The topics on the GMAT quantitative section are chosen because most test takers have some experience solving questions on these topics in high school. Subjects like algebra and geometry have given high school students white hairs and craned necks for generations (what? I was stretching, not copying off of her exam, honest!).
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On the GMAT, the information provided to you will be factual, but it won’t necessarily be helpful. Once you have made peace with this unfortunate reality, the goal soon becomes to transform factual information into useful information in order to solve the question. This type of analysis is prevalent in the quantitative section of the exam, but also shows up in the verbal section. Statements provided will often contain implicit information that you must convert into explicit information. In essence, you need to get a handle on the assumptions being made.
On the GMAT, you will face a variety of questions that you can prepare for. Not to be an auctioneer, the section boasts arithmetic problems, factor problems, algebra problems, geometry problems, stats problems, probability problems, data sufficiency problems, work rate problems, ratio problems, even combinatorics problems. However on the quant section you can often run into an unfamiliar question type that can reasoned out with some basics of algebra and clear conceptual thinking. When faced with this type of outlandish question, you only have one basic directive: solve it.
When reading through diverse texts, it is not uncommon to see various portions highlighted in different forms. The use of italics has become ubiquitous with citing references or proper names, and the GMAT has no reserved denotation for Italics. Generally, text that is underlined needs to examined carefully, and the GMAT uses this method exclusively for sentence correction. However, nothing draws the eye like the use of boldface. The additional thickness of the characters makes every letter seem more important than the paler doppelgangers that share the page with them. (Beware: a letter with tiny goatee may be an evil twin of that letter. G is the most likely evil doppelganger)
Have you ever been on the exam and the question is asking you something that you know well but can’t remember the details at that crucial moment? This happens to all of us at one time or another, and sometimes it helps to have a catchphrase or keyword to help recall the concept in our mind. Since certain things are easier to remember than others, it helps to associate a difficult concept with something you’re less likely to forget, such as the lyrics to your favorite song.
The pope’s recent announcement that he would be leaving the papacy came as a surprise to millions of people around the world last month. After all, election as pope carries a lifetime mandate by definition, and no sitting pope has resigned in the past 600 years. This string of some 60 popes serving their full mandate has now been broken, and the news brings up the topic of abdicating in the scope of the GMAT exam.
During your preparation for the GMAT, you will learn myriad techniques, shortcuts, rules, exceptions and strategies. Unfortunately, even the best of us tend to draw a blank once or twice under test day pressure, so sometimes you may have to solve questions using deduction and strategic thinking more than with known mathematical identities and theorems. Consider the following question:
Over the holiday season, you may have taken the time to go see the Hobbit, the much-hyped precursor to the Lord of the Rings movies which breathed life into the seminal Tolkien books published over a half century ago. After watching and reflecting on the movie, there are many parallels between it and the GMAT exam that can be drawn. Most glaringly, the amount of time that must be dedicated to each, the unfamiliar visual experience, the importance of wordplay, and the known subject matter prior to even entering the theater. For the purposes of this analogy, the Pearson center will double as a movie theater, except with the no cell phone rule enforced quite vigorously.
Double negatives can often intimidate and confuse students on the GMAT. Let’s review some strategies to help you not dislike double negatives so much. Hopefully you don’t feel incapable of navigating these questions already, but if you do, here are some strategies to ensure that you don’t feel uneasy when faced with one on test day.
The concept of abstraction involves taking things from specific values to general ideas. On the GMAT, abstraction is one of the simplest ways to turn an easy problem into a difficult one. A simple example would be to ask someone what “5 times 6” would be, and then to expand that to “x times y” or “odd number times even number.” Abstraction helps by giving broad strokes to concepts, but it also requires a deeper understanding of the underlying principles. (This is the same principle as abstract art… apparently).
When preparing for the GMAT, most prospective students start thinking about the schools they want to attend, the jobs they want to land and the opportunities they want to seize. After all, embarking on a new degree is an adventure that must be carefully prepared and thought out. Some students with long term thinking even begin thinking about something that most people dream of regularly: retirement.
