Develop a time strategy

Let’s make it clear again: in the PST, you are running against time. Chances are that at the last minute of your test, you’ll see 3 people out of 10 who either ran out of time or did not have enough time to transfer their answers on the answer sheet.

Some questions in the PST look exceedingly complicated. Sometimes it may even look like if you give each such question the time it seems to require, you might run out of time on a single one! Spending excessive time pouring over hard questions often prevents candidates from leaving enough time for other, more straightforward questions. And, since you do not need to answer all of the questions right in order to pass the test, this strategy is dangerous and counterproductive. The strategy we suggest is all about allocating the right amount of time to all the questions and to copying answers at the end:

  • Keep at least 5 spare minutes at the end of the test to copy your answers on the answer sheet. If you have 60 minutes in total, you’ll be left with 55 minutes.
  • Break down the remaining time in minutes per question - in this case about 2 minutes per question.
  • Ensure that you do not exceed the time allocated to the cumulative number of questions reached at your point in the test. If, for example, you've just completed question 5, it should be no later than minute 10 from the beginning of the test. If you realize that you are spending too much time on a single question and the time from the beginning of the test is twice the number of the question you are working on, circle the question and the 2-3 most likely answers you were trying to answer but could not finish, and proceed to the next one. At the end of the test, if you are left with some time (excluding the time for copying answers on the answer sheet), you will go back to the questions and the circles will inform you about your choices. If, instead, you are left with no time, while copying the answers on the answer sheet you will randomly choose one of the 2-3 circled likely answers.

Acquire a consistent answering method

Two minutes per question is an extremely challenging time horizon by itself. Successful candidates tend to develop a structured and consistent approach to answering PST questions over the course of their training. Whilst some experts advise candidates to adopt different approaches based on kind of questions, this strategy adds one more step to the process, further reducing the available time. Our method is very simple and straightforward, and allows candidates to quickly build good habits. Good habits give confidence and reduce stress on the day of the test.

Here’s our method in a nutshell:

  1. Carefully read each question. Read the question in detail, understanding what kind of answer the test is looking for. By reading the question, you will scope out what the question is looking for in the introductory paragraph. Even if starting by quickly skimming the test may sound tempting, refrain from doing so: you are wasting precious time and at least 70% of the introductory paragraph is about context information that is not relevant to the question asked.

    When you start practicing, you will realize that at least 20% of your mistakes are due to misread questions.

  2. Quickly skim through the answers and underline key words. Going through the answers will give you additional information about the question and the possible alternatives for answering it. Such information is be very important when dealing with qualitative answers, but even more so when dealing with quantitative answers:
    • Qualitative answers: underline key words such as verbs and adverbs like “never” or “always”, which can usually help you to rule out some answers. Answers containing “always” or “never” that generalize a trend should raise a red flag, since they are less likely to be the right ones.
    • Quantitative answers: understand what degree of simplification is necessary - or, in other words, understand whether you are dealing with a precise maths question or an estimate maths question. If, for example, all answers are very close and distance themselves by few units or percentage points, you must be accurate in your calculations. If, on the other hand, there are big gaps between the provided values, you’ll be able to round numbers and simplify your calculations.

    The PST tests your ability to cope with ‘information overload’, i.e. dealing with a large amount of data that may not help in answering the question.

  3. Identify and understand relevant text and data. Understanding what information you need to get and what level of detail is required, will enable you to quickly identify the relevant part of the introductory paragraph or the relevant data in exhibits/tables. Read it carefully, underlining, if necessary, key words and try to figure out the answer to the question in your mind.
  4. Pick the best solving technique. Basing on the question's type, choose which technique is more appropriate:
    • Qualitative answers: Follow an iterative process of eliminating wrong answers by going back and forth between the relevant section of the introductory paragraph and the questions. If, while scanning through answers in phase 2, you underlined key words, your work will be simplified. Even if you feel like you've identified the right answer, always go for the elimination strategy: a qualitative answer is not true until you have eliminated all the alternatives. The reasoning behind this strategy is that often at first sight some answers look less straightforward or more complicated, but on closer inspection they turn out to be the right ones. You’ll find additional techniques for solving all types of qualitative questions in the next paragraphs.
    • Quantitative answers. Identify the best technique by choosing between:
      1. Identifying relevant data and solving the problems directly by running all calculations on paper and ascertaining which answer matches with the results of your calculations.
      2. Building a framework of the calculation and plugging in the suggested answers until you find the one that works. Usually, once you find the answer that makes your framework/equation work, there is no need to test it with other answers.

Keep an error log

When reviewing your mistakes, everything looks clear and easy. However, 2 weeks later, you encounter a question with the same structure as another one that you previously got wrong and you become puzzled: you have no clue how to start solving it. This is what the error log is for: keeping track of your mistakes and what've you found the hardest, in order to go through it all frequently (e.g. every two days) and consolidate your technique. An error log is a continuous method of analysing practice problems to identify WHY you answered them incorrectly.

Error logs are a very effective tool for preparing to GMAT or other exams, but we recommend you to use them also for the Problem Solving Test.

There is no single right or wrong format for the error log. Some people like using detailed spreadsheets, while others simply use a paper, a pen and a symbol guide for marking and tracking certain answers. We recommend a simple, effective structure that you can use on paper or Excel / PowerPoint:

  • Question type (you will see our breakdown by question types below).
  • Reason why you've found the question difficult. Usually it’s either about taking too long to answer or not being able to answer at all.
  • Questions and answer choices.
  • Proposed solution. The solution you find the quickest and the most effective.
  • Key takeaways. What you should learn in order to answer that type of question more efficiently, e.g. learn to quickly simply fractions or improve your quick reading skills.

The “key takeaways” part of the error log will also constitute your to-do list for the coming days of the preparation.

Another reason why an error log is pivotal to PST success: there is a limited quantity of high quality questions. While the official McKinsey test provides excellent preparation and we too have invested a lot of money in making and testing content, the number of available tests is still limited. By keeping an error log and completing the necessary analysis, you will take full advantage of each question. Extra practice is always the best way to improve, as being exposed to different questions can help you identify your improvement area. Visit our PST practice page to find out more about extra practice.