Pacing and Timing Strategies for the GMAT

The Question of Pacing

Suppose you have some block of time (one month, three months, etc.) to study & prepare for the GMAT.  Of course, there’s lots of hard content to learn.  The question arises between these two contrasting approaches:

1) APPROACH #1: Learn everything thoroughly, practicing without time constraints until you are comfortable, and only then pick up the pace and practice with time constraints.  In this approach, maybe the last 50% or 30% of your total preparation time will involve working with full time-constraints like those you will have on test day.

2) APPROACH #2: Practice within test-like time constraints essentially from the beginning of your practice.  In this approach, over 95% of your practice will involve working with full time-constraints like those you will have on test day.

Which is better?


The Winged Chariot Hurrying Near

The poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) said: “At my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”  That is exactly where you will be on test day, so I contend, almost every time you practice, you need to practice with time constraints.  Approach #2 is the recipe for success.  It’s never too early to start to pay attention to timing. The take-as-much-time-as-you-need attitude of Approach #1 is an unsustainable luxury in GMAT prep.

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What approach #1 proposes sounds comfortable. I would argue, though, the problem with this leisurely approach is that you would need a whole new process of getting comfortable to the time limits, and that process of “getting comfortable” could be as long as or longer than the first phase of “getting comfortable” with the content.


Pick Up the Pace NOW

Wherever you are in your GMAT prep, I would urge you to force yourself to pick up the pace right now. If you have been following Approach #1 up until this point, that’s fine: presumably you have gotten somewhat comfortable with question formats and concepts.  Now, you have to accelerate the process, and get into a mode in which you just eliminate answers quickly and focus in on the correct answer. Yes, you will bear more frustration and feel more stress at the outset of doing everything timed, but the more you acclimate yourself to it now, the less stressful it will be on the real GMAT. If your GMAT is three months from today, it’s far better to spend three months getting use to time limits, not just two or one.


Apples and Oranges

Don’t think of “understanding” and “speed”/”pace” as two different things, thinking that first you’ll understand, then later, after that, you’ll figure out pace. As far as the GMAT is concerned, the two are not really separate. Much of what the GMAT is about, on both math and verbal, is your ability to hone in very quickly on what is critical for getting to the answer and what is superfluous. It’s not at all clear to me that spending a great deal of time doing the “think through the question slowly” thing of Approach #1 is really going to lay much groundwork beyond the basics for this much more critical set of GMAT skills that you only practice once you impose test-like time constraints.  Understanding in a totally relaxed, pressure-free way and understanding under time-constraints: they are almost apples and oranges, or at least not as related as one naively would imagine.


Ph.D vs MBA (i.e. Academia vs. the business world)

If you think about it, going to grad school for a Ph.D. vs. going to B-school for an MBA are two very different things. That “contemplate things slowly and deeply” mode is what you might do in many different Ph.D. programs: some Ph.D. programs take more than a decade to complete!  By contrast, the business world is about:

see the situation -> discern the opportunity ->  carpe diem!

BAM! The person in the business who stands around contemplating most often misses out — the time for the deal, the sweet spot, comes and goes, and the contemplator is just left holding the bag. The business world simply doesn’t wait for those who are contemplating to catch up.  It keeps moving.  Business schools know this, which is why they value performance on the GMAT, a test where time-management is crucial.  That is why it is important to practice with test-like time constraints from the beginning.

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How to Accelerate

If you feel you understand the content but struggle mightily with maintaining the pace you should, it may be a matter of learning the strategies that allow you to work with greater efficiency.  Magoosh has more than 200 GMAT lesson videos, which cover not only content, but all the strategies that will allow you to maximize efficiency.  To give you a taste of this, here is a free sample lesson video explaining a point of Reading Comprehension strategy:


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2 Responses to Pacing and Timing Strategies for the GMAT

  1. Sandy Eastling March 6, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

    I have signed up to take the GMAT September 29. I have been out of college for many decades. ,While I remember doing these types of problems (math, quant) I don’t remember the details. I have decided to trust your methods; therefore, I will use the time constraints. However, what do you you think of starting at the “easy” level with time constraints (within Magoosh) then increasing the level of difficulty? I am concerned that trying to recall method combined with timing may be too much. I am a lifelong learner and have continued education in my profession (commercial insurance) ever since I started in the industry. If I just need to suck it up and “deal” then I will.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike McGarry March 6, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

      Mr. Eastling: I would say — early on, lean heavily on the Magoosh lesson videos to jog your memory. If you’re at the point of thinking “factoring — what is that?” then I would say, watch some videos to reacquaint yourself. Once you have done some practice to “grease the wheels”, then push yourself to work against the clock. Yes, it would be a good idea to start with “easy” questions on the Magoosh dashboard, and ratchet up the difficulty. Fortunately, you have the luxury of making the adjustment to time pressure a bit more gentle, less rushed, because you have almost five months. Definitely by, say, six weeks from now, you want to be striving to work at close to full exam pace. Does that make sense?
      Let me know if you have any more question, and good luck.
      Mike 🙂

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