If you’ve ever walked into a conversation that was in progress, you know how hard it can be to figure out what’s going on without starting at the beginning. People often timidly ask “What are we talking about?” or “Could you please start over?” in such situations. This is because being parachuted into an ongoing conversation can be quite disorienting.
When dealing with strengthen or weaken Critical Reasoning questions, it’s important to have a rough idea of what the correct answer should look like. This process is often called “predicting” the correct answer, and it helps tremendously to avoid tempting but incorrect answer choices. It’s important to note that you won’t always be able to guess the exact answer choice provided, but you can get within the ballpark. After all, the correct answer is something that will hinge on the inevitable disconnect between the conclusion stated and the evidence provided in the passage.
Habitually, data sufficiency questions give students cause for concern on the GMAT quantitative section. This is primarily due to the fact that data sufficiency questions are rarely seen in high school and college, and are therefore relatively unknown to most prospective test takers. If you remember the first data sufficiency question you encountered while studying for the GMAT, it may have looked like it was written in another language.
One of the hardest things about Sentence Correction is that it tests so much more than just grammar. Many students erroneously conflate Sentence Correction problems with high school grammar problems, and this can lead to avoidable mistakes on test day. Indeed, the rules you learned in high school still apply, but you must be able to recognize them among various other potential problems. It’s fairly simple to spot an agreement error on a verb (there are one problem) or a misplaced comma (good, job bro), but sometimes you have to eliminate an answer choice because the sentence just doesn’t make sense.
One of the hardest things for people to get used to on the GMAT is that there is no calculator for the quantitative section. The reasoning behind this is simple: human beings will not be faster than machines at pure calculations. Human beings, however, will be better at logic, reasoning and deduction than a machine (at least until Skynet is developed).
One of the most common things you’re going to do on the GMAT is to infer things. Inferring things is something we inherently do on a daily basis as human beings. If your friend tells you they’re preparing for a big presentation, you generally automatically infer they’re presenting to an audience and are nervous about public speaking. However, on the GMAT, inferring carries a little more baggage than in your everyday life. What if your friend is in charge of logistics for the presentation, or running the slideshow behind the presenter? Perhaps they are being presented in the debutante ball definition of the term? (niche, I know). On the GMAT, inferences have a high threshold they must always attain: the inferences must be true.
One way in which the GMAT differs from most tests is that you only need to find the correct answer to the given question. There are absolutely no points for your development, your reasoning or indeed anything you decide to write down. This is completely contrary to much of what we learned in high school and university, where you could be rewarded for having the correct algorithm or approach even if you didn’t get the correct answer. On most math problems, if you got the wrong answer but demonstrated how you got there, you could at least get partial credit, especially if your approach was perfect but the execution lacked (like passing on the 1 yard line).
Many people think that finishing the GMAT verbal section on time hinges on quickly solving Sentence Correction problems. This is because these questions tend to have the shortest stimuli of any question type. Even if you’re a speed reader (hopefully you never ordered Mega Reading by Kevin Trudeau), it will still take a minute or so to sift through a passage that’s a few hundred words long. Sentence Correction problems sometimes have stimuli that are two or three lines, and therefore are prime candidates for quick dispatching.
When preparing to take the GMAT, you often solve hundreds or even thousands of practice problems. As you solve more and more of them, you start to realize that almost every question is testing something specific. There’s a geometry question about right angle triangles that’s really all about Pythagoras’ theorem, and an algebra problem that is easy to solve if you expand the difference of squares. However, there are some questions that make you scratch your head and wonder: “What in the world?” Some questions make you think you missed a section of material that you need to review (are there triple integrals on the GMAT?), or at the very least that you don’t know the correct strategic approach. I will euphemistically call these “WTF” questions, which of course stands for “Want To Finish”.
