GMAT Tip of the Week: The Most Common Wrong Answer to Any GMAT Problem

GMAT Tip of the WeekThe GMAT is more than just a math or verbal test – it’s a reasoning test.  And so it’s important to think not merely about content, but also about the strategy games that the authors of these questions play with that content.  One mantra to keep in mind is “Think Like the Testmaker”, reminding yourself to pay just as much attention to why the wrong answer you chose was tempting (how did the author trick you) as to why the correct answer was right.

Arguably the single most common trap the authors set for you is evident in this question, which we invite you to answer before you read the rest of this post:

Uncle Bruce is baking chocolate chip cookies. He has 36 ounces of dough (with no chocolate) and 15 ounces of chocolate. How much chocolate is left over if he uses all the dough but only wants the cookies to consist of 20% chocolate?

(A) 3
(B) 6
(C) 7.2
(D) 7.8
(E) 9

Now, we don’t want to gloss over the math here but there’s plenty of opportunity to practice with word problems and ratios in other posts and resources, so let’s cut to the true takeaway here.  Most students will correctly arrive at the amount of chocolate used by employing a method similar to:

If the 36 ounces of dough are to be 80% of the total weight, then 36 = 4/5 * total.

That means that the total weight is 45 ounces, and so when we subtract out the 36 ounces of dough, there’s 9 ounces of chocolate in the cookies.

So…the answer is E. Right?

Wrong.  Go back and double-check the question – the question asks for how much chocolate is LEFT OVER, not how much is USED.  To be correct, you’d need to go back to the 15 original ounces of chocolate, subtract the 9 used, and correctly answer that 6 were left.

What’s the trap?  GMAT questions are frequently set up so that you can answer the wrong question.  If a question asks you to solve for y, it typically makes it easier to first solve for x…and then x is a trap answer.  If a question asks you to strengthen a conclusion, the best way to weaken it is likely to be an answer choice.  If a question asks for the maximum value, the minimum is going to be a trap.

The most common wrong answer to any problem on the GMAT is the right answer to the wrong question.

So take precaution – to avoid this trap, make sure that you:

  • Circle the variable for which you’re solving, or write down the question at the top of your work.
  • Jot a question mark at the top of your noteboard on test day, and tap it with your pen before you submit your answer to double check “did I answer the right question?”
  • Keep track of your units in word problems (minutes vs. seconds, amount used vs. amount remaining) and double check the units of your answer against the question
  • Make note of every time you make that mistake in practice, and as a more general tip be sure not to write off silly mistakes as just “silly mistakes”.  If you made them in practice, you’re susceptible to them on the test, so make a note to watch out for them particularly if you’ve made the same mistake twice.

Few outcomes are more disappointing than doing all the work correctly but still getting the question wrong. The GMAT doesn’t do partial credit, so on a question like this falling for the trap is just as bad as not knowing how to get started.  Get credit for what you know how to do – make sure you pause before you submit your answer to make sure that it answers the proper question!

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Sentence Correction in Real Life

GMAT Tip of the WeekTotes McGotes. FML. Sorry for partying. I know, right? Of the common phrases that have permeated pop culture and everyday conversation, easily one of the most common is, wait for it…

Wait for it.

And that one phrase can totes make your GMAT score supes high. Like, for real.


Perhaps the best example comes from an all-staff email sent at Veritas Prep headquarters this week regarding the holiday vacation schedule. It began “With pumpkin spice season nearing its apex, it’s…” Seeing that introduction, multiple Veritas Prep staffers commented later that “it’s” after the comma made them nervous, as the possessive of “season” is its, not it’s (which grammatically means “it is”).

Now later in that sentence it became clear that the intention was “it is” (…”it’s time to start making holiday vacation plans.”), but the fact that so many Sentence Correction experts were on the edge of their seats just seeing that contraction “it’s” next to a possessive should demonstrate for you how to become great at Sentence Correction. To be efficient and effective with Sentence Correction, it’s helpful to anticipate what types of errors you might see, rather than simply sit back and wait for them to appear. Those who are most successful at Sentence Correction read sentences looking for signs of potential danger; they’re proactive as they search for likely Decision Points. For example, if you were to read the introduction:

Particularly for a leadership or management role, it is important that a candidate be both…

your senses should be heightened for parallel structure with “both X and Y,” number one, and secondly you should be acutely aware that the word “be” precedes the word “both,” so there is a very high likelihood that there will be an extraneous “be” after the word “and” to follow. In other words, when you see “both,” wait for it…where’s the “and,” and is the portion directly after it parallel to the first portion?


(A) qualified to perform the duties of most subordinates and able to inspire subordinates to perform those duties at a higher level.


(B) qualified to perform the duties of most subordinates and be able to inspire subordinates to perform those duties at a higher level.

While the grammar of this problem is crucial, true expertise comes from knowing where to focus your attention and expend your mental energy. Analyzing every word of every answer choice is exhausting, so the experts train themselves to see clues and “…wait for it” focusing back in on the parts of the sentence most highly correlated with errors. Clues can be:

Signals of parallel structure: both, either, neither, not only

Signals of verb tense: since, from, until

Signals of pronoun or subject/verb agreement: it, they, its, their

To train yourself to spot those clues that tell you to “wait for it…”, pay attention not only (wait for it…) to the grammatical reasons that an answer choice is right or wrong in your homework, but also (here it is…is it parallel?) to the signals outside the underline that required the application of that grammar. Sentence Correction is to an extent about “what do you know” but to really excel it also has to be about “what do you do” – the clues and signals that tell you what to look for and where to spend your time and energy.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Getting Specific About Reading Comprehension

GMAT Tip of the WeekPop quiz!

1) What is the VIN number on your car?

2) What is your health insurance policy number?

3) What day does Daylight Savings Time start this coming spring?

If you’re like most people, your answer to all three is “I’d have to look that up.” And if you’re like most successful GMAT test-takers, that should be your answer to most Reading Comprehension questions, too. Particularly for questions like:

1) According to the passage, researchers were able to make the startling discovery because ______________.

2) It can be inferred from the passage that were a roundworm’s cilia become unable to sense temperature, _____________.

3) According to the passage, the reason that the antigen-antibody theory had to be seriously qualified was that ______________.

The answers to these questions are likely too obscure for you to have remembered from your initial read of the passage, and the answer choices are likely too dense to match exactly something from your memory, anyway, so when Reading Comprehension questions ask for a detail, you should always return to the passage. Thinking strategically, this means that you should:

*Not read too closely on your first read. Since you have to go back for details, they’re not all that important to remember your first time out. PLUS the main reason that people waste time and struggle on Reading Comprehension passages/questions is that they spend too much time processing and worrying about details on their first read. Much like the questions at the beginning of this post, details are only important if they ask you about them, so you shouldn’t spend too much time trying to understand or remember them until they come up in a question.

*When you’re asked about a detail, pay specific attention to the question being asked. Many details from wrong answer choices will appear next to the keyword (maybe as a cause while the question is looking for an effect, etc.) so you’ll need that time you saved from not worrying about details to help you focus in on what’s important on the question.

*Read effectively your first time through to know where certain things are discussed so that you minimize the time it takes you to go back. Give yourself “titles” for each paragraph so that you know where, for example, details of the new theory are discussed or problems with the old system appear. You will have to go back, so your first read is really about getting organized for each of those battles.

In Reading Comprehension as in life, there are often too many details to be concerned with until you absolutely have to. Know that going in, and be ready to go back and look up whatever you need when you need to.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Derek Jeter and the Data Sufficiency Walkoff

GMAT Tip of the WeekIt all looked so obvious: a storybook ending preordained from the beginning, some early success and a bit of good fortune leading to a glorious success story. But wait! Then fate intervened, and the easiest part of all had something different to say. And only then was true glory to be had, a glory much greater than that inevitable win ripped away just moments ago.

Derek Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium?

Sure…but also some of the hardest Data Sufficiency problems you’ll see on test day.

For those who didn’t see, Derek Jeter’s final game in a home Yankee uniform finished in fairy tale fashion last night. The Captain delighted the crowd early with a double, then reached base again on an error, and was set to ride off into the sunset (well, if it hadn’t rained and been dark out) a hero with one final Yankee win. The crowd chanting his name in the top of the 9th inning, he nearly teared up as he looked at his storybook finish, but then…uncharacteristically, Yankee closer David Robertson allowed two home runs to tie the game, perhaps dooming the win but in the end giving the clutch shortshop an even greater chance at glory. And Jeter delivered, batting in the winning run in his final at bat in pinstripes, on the last pitch he’d ever see at Yankee Stadium.

The GMAT relevance? It followed a blueprint for one of the hardest Data Sufficiency structures that the GMAT writes. That blueprint goes:

Step One: Somewhat difficult statement that takes some work but “satisfies your intellect” as the 650-and-up crowd finally realizes why it’s sufficient. (i.e. Jeter’s double and reached-base-on-error to set up a Yankee win)
Step Two: A much easier statement that seems a mere formality to deal with, but that for the truly elite (i.e. Jeter) provides an opportunity to really shine (i.e. the blown save in the top of the 9th)
Step Three: The chance for the hero to deliver.

