GMAT Tip of the Week: Wide Left or It's the Little Things

GMAT prep
You’ve probably heard the song “It Never Rains in Southern California”, and the expression “when it rains it pours.” Here in soggy SoCal, we can disprove the first (GMAT tip — be very leery of words like “never”, and “all”), and certainly confirm the second. Naturally, that confirmation of heavy rains for five straight days comes with no sympathy from the rest of the world (the temperatures have still been in the 60s most days, and we’ll be back at the beach in no time), but those outside of New York City can likely empathize with the rain that poured in to the hearts of San Diego Charger fans this past weekend. Their team visibly outplayed the upstart Jets, but went down to defeat because of something as simple as missed field goals, and as frustrating as missed field goals by the NFL’s most accurate kicker.

That’s the thing with high-pressure, high-stakes situations (like the GMAT), though — it’s often mistakes on the little things that undermine high-level performance on the grander stage. Just as Nate Kaeding’s kicks sailed just wide, costing him and his teammates a chance at a trip to the Super Bowl in Miami, you have the potential to leave some of your work just wide, perhaps costing you at a chance for graduate school in Cambridge or Palo Alto. Here’s how:


The GMAT requires you to do a fair amount of algebraic calculation, and most examinees find that they’re pressed for time as they complete the quantitative section. Accordingly, you’ll probably write your calculations and determine your next steps quickly.

Consider the equation:

4 – (2(x-1)) = 0

Your first step, logically, will be to eliminate the innermost set of parentheses by distributing the “2″, to arrive at:

4 – (2x – 2) = 0

But there’s a good chance that, not wanting to forget about the 4, which will remain constant on that step, to the left of the parentheses, you’ll jot that, and the minus sign that comes adjacent to it, down “wide left” to save yourself room for the calculation to the right. If so, your calculation might look like:

4 – (2x – 2) = 0

Here’s the problem — that “minus sign” means “+ -1″, so the negative one needs to be distributed across the remaining set of parentheses. Often times, however, when parentheses are preceded only by a negative sign, and not by a coefficient like “1″, examinees who are working quickly will forget to take that next essential step — particularly if that negative sign is so far away from the parentheses that it is less likely to register.

Correctly, the problem will be solved by distributing that -1:

4 + -1(2x – 2) = 0

4 -2x +2 = 0

6 – 2x = 0

6 = 2x

3 = x (CORRECT ANSWER)

Had you made the error described above, however, and not distributed the negative, you would incorrectly solve as follows:

4 – (2x – 2) = 0

4 – 2x – 2 = 0 (INCORRECT STEP)

2 – 2x = 0

2 = 2x

1 = x (INCORRECT ANSWER)

Note that, like a 40-yard field goal that a professional has made routinely for years, this calculation step is easy to botch when working quickly under pressure. Be aware that certain calculations are more prone to error, and use caution when approaching them. Don’t let a negative sign float too far left and cost you a chance at a great opportunity.

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