When it comes to Critical Reasoning on the GMAT, one question that continues to frustrate people is the assumption question. Quite simply, the question is asking you which answer choice is required to support the conclusion that has been drawn in the passage. To successfully navigate these questions, you should use the Assumption Negation Technique, which requires a negation of the answer choice to determine whether or not it was actually required. More than that, though, the correct answer choice must be within the scope of the question. An answer choice that goes too far will not be the correct answer to the question.
One of the most uncomfortable aspects of the GMAT is that you are not allowed to use a calculator for the quantitative section. This is uncomfortable because, throughout your everyday life, you are never more than about 5 feet from a calculator (yes, even in Death Valley). Almost everyone has a cell phone, a laptop, a desktop or a GMAT guru nearby to compute difficult calculations for them. Even high school students are generally allowed their calculators on test day. However, the lack of a calculator allows the GMAT to test your reasoning skills and time management skills much more easily than if you had access to electronic help.
As a GMAT aficionado, I often find GMAT themes in everyday things. This is what happened last week when I was listening to the radio and Ariana Grande’s “Problem” started playing. I’d heard the song before, and despite its catchy melody, there is a glaring grammatical error in the chorus. This may not be that surprising: songs in general are dubious sources of grammar to begin with, and R&B songs often take additional liberties with their lyrics (Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” jumps to mind). However this error is the kind a lot of people make in their daily speech, so I figured I’d use it as an opportunity to improve our grammatical skills beyond what we hear on the radio.
Over the holiday season, you may have taken the time to go see the Hobbit, the much-hyped precursor to the Lord of the Rings movies which breathed life into the seminal Tolkien books published over a half century ago. If this sentence looks familiar, it’s because it’s the same one I used two years ago to begin an article about the similarities between the first Hobbit movie and the GMAT. Lo and behold, a couple of weeks ago I was watching the final installment of the Hobbit trilogy, and I noticed more parallels to the GMAT. I decided then to pen a follow up to my original article to finish the comparison between the two disparate, yet often overlapping events.
The GMAT is an exam that evaluates how you think. The test is designed to measure your reasoning skills and gauge how successful you will be in business school. This means that the test is not simply trying to ascertain how much you already know. This is similar to the mantra of “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. If you happen to already know that 144 is 12^2, then any question that asks about this specific number becomes much easier. However, if the exam starts asking about 13^2 or 14^2, and you only know 12^2, then you must find some method to take your knowledge and apply it to new and unscripted problems.
Studying for the GMAT can take over your life. I’m sure many of you are nodding your heads as you read this. If you’re not, you probably haven’t gotten there yet. I sincerely hope that you never do, but it is an almost unavoidable part of studying for this test. Eventually, you start correcting artists in songs (I got one less problem without you… more like one fewer problem) and wondering if your table number is a prime number (how about table 51… oops that’s divisible by 3). The first time you catch yourself using a GMAT specific term, you know you’re really deep in studying for this exam.
On the verbal section of the GMAT, students invariably spend more time on Reading Comprehension questions than on either Sentence Correction or Critical Reasoning problems. In fact, I’ve seen score reports where people spent more time on Reading Comprehension than on the other two question types combined! Students spend a lot of time on these passages because they are consistently packed with pointless information, run-on sentences and dense technical jargon. Attempting to untangle these passages can lead to a lot of frustration for test takers (Fortunately, there’s an app for that).
One topic that always makes me think on the GMAT is geometry. It’s not that geometry is particularly hard, or even particularly easy, but rather that it’s particularly irrelevant! Having done an MBA in the past few years, I can virtually guarantee you that you will never have to calculate the area of a rhombus or the volume of a cone during your graduate studies. It’s possible that you have to calculate various geometric shapes in your career after graduating (say you run an ice cream shop!), but during your education the entire discipline seems somewhat superfluous.
The holiday season is upon us in North America, as many families unite for Thanksgiving, some decadent shopping, and the imminent Christmas season. While Thanksgiving and Christmas are independently two of the biggest holidays of the year, the fact that they always come together and are so habitually linked makes me think of the GMAT (yes a lot of things make me think of the GMAT, it’s what I do). Just as the thought of Christmas makes a lot of people think of Black Friday deals and line ups at their local stores, some elements on the GMAT are as inextricably linked together.