Consider this problem:

What is the value of integer z?

(1) z is the remainder when positive integer x is divided by positive integer (x – 1)

(2) x is not a prime number

Now look at statement 1. There’s a lot to unpack – the concept of remainder, the definitions of “positive integer x and positive integer (x – 1)”, the fact that x then can’t be 1 (or x-1 would be 0 and therefore prohibited), the fact that the two values being divided are consecutive integers. So it’s not surprising that, on their way to the trap answer selected by nearly 60% of respondents in the Veritas Prep Question Bank, many feel the glory when they unravel the variables and processes and think:

“Ah, ok. 5/4 would work and that’s 1 remainder 1. 10/9 would work and that’s 1 remainder 1. 100 divided by 99 would work and that’s 1 remainder 1. I get it…remainder is always 1.”

After all that work, statement 2 is as much a formality as a 2 run lead with no baserunners in the 9th inning. Piece of cake. So people start to hear that crowd chanting their name a-la “De-rek-Jeeeet-er”, they pat themselves on the back for the accomplishment, and they pick A. Without ever seeing the opportunity that statement 2 really should provide them:

“Wait…that’s not the script I want – it shouldn’t be that easy.”

Those who know the GMAT well – those Jeterian scholars who have honed their craft through practice and determination to go with the natural talent – look at statement 2 and think “why does this matter? Why would the author write such a mundanely-irrelevant statement? The question is about z and the statement is about x? Come on…”

And in doing so, they’ll ask “Why would a prime number matter? And what kind of prime numbers might change things?” And when you’re talking prime numbers, just like when you’re talking Yankee lore, you have to bring up Number 2. 2 is the only even prime number and it’s the lowest prime number. If you see the definition “prime” and you don’t consider 2, you’re probably making a mistake. So statement 2 here should be your clue to test x = 2 and realize:

2/1 = 2 with no remainder. Based on statement 1 alone the answer is almost always “remainder 1” but this one exception allows for a remainder of 0, proving that statement 1 is not sufficient. You need statement 2 to rule it out, making the answer C (for captain?).

The real takeaway here?

Even if you think you’ve “won” after statement 1, if statement 2 looks so much like a mere formality that it’s almost anti-climactic there’s a good chance it’s there as a clue. Ask yourself why statement 2 might matter – sometimes it will and sometimes it won’t, but it’s always worth checking in these cases – and you may find that the real “glory” you’re after requires you to take a step back from that “win” you thought you had earlier on.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: At (the very) Least You Should Know This About Probability

GMAT Tip of the WeekAh, autumn. The busiest GMAT season of the year as application deadlines and back-to-school nostalgia fill the air, and that season always coincides with Major League Baseball’s pennant races and playoffs. And whether you’re a baseball fan or not, as an aspiring MBA you’ll find a fair amount of overlap between the two, as both the GMAT (and business) and baseball prominently feature the art of probability.

Through that lens, let’s discuss one of the most helpful “tricks” to avoid some of the most time-consuming types of problems on the GMAT, and we’ll lead with a problem:

Whenever his favorite baseball team’s “closer” allows a hit, Sean becomes irate (just close out the game, Joe Nathan!). If the closer needs to get three outs to win the game, and each batter he will face has a .250 batting average (a 1/4 chance of getting a hit), what is the probability that he will give up at least one hit (assuming that there are no walks/errors/hit-batsmen)?

And for those not consumed with baseball, this question essentially asks “if outcome A has a 25% chance of occurring in any one event, what is the probability that outcome A will happen at least once during three consecutive events?”

Baseball makes for an excellent demonstration here, because if we take out the other “free base” situations, really only two things happen – a Hit or an Out. And since we need 3 Outs, we could have all kinds of sequences in which there is at least one hit:

Hit, Out, Out, Out

Out, Hit, Out, Out

Out, Out, Hit, Out

or episodes with multiple hits:

Out, Hit, Hit, Out, Out

Hit, Out, Hit, Out, Hit, Out

or even

Hit, Hit, Hit, Hit, Hit, Hit, Hit, Hit…(game called by mercy rule, Sean punches through his TV)

The GMAT-relevant point is this: when a problem asks you for the probability of “at least one” of a certain event occurring, there are usually several ways that at least one could occur. But look at it this way: the ONLY way that you don’t get “at least one” H is if all three Os come first. The opposite of “at least one” is “none.” And there’s only one way to get “none” – it’s “Not Event A” then “Not Event A” then “Not Event A”… as many times as it takes to finish out the number of events. In other words, in this baseball analogy, if there’s a 25% chance of a hit then there’s a 75% chance of “not a hit” or “Out”, allowing us to set up the ONLY sequence in which there isn’t at least one hit:

Out, Out, Out

Which has a probability of:

3/4 * 3/4 * 3/4

Do the math, and you’ll find that there’s a 27/64 probability of “not at least one hit” and you can then know that the other 37/64 outcomes are “at least one hit.”

To the baseball fan, that means “take it easy on your closer – .250 is a pretty lackluster batting average and that even takes out the chance of walks and errors, and even with *that* there’s a better-than-likely chance there will be baserunners in the 9th!”

To the GMAT student, this example means that when you see a probability question that asks for the probability of “at least one” you should almost always try to calculate it by taking the probability of “none” (which is just one sequence and not several) and subtract that from 1. So your process is:

1) Recognize that the problem is asking for the probability of “at least one” of event A.

2) Find the probability for “not A” in any one event

3) Calculate the probability of getting “not A” in all outcomes by multiplying the “not A” probability as many times as there are outcomes

4) Subtract that total from 1

(and #5 – make sure the problem doesn’t involve any unique probability-changing events like “if outcome A doesn’t happen in the first try then the probability increases to X% for the second try” – that kind of language is rare but does complicate things)

Probability factors into many autumn situations, so whether you’re a GMAT student or a baseball fan, if you know at least this one probability concept your autumn should be a lot less stressful!

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: 3 Essential Test Day Strategies

GMAT Tip of the Week

The GMAT is an intimidating test. Here are 3 strategies to help you succeed on test day:

1) Check your work and be thorough.

Because of the Item Response Theory powered adaptive scoring engine, the GMAT comes with a substantial “penalty” for missing questions below your ability level. As the test attempts to home in on your ability level, it knows that approximately 20% of the time when you completely guess on problems that are beyond your ability, you’ll guess correctly. So the system is designed to protect against “false positives.” So even if you don’t get that hard problem right “accidentally,” but rather by investing extra time at the expense of other problems, the algorithm will continue to hit you with hard enough problems to undo the benefit of your getting that one outlier problem right. The same isn’t as true for “false negatives’ – problems below your ability level that you get wrong. There, that’s all on you – and getting easy problems wrong hurts you more than getting hard problems right helps you. So while your energy and attention may well naturally go toward the problems you find the most challenging, you simply cannot afford more than 1-2 silly mistakes on test day. Those wrong answers give the computer substantial data that your ability is lower than you’d like it to be, and the system responds by showing you even easier questions to determine just “how low can you go?”.

So make sure that if you’re on the verge of getting a problem right, you leave no doubt. Whatever silly mistakes you’re susceptible to – solving for the wrong variable, answering in the wrong units, miscalculating certain cells on the multiplication table – take the extra 10 seconds to double check and solidify your work. Yes that may mean that you have less time available for other questions, but the biggest score-killer out there is the “leaky floor” via which you’re in such a hurry to save time for hard questions that you make mistakes on easier ones. If you know that you should get a problem right, you have to make sure that you do.

2) Know when to give up and guess.

By the same token, you can’t get stubborn on hard questions. Everyone misses problems on the GMAT – the adaptive algorithm ensures it, by continuing to throw you challenging problems to test the upper limit of your ability. If you’re doing the little things right – double checking your work, being patient to avoid careless errors – you’ll see hard problems throughout the test. And no one hard problem will determine your score – the test expects that you’ll miss several, and you know that you’ll guess correctly on at least a few, so you can’t afford to spend 3-4 minutes on a question particularly if you’re not likely to get it right anyway. Often you have to lose the individual battle to make sure that you win the war – if your conscience starts to tell you “you’re spending a lot of time on this problem” and you can’t see a direct path to the correct answer at that point, it’s wise to give up and strategically guess so that you save the time to work on problems that you can or should get right later.

3) Have a pacing plan – and make sure it comes with a Plan B.

