Effective GMAT Scratchwork

You should follow me on Twitter. While you're at it, take a moment to subscribe to GMAT Hacks via RSS or Email.


The GMAT is a fairly user-friendly exam–at least in its administration. (You may not feel the same way about the questions it asks!) I like the computer-based format, and I think it does a great job of ensuring that the test experience is as consistent as possible across the world for test takers.

What is not user-friendly, however, is the way the GMAT forces you to do in-test scratchwork. For years, you would be issued six sheets of plain white (or occasionally, neon–don't ask me why) paper. You could trade in your used paper for more if you needed to, and you couldn't leave the test center with any of it. Security, you know: the test maker didn't want preparation companies (ahem!) to write down questions and walk out with them.

The latest "improvement" is a major step down. For several months, test takers have been given small white boards (imagine something a little bigger than a sheet of legal-sized paper) and dry-erase markers. In other words, instead of getting six sheets of double-sided paper, you now have to work with one side of one sheet's worth. Bummer.

Of course, you can erase, but I've heard that some boards and erasers of are low quality, so you end up with a slew of smears by the end of the section. This is an inconvenient overreaction on the part of GMAC, but unfortunately, you have to grin and bear it.

How to Deal

One student of mine told me that he asked for several white boards–and got them! It never would've occurred to me to ask, but it's certainly worth a try. If you're stuck with one board, though, several other (apparently unrelated) preparation strategies will come in handy.

First, plan on accommodating the extra time. Let's say you have erase the board 10 times over the course of your quantitative section; that's once per 3-4 questions. If that takes 10 seconds each time, your allotted time is cut down to about 73 minutes from 75. If you're ready for that, it's no big deal: a few fewer seconds per question. Be ready for it: if you're doing a practice section at home, limit yourself to 72 or 73 minutes, or force yourself to stop for 10 seconds every 3-4 questions.

Second, keep your scratchwork neat. 10 seconds every four questions is one thing; 10 seconds after every single problem is another. It can be hard to keep your handwriting and diagrams neat, tidy, and small with a dry-erase marker, but it will save you time. Neatness will save you time anyway, regardless of medium, so it's an important habit to adopt.

Last, be mentally prepared for the inconvenience. Since you've read this far, you know what you're up against. The scratchwork boards are just another way in which the GMAT is a foreign, unpredictable experience for so many test takers. One of the biggest benefits of extensive preparation is to simply make the experience familiar, whether that means learning math content or knowing how what to expect in the test center.

Doing scratchwork on a dry-erase board doesn't have to be a disaster. With flexibility and foresight, you can make it one more way in which you are better prepared than your competition.



About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

Total GMAT Verbal

The comprehensive guide to the GMAT Verbal section. Recognize, dissect, and master every question type you'll face on the test. Everything you need, all in one place, including 100+ realistic practice questions.
Click to read more.