The last thing you want to see on your score report at the end of the GMAT is a small number. Whether that number is in the 300s (total score) or in the single-digits (percentile), your nightmares leading up to the test probably include lots of small numbers flashing on the screen as you finish the test. So what’s one of the most helpful tools you have to keep small numbers from appearing on the screen?

Small numbers on your noteboard.

Have you found yourself on a homework problem or practice test asking yourself “can I just multiply these?”? Have you forgotten a rule and wondered whether you could trust your memory? Small numbers can be hugely valuable in these situations. Consider this example:

For integers x and y, 2^x + 2^y = 2^30. What is the sum x + y?

(A) 30

(B) 40

(C) 50

(D) 58

(E) 64

Every fiber of your being might be saying “can I just add x + y and set that equal to 30?” but you’re probably at least unsure whether you can do that. How do you definitively tell whether you can do that? Test the relationship with small numbers. 2^30 is far too big a number to fathom, but 2^6 is much more convenient. That’s 64, and if you wanted to set the problem up that way:

2^x + 2^y = 2^6

You can see that using combinations of x and y that add to 6 won’t work. 2^3 + 2^3 is 8 + 8 = 16 (so not 64). 2^5 + 2^1 is 32 + 2 = 34, which doesn’t work either. 2^4 + 2^2 is 16 + 4 = 20, so that doesn’t work. And 2^0 + 2^6 is 1 + 64 = 65, which is closer but still doesn’t work. Using small numbers you can prove that that step you’re wondering about – just adding the exponents – isn’t valid math, so you can avoid doing it. **Small numbers help you test a rule that you aren’t sure about!**

That’s one of two major themes with testing small numbers. 1) Small numbers are great for testing rules. And 2) Small numbers are great for finding patterns that you can apply to bigger numbers. To demonstrate that second point about small numbers, let’s return to the problem. 2^30 again is a number that’s too big to deal with or “play with,” but 2^6 is substantially more manageable. If you want to get to:

2^x + 2^y = 2^6, think about the powers of 2 that are less than 2^6:

2^1 = 2

2^2 = 4

2^3 = 8

2^4 = 16

2^5 = 32

2^6 = 64

Here you can just choose numbers from the list. The only two that you can use to sum to 64 are 32 and 32. So the pairing that works here is 2^5 + 2^5 = 2^6. Try that again with another number (what about getting 2^x + 2^y = 2^5? Add 16 + 16 = 32, so 2^4 + 2^4), and you should start to see the pattern. To get 2^x + 2^y to equal 2^z, x and y should each be one integer less than z. So to get back to the bigger numbers in the problem, you should now see that to get 2^x + 2^y to equal 2^30, you need 2^29 + 2^29 = 2^30. So x + y = 29 + 29 = 58, answer choice D.

The lesson? When problems deal with unfathomably large numbers, it can often be quite helpful to test the relationship using small numbers. That way you can see how the pieces of the puzzle relate to each other, and then apply that knowledge to the larger numbers in the problem. The GMAT thrives on abstraction, presenting you with lots of variables and large numbers (often exponents or factorials), but you can counter that abstraction by using small numbers to make relationships and concepts concrete.

So make sure that small numbers are a part of your toolkit. When you’re unsure about a rule, test it with small numbers; if small numbers don’t spit out the result you’re looking for, then that rule isn’t true. But if multiple sets of small numbers do produce the desired result, you can proceed confidently with that rule. And when you’re presented with a relationship between massive numbers and variables, test that relationship using small numbers so that you can teach yourself more concretely what the concept looks like.

The best way to make sure that your GMAT score report contains big numbers? Use lots of small numbers in your scratchwork.

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*By Brian Galvin*