The Secret to Solving Word Problems

GMAT Gurus Speak OutWord Problems tend to intimidate newcomers to the GMAT.  Don’t be scared!  The math on most word problems is actually easier and less troublesome than the math on a straightforward arithmetic or algebra problem.

The reason the math is easier on these problems is because the problem is made hard in other ways.  Word problems are considered hard because you have to convert a word problem into a math question.  This involves good reading skills and good critical reasoning skills.


Keep some of the following word problem translations in mind as you navigate some of the toughest word problems.

“Is” means “equal to”

“Is” is “=.”  If you see the word “is” in a word problem, have no fear.  It simply means “equals.”

The number of brown hats is 5% of the total number of hats.  Take “is” and make it “=” and get started! Now you have the number of brown hats = 5% of the total number of hats.

“Of” means “multiplied by”

In a question with fractions, you want to substitute the words “multiplied by” for the “of.”

What is 3/5 of 20?  To solve this problem, take the fraction and multiply it by the other number. So, what is 3/5 x 20?

“Per” means “divided by”

If you see a problem discussing rates, or using the word “per” be prepared to switch into fraction or division mode.  Per is another way of saying “divided by.”

A car travels 50 miles per hour.  The per is literally the line in a fraction.  50 miles/hour.

Note: Sometimes instead of “per” you will see the words “for every.”  For every boy, there are two girls.  So that means 1 boy divided by 2 girls.

Don’t fear word problems.  There are a limited number of word problem types.  Learn the basic approach for most of these, and work on your reading and logic when navigating the answer choices.  Once you have this vocabulary nailed down, and you study reading and logic, you will have a new perspective to word problems and be able to solve them without difficulty.

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Steve Odabashian received his BA in Economics from the University of Virginia and then went on to receive his JD at Villanova. He has worked in Tokyo as a foreign attorney, done pro bono work for the Committee of Seventy in several Philadelphia elections, and he is a well known pianist and comic entertainer in Philadelphia. Steve has been teaching for Veritas Prep since 2004.