Guessing Is Always an Option

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If you've taken the GMAT before, or even if you've tried a practice test, you've almost certainly had the experience of taking way too long on a question. Perhaps you made the mistake multiple times, investing five minutes on a problem you just knew you could do, only to find you didn't allow yourself time to finish the test.

That mistake is the most dangerous of any you can make during the exam itself. As I've written before, you need to aggressively protect your time. That means guessing and moving past questions that may be too difficult, ensuring that you'll get to the end of each section. Many people, however, don't consider this option at every stage of a problem; they make an immediate decision to "do it or skip it," finding themselves mired in a difficult problem five minutes later because they decided to "do it."

You can, at any point, decide to guess and move on. Here are some possibilities:

  • 15 seconds in, once you've realized you don't remember a formula;
  • one minute in, when you can't figure out how to set up a word problem;
  • two minutes in, when you discover your method gives you a nonsensical answer;
  • three or more minutes in, once you realize you've invested all that time with no immediate end in sight.

The most important juncture, though, is at the 1-1.5 minute mark, by which point you should have the question more or less figured out. You may not have an answer; you may even have several steps left to complete, but by then, the question should be set up, and you should be fairly confident that you know how you'll finish it.

If you are at that point, 1-1.5 minutes after starting the question, and you're still grasping for an approach, keep this rule of thumb in mind:

The longer you've spent, the longer you are likely to continue spending.

Once you hit the 2 minute mark, unless you're putting the finishing touches on some algebra, you're probably not using the most efficient method, and your approach could easily take another minute or more. If you reach the 3 or 4 minute mark, you probably don't know what you're doing, and you're unlikely to figure it out under the stress of the test.

In short, the longer you've spent on a question, the more aggressively you should consider guessing and moving on. The time you've spent so far is a sunk cost, and you're far more likely to benefit from spending your remaining time on the rest of the test rather than continuing to look for a way to deal with the question you're already struggling with.



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.

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