Saving Time by Slowing Down

Consider the following:

Scenario 1. While hiking alone in a remote area, you inadvertently step into some quicksand. Within seconds, you’re up to your waist. What do you do?

Scenario 2. During your GMAT practice tests, you consistently run out of time. How do you alter your approach so that you stay on track, without resorting to guessing?

Believe it or not the best strategy for scenario 1 is to relax, take a deep breath and slowly lean back. Remember, your body is less dense than quicksand, so you can’t fully sink . . . unless you struggle a lot. So, with quicksand, your natural response (e.g., “I have to get out of here quickly!!”) may actually reduce your likelihood of survival.

Scenario 2 shares some characteristics with scenario 1. If your natural response to the GMAT’s time constraints is to work faster, then this response may actually hurt your score.

In this article, I’ll argue that, in many cases, working faster can actually increase the amount of time it takes you to answer a GMAT question. In fact, the fastest approach may very well be the one in . . . which . . . you . . . slow . . . down.

To see what I mean, try answering the following Data Sufficiency question in less than 2 minutes. . . . now. Hurry!

If k is an integer, is 5^(-k) < 5^(1 – 2k)?

1) 2 < 1 - k

2) 2k < 3

When it comes to Data Sufficiency questions, one of the biggest mistakes a student can make is not taking the time to determine whether the target question can be rephrased in a more convenient way. Failing to do so can often result in a long and tedious solution.

For the above question, let’s see what happens if we invest a bit of time rephrasing the target question.

Target question: Is 5^(-k) < 5^(1 – 2k)?

Let’s first divide both sides of the inequality by 5^(1 – 2k).

Aside: When we divide powers with the same base, we subtract the exponents. So, on the left-hand side, we get: 5^[(-k) – (1 – 2k)], which simplifies to 5^[k –1]

So, the rephrased target question now reads: Is 5^(k-1) < 1? Not bad.

Can we improve on this? Sure . . . if we take the time to do so.

Notice that 5^something will be less than 1 if that “something” is negative.

In other words, 5^(k-1) < 1 when k-1 is less than 0.

So, we can re-rephrase the target question as: Is k-1 < 0?

Furthermore, if we add 1 to both sides, we can re-re-rephrase the target question as: Is k < 1?

As you’ll see, taking the time to rewrite “Is 5^(-k) < 5^(1 – 2k)?” as “Is k < 1?” will save us a lot of time when we begin examining the statements.

Statement 1: 2 < 1 - k

Add k to both sides, and subtract 2 from both sides to get k < -1.

Well, if k is less than -1, we can be certain that k is less than 1.

Statement 1 is sufficient

Statement 2: 2k < 3

Divide both sides by 2 to get k < 1.5.

So, k could equal 1, or k could be less than 1.

Statement 2 is not sufficient

So, the correct answer is A.

By investing some time to first find the most concise way to rephrase the target question, we're able answer the question in under a minute.

The problem is that students who are pressed for time are unlikely to invest a lot time analyzing the target question before moving on to the statements. In the process, these students end up wasting considerable time trying to determine the sufficiency of each statement.

On a similar note, students in a hurry are more apt to race through Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning passages without pausing to summarize and reflect on what they’ve read. As a result, they end up rereading those passages one or more times in order to find what they missed earlier.

In general, I believe that students who are in a hurry are more apt to choose ineffective strategies, miss key information, and make mistakes. So, in an effort to improve their scores, students who view “working faster” as a legitimate strategy can actually do more harm than good.

My Suggestions

If timing is an issue for you, try slowing down the next time you take a practice test. Invest some time at the beginning of each question and see what happens. Some suggestions include:

  • Data Sufficiency questions: rephrase the target question and summarize any given information before tackling the statements.
  • Problem Solving questions: try to identify at least two possible approaches, and then select the approach that seems fastest.
  • Reading Comprehension questions: read the passage at a comfortable pace, summarize each paragraph, and take a moment to digest key information.
  • Critical Reasoning questions: read at a comfortable pace, and summarize key information (i.e., conclusion and premises). For certain question types (e.g., Structure questions), be sure to formulate your own response before examining the answer choices.
  • Integrated Reasoning questions: take a moment to get a general feeling for the “story” that the data tells.

You might just find that you’re able to solve questions faster, and you’re less stressed in the process.


PS: For a complete get-out-of-quicksand strategy, see

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