One common complaint I get from students is that their algebra skills aren’t where they need to be to excel on the GMAT. This complaint, invariably, is followed by a request for additional algebra drills.
If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that one of the themes we stress is that Quantitative Reasoning is not, primarily, a math test. Though math is certainly involved – How could it not be? – logic and reasoning are far more important factors than conventional mathematical facility. I stress this in every class I teach. So why the misconception that we need to hone our algebra chops?
I suspect that the culprit here is the explanations that often accompany official GMAC questions. On the whole, they tend to be biased in favor of purely algebraic solutions. They’re always technically correct, but often suboptimal for the test-taker who needs to arrive at a solution within two minutes. Consequently, many students, after reviewing these solutions and arriving at the conclusion that they would not have been capable of the hairy algebra proffered in the official solution, think they need to work on this aspect of their prep. And for the most part it isn’t true.
Here’s a good example:
If x, y, and k are positive numbers such that [x/(x+y)]*10 + [y/(x+y)]*20 = k and if x < y, which of the following could be the value of k?
A large percentage of test-takers see this question, rub their hands together, and dive into the algebra. The solution offered in the Official Guide does the same – it is about fifteen steps, few of them intuitive. If you were fortunate enough to possess the algebraic virtuosity to solve the question in this manner, you’d likely chew up 5 or 6 minutes, a disastrous scenario on a test that requires you to average 2 minutes per problem.
The upshot is that it’s important for test-takers, when they peruse the official solution, not to arrive at the conclusion that they need to solve this question the same way the solution-writer did. Instead, we can use the same simple strategies we’re always preaching on this blog: pick some simple numbers.
We’re told that x<y, but for my first set of numbers, I like to make x and y the same value – this way, I can see what effect the restriction has on the problem. So let’s say x = 1 and y = 1. Plugging those values into the equation, we get:
(1/2) * 10 + (1/2) * 20 = k
5 + 10 = k
15 = k
Well, we know this isn’t the answer, because x should be less than y. So scratch off C. And now let’s see what the effect is when x is, in fact, less than y. Say x = 1 and y = 2. Now we get:
(1/3) * 10 + (2/3) * 20 = k
10/3 + 40/3 = k
50/3 = k
50/3 is about 17. So when we honor the restriction, k becomes larger than 15. The answer therefore must be D or E. Now we could pick another set of numbers and pay attention to the trend, or we can employ a bit of logic and common sense. The first term in the equation x/(x+y)*10 is some fraction multiplied by 10. So this term, logically, is some value that’s less than 10.
The second term in the equation is y/(x+y)*20, is some fraction multiplied by 20, this term must be less than 20. If we add a number that’s less than 10 to a number that’s less than 20, we’re pretty clearly not going to get a sum of 30. That leaves us with an answer of 18, or D.
(Note that if you’re really savvy, you’ll recognize that the equation is a weighted average. The coefficients in the weighted average are 10 and 20. If x and y were equal, we’d end up at the midway point, 15. Because 20 is multiplied by y, and y is greater than x, we’ll be pulled towards the high end of the range, leading to a k that must fall between 15 and 20 – only 18 is in that range.)
Takeaway: Never take a formal solution to a problem at face value. All you’re seeing is one way to solve a given question. If that approach doesn’t resonate for you, or seems so challenging that your conclusion is that you must purchase a host of textbooks in order to improve your formal math skills, then you haven’t absorbed what the GMAT is really about. Often, the relevant question isn’t, “Can you do the math?” It’s, “Can you reason your way to the answer without actually doing the math?”
*Official Guide question courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council.