Here’s What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do on the GMAT

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blog-what-to-doYou’re staring at a GMAT problem that you just don’t understand. There’s a minute left on the clock. What do you do?

Are you behind on time?

If so, guess randomly and move on. Making up for lost time is much more valuable than anything I’ll describe in this article. Even if you’re ahead on time, consider moving on from the problem anyway, especially if you tend to work slowly.

Question-Type Strategies

Integrated Reasoning

Unless it’s the very last problem, or you’re way ahead on time, guess randomly and move on. Integrated Reasoning rewards strategic skipping more than any other problem type, since the problems often have multiple parts (making it much less likely that you’ll get the right answer by guessing) and the difficulty comes mainly from intense time pressure.

Problem Solving

  • Eliminate “Homers.” A Homer is any answer choice that Homer Simpson might pick. Homer is clueless, so he’d probably just look at the numbers in the problem, look at the answer choices, and pick one that looks similar. The test writers expect this, so don’t be like Homer. If an answer choice contains a lot of the numbers from the problem, or if it’s a simple combination of those numbers (like a sum or a product), don’t pick it.
  • If there are two variables in the problem, eliminate singletons. Suppose that a problem states that the sum of Archie’s and Betty’s ages is 38. The test writers will probably include both Archie’s actual age and Betty’s actual age among the answer choices, just because it’s easy to slip up and pick the wrong one. The right answer, and one of the wrong answers, will sum to 38. Eliminate any answers that aren’t part of such a pair.
  • Benchmark. If you understand the problem a little, but you don’t know how to do the math, check the answer choices. Are some of them greater than 1, and some less than 1? Are some of them very large, and others very small? If so, guess which category the right answer would belong to.  When in doubt, pick an answer choice that looks complex over one that looks simple.

Data Sufficiency

  • Don’t forget that you can work with just the easier statement. This will allow you to eliminate either 2 or 3 answer choices.
  • If the two statements look almost identical, guess A or B. The test writers are probably trying to see if you can identify a small but crucial difference between the statements.
  • In general, avoid guessing C. On the one hand, C is the right answer 20% of the time, just like any other answer choice. On the other hand, a lot of logically complex problems are designed to trick you into choosing C. If C feels right, but you’re not really sure why, it’s probably a trap.

Sentence Correction

  • Mentally cross off modifiers to find the core of the sentence. If you’re really struggling to understand the sentence, there’s probably something wrong with the core.
  • Find a single, easy, grammatical split to work with. Hard problems often have a single, subtle pronoun or subject/verb agreement split that’ll let you eliminate 2 or 3 answer choices.
  • Never guess an answer choice if you know there’s a grammatical error in it, even if it sounds the best overall. The right answer will never have any errors.
  • If you’re out of ideas, it’s okay to go with what sounds right. That’s the great thing about Sentence Correction — on a Quant problem, you can get completely stuck and have no idea where to start. On Sentence Correction, you always have your instincts as an English speaker!

Reading Comprehension

  • Look at the first few words of every answer choice if you’re guessing the answer to a general Reading Comprehension question, such as a Main Idea question. They’ll usually include a term such as explain or argue. Eliminate any answer choices that don’t seem to describe the passage you read. Don’t guess an answer choice containing argue or advocate unless the author is obviously doing that. Just because the author seems to have a slight preference or voices a positive or negative about something, you can’t necessarily describe the point of the passage as arguing.
  • Avoid guessing an answer that contains too many keywords from the passage. It’s probably a trap.
  • If there’s anything wrong with an answer choice, it’s wrong. Wrong answers will often have a single incorrect word or phrase, but otherwise look great — don’t pick an answer that looks mostly right if you can identify anything wrong with it.  

Critical Reasoning:

  • Pick the most boring, wishy-washiest answer if it’s a Draw a Conclusion or Find the Assumption problem. The right answers to these problem types rarely consist of bold statements.
  • Don’t pick a guess that contains strong language, such as “all” or “every” or “never”. These are sometimes right, but they’re often traps.
  • Don’t pick a guess that makes a comparison, such as “GMATopia exports more books than any other country.” These answer choices are sometimes right, but they’re also often inserted to trick you.

These aren’t the only ways to make a quick strategic guess, but they’re a few of the best ones.

As you practice, you’ll observe other patterns in which answers tend to be right or wrong. Which wrong answer choices you’re tempted by, or which answers tend to be correct on problems that you struggle with, will also depend on your own habits as a test-taker. Use this list as a jumping-off point, but whenever you make a successful guess — or whenever you notice a clever way to guess while reviewing a problem — write down what you’ve discovered, and use it on test day. Guessing is necessary for everyone, and guessing is a skill you can learn — that’s why we teach good guessing skills in our 9-week GMAT Complete Courses, alongside lots of real math and language content. Improve your guessing abilities now to avoid trouble when you take the official GMAT. 📝


Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GMAT Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GMAT prep offerings here.

 

  1. Manhattan Prep March 25, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    Glad you enjoyed it, Diego! Thanks for reading!

  2. Diego March 25, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Amazing article Chelsey. Thank you big time for sharing. I’ll definitely be applying those guessing strategies when I take the GMAT now in May. Cheers!