Keep Going? Bail? Decision Making on GMAT Quant

by on September 12th, 2015

student_gmatRecently, we talked about the vital Business Mindset that is so crucial to your success on the GMAT. (If you haven’t read that one yet, go do so right now!)

Today, I’d like to talk more about how this actually plays out when you’re working through a GMAT problem. What kinds of decisions do you need to make and when and how will you need to make them?

We’ll talk about Quant today and address Verbal in a future installment.

A new Quant question pops up on the screen. You start to read it. Now what?

The Decision Tree

It turns out that there are only 3 overall decision paths. (Note: all times below are approximate. Don’t worry about 10 or 15 seconds here and there.)

(1) I’m out of here

I hate this type so much that I decided before the test even started that I would guess immediately on these problems.

Decision: Pick my favorite letter right now and move on

Time taken to make decision: About 10 to 20 seconds

(2) I get it

I understand what the problem is asking.

(2a) I have a good plan for how to solve.

Decision: Try to solve! (Note: I’m still willing to pull out and guess later on if things don’t work the way I think they will.)

Time taken to make decision: About 45 to 60 seconds (+ up to another 90 seconds to do the work)

(2b) My plan is only okay.

Decision: I’ll give myself up to another minute to try my plan, but if it isn’t working, I’m going to bail and move on

Time taken to make decision: About 45 to 60 seconds (+ up to another 60 seconds to try my plan)

(2c) I don’t know how to solve or I have a “sort of plan” but really I’m just grasping at straws. I find myself thinking, “But if I just had more time, I’m sure I could figure it out!”

Decision: Is there a way to make an educated guess? If so, I have up to 1 more minute to think that through and then guess. If not, I pick my favorite letter right now and move on.

Time taken to make decision: About 45 to 60 seconds (+ up to another 60 seconds to make an educated guess)

(3) Huh?

I’ve read it—twice!—but I’m still not really sure what the problem is asking. Or I find myself thinking, “But I studied this! I should know how to do this!” (Doesn’t matter; I can’t understand it right now.)

Decision: Is there a way to make an educated guess? If so, I have up to 1 more minute to think that through and then guess. If not, I pick my favorite letter right now and move on.

Time taken to make decision: About 45 to 60 seconds (+ up to another 60 seconds to make an educated guess)

Notice any common threads for most of these decisions? In all but the first case, that initial decision is going to take you approximately 45 to 60 seconds (or faster, at times). So there’s another skill that you need to practice: your 1-minute time sense.

What’s a 1-minute time sense?

It’s the ability to know that you started working on the problem approximately one minute ago … without actually having to look at the clock every minute. You’re going to train yourself to know roughly how long one minute is!

First, just know that you’re not trying to turn yourself into a human clock. A “good enough” 1-minute time sense is all you need—and good enough is anywhere between about 40 seconds and 1 minute 20 seconds.

How do I develop that 1-minute sense?

Grab your smart phone and pull up the stopwatch function. (You can also buy a stopwatch at a local convenience store or electronics store.) Start the stopwatch, then push the lap button to see what happens.

(Note: on some stopwatches, the “lap” button won’t show up until you start the timer. That’s how my iPhone works.)

Pushing the “lap” button will not stop the stopwatch; rather, it will mark the time at which you pushed the button, but the stopwatch itself will keep running. You can push the “lap” button multiple times, and the timer will record all of the times at which you pushed the button while continuing to run. It records the intervals between when you pushed the button.

First, start with something non-GMAT-related that still engages your brain fully. Have to write up a report or memo for work, do some research, read a paper? Set up your stopwatch and cover the part that shows the timer so that you can’t see what it says.

Start your work. Every time you think one minute has passed, push the lap button. After you’ve pushed it 5 to 10 times, stop the stopwatch and go look at your data. How good were you at predicting that it had been one minute?

Any times between about 40 seconds and 1 minute 20 seconds are good. If you’re consistently on the faster side, then when you try this exercise again, make yourself wait a little longer past when you feel like you should push the button. If you’re consistently on the slower side, push the button faster than you think you should.

If you’re just all over the map, don’t despair. Keep doing this exercise two or three times a day until you start to get used to mentally tracking a minute while your brain is mostly occupied with something else. You’ll get there.

Next, try this out with actual GMAT problems. Set yourself up with a set of 3 Quant or CR practice problems. (It’s best to practice this with 2-minute questions to start.) Start your timer and cover it up again.

Dive into the first problem; when you think it’s been about a minute since you began that problem, push the lap button. When you’re done with the problem, push the lap button again. Start your second problem; when you think it’s been about a minute since you began that problem, push the lap button. When you’re done, push the button again.

Keep repeating this process until you’re done with your set. (Note: if you’re done with the question before you think the first minute has passed, check your work. If you were really that fast, you have the time to check, right? Make sure you didn’t make a careless mistake simply due to speed. While checking your work, remember to push that button when you think it has been a minute since you started in the first place.)

As you get better, give yourself longer sets—5 questions, 8, 10. After a few weeks, you’ll have trained yourself to have a decent 1-minute time sense while you’re doing GMAT problems.

How do I put together the decision tree and the 1-minute time sense?

That’s the heart of the issue! Here’s what you’re going to do.

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Your first task is just to try to understand what’s going on. Start reading. If this isn’t a category 1 (bail immediately), then use your first minute to try to understand, jot everything down, and figure out how you could solve.

Your decision point comes at or before the 1-minute mark. Do you understand? Do you have a decent plan? Great, give yourself another 60 to 90 seconds to try to solve. (Again, be willing to pull yourself out if things don’t go as planned.)

Or does the process break down somewhere? You don’t understand. You don’t have a good plan. Okay, try plan B: is there a decent way to make an educated guess? If so, you can spend up to about 60 seconds trying to do that. (Assuming that another 60 seconds won’t put you over time! Don’t try to solve for 2 minutes and then switch to educated guessing.) If there isn’t a good way to make a guess, pick your favorite letter and move on right now, happily saving around 60 seconds to use elsewhere.

By the way, if you’re interested in getting more practice with the Understand, Plan, Solve process, then follow that link.

How long will it take to master this?

There are a lot of skills to practice. Expect to spend a solid 4 to 6 weeks working through and practicing the different pieces before it starts to come together and feel more natural. (Of course, some people may pick it up more quickly and some may need more practice.)

Eventually, the goal is to make this all feel like second nature; it’s just how you think when you sit down to solve a GMAT problem. You will have internalized the Business Mindset approach to the GMAT!

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