One of the easiest ways – and a surprisingly common way – to waste time on the GMAT is to try to calculate your pace-per-question as you’re going through the test. Which is crazy if you think about it – if you’re that worried about how long you’re taking, why would you spend *extra* time doing additional math problems that don’t count? So have a pacing plan well before you enter the test center. For most, it will look similar to:

Quant Section
After question 10 you should have approximately 53 minutes left
After question 20, approximately 33 minutes left
After question 30, approximately 13 minutes left

Verbal Section
After question 10, approximately 56 minutes left
After question 20, approximately 37 minutes left
After question 30, approximately 18 minutes left

If you find that you have less than that amount left at any point, it’s certainly not time to panic, but it is time to start thinking of how you’ll earn that time back. And by a fair margin the better way to do it is NOT to start rushing (which leaves you vulnerable to silly mistakes on several problems) but rather to give yourself one “free pass” over that next set of 10 problems. There, if you see a problem that after 15-20 seconds just doesn’t look like it’s one you’d likely get right, then guess. That saves you the time and means that you’ll probably (but not definitely) get that problem wrong, but it also allows you to continue to be thorough on future problems and avoid those score-killing “leaky floor” mistakes.

Students often get in a hurry when they start to feel the pressure of the ticking clock, and that pressure and haste leads to multiple mistakes. If you strategically make one big mistake instead of several small ones, you’ll maximize the likelihood that that big mistake doesn’t matter (it’s on a crazy hard problem) because you’ve done the little things well enough to have earned monster problems that are assessing your ceiling.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: 4 Questions You Must Ask Everytime You Miss A Practice Problem

GMAT Tip of the Week“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” -Thomas Edison, speaking about mistakes.

If you study for the GMAT for any appreciable amount of time (and you should) you’ll make mistakes. And that’s a good thing. People love to track their study progress with all kinds of metrics: percent correct, time per question, hours spent, problems completed – but in the end the only numbers that matter are the numbers on your official score report. So whether you were 10 for 10 on your homework or 0 for 20, whether you took less than 2 minutes per problem or spent almost an hour trying to figure it out, the key “metric” to your study sessions should be “what did I learn from this?”. And you can learn a lot from the mistakes you made, whether they’re silly (“I forgot to convert hours to minutes”) or confusing (“why does it matter that health care quality improved in the last three decades?”). You just need to know which questions to ask about the questions you missed. And there are four questions you should ask yourself any time you miss a problem:

1) Why was the right answer right?

This one comes pretty naturally to people – there was a right answer, you didn’t see it, and you want to know how to see it in the future. But don’t just take the back-of-the-book’s word for it – ask yourself in your own words and logic why that answer was right. One of the most common study mistakes people make is that they accept the written solution as “THE” way to solve the problem, but don’t internalize how they’d do it themselves or how they’d apply that particular problem’s steps (first you factor the common term, then you combine like terms within parentheses…) to a bigger strategy (“When I see exponents with addition and subtraction, I usually have to factor so that I can apply the exponent rules that require multiplication.”)

So instead of just reading the steps that the book or forum post took to get that problem right, ask yourself strategically how you’d get a similar problem like that right in the future.

2) Why was my answer wrong?

This is where you can really start to learn from your mistakes – what did you do/see/think that led you into a wrong answer. Did you make a careless math error? Did you eliminate the right answer too quickly because it didn’t seem “perfect”? Did your answer look great in terms of subject-verb agreement but actually contain a tense error you weren’t aware of? Was it “probably true” but not “definitely true”? With a standardized, multiple choice test, most wrong answers are created carefully to elicit common mistakes, so you should see your wrong answers as a blueprint for the types of mistakes you may well make in the future. Where did you go wrong?

3) Why was my wrong answer tempting?

This is first question that not nearly enough students ask themselves. The GMAT is a master of misdirection, of methods to get you focusing on the wrong thing or feeling uncomfortable with the right answer or falling in love with the wrong one. Your answers to this question might include:

-Answer choice B just seemed so obvious that I didn’t really do the math – I dove straight for the bait.

-I solved for x but the question wanted y, and I was so happy to be done “doing math” that I stopped too early.

-Answer choice D was just like I’d write that sentence and the others didn’t feel right, so I totally missed the pronoun error in D.

-I didn’t consider negative numbers so I thought this was sufficient.

-I know in my heart that B is true, but there wasn’t enough evidence in the answer choice to support it…they baited me into picking something that was close but just not there.

4) Why didn’t I like the right answer?

This is another huge question that not enough people ask (or that they don’t ask frequently enough). For the previous question, the GMAT is “selling the wrong answer” and usually that’s paired with this one – “hiding the right answer” by making it look irrelevant or awkward. Your answers might include:

-Statement 2 didn’t really seem relevant at all so I didn’t spend any time considering how I might use it…but I guess if the units have to be positive integers I could have just used trial and error.

-I hated the sentence structure of answer choice A so much that I immediately eliminated it and never even considered the verb tenses.

-The first few words of this CR answer choice seemed way out of scope, so I eliminated without reading the whole thing.

-It seemed almost like a double-negative so I never really understood the answer choice.

And here’s the really big takeaway – people often get so caught up in learning rules, facts, formulas, etc. that they don’t realize that they have to learn “the test” and “themselves”. The mistakes you make in practice are perfect opportunities to see what kinds of mistakes you’ll make on the test. Sometimes it’s because you just didn’t know the rule or couldn’t finish the math, but often it’s because the test used your tendencies – assumptions, hasty mistakes, etc. – against you. Ask yourself all four of these questions – and especially #s 3 and 4, which people rarely do – and you’ll be a much more well-rounded test-taker when test day comes and mistakes actually do count against you.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Come On,Commas! 3 Reasons You Should Look Forward To Commas On Sentence Correction

GMAT Tip of the WeekAdmit it – perhaps your favorite thing about the social media revolution is that you’re (or is it “your”?) almost done having to think about punctuation ever again. Hashtags don’t allow for punctuation, and with only 140 characters to express your point of view or challenge three friends to dump water on their heads, who can afford to waste a character on a comma or semicolon?

But regardless of how you feel about punctuation in your own writing, you should look forward to seeing a certain type of punctuation on GMAT Sentence Correction questions. Why?

Commas are clues.

While you’re doing Sentence Correction problems, commas can alert you to three very important Decision Points or strategic uses:

1) Commas help you identify Modifier errors.

Consider this sentence, which comes straight from the Official Guide for GMAT Review:

Architects and stonemasons, huge palace and temple clusters were built by the Maya without the benefit of the wheel or animal transport.

That comma should jump off the screen at you – when a comma appears in the first 10 words of a sentence and is underlined or touches the underlined portion, there’s an incredibly high likelihood that you’re dealing with a Modifier error in at least a couple answer choices. Even more so, if the comma is at the beginning or end of the underline, that probability creeps up to almost 100% – most modifiers are set off by commas, and the most hard-and-fast rules for modifiers apply toward the beginnings of sentences (participial and appositive modifiers get to take some liberties toward the ends of sentences), so in a case like this you should be salivating when you see that comma after the third word and touching the underline. Since “Architects and stonemasons” is a modifier here, it has to logically be able to describe the next noun, and here it cannot (palaces and temple clusters can never be architects), so you have not only eliminated A but also identified the “game” in the sentence – now you have to go find a proper modifier or continue to eliminate flawed ones.

2) Commas signal nonessential modifiers, helping you lighten your load.

What if the sentence above were changed to:

Architects and stonemasons, the most respected of early Mayan craftsmen, were built without the benefit of the wheel or animal transport.

That comma in the same place still alerts you to a modifier, but in this case “the most respected of early Mayan craftsmen” can logically modify “Architects and stonemasons.” So you can’t eliminate this sentence. But since you have identified a *valid* modifier, you have another tool at your disposal – you can ignore it! We call this the “Use It or Lose It” modifier strategy. When you see a modifier, if you don’t “Use It” to eliminate the answer choice (because the modifier is flawed) then “Lose It” – that modifier just adds extra description that isn’t totally necessary to the meaning of the sentence, so you can stop reading at the first comma and start reading again at the second, making the sentence:

Architects and stonemasons were built without the benefit…

And there you should see the mistake – logically that doesn’t work, since architects aren’t “built.” The modifier in this iteration of the sentence is there to distract you from the subject of the sentence, but by identifying commas that set apart a valid modifier, you can lift out that part of the sentence and more quickly cut to the chase.

3) Commas signify lists (which in turn need to be parallel).

Consider another sentence from the GMAT Prep Question Pack:

Displays of the aurora borealis, or “northern lights,” can heat the atmosphere over the arctic enough to affect the trajectories of ballistic missiles, induce electric currents that can cause blackouts in some areas and corrosion in north-south pipelines.

In this sentence, look at that underlined comma next to “induce.” “Induce” is a verb and is not used here as a description, so that comma-verb combination should jump out at you as a clue. This may well be setting up a list of verbs that all stem from one subject or action, like “the race requires competitors to swim in frigid waters, bike across rugged terrain, and run along challenging trails” in which the list of verbs “swim, bike, and run” all must be parallel.

