When (and How) to Guess on the GMAT: 4 Key Tips

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Most test-takers preparing for the GMAT spend countless hours studying different content areas so that they’ll be ready to proficiently and confidently answer every question they encounter on test day. But even the most prepared test-takers sometimes find themselves having to guess on different GMAT questions.

If you’re worried about when (or how) to guess on GMAT test day, this is the guide for you. I’ll explain how implementing a strong guessing strategy can help you earn points and save time, walk you through the situations where you may need to guess on the GMAT, and give you the best tips for deciding whether to guess or skip a question altogether.

 

How Does Guessing Affect My GMAT Score?

In order to understand why it’s important to guess on the GMAT, you first have to know how the GMAT is scored. In this section, I’ll be focusing on how your GMAT total score (which is made up of your scaled quantitative and scaled verbal scores) is calculated.

Your GMAT total score is made up of your scaled verbal and scaled quantitative scores. There are three factors that determine your GMAT total score:

  • The number of questions you answer correctly
  • The number of questions you answer
  • The difficulty level of the questions you answer

As you can see, the number of questions you answer affects your GMAT total score. That means that, as a general rule, it’s extremely important to get through every (or almost every question) to get a high score.

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You don’t, on the other hand, need to answer every question correctly to get a high score because the GMAT weights questions according to their difficulty levels. You can still get a high score if you answer questions incorrectly — but only if you attempt to answer every question.

As a general rule of thumb, then, guessing on the GMAT is preferable to simply skipping a question, because you’ll get credit for at least attempting to answer the question. However, research shows that there’s a slight difference between guessing on the verbal section and guessing on the quantitative section, which I’ll explain more in a later section. For now, let’s talk about what I mean by guessing on the GMAT.

 

While guessing may seem risky, making an educated guess can actually help you reach your GMAT target score.
While guessing may seem risky, making an educated guess can actually help you reach your GMAT target score.

 

Guessing vs. Educated Guessing

There are two different types of guessing that you may use as a GMAT test-taker and while they may sound the same, they’re actually very different.

 

Guessing

Guessing on the GMAT happens when you look at a question, have absolutely no idea what the correct answer is, and can’t do anything to narrow down the five answer choices to get closer to the correct answer. Guessing in this sense is very rare for GMAT test-takers. Most GMAT test-takers are actually making educated guesses, because they understand enough about the question to eliminate at least one obviously incorrect answer.

If, in your practicing, you find that you’re making a lot of guesses, without having any ability to eliminate answers, you should reassess the way you’re preparing, as this could be a sign that you’re unprepared to actually take the GMAT.

 

Educated Guessing

Educated guessing on the GMAT happens when you’re able to eliminate at least one of the answers to a particular question before you make your guess. Most of the time, when you have to guess to answer a GMAT question, you’ll be making an educated guess, because, again, most of the time, you’ll understand enough about the question to eliminate one or more obviously wrong answers. Making an educated guess is greatly preferable to blindly guessing, because every time you eliminate an answer, you increase your odds of getting the answer correct.

Generally speaking, educated guessing improves your chances of getting the correct answer, while simply guessing doesn’t do anything to help you get the correct answer. But how do you know when it’s time to make a guess (educated or not) versus when you should either skip a question or devote more time to getting the answer right? I’ll explore the answer to this question in the next two sections.

 

Pacing on the GMAT

Deciding when to guess, skip, or spend more time on a question has a lot to do with pacing. The GMAT is a timed test, so you only have limited seconds to spend on each question to ensure that you’ve got enough time to answer every question in a section. Remember, answering as many questions as possible is an important part of boosting your GMAT score. You’ll want to pay attention to your pacing during the exam in order to help you decide when you should guess to answer a question.

Many test-takers run out of time before they finish all the questions on the verbal and quant sections of the GMAT. The quant section has 31 questions, which you must solve in 62 minutes. That gives you about 120 seconds for each question. The verbal section asks you to solve 36 questions in 65 minutes, meaning you have slightly less time (around 100 seconds) to solve each question.

During your GMAT practice, it’s important to familiarize yourself with what 120 and 100 seconds really feels like. You’ll want to set timers for yourself as you’re working through practice question sets so that you build awareness and can tell when it’s taking you an abnormally long amount of time to solve a question.

On test day, you can use your own awareness of time (built up by timing yourself solving practice questions) and the clock that appears on your browser window to help keep yourself on pace.

Often, you’ll find that you can answer questions in far less than 100 or 120 seconds, which is awesome! Answering some questions quickly saves you time for more difficult questions you’ll encounter.

However, if you find as you’re answering a particular question that it’s getting close to the 100 or 120 second mark, you’ll want to consider guessing or skipping the question.

I’ll talk more about the decision to guess or skip a question in the next section, but as a general rule of thumb, you should guess on a question if you’ve already spent 95% of your allotted time on the question, aren’t close to getting a definitive answer, and have been able to eliminate at least one incorrect answer. Remember, making an educated guess gives you decent odds of getting the correct answer.

Let’s look more at the decision to guess or skip a question in the next section.

 

Working with a timer can help build muscle memory for how long you have to answer questions on the different sections of the GMAT.
Working with a timer can help build muscle memory for how long you have to answer questions on the different sections of the GMAT.

 

Should I Guess or Skip a Question?

As I mentioned earlier, part of your GMAT score is based on how many questions you answer, so you’ll want to answer as many questions as possible while you’re taking the test. But what do you do if you’re running out of time on a section? Well, practically speaking, you’ve got two options: you can make a guess or you can skip the question altogether. Let’s look at how to decide which option to choose.


