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Managing Your Time On the GMAT Verbal Section

June 7, 2010

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I can't remember the last time I worked with a student who naturally completed practice GMAT Verbal sections in exactly 75 minutes. Many people can breeze right through it, finishing twenty minutes early, while others can never fit all the necessary work into so little time.

Both approaches are dangerous. Obviously you want to complete all 41 questions; less obviously, you want to effectively use all of your allotted time. Unless you're getting every question right and finishing early, there's room for improvement. Like any other aspect of the test, you need a plan.

A Flexible Verbal Outline

Your plan, though, shouldn't be too rigid. Not every Reading Comprehension passage is of the same length and complexity, and some Sentence Correction questions are much more time-consuming than others. Let's look at some general guidelines for how long each type of problem should take.

Sentence Correction. You can expect to see about 16 SCs among the 41 Verbal questions. On average, you should spend about 1 ¼ minutes for each one. This will vary more than any other type of question on the test: if you immediately see the mistake in the sentence and spot the correct choice, a question might only take you twenty seconds. However, if the entire sentence is underlined and knowing the correct answer hinges on an obscure usage issue, you could easily spent two minutes puzzling it out. Both of those outcomes are perfectly acceptable, as long as your average time is near 1 ¼ minutes.

Critical Reasoning. There are 12 or 13 CR questions on each administration of the GMAT, and each one will require your focus for at least 90 to 120 seconds. Some will ask for much more. On average, each question should take about 2 ½ minutes. CR questions are the easiest to rush through: it's common to feel like they are taking too long (even when you're right on pace!) and there are often trap answer choices that, on a quick scan, look perfect. On CR more than any other type of question, you'll benefit from an extra 20 or 30 seconds carefully spent analyzing two or three final answer choices.

Reading Comprehension. You'll see approximately 4 RC passages and 12 or 13 accompanying questions. Passages, on average, should take you about 3 minutes to read, while each question should require a little less than a minute to answer. Again, you'll have a lot of variance here: shorter passages may only take two minutes; a single difficult inference question may take two minutes. Again, what's important is the average; when you're practicing, watch out for the types of passages and questions that take you considerably longer. In future tips, I'll address how you can cut down the time it takes to get through certain types of thorny Reading Comprehension passages and questions.

If you look at the clock during a GMAT Verbal section, the success of your time management strategy isn't nearly as clear as it is on the Math--because of the different types of questions, you don't know exactly where you should be, timewise, after, say, question #3.

However, because you'll always see the same distribution of questions, the differences will eventually even out. Setting aside those differences, each question should average a little more than 105 seconds, which means each set of 4 questions should take 7+ minutes. In other words, when you hit the halfway point of question #21, you should be 35-37 minutes in, with 38-40 minutes remaining. In blocks of 8-10 questions, you can monitor your progress just as effectively as you can on the Math section.

In future tips, I'll discuss specific methods you can use to slow down or speed up your work through various types of GMAT Verbal questions. In the meantime, keep using your timer for each practice session and see how close you can come to using your allotted time (but no more!) for 41 questions.

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.