Here, notice that the verb prior to “induce” is “to affect” – this should show you that the displays of the northern lights heats the atmosphere enough to do at least two things:

*affect (the trajectories)
*induce (electric currents)
*and…anything else?

That comma before “induce” should have you on a hunt for that third item in the list, preceded by the word “and” – if you can’t find it, the sentence is wrong. You can’t say “Tonight I plan to exercise, eat dinner.” It has to be “…exercise, eat dinner, and (third verb)” or “…exercise and eat dinner.” So when you see that comma before the verb, you should check to see if you’re dealing with a list, and then make sure that the list is complete (with a connector like “and” or “or” before the last item) and parallel.

Commas may be going the way of bookstores and newspapers, a bit outdated for the social media generation, but at least on GMAT Sentence Correction they’re still important. So in your question for a GMAT score that’s well above “comma” it will pay to look for the comma.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: The 2 Most Important Lessons You Will Learn from Mrs. Doubtfire

GMAT Tip of the WeekFor those considering higher education this week, Robin Williams’ memory looms large. The lessons he taught in Dead Poets’ Society and Good Will Hunting have made their way around the internet more quickly and in more contexts than even Williams’ genie character from Aladdin could throw out references.

But for GMAT test-takers, perhaps the greatest lessons a Robin Williams character can teach come from Mrs. Doubtfire.


Mrs. Doubtfire Lesson One: Look at Verbs! 

Why was Mrs. Doubtfire even called Mrs. Doubtfire? Fans of the movie will remember – when Williams’ character was on the phone applying to be the nanny for his children, he needed a fake name and looked at the newspaper on the table. The San Francisco Chronicle headline that caught his eye: Police Doubt Fire Was Accidental.

And your favorite movie from your childhood could have been called “Mrs. Firewas” or “Mrs. Accidental” or even “Mrs. Crumrise” (trivia question: what was the name of the author of that article?). But Robin Williams – once an English teacher at a New England prep school, then a professor at MIT – knew what GMAT test-takers need to know on Sentence Correction:

Look for the verb.

He looked for the verb – “doubt” – and hence movie history was made. Mrs. Doubtfire became an instant classic, and if you’d like to meteorically rise to prominence at elite New England schools like so many Williams characters, you, too, should learn to look for the verb. Why? Because verbs come with two extremely common and extremely actionable GMAT decision points: verb tense and subject-verb agreement. You can become an expert on those two items much more easily than you can become an expert on other, more nuanced facets of grammar, so look for the verb first. For example:

So devastating the fire, so specific its victim, that police doubt the fire was accidental.

(A) So devastating the fire, so specific its victim, that police doubt the fire was accidental.

(B) The fire was so devastating and had such a specific victim that police doubts the fire was accidental.

(C) So devastating was the fire and its specific victim that police doubted it is accidental.

(D) So devastating the fire, so specific its victim, that police had doubted it accidentally.

(E) The fire was so devastating, its victim so specific, that police doubts it was accidental.

If you read this sentence from left to right, you may well dislike the initial wording (So X, So Y, that…) and try to fix that. But you’re likely not an expert on “unique grammatical structures” – the structure in the original sentence is, indeed, valid (called anaphora). But you don’t need to know that, either – if you look to the verbs (doubt/doubts/doubted and was/is) toward the right hand side of each answer choices, you’ll notice that B and E screw up the subject-verb agreement and C and D botch the tense/timeline. The verb decisions are much easier to make than the structure decision, and if you use the verbs properly the only structure left is A. So learn from Mrs. Doubtfire – look for the verb!

Mrs. Doubtfire Lesson Two: GMAT Questions Often Dress In Drag (or at least in disguise).

Just as Robin Williams donned a mask, wig, and dress in order to appear more kind, friendly, and nurturing, so many GMAT questions are designed to look calming and “easy” when in fact they’re quite difficult. So while your instinct when you see an “easy” problem may well be to rush through it and create some doubt about how you’re performing on the computer-adaptive test, make sure you keep Mrs. Doubtfire in the back of your mind – the question that seems like Mary Poppins might actually be a little darker and scarier (like Williams’ character in One Hour Photo). Paraphrasing Williams’ Good Will Hunting co-star Matt Damon in his Rounders role “if you can’t spot the sucker in the first short while, you probably are the sucker.” Meaning that easy questions – those you might see as absolutely no problem and be able to answer in 30 seconds or so – may deserve a second look. Behind that comforting exterior might well be a trickier question (or your ex-husband who hates Pierce Brosnan).

Consider as an example:

Because he’s taxed by his home planet, Mork pays a tax rate of 40% on his income, while Mindy pays a rate of only 30% on hers. If Mindy earned 3 times as much as Mork did, what was their combined tax rate?

(A) 32.5%
(B) 34%
(C) 35%
(D) 36%
(E) 37.5%

If your mind immediately thought “the average of 30% and 40% is 35% – C!” you’re not alone…but you may be falling for the old Mrs. Doubtfire routine, mistaking a more-difficult question for one that’s sweet, nurturing, and easy. Because Mork & Mindy don’t earn the same amount, their average must be weighted, meaning that the correct answer is A (since Mindy’s income carries 3/4 of the weight, the weighted average will be 3/4 of the way toward her income). And the lesson – when a GMAT question seems a bit too easy, don’t merely assume that it’s easy and that you’re doing poorly. Think about Mrs. Doubtfire playing soccer in the park and Aerosmith singing “Dude Looks Like Lady” (or “Hard Looks Like It’s Easy”…same rhythm) and see if you’re falling for a hard problem disguised as an easy one.

Robin Williams will be remembered for the many ways he inspired us and the many lessons he taught us. While, sadly, you won’t be able to have a conversation with him on a park bench in Boston Common, remembering his Mrs. Doubtfire character on the GMAT will help you on your quest to find similarly-inspiring professors of your own.

Thank you, O’ Captain.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: 5 Words to Recognize Before You Start a Sentence Correction Problem

GMAT Tip of the WeekAfter you read this post about what to look for before you begin reading a Sentence Correction problem, you’ll be an SC expert since this strategy will tell you when to shift your focus from whatever it’s on to timeline and tense. Ready to get started?

So much of Sentence Correction mastery comes not from “learning more things” but from “recognizing when you can use the things you do well.” And one of the major themes you do know how to do well is recognize the timeline of events when you need to choose between different verb tenses. But, like many GMAT test takers, you’ve probably experience some trouble with two major Sentence Correction themes:

-How do you know that it’s a verb tense problem? (really, how do you know what type of problem it is)
-How do you choose a correct verb tense once you’ve identified that?

The answer very frequently lies outside the underlined portion and answer choices, and your clues can often be found in these words:


Example: Since 1992, when Ross Perot ran for election as a third-party presidential candidate, …
“Since” indicates that something started in the past and has continued into the present, so you’ll want a corresponding verb tense like “has been”.


Example: The Republican stronghold on the White House lasted until 1992, when Bill Clinton…
“When” often indicates a turning point or beginning/ending event, helping you organize the timeline of events.


Example: Before Australia become known as Australia, it had been known as the antipodes…
“Before” is a major indicator of timeline, letting you know that an event came prior to another. “Before” is often instrumental when you need to know whether the past-perfect tense (“had visited”) is in play (which is allowable when one event happened before another past-tense event).


Example: Human beings couldn’t have existed until well after dinosaurs, whose lifestyles would have drastically altered the current ecology of the planet, became extinct.
“After” is similar to “before” in its ability to help you quickly determine the order of events.


Example: Schembechler’s tenure lasted from 1969, when the fresh-faced young coach arrived to little fanfare, to 1989, when his retirement shocked many in the community.
“From” indicates a timespan, and one which typically has an endpoint that would call for past tense. “From” is your signal to look for the beginning and end of a time period to determine when/if it started and when/if it has yet ended.

BONUS: Dates
Dates, like 1985 and 1492, are easy to spot on the GMAT – words almost always contain a combination of TALL and short letters, but dates are always numbers in sequence. When you see that a Sentence Correction problem includes a date – particularly a 4-digit year – there’s a high likelihood that verb tense will come into play. So start thinking about what that date signifies (the beginning? the end?) and how that would affect the verb tense.

Overall, these words (and dates) can provide you with a massive clue as to how to read the sentence. When you see that timeline is likely in play, you’re not reading the sentence just hoping to find an error, you’re actively in “attack mode” looking for verb tenses and events and making sure that they’re consistent with the time markers elsewhere in the sentence. The more proactive you can be as you read these sentences, the better, so train your mind to look for words that signal timeline and you’ll have much of your job in mind before you begin the sentence so that there will be plenty to celebrate after you finish the test.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Instagram Your Way To Sentence Correction Success

GMAT Tip of the WeekAs our attention spans get shorter, the GMAT’s verbal section gets harder. Admit it – at some point in the verbal section of your latest practice test, and maybe earlier in that section than you’d like to admit, you just got bored, or at least lost in all the reading.

