guessing on the GMAT: there are two very different types of guessing.

1) random guessing —- this occurs when you have absolutely no idea what the answer might be — as far as you are concerned, any of the five choices could be the answer, and you are going to pick one out of five at random.

2) solution behavior —- this occurs when you understand enough about a question to eliminate one or more of the answers, and you are guessing from the remaining choices.

Many test takers might call both of these simply “guessing”, but they are very different, and the guidelines concerning these situations are very different.


Random guessing


Once again, this only occurs when you have 100% zero understanding of the question —- it might as well have been written in Sanskrit.   The answer could equally be any of the five given choices as far as you are concerned.  Theoretically, this will occur most frequently at the end of a section, as you are running out of time —- trying to fill in answers to 8 questions, say, in 3 minutes, just putting answers so that you don’t leave them blank.  If you are in that situation, should you adopt that strategy? I discuss the strategies appropriate for handling the last few questions in a section as time is running out in this post about guessing strategies.

Aside from running out of time at the end of a section, in all likelihood you will not find this scenario happens often.  Most likely, you will be able to understand enough about almost all GMAT questions to eliminate at least one choice in each, thereby making it no longer a “random guessing” scenario.  If, in your practice, you find that you have to employ random guessing with any frequency, this probably means you are not at all ready to face the real GMAT.  With even moderate preparedness, you should be able to eliminate at least one answer to any question, as long as you have the appropriate time to read the question.


Solution behavior


I realize that if you understand so little about a GMAT question that you can only eliminate one answer choice, it may not feel like much of an accomplishment, but even when you can do even just this, the odds shift in your favor.  Random guessing, on average, does nothing for you.  Solution behavior, on average, moves you forward a little.

If you realize that you can’t solve a problem in a reasonable amount of time —- about 120 seconds on Quant and 100 seconds on Verbal when you are working at full GMAT tempo —- then eliminate as many answers as you can.  In Sentence Correction, eliminate whatever grammatical mistakes you see.   In Reading Comprehension & Critical Reasoning, eliminate all choices that are unreasonable or obviously flawed.  In the Quantitative Section, use estimation and use whatever number properties are relevant.  If you eliminate two, that’s great —- three, even better!  Once you are down to the remaining, possibly acceptable answer choices, if you have used your “allotted time” on this question already, then guess randomly from the remaining two questions and move one.

In order to work this way, it’s important to have a good intuitive sense of what 120 or 100 seconds feels like.  For practice, you could even set a timer for the proper number of seconds before each question, so that you develop your own sense of timing.  Of course, you will probably find that many questions you will answer in far less time than that, which is great — that buys you a little more cushion for the hard questions.  During practice, try to be strict with yourself —- if most of the time for the question has elapsed, and you have eliminated a few answers but haven’t solved, then guess from the remaining answers and move on.  I realize, intuitively this may not feel different from random guessing, but the statistics bear out — random guessing does not advance you at all, but solution behavior, on average, puts you a little bit ahead of where random guessing would have left you.


If you have any experiences with this you would like to relate, or if you have questions about anything I have said, please let us know in the comments section.


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6 Responses to When to Guess on the GMAT?

  1. Marco April 25, 2017 at 4:06 pm #

    Hello guys,

    Is there any evidence showing that incorrect answers have different weights? I mean, for example, in one question, you answered the wrong question, but the answer was only one unit away from the correct answer. And all the other 3 wrong answers were completely different numbers.

    So, all wrong questions count the same or there is some difference from them, like one being less wrong than the other?


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 27, 2017 at 9:21 am #

      Hi Marco,

      This is a very interesting question! I don’t believe that there is any strong evidence showing that different answer choices have different weights or values. At the end of the day, a wrong answer is a wrong answer, and your goal is to identify the right answer choice. Great question though! Have a great day 😀

  2. SAURABH November 24, 2014 at 7:57 pm #

    i just saw the first video on my dashboard about pacing strategy,it says that “you can make guesses at the end of Quant section however avoid doing that at the end of Verbal”. I can understand the reason behind that is if i make blind guesses at the end of verbal section it will ultimately take my score down.

    But don’t you think that my work in my favour too,that i have attempted all the question.

    Would like to know your views about it.


    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike November 25, 2014 at 10:48 am #

      Dear Saurabh,
      I’m happy to respond. 🙂 My friend, keep in mind, we are talking about a very special case, the case of running out of time at the end of section. Ideally, you will pace yourself well, and not have this problem at all, but of course, the best-laid schemes of mice & men go oft astray, and you may find yourself in this undesirable situation. Suppose you find you have three Verbal questions left, and just 1:30 left. What I am saying is: according to the GMAT’s own research, it would be a bad idea to try to spend 30 second on each of the three questions, because your chances of doing any good work in that short amount of time is quite low. Instead, what the research suggest is that you should spend that last 90 second, all of it if need be, only on question #39, giving it your best effort, even if that means you never ever see questions #40 & #41.
      What would hurt you in doing the rushed/blind guess is precisely the opportunity cost. In choosing to pursue rushed/blind guesses on three questions, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to do your best work on a single question, and is it precisely that lost opportunity to do you best work one more time that hurts you.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • Francisco July 5, 2016 at 12:01 pm #

        But in that scenario, isn’t it better to pick randomly #39 and #40, and spend time on #41? Blank answers are penalized more, aren’t they?

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 21, 2016 at 6:52 am #

          Hi Francisco,

          Good question! According to the GMAC study Mike references, on the Verbal section, it doesn’t make much difference if you guess when you have up to about 5 questions left. So, you should finish the item you are on to the best of your ability and not worry about the others.

          On the other hand, on the Quant section, your odds improve if you guess and complete all the questions rather leave the final questions unanswered. There are fewer questions in this section, so each item left blank in this section comprises a higher proportion of the test than in the verbal section. Guess as smartly as you can, but guess nonetheless—do not leave items blank-on the Quant section.

          Also, it’s good to know that if you only have 1 or 2 items left in either section, it doesn’t make much difference if you guess or omit the question.

          Hope this helps!

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