When to Guess on Integrated Reasoning on the GMAT

The GMAT’s Integrated Reasoning section is very challenging for most test-takers. It contains 12 questions, most of which have two or three parts, and you’re only given 30 minutes to complete it. If you count up all of the individual parts as separate questions, the average IR section has roughly 24 questions. That means that if you spread your time evenly among them, each question should get about 75 seconds.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Those multi-part questions are actually all one question, so getting one part wrong means the whole thing is wrong. This throws the concept of “average timing” out the window.

IR is one of many opportunities to advance your candidacy. Even if an MBA program does not place any particular emphasis on IR, strong IR results can only help your candidacy. A solid score can boost your admissions chances—and can certainly hurt those chances if you blow it off as inconsequential. Let’s look at how to prep for the IR section and when to guess during the test.

Prepping for IR and cognitive behavior

GMAT IR is identical to the GMAT Quantitative and Verbal sections in that you use a college-level command of grammar, reasoning, vocabulary, and math to negotiate critical thinking puzzles amidst the constraints of the clock and the online testing scenario. Similarly, IR offers a business-oriented, problem-solving scenario in which you must manipulate spreadsheets and statistical information in order to deduce inferences that answer the questions asked.

Thus, the primary way to grow in IR is to first refresh yourself on the grammar and math you haven’t seen in years to strengthen your cognitive prowess in the Quantitative and Verbal sections. Once you have rehearsed the pattern-recognition, translation, and work-smarter behaviors demanded by the Quant and Verbal sections to the point that you are raising your scores in those sections, then apply yourself to the different medium presented by IR. Here’s one great way to approach your GMAT prep:

  1. Drill yourself back to a daily familiarity with the math and language concepts demanded by the Quant and Verbal sections.
  2. Apply that knowledge to the patterned ways that the Quant and Verbal sections require you to use those concepts.
  3. Practice those applied behaviors until they’re second nature, and your Quant and Verbal scores rise.
  4. Acquaint yourself with the unique medium and format of the Integrated Reasoning section. Get used to the repeated ways in which IR presents information and questions and the patterned methods to efficiently attack the problem solving it demands.
  5. When you see your IR practice scores rise, take full-length practice tests so that you encounter IR in its “natural habitat.” That way, you’ll then see the continuity between the cognitive behaviors demanded by IR and all the other sections of the GMAT.

When to Guess and Move On (GAMO)

Kaplan has found the solution to fretting about timing on Test Day, and it may surprise you: Guessing blindly is the way to raise your Integrated Reasoning score. If you can quickly determine that a multi-part question will take you more than three minutes to solve, just guess and move on (GAMO).

Of course, you can’t raise your score by guessing blindly on the entire section. Knowing when to guess takes practice.

GAMO Step 1: Know thyself

Because everyone is different, no GMAT teacher (or blogger) can tell you which questions to skip. (And when I say “skip,” that means GAMO.) Your first step is to practice all four IR question types to learn which ones are most troublesome for you.

  • Graphics Interpretation questions are usually (relatively) quick work.
  • Multi-Source Reasoning, Table Analysis, and Two-Part Analysis questions tend to be more time consuming. You need to plan to work some and skip (guess on) a few.

Multi-part Table Analysis questions take me way too long to answer; I almost always skip them. My Kaplan colleague Kat loves spreadsheets, so she likes Table Analysis. She would skip a different question type. We both know this because we have practiced and know our Integrated Reasoning strengths.

GAMO Step 2: Assess before you guess

As I said, I usually skip multi-part Table Analysis questions because they take me too long to solve—but sometimes the table is really straightforward and the question parts seem manageable. I don’t guess as soon as I see the question; I assess whether I can handle it before I decide whether to skip it.

By solving a more straightforward Table Analysis question, I “free up” one of my guesses for the question type that takes me almost as long: Multi-Source Reasoning. This is why practicing and learning your personal strengths within the section is key to implementing the GAMO strategy.

GAMO Step 3: Count the singletons

I’ve been referring to multi-part questions because some Integrated Reasoning questions only have one part. Most Integrated Reasoning sections on the GMAT have about three of these single-part questions, which I call singletons. You can tell as soon as a question appears on screen whether it has multiple parts or is just a single, multiple-choice question. When you see one of these singletons, take the time to solve it.

Because most IR sections have at least two singletons, make a tick mark on your noteboard to keep count of how many you’ve seen. If you are trying to decide whether to guess on a multi-part question number 10, you can factor in the likelihood of having a singleton appear next; if you have only seen one of them, you can pretty safely guess on number 10 and expect a singleton as 11 or 12.

GAMO Goal: Land your best Integrated Reasoning score

You may be wondering, is this Kaplan expert telling me all I need to do is guess on the hardest GMAT questions? No, that’s not ALL you need to do. You need to practice to both improve your performance and evaluate which question types are your strongest.

I recently implemented this strategy on both a Manhattan Prep Powered by Kaplan practice test and a GMAC practice test. On both tests I guessed on three questions, but because I hadn’t wasted any time trying to solve them (and probably still getting them wrong), I had more time to work on the remaining questions. I answered those three GAMO questions incorrectly, but I answered the other nine questions correctly on each test.

My score? On both tests I scored a 7. That’s a 7 out of a maximum possible score of 8, folks. GAMO works! Next time I’ll share tips for perfecting your AWA essay.

Jennifer Mathews Land has taught for Kaplan since 2009. She prepares students to take the GMAT, GRE, ACT, and SAT and was named Kaplan’s Alabama-Mississippi Teacher of the Year in 2010. Prior to joining Kaplan, she worked as a grad assistant in a university archives, a copy editor for medical web sites, and a dancing dinosaur at children’s parties. Jennifer holds a PhD and a master’s in library and information studies (MLIS) from the University of Alabama, and an AB in English from Wellesley College. When she isn’t teaching, she enjoys watching Alabama football and herding cats.