GMAT Timing Tip: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

When students call me to discuss issues they’ve been having in their preparation, one of the most common concerns I hear is timing. Be it on practice tests or on the real thing, basically all GMAT test-takers experience a time crunch at some point during the test, if not throughout the entire exam. Now, if you’re nodding your head vigorously in agreement and expect some easy solution to this issue, you’re at the wrong blog. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the GMAT is designed to press you for time — the algorithm is made to give you challenging questions, so if you’re breezing through the questions at record pace, you’re probably overlooking details in the questions or underestimating their level of difficulty. What is worth discussing, however, is how you actually deal with these time concerns. In a later post, I’ll discuss the importance of being selective in the questions you answer, but here, I want to mention how the Sunk Cost Fallacy, a cognitive bias well-known in Economics, prevents students from maximizing their scores on the test.

What is the Sunk Cost Fallacy?

A sunk cost refers to any cost (time, money, or effort) that has already been spent and is unrecoverable. Since the cost can’t be recovered, it should have no bearing on decisions you make about the future. For example, if you paid $100 for non-refundable tickets to tonight’s basketball game, but just learned that your best friend is in town and wants to grab dinner, the money you spent on those tickets shouldn’t influence your decision on what to do tonight. Whether or not you see the basketball game, those $100 are lost, so the only factor that should weigh in on your decision is whether you want to see your friend or watch the game. So how does this relate to GMAT pacing?

Two important situations come to mind.

#1: If you’ve just spent a minute on a question and have little to no idea where you’re going, you shouldn’t continue attempting to answer the question simply because you’ve already spent time on it. That first minute spent on the question is essentially a sunk cost, so, after that first minute, you should view the question as though it’s a new one. The only factor that should influene your decision to continue with the question is whether, from the point you’re at now, the best use of your time is to continue answering the question or guess and move on to a new one.

#2: If you spend two minutes on a question, but arrive at the wrong answer because you overlooked a detail or made a careless algebra or arithmetic error, you shouldn’t guess on the question simply because you’ve already spent two minutes on it. At this point, those two minutes are a sunk cost, and the relevant question becomes: Given where I am now, if I spend another two minutes on this question, will I arrive at the correct answer? If you feel confident that you will, then you should re-do the question, since, at this point, it’s essentially a new question that you have two minutes to answer correctly.

As counter-intuitive as some of the above suggestions might be, it’s essential to keep them in mind as you go through both your practice tests and the real exam. Because of its computer-adapative nature, the GMAT, more than any other test, rewards test-takers who allocate their time as strategically and efficiently as possible. Divorcing yourself from the mindset you had for tests in college and high school will undoubtedly require adjustments, but these adjustments will ultimately help you maximize your GMAT score. And in the end, that’s what’s important.


Erfun Geula

Erfun Geula is a professional GMAT tutor, based in New York City. He has scored in the 99th-percentile of the GMAT three different times, he has written and edited hundreds of practice GMAT questions, and he has over 7,000 hours of tutoring experience.

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