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On the Subtleties of GMAT Guessing

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nateNate Burke is a Content Developer at Knewton, specializing in question creation for the Quantitative section of Knewton’s GMAT prep course.

“The best way to win at Russian Roulette is to not play at all. Or you could just have the other guy go first and then run away quickly.” –Unknown

In the heyday of paper-based tests, the cure-all for the common ill of “getting stuck” on a question was simple: Skip the question and simply move on.  The rationale behind this strategy was that work done for other questions on the test might illuminate simple key concepts that were overshadowed by things like early-morning drowsiness, test anxiety, tip-of-the-tongue syndrome, etc, etc,.

Things have changed. The GMAT, like many other standardized tests, is administered on a computer. Though the question formats have remained roughly the same, the switch to computer-based-testing has rendered the “skip the question” strategy obsolete. On a computer-based-test, it is impossible to skip a question. The best that a time-constrained student with a total conceptual block can do is to guess and hope for the best outcome of what is essentially a game of Russian roulette with a 5-chambered revolver.

An ideal strategy for “getting stuck” within the context of a computer-based test is thus constrained to the narrow confines of the maximum time allotted per question. Consider that at the beginning of this time interval, WITHOUT EVEN HAVING READ THE QUESTION, a test-taker has already been granted a 20% chance of answering correctly by guessing randomly. This fact alone has consequences. If the student is still at a random-guess level of confidence at the end of the 2-3 minute maximum-time-per-question-interval, then all that the student has accomplished on this question was to lower his or her score. Every second that passes without progress lowers the score incrementally (and that’s not even accounting for the added adverse effects of things like stress-induced second-guessing, etc. etc.).

What is a student to do then, should he “get stuck?” If the path to the correct answer is obscured and overgrown, how does one trim the hedges?

Here is a list of quick things that can help:

Write down ANYTHING from the question on a sheet of scrap paper.

Draw a picture.

Mouth words from tricky passages slowly as you read them.

Cover the answer choices and look only at the question prompt.

Cover the question and look only at the answer choices.

In quantitative sections, re-write messy expressions in as many ways as you can.

In data-sufficiency questions, move on to the second statement if the first statement makes no sense.

If you are stuck, your only goal is to change the situation!

Here are some general things that may help also:

Take a deep breath.

Lower your shoulders.

Monitor how quickly your eyes are moving–chances are that if you’re stressed and stuck, they’re moving and reading at a rate that is faster than your brain can deal with.

Slow down.

And finally, if it’s been a few minutes to no avail:


The nice thing about this guessing game is that you hear a “click” every time…


Written by Knewton

August 31, 2009 at 2:40 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

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