Over the course of your GMAT exam, you’ll read thousands of words. Each Reading Comp passage, for example, will have ~300 of them; each Sentence Correction prompt will have ~40. And while you won’t spend much time reading the words in the Data Sufficiency answer choices, having long since internalized what each letter means, you’ll spend plenty of time poring over keywords in the question stem. You’ll need to process tons of words as you take the GMAT, but on most questions one word will make all the difference:

The word they didn’t have to say.

Consider this new Data Sufficiency question from the Veritas Prep Question Bank:

What is the value of n?

(1) 36n > n^2 + 324

(2) 325 > n^2 > 323

Many will see statement 1 with its quadratic mixed with inequality and think “well, n could be anything”. But look a little closer – what word (or in this case symbol) did the question not have to use? What rare qualifier is in there?

That’s right – it’s not “greater than,” it’s “greater than OR equal to”. That little underline should stand out to you – almost any time we use an inequality we use > or >.

And here that should be your clue that it’s worth it to do the math. When you’re asked for a specific value and given a one-sided inequality (as opposed to a bracketed inequality like you see in statement 2) that usually isn’t going to help you. But that underline should indicate to you that something’s up…that you need to do some work. And if you do:

36n > n^2 + 324

0 > n^2 – 36n + 324

which factors:

0 > (n – 18)^2

meaning that:

0 is greater than OR equal to (n – 18)

And here’s where that sixth sense really kicks in…you know something’s up, so you investigate a little further. 0 can’t be greater than a square, as anything squared, no matter how negative, is either 0 or positive. So (n – 18) MUST BE 0, the “or equal to” portion. (and since statement 2 allows for noninteger values of n, too, the answer is A).

And the real lesson? Pay attention to the word (or symbol, or phrase) that the question doesn’t have to say. If there’s a word that seems out of the ordinary, it’s usually there for a reason and that’s your clue as to what will make the question interesting or challenging.

In a Critical Reasoning context this happens frequently, too. Consider:

Raisins are made by drying grapes in the sun. Although some of the sugar in the grapes is caramelized in the process, nothing is added. Moreover, the only thing removed from the grapes is the water that evaporates during the drying, and water contains no calories or nutrients. The fact that raisins contain more iron per food calorie than grapes do is thus puzzling.

Which one of the following, if true, most helps to explain why raisins contain more iron per calorie than do grapes?

(A) Since grapes are bigger than raisins, it takes several bunches of grapes to provide the same amount of iron as a handful of raisins does.
(B) Caramelized sugar cannot be digested, so its calories do not count toward the food calorie content of raisins.
(C) The body can absorb iron and other nutrients more quickly from grapes than from raisins because of the relatively high water content of grapes.
(D) Raisins, but not grapes, are available year-round, so many people get a greater share of their yearly iron intake from raisins than from grapes.
(E) Raisins are often eaten in combination with other iron-containing foods, while grapes are usually eaten by themselves.

Look at that question stem – what doesn’t it have to say? It could say:

Which one of the following, if true, most helps to explain why raisins contain more iron per calorie than do grapes?

And very few would notice or care that “per calorie” is missing. So that phrase “per calorie” becomes supremely important – it’s not about raising having more iron…it’s about a change to the iron-per-calorie ratio. That little phrase that didn’t really need to be said is what makes this question interesting, and what determines the correct answer B (which changes the iron/calorie ratio by reducing the number of calories in that ratio).

So train yourself to look for that word, symbol, or phrase that doesn’t really need to be there but that should now stick out like a sore thumb to you. If a question says that:

x and y are distinct integers —> that word “distinct” doesn’t need to be there, so it’s going to be important that x can’t equal y

Therefore, Company B will need to reduce its shipping costs in order to remain profitable –> that word “shipping” doesn’t need to be there, so it’s going to be important

What is the value of nonnegative integer y? –> “nonnegative” is just so slightly different from “positive” – it’s going to be important that y could also be 0

There are lots of words on the GMAT, but in many questions one word reigns supreme in importance over all the others. Train yourself to notice that word that doesn’t need to be said, and “your GMAT score” will require that extra word in there to read “your high GMAT score.”

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By Brian Galvin