Open to a random page (let’s pick 691) in the verbal section of the Official Guide for GMAT Review’s new 2015 edition and you’ll find that you have to read about:

-The illustrator Beatrix Potter
-Marconi’s invention of the radio
-Proton-induced X-ray emission
-The cost to run nuclear power plants

And while you may even find 1-2 of these topics interesting, at a certain point they distract your mind from its ultimate job – get these Sentence Correction questions right! How can you overcome these way-longer-than-140-characters sentences in today’s Twitter age? Think about Instagram and take a 3-5 second “snapshot” of each problem before you actually read it.

What does a snapshot entail? It’s different from normal “reading” in that you’re not starting from left to right, top to bottom; in fact, there’s no one starting point overall. It’s looking at a problem in its entirety and getting a sense for “what’s up” before you actually do begin reading. You’re looking for clues:

  • Obvious differences between answer choices (“Decision Points”)
  • The presence of different pronouns in the answer choices (if 2 say “its” and 3 say “they”, you’re working with a pronoun error somewhere and you should immediately be looking for singularity/plurality in the referent)
  • The presence of different verbs in the answer choices (“was” vs. “were” means you’re looking for singular/plural as you read; “was” vs. “is” vs. “has been” means you’re looking for a timeline)
  • Comparison language (more, less, better, etc.) in the answer choices or the original sentence (which tells you that you’re looking for a parallel comparison)
  • The beginning of a “must-be parallel” construction (“both” or “either” or “not only” – in these cases, you know that you’re dealing with parallelism)
  • Easy indicators of a modifier as part of the underline in the original sentence (if a comma touches the underline in the first 10 words, or the sentence starts with “Unlike,” you’re almost always dealing with a modifier decision)

While this isn’t a completely comprehensive list, it should serve the purpose of getting you to think this way:

Within the first 3-5 seconds you look at a Sentence Correction problem, take a quick mental snapshot of the whole sentence and see if you can figure out what you’re looking for when you do dig in to read. On most problems, there’s a clue (or more than one) from a first glance, meaning that you don’t have to read the entire original sentence from scratch – you get to go in looking for something specific (what’s the timeline? what’s the subject and is it singular or plural? what two items are being compared?). And when you do that, you’re much less likely to get lost in the sentence or have to reread just to figure out what’s going on. You’re using the first few seconds to draw your eye to what is most likely important so that when you do read you’re in “attack mode” looking for something specific.

Consider this example, which appears courtesy the GMATPrep Question Pack:

Unlike many other countries, Thailand’s commercial crafts are influenced both by ancient beliefs and tradition and have remained relatively unchanged over the years.

(A) many other countries, Thailand’s commercial crafts are influenced both by
(B) many other countries, commercial crafts in Thailand have as an influenced both by
(C) the commercial crafts of many other countries, in Thailand they are influenced both by
(D) the commercial crafts of many other countries, those of Thailand are influenced by both
(E) in many other countries, Thailand’s commercial crafts have as an influence both

What does your initial snapshot show you? You should quickly notice a couple things:

1) The first word “Unlike” almost always signifies a modifier decision, and the comma after “countries” is another huge modifier clue (it’s a comma after the 4th word and it’s underlined). You should immediately be thinking “Modifier”

2) Even if you didn’t notice that, look at the differences between the first few words in each answer choice: “many other countries” vs. “the commercial crafts of many other countries” – that, again, should scream “modifier” (or “comparison”), as the change in “noun” vs. “something that belongs to a noun” tends to make you pick which one one those you need.

3) Or if you look down the right hand side, you’ll see that parallelism marker “both” and differences between answer choices “both by” and “by both” – that’s another huge indicator of what you may need to read for.

So before you know that this problem is about commercial crafts, Thailand, and influences, your initial snapshot should have you thinking “What subject works best with this modifier ‘Unlike’?” and “where should ‘by’ go?”. And now you’re in attack mode – the comparison/modifier is about boats/crafts in different countries, not the countries themselves, so you need the construction in C and D. And the non-underlined portion doesn’t have a “by” next to “tradition” so “both by ancient beliefs and (you need “by” here) tradition” isn’t parallel. So the answer has to be D, and if you took a mental snapshot your work was already cut out for you well before you started reading.

So steal a page from Instagram – take a quick snapshot of each Sentence Correction question before you start reading, and train yourself to recognize common clues in those snapshots so that you’re always reading with a purpose. Sentence Correction problems can go up to 56 words, but if you use your snapshot to read strategically you’ll usually find that well fewer than 140 characters really matter.

Take a Sentence Correction snapshot on test day, and your next big decision will be what filter to use when posting a snapshot of your 700+ score report.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: 5 Questions To Ask When Preparing For Your GMAT Retake

GMAT Tip of the WeekIf you’re taking the GMAT with the intent of applying to a top-tier business school, there’s a relatively fair chance that you’ll end up having/wanting to retake the GMAT. Which may sound horrible, but it’s true – in fact, several top schools note that their average students take the test more than twice, so if you see a frustrating score pop up during your first, second, or even third attempt don’t let yourself get too down. Rest assured that:

-Schools only care about your highest score

-A frustrating GMAT performance can be a fantastic teaching tool to help you maximize the score on your applications

They key to bouncing back from a poor performance is to analyze it soon after you took the exam, and to do so in a way that helps you address all the items that contributed to a rough outing. To do that, you should ask yourself these five questions within a few days of having taken the test:

1) Did you have any pacing issues?

And to follow up more closely: Did you have to rush/guess/not-finish? Did you end with more time left than you thought you would? In either case, you didn’t pace yourself optimally, and you can learn from that. If you felt rushed the entire time, ask yourself why – did you spend far too much time on any one question? Were you just sluggish from the beginning and can’t account for the time? Did you make mistakes and have to go back to restart problems? Whatever the reason for a pacing problem, you now know what you need to address. If you need to get quicker, try timing yourself on practice sets to both get used to working more quickly and learn which mistakes you make when you’re rushing, so that you can avoid them. If you wasted too much time on just a couple questions, note their setup/content (involved-diagram geometry? long-winded word problem? multiple roots that you just couldn’t eliminate?) so that you can try to get more familiar with the content in practice, and so that, failing that, you can know when you may just need to guess on test day. Or if you had too much time at the end, you now know that too – which types of problems would you get right if you only had 15-20 extra seconds to slow down or check your work? Now you have that time to spare.

2) Did any question or two get you down, waste your time, shake your confidence?

Many who experience a frustrating test can just about pinpoint “It all seemed like it was going well, but then I saw ______________ and it all went downhill from there.” If you have a similar experience, you can learn from that – why did that problem get you down? How can you identify a “time-suck” problem and know when to guess and live to fight another day? If your confidence was shaken, why? Knowing the types of problems that you need to face a little more confidently or time-effectively – or just guess since no one ANSWER will ruin your day but one QUESTION can certainly do so if you let it – can help you avoid that pitfall on your next attempt.

3) Did you see anything that you felt unprepared for? Any question types or content areas that you saw way too much of (and that you were kind of hoping you wouldn’t see much of)?

Many students go into the GMAT feeling prepared, but then see questions that seem like they’re completely out of nowhere. Why is this so frequent? Because often they’re studying from a limited pool of questions (maybe those in the Official Guide for GMAT Review) and after seeing the same questions a few times each they’ve mastered the *study* questions but not necessarily the thought processes required for new questions. Or perhaps they’ve focused on certain content areas and forgot/avoided others, or studied content in a way disproportionate to what the GMAT actually tests (this happens frequently with Sentence Correction – people study tons of idioms, which aren’t often if ever tested, and don’t do nearly enough work on logical meaning). Either way, if you see concepts tested on your official exam and know you weren’t as prepared as you needed to be, now you have a blueprint for what you need to emphasize before you take it again.

4) The night before your test as you struggled to relax and fall asleep, which 2-3 things were on your mind?

Similarly, it’s not uncommon to cut a few corners when studying, doing one more set of number properties problems, for example, when we know we really should be focusing on geometry. That night before the test tends to be quite truthful…what you knew you should have studied but justified to yourself that you’d get to later, or what you could talk yourself into thinking you’d do well but really didn’t understand as well as you should – those things probably came to light as you laid down with your thoughts the night before the test. And now you have a new chance to address those.

5) Given your test day experience, what do you wish you had studied more (or less)? What do you wish you had done differently?

This catchall question should speak for itself – now that you’ve faced the real test under real conditions, you should have a better understanding of what you need to do. Practice tests and study sessions are extremely helpful, but there’s nothing like the experience of knowing that “this time it counts” to really teach you how you’re going to perform under pressure with the full experience. Many examinees fail to live up to their expectations when they’re first in that situation; those who end up at the schools of their dreams, though, learn everything they can from that experience and then add that to their study regimen to make the second (or third) time the charm.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: LeBron James Says Don’t Be Cavalier About Your Initial Data Sufficiency Decision

GMAT Tip of the WeekIt’s all anyone can talk about today – LeBron James has decided to reverse “The Decision” and return home to play for Cleveland. In doing so he forced many people to change their minds.

