Quarter Wit, Quarter Wisdom: An Innovative Use of the Slope of a Line on the GMAT

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomLet’s continue our discussion on coordinate geometry today.

The concept of slope is extremely important on the GMAT – it is not sufficient to just know how to calculate it using (y2 – y1)/(x2 – x1).

In simple terms, the slope of a line specifies the units by which the y-coordinate changes and the direction in which it changes with each 1 unit increase in the x-coordinate. If the slope (m) is positive, the y-coordinate changes in the same direction as the x-coordinate. If m is negative, however, the y-coordinate changes in the opposite direction.

For example, if the slope of a line is 2, it means that every time the x-coordinate increases by 1 unit, the y-coordinate increases by 2 units. So if the point (3, 5) lies on a line with a slope of 2, the point (4, 7) will also lie on it. Here, when the x-coordinate increases from 3 to 4, the y-coordinate increases from 5 to 7 (by an increase of 2 units). Similarly,  the point (2, 3) will also lie on this same line – if the x-coordinate decreases by 1 unit (from 3 to 2), the y-coordinate will decrease by 2 units (from 5 to 3). Since the slope is positive, the direction of change of the x-coordinate will be the same as the direction of change of the y-coordinate.

Now, if we have a line where the slope is -2 and the point (3, 5) lies on it, when the x-coordinate increases by 1 unit, the y-coordinate DECREASES by 2 units – the point (4, 3) will also lie on this line. Similarly, if the x-coordinate decreases by 1 unit, the y-coordinate will increase by 2 units. So, for example, the point (2, 7) will also lie on this line.

This understanding of the concept of slope can be very helpful, as we will see in this GMAT question:

Line L and line K have slopes -2 and 1/2 respectively. If line L and line K intersect at (6,8), what is the distance between the x-intercept of line L and the y-intercept of line K? 

(A) 5
(B) 10
(C) 5√(5)
(D) 15
(E) 10√(5)

Method 1: The Traditional Approach
Traditionally, one would solve this question like this:

The equation of a line with slope m and constant c is given as y = mx + c. Therefore, the equations of lines L and K would be:

Line L: y = (-2)x + a
and
Line K: y = (1/2)x + b

As both these lines pass through (6,8), we would substitute x=6 and y=8 to get the values of a and b.

Line L: 8 = (-2)*6 + a
a = 20

Line K: 8 = (1/2)*6 + b
b = 5

Thus, the equations of the 2 lines become:

Line L: y = (-2)x + 20
and
Line K: y = (1/2)x + 5

The x-intercept of a line is given by the point where y = 0. So, the x-intercept of line L is given by:

0 = (-2)x + 20
x = 10

This means line L intersects the x-axis at the point (10, 0).

Similarly, the y-intercept of a line is given by the point where x = 0. So, y-intercept of line K is given by:

y = (1/2)*0 + 5
y = 5

This means that line K intersects the y-axis at the point (0, 5).

Looking back at our original question, the distance between these two points is given by √((10 – 0)^2 + (0 – 5)^2) = 5√(5). Therefore, our answer is C.

Method 2: Using the Slope Concept
Although the using the traditional method is effective, we can answer this question much quicker using the concept we discussed above.

Line L has a slope of -2, which means that for every 1 unit the x-coordinate increases, the y-coordinate decreases by 2. Line L also passes through the point (6, 8). We know the line must intersect the x-axis at y = 0, which is a decrease of 8 y-coordinates from the given point (6,8). If y increases by 8, according to our slope concept, x will increase by 4 to give 6 + 4 = 10. So the x-intercept of line L is at (10, 0).

Line K has slope of 1/2 and also passes through (6, 8). We know the this line must intersect the y-axis at x = 0, which is a decrease of 6 x-coordinates from the given point (6,8). This means y will decrease by 1/2 of that (6*1/2 = 3) and will become 8 – 3 = 5. So the y-intercept of line K is at (0, 5).

The distance between the two points can now be found using the Pythagorean Theorem – √(10^2 + 5^2) = 5√(5), therefore our answer is, again, C.

Using the slope concept makes solving this question much less tedious and saves us a lot of precious time. That is the advantage of using holistic approaches over the more traditional approaches in tackling GMAT questions.

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Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!