When going through the quantitative section of the GMAT, you will often be confronted by numbers that are, shall we say, unwieldy (some people refer to them as “insane”). It is common on the exam to see numbers like 11!, 15^8, or even 230,050,672. Regardless of the form of the number, the common mistake that many novice test takers make is the same: They try to actually solve the number.
In life, you are often given binary choices. This is true even if the word binary isn’t something you recognize right away. Binary comes from the Latin “bini”, which means two together, and is used to regroup decisions in which you have exactly two choices. On forms, you might see categories such as “smoker” or “non-smoker”, and you are prompted to answer exactly one of the options. At a restaurant, you might get asked “Soup or salad?” (super salad??), and you are expected to make a decision as to which appetizer you want. Very frequently, these two choices cover the entirety of your options. There is no third option to select.
If you’ve ever built a puzzle, you probably know that you can’t expect to start at a certain point and build the entire puzzle without moving around. You may find two or three pieces that fit together nicely, but then you find three pieces that fit together nicely somewhere else, and then work to connect these disparate sections.
When dealing with questions that ask us to compartmentalize information, there are two major sorting methods that we can use on the GMAT. The first, and perhaps more familiar concept, is the Venn diagram. This categorization is very useful for situations where information overlaps, as it allows a visual representation of multiple categories at once. However, if the information provided has no possible overlap, such as indicating whether something is made of gold or silver, or if they’re male or female (Bruce Jenner notwithstanding), the preferred method of organization is the matrix box.
Last year, I wrote an article for this blog discussing the pros and cons (and pros and cons and pros) of cancelling your GMAT score. At the time, you had to sit through an entire 3+ hour exam, go through every question asked and then be offered the possibility of cancelling your score without ever knowing what your grade would have been.
The most common question type that people tend to waste time on is Reading Comprehension. More than any other question type on the GMAT, students report reading and rereading the same sections of a passage, only to find themselves at the bottom of the page having retained no information. There are many reasons for this, from fatigue to mental inertia to daydreaming about the end of this test. However, it’s fairly common to have not internalized all the information in the passage, and still be able to answer the question asked.
One of the most difficult tasks on the GMAT is to properly interpret what the question is really asking. The GMAT is loaded with dense terminology, accurate but irrelevant prose and confusing technical jargon (and that’s just the instruction page!) The verbiage is dense on purpose, with the deciphering of the information part of the skills being tested. And since this task only gets more challenging as you get more tired throughout the exam, it’s important to recognize the vocabulary used on the GMAT. To borrow from geek culture, you need to understand the GMAT 1337 speak.
Some sentence structures seemingly stupefy scholarly students. One of the main reasons the GMAT chooses to test logic through sentence correction is that the rules of grammar are much more flexible than most students realize. We (hopefully) remember some of the basic rules of sentences. Sentences should have a subject and a predicate, but you can often shorten sentences in specific contexts. Like this. The rules we’ve learned in high school are relevant, but (to paraphrase Pirates of the Caribbean) they’re more like guidelines.
Succeeding on the GMAT requires a great many things. Firstly, you must be able to decipher and solve complex logic puzzles in mere minutes. Secondly, you must be able to maintain focus for many consecutive hours. (And thirdly, you must pay to take the exam). The exam can be particularly tricky because the questions asked are rarely straight forward. Indeed, all of these elements are often linked (except potentially the payment) on questions that ask you to decode functions specific to the question at hand.
There is one feeling that hampers momentum and takes all the wind out of your sails on the GMAT. That feeling is the thrill of quickly eliminating three incorrect answer choices on a question, followed by complete uncertainty between the last two choices. This paralysis is very frustrating, because your progress is halted in dramatic fashion, and you’re left with two options that both seem to make perfect sense as the correct answer.