Let’s take a look at some of those people:

-LeBron himself, who once decided to leave and now comes home as the prodigal son
-Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who once wrote a scathing letter about James the week he left the Cavs for South Beach
-Cavaliers fans, who once burned LeBron’s jersey and rallied against him
-Dwayne Wade, who just last week opted out of a $40 million contract to restructure his deal to create space to attract more players to his and LeBron’s Heat team

-And hopefully you, in the way that you approach Data Sufficiency

What does that mean? Consider this question:

A Miami-based sporting goods store is selling LeBron James #6 jerseys at a deep “everything must go” discount. If each jersey sells for (not one, not two, not three, but…) four dollars, how much revenue did the store earn from the sale of discounted LeBron James jerseys on Friday?

(1) On Friday, the store sells 100 of the white jerseys LeBron wore for home games, and 80 of the black jerseys that LeBron wore for away games.

(2) On Friday, the store sold 50 of the red jerseys that LeBron wore for nationally-televised Sunday games.

After statement 1, you were probably thinking “sufficient” and taking your talents to A or D, right? “Home” and “Away” seem mutually exclusive, so shouldn’t that tell you that there were 180 jerseys sold total at $4/each? If you made The Decision to pick either A or D, you’re not alone…and you have a lot of reason to feel confident. But like LeBron has shown us, it’s never too late to change your mind. Statement 2 supplies information that *should* give you reason to change your mind about statement 1 – there’s a third type of jersey that the store sold, and so statement 1 didn’t tell the complete story. Statement 2 helps to prove that statement 1 actually wasn’t sufficient, allowing you to change your mind and reconsider your answer*.

(*This problem probably doesn’t have a valid solution since there’s no great way to tell mathematically if there might be a 4th type of jersey; this wouldn’t appear as a question on the actual test, but the logic of “statement 2 should prove to you that you didn’t know everything you thought you did on statement 1” is absolutely fair game)

The lesson, really, is this – although “the book” says that you should treat the statements as completely separate, wisdom will show you that often one statement will give you a clue about the other and allow you to change your mind. Typically this happens when:

-One statement is OBVIOUSLY not sufficient


-One statement is OBVIOUSLY sufficient

In either of these cases, that obvious piece of information will likely shed some light on what may be important for the other statement. For example:

Is a/b > c?

(1) a > bc

(2) b < 0

Here statement 1 may well look sufficient…but look how obviously unhelpful statement 2 is. Why is it there? To alert you to the fact that b could be negative – in which case you would have to flip the sign when dividing by b in statement 1:

Statement 1 when b is positive: a > bc becomes a/b > c (YES!)

Statement 2 when b is negative: a > bc becomes a/b < c (NO!)

So while you may have quickly made The Decision – in a youthful spirit of hubris – that statement 1 is sufficient, patience and maturity should lead you to reconsider after statement 2 offers useless-by-itself information that can only serve as a clue: maybe you should change your mind!

Such is the game of Data Sufficiency – much like in NBA Free Agency, hasty, youthful decisions can be reversed, and often on challenging questions the correct answer requires you to let “the other statement” convince you that you’ve made a mistake. So learn from LeBron – it’s okay to change your mind; maybe, in fact, that’s The Decision that’s correct.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda – How To Analyze Your Practice Test Results

GMAT Tip of the WeekSo you’ve taken a practice test and want to know how to use it to improve. You’re not alone, but actually you’re a step ahead of much of the competition! Read the various GMAT forums and you’ll see a lot of data dumps:

On my most recent CATs I scored 640, 610, 630, 580, and 620. What must I do to score 750+ for H/S/W???? Please Help!

Particularly if you’ve taken reputable tests (we recommend GMATPrep and, naturally, the Next-Generation Veritas Prep exams, both types being scored using Item Response Theory) the scores can be quite helpful in gauging whether you’re near the range you’d like to score in on test day. But think about other scored or timed pursuits: Michael Phelps didn’t become a great swimmer by simply looking at the clock at the end of each race, but rather by analyzing his stroke, his aerodynamics (or I guess hydrodynamics), his conditioning, etc. Similarly, the best use of your practice tests isn’t as a gauge of your score, but rather as evidence of why your score is approximately what it is. To capitalize on that information, it’s important that you analyze your results so that you can prioritize your study. Here’s how:

1) Never take a practice test without analyzing its results.

There’s flawed conventional “wisdom” that simply taking practice tests will improve your score. But real improvement comes between those tests, when you’re reviewing the results and considering what they tell you. Did you miss several questions of the same type? Did you mismanage your pacing? Did you fall into common traps and make silly mistakes? Doing the tests helps – it builds stamina and familiarity with the interface and exposes you to dozens of practice problems under real conditions – but analyzing the tests helps you to learn from your mistakes. Once you’ve seen your mistakes or determined your weaknesses, you can use the next few study sessions to address them – revieiwing skills you missed, drilling problems of those types under timed conditions, creating mental checklists to avoid the same mistakes, etc.

2) Prioritize your study sessions by categorizing mistakes.

This is critical – many people will simply look at their problems and say “I missed X geometry questions, Y sentence corrections, etc.” but remember that not all questions are created equally! Were the questions you missed easy or hard? Did you miss them because of silly mistakes or because you just didn’t know what to do? One way to prioritize your study is to divide your mistakes into categories:

Should Get Right – these are the questions that should hurt the most; you knew what you were doing but made a silly mistake or dove hard for the trap answer or completely blanked on something you’d ordinarily remember. These are your top priorities – don’t write them off as “silly mistakes,” but instead come up with a plan to avoid those mistakes. See if these come up in families (“answered the wrong question” vs. “calculation mistake” vs. “made an assumption” etc.) and if they do make it an even more critical plan to have a reminder on test day to slow down and double check. These problems are probably holding you back the most, since “shoulda” questions are in your CAT scoring wheelhouse and missing them lowers your score significantly.

Could Get Right – these problems aren’t silly mistakes, but you know that the concepts aren’t beyond you. You could invest a little more time in practice to make them strengths, so you should carve out some study time and consult a few study resources (like maybe our YouTube channel) to build those iffy concepts or question types into strengths.

Probably Wouldn’t Get Right Anytime Soon – These are the problems you save for later. Anything that you stare at and say “I don’t even…” – these are probably problems that would waste your study time and your test day time. And that’s okay, at least for now – until you can comfortably get problems around your ability level or a little higher correct, these problems well beyond you won’t impact your score much at all. Think about it – getting a monster question right in a CAT test means you get an even scarier question next, and that one will take even longer. You need to shore up your floor before you shoot for the ceiling. Which isn’t to say you’ll never get these, just that they’re not your top priority right now. Since much GMAT study is incremental – harder probability questions require you to be good with algebra and factors/multiples, for example – while you’re shoring up that floor you’re already building toward these, too.

3) Focus on Why – Not Just What

People love to give themselves surface information (think of those Buzzfeed “Which _________ Are You?” quizzes – they’re almost never all that detailed or thought out, but we can’t help but click on them), so you naturally gravitate to “I missed ____ geometry questions and only _____ algebra questions.” But those are big families of conceptual knowledge, and often the reason you missed a geometry question isn’t “geometry” but rather “I screwed up the algebra” or “I assumed something in a Data Sufficiency construct”. Hold yourself accountable for the “why” you got it wrong so that you can better address your specific needs.

4) Be Practical With Pacing

Look for problems on which you spent way too much time and be honest: were you going to get it right and just ran out of time, or were you spinning your wheels the whole time? Look at problems that you missed in a minute or less: could you have gotten it right with 10 seconds of double-check? It’s easy to see a test and say “if I get pacing under control I won’t make those mistakes” but that “if” is a really big hypothetical. Keep track of the types of problems that take you too long and know that as you get closer to test day you may need to triage them, guessing earlier to save time. And keep track of the types of problems that you miss when you’re rushing; that extra time you save by having a quick “guess” trigger finger may save the day on these. Far too many examinees take “I just ran out of time” lightly and assume that will get better on its own; those who know better know that pacing is almost always a struggle for even the 750+ crowd, and make plans to address pacing, not excuses for why pacing held them back on this particular test.

Remember – taking a practice test is only part of the battle; analyzing it and using it for improvement is the other half and arguably the most important half. When you’re done taking your test you’re not done with it overall – put in some analysis time and watch how it impacts your score on the next one.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: GMAT Scoring Is Like The World Cup

If you’re like…probably most human beings this week, you’re at least aware and likely excited for the 2014 World Cup, which began this week in Brazil. As this article is being written, in fact, the 2010 finalists, Spain and the Netherlands, are doing battle in the event’s third game (congratulations to Brazil and Mexico, winners of the first two). And if you’re streaming this game or others at work or if you’ve taken days off to enjoy, you can learn quite a bit from what’s going on in these early group-stage games – lessons that can help you better understand the GMAT scoring system and better plan your test-day and study strategies.

