GMAT timing “strategy”: how much math do you really need for a 720?

I pride myself on being a brutal realist: if I suspect that one of my GMAT students might need a ton of luck and a herculean effort to achieve her score goal, I’ll tell her… gently. A huge part of my job is establishing realistic expectations, and if I think that a student’s GMAT goals are utterly hopeless, I’ll say that, too… though I’ll usually say something far more diplomatic than “you’re hopeless.” But sometimes my dire predictions of GMAT frustration are ridiculously wrong, and sometimes one of my students makes me feel like a complete idiot.

I love it when that happens.

Once upon a time, a warm and thoroughly loveable student (let’s call her Ms. A) came to New York for a four-week GMAT “crash course.” Like most of my GMAT students in New York, she was targeting a 700+ score; unfortunately, her math skills were pretty shaky. She wasn’t appallingly bad at math, but her academic background was in the humanities, and she hadn’t taken a math course since high school. Ms. A was clearly intelligent and competent, but I didn’t immediately see much evidence of math talent or training.

To make things worse, math—or at least GMAT math—seemed to scare the poop out of her. Ms. A would make a sad, cute whining sound (imagine a frightened puppy) whenever she saw a math question that intimidated her—and that happened with disturbing frequency. After a couple of sessions, I told her that she might need more than four weeks of GMAT tutoring, and that she would probably struggle to get her quant score near the mid-40s.

She proved that I’m an idiot. But thanks to Ms. A, I’m a proud, happy idiot.

After giving her a friendly warning to keep her score goals in perspective, I asked Ms. A to do her first math practice exam, knowing that it would be a painful experience. She got a 35, which didn’t surprise me at all.

I then reiterated my standard timing rant: if you read the question twice and don’t see a clear path to the answer, just guess and move on. Use the time you save to be ridiculously accurate on the other questions; always reread each question and check your work carefully before you click “next.” And I reminded her that she would probably miss roughly 15 questions on the quant section—but that her score would be determined by which questions she missed.

Put another way: the GMAT scoring algorithm severely punishes you for missing relatively easy questions, but your score is barely harmed by missing the toughest questions. The key to success—especially on the quant section—is to be 100% bulletproof on the questions that you understand, and to waste as little time as possible on the questions that are difficult for you.

(I repeat that advice constantly to all of my GMAT students, and I’m sure that my current and former students are rolling their eyes as they read this. If you hire me as your GMAT tutor, you’ll hear me say those same lines again and again… or at least until you stop making unnecessary mistakes on your practice tests.)

Anyway, back to Ms. A. Instead of rolling her eyes, Ms. A looked relieved when I begged her to skip the hard questions and spend her time on the easier ones—I think she was genuinely thrilled that she could ignore the questions that made her whine like a homesick puppy. The very next day, her practice test score jumped to a 43. A few days later, she scored 47 on another practice quant test.

I would love to pretend that I taught Ms. A enough GMAT math to improve her quant score by 12 points, but she took all three practice tests in the same week, and I can’t honestly take much credit for improving her math skills in such a short time frame. Sure, she was working hard and her underlying quant skills were improving steadily, but the key was that she executed her timing strategy to absolute perfection. After her first test, she never wasted time on overly difficult questions, and she almost never made careless errors on questions she understood.

In the end, Ms. A kicked some GMAT ass: 720 composite, with a 47 on the quant section.

Was Ms. A special? In a way, no: she worked really hard at her math skills, but could never be mistaken for a natural math genius.

But in another way, Ms. A was truly amazing: she has an unbelievably flexible mentality, and she was able to train herself to approach the test in a completely different way. She didn’t let the GMAT clock rattle her—no matter where she was in the test, she carefully re-read each question and re-checked her work, and she understood that it was worth spending an extra 10-20 seconds to do so. (It also helped that she was naturally gifted at verbal, and could afford to spend her study time focusing almost exclusively on math.)

At the end of the day, Ms. A beat the GMAT with a insanely simple quant strategy: if she understood a question, she answered it carefully. If she didn’t immediately understand a question, she wasted very little time on it. Her approach was simple and elegant. The GMAT world is filled with a cacophony of advice about test-taking “strategy”, but you don’t really need most of that stuff: just work as hard as you can to become better at answering questions correctly, and don’t waste your time chasing the nasty questions that you still can’t easily answer.

Could you be the next Ms. A? If you have a tendency to make careless errors on your homework, you’ll need to thoroughly re-orient yourself. I constantly hear MBA aspirants say “I missed 10 questions on the homework, but they were just stupid errors—I understood all of the questions”… as if that’s a good thing! The GMAT will rip you to shreds if you make silly mistakes on easy questions, no matter how well you understand the hardest concepts covered in the GMAT Official Guide.

So take Ms. A’s simple approach: be mind-numbingly accurate on the quant questions you understand, and save time by letting the toughest questions go. If you can do that with flawless consistency, your quant score will be perfectly solid, even if your math skills aren’t exactly incredible.