4 Questions To Ask Yourself On Min/Max GMAT Problems

GMAT Tip of the WeekMin/Max problems can be among the most frustrating on the GMAT’s quantitative section. Why? Because they seldom involve an equation or definite value. They’re the ones that ask things like “did the fisherman who caught the third-most fish catch at least 12 fish?” or “what is the maximum number of fish that any one fisherman caught?”. And the reason the GMAT loves them? It’s precisely because they’re so much more strategic than they are “calculational.” They make you think, not just plug and chug.

However…

There are three knee-jerk questions that you should plug (if not chug) into your brain to ask yourself every time you see a Min/Max problem before you ask that fourth question “What’s my strategy?”:

  1. Do the numbers have to be integers?
  2. Is zero a possible value?
  3. Are repeat numbers possible?

In the Veritas Prep Word Problems lesson we refer to these problems as “scenario-driven” Min/Max problems precisely because of the above questions. The scenario created by the problem drives the whole thing, related mainly to those three above questions. Consider these four prompts and ask yourself which ones can definitively be answered:

#1: “Four friends go fishing and catch a total of 10 fish. How many fish did the friend with the highest total catch?”

#2: “Four friends go fishing and catch a total of 10 fish. If no two friends caught the same number of fish, how many fish did the friend with the highest total catch?”

#3: “Four friends go fishing and catch a total of 10 fish. If each friend caught at least one fish but no two friends caught the same number, how many fish did the friend with the highest total catch?”

#4: “Four friends go fishing and catch a total of 10 pounds of fish. If each friend caught at least one fish but no two friends caught the same number, how many pounds of fish did the friend with the highest total catch?”

Hopefully you can see the progression as this set builds. In the first problem, there’s clearly no way to tell. Did one friend catch all ten? Did everyone catch at least two and two friends tied with 3? You just don’t know. But then it gets interesting, based on the questions you need to ask yourself on all of these.

With #2, two big restrictions are in play. Fish must be integers, so you’re only dealing with the 11 integers 0 through 10. And if no two friends caught the same number there’s a limited number of unique values that can add up to 10. But the catch on this one should be evident after you’ve read #3. Zero *IS* possible in this case, so while the totals could be 1, 2, 3, and 4 (guaranteeing the answer of 4), if the lowest person could have caught 0 (that’s where “min/max” comes in – to maximize the top value you want to minimize the other values) there’s also the possibility for 0, 1, 2, and 7. Because the zero possibility was still lurking out there, there’s not quite enough information to solve this one. And that’s why you always have to ask yourself “is 0 possible?”.

#3 should showcase that. If 0 is no longer a possibility *AND* the numbers have to be integers *AND* the numbers can’t repeat, then the only option is 1 (the new min value since 0 is gone), 2 (because you can’t match 1), 3, and 4. The highest total is 4.

And #4 shows why the seemingly-irrelevant backstory of “friends going fishing” is so important. Pounds of fish can be nonintegers, but fish themselves have to be integers. So even though this prompt looks very similar to #3, because we’re no longer limited to integers it’s very easy for the values to not repeat and still give wildly different max values (1, 2, 3, and 4 or 1.5, 2, 3, and 3.5 for example).

As you can see, the scenario really drives the answer, although the fourth question “What is my strategy?” will almost always require some real work. Let’s take a look at a couple questions from the Veritas Prep Question Bank to illustrate.

Question 1:

Four workers from an international charity were selling shirts at a local event yesterday. Did one of the workers sell at least three shirts yesterday at the event?

(1) Together they sold 8 shirts yesterday at the event.

(2) No two workers sold the same number of shirts.

(A) Statement (1) ALONE is sufficient, but statement (2) alone is not sufficient to answer the question asked
(B) Statement (2) ALONE is sufficient, but statement (1) alone is not sufficient to answer the question asked
(C) Both statements (1) and (2) TOGETHER are sufficient to answer the question asked; but NEITHER statement ALONE is sufficient
(D) EACH statement ALONE is sufficient to answer the question asked
(E) Statements (1) and (2) TOGETHER are NOT sufficient to answer the question asked, and additional data specific to the problem are needed

Before you begin strategizing, ask yourself the three major questions:

1) Do the values have to be integers? YES – that’s why the problem chose shirts.

2) Is zero possible? YES – it’s not prohibited, so that means you have to consider zero as a min value.

3) Can the numbers repeat? That’s why statement 2 is there. With the given information and with statement 1, numbers can repeat. That allows you to come up with the setup 2, 2, 2, and 2 for statement 1 (giving the answer “NO”) or 1, 2, 2, and 3 (giving the answer “YES” and proving this insufficient).

But when statement 2 says on its own that, NO, the numbers cannot repeat, that’s a much more impactful statement than most test-takers realize. Taking statement 2 alone, you have four integers that cannot repeat (and cannot be negative), so the smallest setup you can find is 0, 1, 2, and 3 – and with that someone definitely sold at least three shirts. Statement 2 is sufficient with really no calculations whatsoever, but with careful attention to the ever-important questions.

Question 2:

Last year, Company X paid out a total of $1,050,000 in salaries to its 21 employees. If no employee earned a salary that is more than 20% greater than any other employee, what is the lowest possible salary that any one employee earned?

(A) $40,000
(B) $41,667
(C) $42,000
(D) $50,000
(E) $60,000

Here ask yourself the same questions:

1) The numbers do not have to be integers.
2) Zero is theoretically possible (but probably constrained by the 20% difference restriction)
3) Numbers absolutely can repeat (which will be very important)
4) What’s your strategy? If you want the LOWEST possible single salary, then use your answer to #3 (they can repeat) and give the other 20 salaries the maximum. That way your calculation looks like:

x + 20(1.2x) = 1,050,000

Which breaks out to 25x = 1,050,000, and x = 42000. And notice how important the answer to #3 was – by knowing that numbers could repeat, you were able to quickly put together a smart strategy to minimize one single value.

The larger lesson is crucial here, though – these problems are often (but not always) fairly basic mathematically, but derive their difficulty from a situation that limits some options or allows for more than you’d think via integer restrictions, the possibility of zero, and the possibility of repeat values. Ask yourself these four questions, and your answer to the first three especially will maximize your efficiency on the strategic portion of the problem.

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By Brian Galvin