How? There are two major parallels:

It doesn’t matter how prepared you are for the finals; you have to get there
Take Spain and the Netherlands today – two of the world’s most elite sides. If the game doesn’t end in a draw, one of these sides will have “wasted” an entire match with no points to show for it, meaning that it will face must-win (or at least cannot-lose) situations in its remaining two contests against Australia and Chile. Each team has the potential to advance back to the final, but neither is immune from the “mundane” group stage. A team that loses in today’s game will have its work cut out for it well before the tournament rounds begin…much like you’ll see on the GMAT.

On the GMAT, many would-be-Spains – students shooting for the 700+ stratosphere – have spent months preparing, attacking challenge problem after challenge problem, learning obscure formulas and math shortcuts to help them save time for that monster word problem or geometry exercise. But the GMAT scoring algorithm can be fickle – much like World Cup group play, the “easier” questions may preempt you from ever seeing the bigger “games” that you’ve prepared for. When you miss easier questions, the system has substantial reason to doubt your ability – not just that “you aren’t as smart as we thought you were” but even “and maybe your ability is even lower than this question might have indicated”. So the system shows you a slightly easier question, assessing your “floor” and wasting one valuable question that might otherwise have been an opportunity for you to prove yourself worthy of an even higher challenge. Silly mistakes hurt you twice – they reduce your score in the moment *and* they prompt the system to check your ability on even-easier questions. So your top-end ability might not matter much at all if you don’t “survive pool play” and successfully navigate those problems that may seem beneath you.

So what does that mean? You simply MUST get questions right if you can get them right – you can survive a slip-up or two but if you rush through the “easier” questions and make careless mistakes you run the risk of staying mired in that band of difficulty toward the lower end of your ability range, never earning enough opportunities to really test yourself on those extremely-challenging problems you’ve practiced. So make sure that you don’t leave yourself a leaky floor as you push to raise your ceiling – if you make mistakes in practice, address them; if you make them more than once, make a mental note to double and triple check for them on test day. Don’t let silly mistakes – those careless errors that are so easy to write off as “well that was just dumb…I knew that” – hold you back from your true potential. In other words, make sure that you don’t focus so much on tournament play that you find yourself surprised in group play.

Sometimes a draw – or even a close loss – is a cause for celebration
In World Cup group play, your primary – if not only – goal is to advance to the tournament. Accordingly, going for the win but also exposing yourself to a loss – playing too aggressively on offense that your defense becomes vulnerable – can be wildly problematic. You’ll find some of the most elite teams in the Cup playing very conservative soccer in certain games, playing specifically for the draw and the “guaranteed” points to ensure that they survive the group stage. You’ll also find teams that weren’t predicted to advance becoming thrilled when they draw with a world power like Brazil or Germany, having saved a point when it seemed like none were possible and having slightly-but-significantly outpaced the other two teams in the group. And when there are ties in the standings during group play, the tiebreakers are based on goal differentials, meaning that a 1-nil loss to a world power might be a real triumph if your competitors have lost even worse.

Similarly, on the GMAT you may need to play for the “draw” on extremely challenging questions. When a question could easily cost you 3-4 (or more) minutes en route to a guess or mistake, recognizing that it’s safer to play defense – to guess relatively quickly and save your time for the problems that you could get right – is often a smart move. This saves time to ensure that you get the problems within your wheelhouse right, and although it may not seem satisfying in the moment it helps you to avoid those silly mistakes that often come from poor pacing and a need to rush in the end.

There are plenty of GMAT lessons to be learned from the World Cup – coaches even instruct players to “form triangles” on the field (ensuring that the ballcarrier has two options at all times) much like you should look to form triangles when geometry problems get difficult – so as you watch these upcoming matches pay attention to the strategy. American audiences are often confused by the happiness of opposing fans at a draw and by the international strategies that seem less than aggressive, but the elite soccer community knows that they produce results. The same is true of a slightly conservative strategy on the GMAT.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: 99 Problems But Probability Ain’t One

GMAT Tip of the WeekSome of the GMAT’s hardest Problem Solving problems can be made exponentially easier by keeping a famous Jay-Z lyric in the back of your mind. When you hear the phrase:

If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you son?

What immediately springs to mind?

I got 99 problems but a b**** ain’t one.

Now, what’s the GMAT genius in Hova’s lyric? He didn’t tell you what his problems WERE, he just told you what they WEREN’T. Explaining 99 problems would take way more than the two minutes you’d have for a quant problem or the ~3 minutes that Jay wants to spend on a track. And, like Jay-Z, you want to be Mr. One Take on GMAT problems, doing things the efficient way and getting to the answer much more quickly. So heed his advice when you see a problem like:

Solange takes four roundhouse swings at her brother-in-law. If she is just as likely to connect on any one punch as she is to not connect on that punch, what is the probability that she connects on at least one punch?

Now, there are plenty of sequences in which she can connect:

Hit, Miss, Hit, Miss
Miss, Miss, Miss, Hit
Hit, Hit, Hit, Hit (ouch!)

Trying to list out all the different ways in which she can land a punch is almost as time-consuming as listing all of one’s 99 problems. But think of it this way – which of the sequences available “ain’t one”; which ways does she NOT land a punch. There’s only one:

Miss, Miss, Miss, Miss

And so if we’re calculating the probability among the 16 total sequences (each of two things can happen at each of four points, so the total number of sequences is 2^4 = 16), then if one doesn’t work the other 15 must work. So the probability is 15/16. And the “formula” to use on this essentially derives straight from Jay-Z’s lyrics about what “ain’t one”:

For complementary events (when the probability of A + the probability of B = 100%), the probability of A = (1 – “not A”). And most strategically, this can be used as:

The probability of “At least one” = (1 – probability of “none”)

So if you’re calculating the probability of an outcome that has many different paths, see if it’s a cleaner calculation to determine the number of paths that “ain’t one” of your desired outcomes, and then just subtract those from one.

Note that this ideology doesn’t just extend to probability. In many problems, calculating all the outcomes that “are” desired is a whole lot harder than calculating the outcomes that “ain’t one” of the desired. Consider this problem from this week’s G-MATT Mondays session:

Matt is touring a nation in which coins are issued in two amounts, 2¢ and 5¢, which are made of iron and copper, respectively. If Matt has ten iron coins and ten copper coins, how many different sums from 1¢ to 70¢ can he make with a combination of his coins?

A) 66

B) 67

C) 68

D) 69

E) 70

Here look at the answer choices – they’re all very, very high numbers for the range (1-70) in question. So if your goal is to try to come up with all the possible coin combinations that work, you’ll be there a while. But what about the combinations that “ain’t one” of the possibilities? Since the maximum is 70, if you find the combinations that don’t work you’re doing this much more efficiently…and the answer choices tell you that at maximum only four won’t work so your job just became a lot easier.

With 2 and 5 cent coins as your options, you can’t get to 1 and you can’t get to 3, so those are two “ain’t one” possibilities. And then “100% minus… comes back into play” – Notice too that 70¢ is the maximum possible sum (that would use all the coins), so 70¢ – 1¢, or 69¢, and 70¢ – 3¢, or 67¢ are impossible too. So the answer is 66, but the takeaway is bigger: when calculating all the possibilities looks to be far too time-consuming, you often have the opportunity to calculate the possibilities that “ain’t one.” You’ve got a lot of problems to tackle on test day; hopefully this strategy allows you to make one question much less of one.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Free Points On Sentence Correction

GMAT Tip of the WeekWhile summer hasn’t officially started with the solstice coming in a few weeks, this post-Memorial-Day short week and a final farewell to winter weather has started the summer season in earnest for most Northern Hemispherians. And thus beginneth the season of sentences like:

It’s not only the heat but also the humidity.


Both the heat and the humidity have been awful this summer.

And while you lament the oppressive heat waves with such sentences this summer, you can not only wish you had air conditioning but also prepare for the GMAT. “Not only…but also;” “Both _____ and ______;” “Just as X, so Y;” and other similar phrases should be free points for you on the GMAT if you heed this advice (which is not only valid GMAT advice but also terrific summertime skin care advice):

Cover up.

As an example, consider this partial sentence correction question:

This weekend, Anna will either go surfing at Paradise Cove or sailing at Montego Marina.

(A) go surfing at Paradise Cove or sailing

(B) surf at Paradise Cove or she will sail

(C) go surfing at Paradise Cove or go sailing

The technique? Cover up everything from “either” through “or” (or from “not only” through “but also” or from “both” through “and” when you see those structures) and if the sentence doesn’t still make sense, it’s wrong. Try it:

(A) This weekend, Anna will…sailing at Montego Marina.

