A common belief is that the first ten questions “count” the most in each section of the GMAT, and that in light of this “fact,” you should spend more time on these early questions than you do on the rest of the test. Unfortunately, this belief is false, and its implied course of action could actually be detrimental to your score. Put plainly: you might hurt your score by spending more time on the early questions that you do on later ones.
Some people continue to believe this legend, despite all the evidence to the contrary. If you still think that the first questions count more than later ones, or if you’re still not sure what you think, then read on. You need to know the facts of the matter if you’re going to succeed on the GMAT.
1. The GMAT itself states that the first ten questions don’t count more.
If you have your Official Guide handy, open it up to page 17, bottom right. There’s a text box there with the header “Myth vs Fact.” Here the test maker specifically says that it is a myth that you should invest all your time in the first ten questions, and adds, “all questions count.”
Some people are not convinced by what it says in the book. These people claim that the GMAC is just lying, out of a perverse desire to just mess with us. But it just isn’t feasible to think that the GMAC is actually telling an outright lie in print. Further, what would the GMAC have to gain from such a lie? If they wanted everyone to get a bad score, believe me, they could. They could just hit you mercilessly with the most difficult questions in the world.
This could be a whole article in and of itself, but the GMAC doesn’t “want” everyone to get a bad score. They need an even distribution of scores, all the way from 200 to 800, to form a bell curve. Also, the testmakers need to hold themselves above potential censure or blame. There is no way they could simply lie in print about how their test is scored.
2. Don’t be swayed by the desire to implement a cool strategy.
I’ve noticed that many students are saddened to hear that the first ten questions don’t count more than the others. When I ask why, they admit that they liked “having something” on the testmaker. It’s fun to think that you know a neat trick. So, ask yourself whether your “belief” isn’t at least a little bit rooted in wishful thinking.
3. “Common knowledge” can be wrong.
You may have heard from many, many people that the first questions count more than later ones. You may have heard it so many times and from so many people that it just has to be the truth. After all, how could so many people believe something that’s wrong?
But if you think about it, there are lots of things than “everyone knows” that are still not true. Heck, for a long time people thought the Earth went around the sun. And many people *still* think that lemmings commit mass suicide. (They don’t, I swear!) Urban legends abound and they’re hard to shake. But they’re still quite often completely wrong.
No matter how many people tell you something, it might not be the truth. Do you really want to base any of your beliefs in “common knowledge” that might be wrong?
4. Anecdotal evidence can be flawed.
Some students tell me that they know someone who took the GMAT, invested extra time in early questions, and did well. Some people even tell me that they used this strategy themselves to great success. However, these are just individual stories. I’ve also heard of stories of people who smoked their whole lives and never got ill from it. I’ve even heard of people who survived the fall from an airplane without a parachute. Isolated incidents do not prove a trend. Anecdotes have a strong emotional impact, but logically, they prove very little.
Further, if you do put faith in anecdotes, I can match you anecdote for anecdote. I know tons of students who have chosen not to over-invest in the first ten questions and who have scored in the 700s. I even know someone who had to guess on the very first question and got a 790.
You can’t put your faith in anecdotes alone. You have to think about the big picture and take all the facts into account… no matter what you heard from a friend who heard from a friend whose cousin’s roommate’s best friend’s stepbrother took the GMAT and got an 800.
5. Don’t confuse an outcome with the source of that outcome.
As you may have learned in your studies of critical reasoning, correlations do not prove a causal relationship. If you happen to drop your pencil one moment before a light bulb blows out, that hardly proves that the pencil dropping caused the light bulb to burst.
I’ve seen students who claim that their scores have gone up on practice tests when they chose to spend more time on the first ten questions. But this doesn’t prove that the reason their score went up on that test was that they invested their time in that way. Any number of factors could have caused the upswing. Maybe the student had studied a lot that week and started to really make a breakthrough. Perhaps the student has a habit of starting the test on an uneven keel, and by slowing down at the start, the student put him or herself in a better frame of mind and got through the test better. That’s not a bad thing, but it doesn’t mean that the early questions count more. Further, the student could find a way to get into that frame of mind without going so slowly on the early questions.
My point is that there isn’t always a clear cause and effect relationship happening when you take practice tests. Don’t assume that if your score goes up when you implement a strategy that it was the strategy that caused the improvement. It might have been the strategy – or it might not have been.
6. Keep in mind the influence of experimental questions.
This is probably also deserving of an entire article in and of itself, but evidence indicates that 8 –10 of the questions that you’ll see on each section of the test will be experimental. Further, the science of validity testing mandates that no experimental question be put in the last section of the exam. Crunching the numbers, it’s unlikely that any question from about 25 onwards in quant (or 29 onwards in verbal) would be experimental, and once you get to about question 30 in quant (or 34 in verbal), it’s extremely unlikely that those questions would be experimental. So if approximately 8 of the first 27 questions of quant are experimental, there’s around a 30% chance that any question you’re dealing with early in a section is experimental. Meanwhile, the last ten or so are almost certainly real. If anything, you should be putting your energy into the last ten, not the first ten!
Do you really want to invest a lot of time into a question that has around a 30% chance of being experimental, only to run out of time for a question that actually does impact your score?
7. If the test is adaptive, then what good does would this strategy do?
I happen to be of the opinion that perhaps that test isn’t as adaptive as people think it is. But if the test really is adaptive, then if you invest your time into the first ten questions, then presumably you’d impress the mechanism into giving you a high level of difficulty, right? That’s basically the goal.
Let’s follow this idea through to its logical conclusion. If you’re spending extra time to ensure that you get these questions right, the assumption is that without this extra time, you’d get them wrong. So it’s reasonable to conclude that you’d be reaching a level of difficulty that is slightly above your true level of ability. If you’re spending lots of extra time on them, then you might be reaching levels of difficulty far above your true ability. (Questions within your true ability are ones that you can solve in a reasonable amount of time for the test – right around two minutes.)
Once that you’ve reached that advanced difficulty level – well, then what? You’ve spent extra time so now you have less than 2 minutes per question for your remaining question. But these are questions that are slightly too hard for you, right? So now you have less time per question left to work on questions that are out of your league. It’s likely that you’ll get several of them wrong and be back to where you started. And since it’s so hard to make up pacing once you fall behind, you’re likely to run out of time completely on several questions at the end. In an adaptive test, a string of wrong answers all in a row harms you more than sporadic wrong answers do. And it’s well known that not even reaching questions is very detrimental to your score.
So, at best, spending extra time on early questions will do nothing for your score. You’ll get the next few questions wrong and balance back out to closer to your real ability. At worst, it will lower your score because it’ll ruin your pacing.
8. If the test isn’t adaptive, then what good would this strategy do?
The whole point of doing this at all is because the test is supposedly adaptive. If it isn’t adaptive, well, clearly then there’s no reason at all to think early questions would count more.
9. The best test takers are open to new things
As I mentioned in a previous post, continuing to do things the way you always did, on the grounds that, well, it’s what you always do, is a surefire way to keep your scores stagnant. If you still have any doubts as to whether early questions count more than later ones, it’s up to you to face your own feelings and concerns and then see if you can adjust to a new way of thinking.
Are you willing to reconsider your position, if it presents a possibility to get your dream score?
Laura has been working in the fast paced test prep industry in New York City for more than eight years. She has taught literally thousands of students and tutored thousands more. She has a Masters in Education and got a 780 on the GMAT – several times. She’s helped students improve more than 200 points, and has former students at Stern, Columbia, HBS, and Wharton. She believes that anything is possible!
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