And they called John Kerry a political flip-flopper…

Evidently it’s official: Hosni Mubarak has resigned his post as Egyptian president, 30 years after he succeeded Anwar Sadat and just a day after he surprisingly clung to power despite the national revolution to remove him.  If you followed the news on Twitter, you may have seen this gem from yesterday:

Mubarak. Dude. Egyptians INVENTED writing on the wall. You really should learn to read it.

Until this morning, when the shouting in the streets replaced the writing on the wall, Mubarak was missing some obvious signals regarding his important decision, and in this way he’s fail the GMAT, too.  Much of the GMAT comes down to reading the writing on the wall, and if you aspire to a be an effective leader you should learn to read it.

Consider a question like:

How many times can the number 40! be divided by 10?

A) 4
B) 8
C) 9
D) 10
E) 11

Upon first glance, you may see answer choice A and think to yourself:  40?  Sure, 10, 20, 30, and 40 are each multiples of 10, so the answer must be 4.  But if you do that, you’re missing some pretty clear writing on the wall!  4 is the lowest number, and that rationale didn’t take you much time.  If 4 were the answer, why would the author of the question have jumped to 8 for choice B and all the way up to 11 overall?  And where is the difficulty in this question – remember, the GMAT is a hard test, and is one that lays traps for unsuspecting students with at least 1-2 wrong answer choices.  To paraphrase Matt Damon’s character from Rounders, if you can’t spot a sucker answer choice on a GMAT question, you might well be the sucker.

The writing on the wall here is that 4 is a trap answer…it’s too easy to arrive at and the rationale for doing so doesn’t lend itself to even considering any other choices.  If you find yourself about to select such an answer too quickly, read that writing on the wall and ask yourself what you may be missing.  Here, you should be thinking about divisibility; sure, 10, 20, 30, and 40 are divisible by 10, but what about the combination of 2 and 15 in that factorial?  Neither alone is divisible by 10, but multiply them together and you have a second 30 in that product.  This question isn’t about which individual numbers in 1*2*3*4*5*……*39*40 are divisible by 10, it’s about the number as a whole.  And each pairing of 2 and 5 will produce a 10.  Because there are several more 2s than 5s in the factorization of 40!, let’s look at the 5s:

5

10 (5*2)

15 (5*3)

20 (5*4)

25 (5*5) —> NOTE: There are two fives here, and failing to recognize this leads you to B, another sucker answer choice!

30 (5*6)

35 (5*7)

40 (5*8)

All told, there are 9 unique 5s in this number, and plenty of 2s to pair with each, so the correct answer here is 9, or answer choice C.

Your ability to read the writing on the wall can be critical as you work through the GMAT with limited time and land mines galore.  It’s that sixth sense of a great leader or manager, the ability to anticipate trouble (or opportunity) and to know when it’s important to change course or reconsider action.  Use it to your advantage and you’ll find powerful jobs in New York, Washington DC, or Cairo; fail to recognize it and you may well end up exiled to parts-unknown.  As you prepare for the GMAT,  the writing on the wall takes many forms, but be particularly careful of:

– Questions that seem too easy and answer choices that seem too obvious

– Questions on which you can’t imagine why anyone might take a second look at the other four answer choices

– Specifically-chosen language that infers unique parameters (words like “nonnegative” which includes positive OR zero; “nonzero” which allows for all but one number; “greater-than-or-equal-to” which permits a “tie”, versus just “greater than” which prohibits it; etc.)

– Words like “only” or “always” that make a conclusion or answer choice incredibly specific and subject to a higher standard-of-proof

– Word problems that include multiple variables, the most natural of which to solve for may not be the correct answer to the question (e.g. “How much gas is left in the tank” when it’s probably most natural to first solve for how much gas is used)

Hosni Mubarak failed to read the writing on the wall this week, and his fall from power will be less-than-graceful as a result.  His next stop will undoubtedly not be Palo Alto or Cambridge, but yours can be if you heed the lesson he has taught us.  Test like an Egyptian, read the writing on the wall, and ascend to the top of the corporate pyramid.