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The first rule for deciding whether to guess or skip a question is to see if you can eliminate any obviously incorrect answers. If you can eliminate one, two, or three incorrect answers, you should 100% of the time make a guess from the remaining answers, even if you’re not sure which is correct. Making an educated guess is by far the best option in this scenario, because eliminating incorrect answers increases the likelihood that you’ll actually select the correct answer.

If you can’t eliminate any incorrect answers, your choices are to make a random guess or to skip the question entirely. Deciding whether to make a random guess or to skip a section depends a lot on the section you’re working on, how much time you have left on the test, and your strengths and weaknesses as a test-taker.

If you’re in the middle of the test, you should always guess randomly, rather than skipping a question entirely. In the middle of the test, you still have a number of questions to answer and should aim to answer as many questions as possible with the time you’ve got left. If you’re running up on the end of the test, consider these tips for helping to decide whether to guess or skip questions on the quant and verbal sections.

If you’re working on the verbal section, your best bet is to skip the questions you can’t answer (assuming that the number of questions you can’t answer is 4 or fewer). According to a study conducted by GMAC in 2009, there’s, on average, no substantial difference between making a random guess or simply skipping a few questions. Basically, that means that if you’re coming down to the wire on the last few verbal questions, it’s better to focus your efforts on one or two questions you can answer confidently, and leave the rest blank, because leaving a couple of questions blank won’t substantially impact your verbal section score.

The quant section, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. According to GMAC’s data, deciding whether to skip or guess on a quant question has a lot to do with your abilities as a test taker. If you struggle with the quant section, skipping a few questions won’t substantially hurt your score and, as with the verbal section, it’s better to focus your efforts on the one or two questions you can answer, while leaving the remaining few blank.

If you’re a stellar quant star, however, skipping questions is a bad idea and can hurt your score substantially. If you’re looking for a top quant score and have run out of time, it’s better to try to make a random guess on every question you’ve got left than to leave them all blank.

Remember, regardless of section and ability, if you can eliminate even one incorrect answer, you should always make a guess. You should also spend a lot of time practicing your timing so that you’re not stuck with more than a handful of unanswered questions at the end of a section – or, better yet, so that you’re easily able to answer all of the questions in the time allotted.

 

4 Tips for Narrowing Down Answers

As I mentioned in the previous sections, making an educated guess is the best option if you’re running out of time or stumped on a question. If you can narrow down even one answer choice, you’ll improve your odds of getting the answer correct. The GMAT doesn’t care how you got the right answer – it just cares that you got the right answer, so narrow down answer choices whenever you can. If you’re struggling for ways to narrow down answer choices, check out these tips.

Eliminating incorrect answer choices is a powerful way to make an effective educated guess.
Eliminating incorrect answer choices is a powerful way to make an effective educated guess.

 

Verbal Section Tips

Use these strategies on verbal section questions to quickly and effectively eliminate incorrect answers.

 

#1: Eliminate Grammatical Mistakes

On sentence correction questions, you should automatically eliminate any answer choice that contains a grammatical mistake. In fact, even if you’re unsure what the grammatical mistake is in the question itself, scan the answer choices for improper grammar. Anything with an error is wrong and should be eliminated.

 

#2: Eliminate Unreasonable Answer Choices

For reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions, you’ll want to eliminate unreasonable answer choices. Examples of unreasonable answer choices include answers that speak in absolutes (e.g., answers that use the words “all,” “none,” “every,” etc.) or make claims that seem unreasonably positive or negative.

 

Quantitative Section Tips

Check out these tips for helping to narrow down incorrect answers on the quant section of the GMAT.


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#3: Estimate

When approaching GMAT quant questions, take a peek at the answers first. If the answers are all specific numerical values, you can try estimating to find the right answer. Remember, the GMAT doesn’t require you to use a calculator, so you may be able to use estimation to your advantage. Keep an eye out for questions that use the word “approximately” in their text – that’s a good sign that you can estimate to find the correct answer.

 

#4: Plug In Numbers

Plugging in numbers is a useful strategy for solving quant questions. You want to avoid using -1, 0, or 1 as your plug in value, because they behave differently than other numbers. If the question asks you to use a specific type of number (e.g. a multiple of 3), make sure you’re using a multiple (e.g. use 6 instead of 54) that’ll be easy to do basic calculations with. Don’t forget about negative integers, positive and negative fractions, positive and negative decimals, etc., when plugging in numbers to solve a question. You can also plug the answer choices back into the question to try to narrow down the correct answer.

 

Review: When (and How) to Guess on the GMAT

Most GMAT test-takers will have to make guesses at least once or twice when they take the test. Make guessing on the GMAT work for you by following these rules.

As often as possible, make an educated guess where you’ve eliminated one or more incorrect answers. Doing so will increase your chances of getting the question correct.

If you’re running out of time on the verbal section, the difference between randomly guessing on the last few questions and skipping them entirely is negligible. Spend your time working through one or two of those questions to get the correct answer and leave the rest blank.

On the quant section, however, your decision to guess or skip a question depends on your quant abilities. If you’re an average or poor quant tester, skipping a few questions won’t hurt you. If you’re an outstanding quant tester, skipping questions will hurt your score, so it’s better to randomly guess than to leave questions blank.

 

What’s Next?

Looking for more strategies that can help you find the correct answer to tricky quant or verbal questions? We’ve got in-depth guides that give overviews of the GMAT quant and GMAT verbal sections and discuss the strategies you’ll need to achieve your goal score.

Wondering about your GMAT total score? Is it really the only GMAT score that matters? In our guide to your GMAT total score, we breakdown the factors that make up your GMAT total score and discuss its importance in helping you get into business school.

One of the best ways to ensure that you won’t have to do a lot of random guessing on the GMAT is to build up your content knowledge by using a thorough, well-crafted study plan. Our guide to GMAT study plans gives you four GMAT study plan options you can adapt to your needs as a test-taker.

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