(B) This weekend, Anna will…she will sail at Montego Marina

(C) This weekend, Anna will…go sailing at Montego Marina

As you should see, C is the only one that makes sense, so it has to be right. The reason? These “structures that split in two” require parallel construction – if there’s a verb right after “either” there has to be a verb right after “or.” But if the subject comes right after “either,” there has to be a subject (like she) right after “or.” And the byproduct of that is that if that parallel structure is broken, the second half of the sentence won’t make sense – it will either be missing an important word or it will include a redundant word or phrase (like “it will”).

So when you see any of these constructions:

Both X and Y

Either X or Y

Neither X nor Y

Just as X, so Y

Not only X, but also Y

Seize the opportunity and cover up everything between (and including) those structural phrases. If the resulting sentence doesn’t make sense, that answer is wrong. And since people often struggle mightily with parallel structures, the “Cover Up” strategy should give you free points on that question. So while you may not be a fan of either the heat or the humidity this summer, paying attention to parallel structure when you issue those complaints can help you get into both Harvard and into Stanford in the fall.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: The Most Important Word on the GMAT

GMAT Tip of the WeekOver the course of your GMAT exam, you’ll read thousands of words. Each Reading Comp passage, for example, will have ~300 of them; each Sentence Correction prompt will have ~40. And while you won’t spend much time reading the words in the Data Sufficiency answer choices, having long since internalized what each letter means, you’ll spend plenty of time poring over keywords in the question stem. You’ll need to process tons of words as you take the GMAT, but on most questions one word will make all the difference:

The word they didn’t have to say.

Consider this new Data Sufficiency question from the Veritas Prep Question Bank:

What is the value of n?

(1) 36n > n^2 + 324

(2) 325 > n^2 > 323

Many will see statement 1 with its quadratic mixed with inequality and think “well, n could be anything”. But look a little closer – what word (or in this case symbol) did the question not have to use? What rare qualifier is in there?

That’s right – it’s not “greater than,” it’s “greater than OR equal to”. That little underline should stand out to you – almost any time we use an inequality we use > or >.

And here that should be your clue that it’s worth it to do the math. When you’re asked for a specific value and given a one-sided inequality (as opposed to a bracketed inequality like you see in statement 2) that usually isn’t going to help you. But that underline should indicate to you that something’s up…that you need to do some work. And if you do:

36n > n^2 + 324

becomes a quadratic:

0 > n^2 – 36n + 324

which factors:

0 > (n – 18)^2

meaning that:

0 is greater than OR equal to (n – 18)

And here’s where that sixth sense really kicks in…you know something’s up, so you investigate a little further. 0 can’t be greater than a square, as anything squared, no matter how negative, is either 0 or positive. So (n – 18) MUST BE 0, the “or equal to” portion. (and since statement 2 allows for noninteger values of n, too, the answer is A).

And the real lesson? Pay attention to the word (or symbol, or phrase) that the question doesn’t have to say. If there’s a word that seems out of the ordinary, it’s usually there for a reason and that’s your clue as to what will make the question interesting or challenging.

In a Critical Reasoning context this happens frequently, too. Consider:

Raisins are made by drying grapes in the sun. Although some of the sugar in the grapes is caramelized in the process, nothing is added. Moreover, the only thing removed from the grapes is the water that evaporates during the drying, and water contains no calories or nutrients. The fact that raisins contain more iron per food calorie than grapes do is thus puzzling.

Which one of the following, if true, most helps to explain why raisins contain more iron per calorie than do grapes?

(A) Since grapes are bigger than raisins, it takes several bunches of grapes to provide the same amount of iron as a handful of raisins does.
(B) Caramelized sugar cannot be digested, so its calories do not count toward the food calorie content of raisins.
(C) The body can absorb iron and other nutrients more quickly from grapes than from raisins because of the relatively high water content of grapes.
(D) Raisins, but not grapes, are available year-round, so many people get a greater share of their yearly iron intake from raisins than from grapes.
(E) Raisins are often eaten in combination with other iron-containing foods, while grapes are usually eaten by themselves.

Look at that question stem – what doesn’t it have to say? It could say:

Which one of the following, if true, most helps to explain why raisins contain more iron per calorie than do grapes?

And very few would notice or care that “per calorie” is missing. So that phrase “per calorie” becomes supremely important – it’s not about raising having more iron…it’s about a change to the iron-per-calorie ratio. That little phrase that didn’t really need to be said is what makes this question interesting, and what determines the correct answer B (which changes the iron/calorie ratio by reducing the number of calories in that ratio).

So train yourself to look for that word, symbol, or phrase that doesn’t really need to be there but that should now stick out like a sore thumb to you. If a question says that:

x and y are distinct integers —> that word “distinct” doesn’t need to be there, so it’s going to be important that x can’t equal y

Therefore, Company B will need to reduce its shipping costs in order to remain profitable –> that word “shipping” doesn’t need to be there, so it’s going to be important

What is the value of nonnegative integer y? –> “nonnegative” is just so slightly different from “positive” – it’s going to be important that y could also be 0

There are lots of words on the GMAT, but in many questions one word reigns supreme in importance over all the others. Train yourself to notice that word that doesn’t need to be said, and “your GMAT score” will require that extra word in there to read “your high GMAT score.”

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Maximizing Your Efficiency on Min-Max Problems

GMAT Tip of the WeekOn nearly every GMAT, you’ll see at least one of the “Min/Max” variety of word problems, a category that’s difficult for even the brightest quant minds largely for one major reason: these aren’t your typical word problems, and they don’t lend themselves very well to algebra. They tend to be every bit as “situational” as “mathematical” and in fact are labeled “scenario-driven Min/Max problems” in the Veritas Prep Word Problems lesson. Why? Because they’re almost entirely driven by the situation, including:

The figures almost always have to be integers. The problems use situations like “the number of people” or “the number of trees,” a subtle clue that algebra won’t quite work because you’re not using all real numbers, but instead nonnegative integers. But be careful (as you’ll see below).

The questions ask for a very specific value in a very specific way. You’ll often see them ask “did at least three” (3 or more means “yes”) or “was the number sold greater than 50” (50 itself means “no” – to get “yes” it has to be 51 or more, provided you’re dealing with integers).

The rules of the game often dictate whether repeat numbers are allowed. Quite often you’ll find a stipulation that “no two could be the same” (but make sure you see that stipulation before you act on it!).

Some of the information in a Data Sufficiency version of a Min/Max is much more sufficient than it usually appears. This is largely because of the scenario, numbers, and question stem they’ve carefully crafted to sneak sufficiency past you.

Let’s consider an example so that you can see how one of these works:

Five friends recently visited a famous chocolatier, and collectively purchased a total of 16 pounds of fudge. Did any one friend purchase more than 5 pounds of fudge?

(1) No two friends purchased the same amount of fudge.

(2) The minimum increment in which the chocolatier sells fudge is one pound.

Look at the familiar symptoms of a min/max problem:

*The question stem asks a yes/no question about a very specific value (5 pounds)

*Statement 1 provides the caveat “no two can be the same”

*While the problem itself doesn’t dictate “integers” via the scenario – “pounds of fudge” can certainly come in fractions – Statement 2 comes in to limit the values to integers

Now, if you’re looking at the information from the question stem and statement 1, you could try to set up some algebra:

The given information: a + b + c + d + e = 16

Statement 1: a > b > c > d > e

The question, then: Is a > 5?

You should immediately see that this isn’t sufficient; with nonintegers in play, a could be 15.9 and the other four could add up to 0.1 (“yes”) or they could each be right around the average of 3.2, just a hair off to satisfy the inequality (“no”). But you should also see what makes problems like this tricky with algebra – there are a lot of variables and there’s a lot of inequality. Min/Max problems tend to require a lot more trial and error, and live up to their name because the technique that works best on them is to minimize and maximize particular values to figure out the possible range of the value in question. Eschewing algebra, let’s look at statement 2:

Given Information: 16 total pounds were purchased.

Statement 2: The purchases had to be in integer increments.

The question: Was one of those integers 5 or higher?

Here, to find the maximum value you can minimize the other values. What if four friends didn’t buy anything (0, 0, 0, 0) and the fifth bought all 16 pounds? That’s a resounding “yes”. But they could have split things much more easily – you’d do this by maximizing the smallest value(s). 3, 3, 3, 3, 3 would give you 15, allowing that one final pound to go to the highest making the highest value 4. So there’s your “no” and statement 2 is not sufficient.

When you take the statements together, however, you should see what really makes these problems tick. With algebra it’s still awful:

a + b + c + d + e = 16
a > b > c > d > e
a, b, c, d, and e are integers
Is a > 5?

But with an intent to minimize the highest value (by maximizing the others, sucking as much value away as possible) and maximize the highest value (by minimizing the others to drive all value toward the highest), you have a blueprint for trial and error.

Maximize the highest value / Minimize the others. To make sure you can get a “yes”, minimize the smallest values to see how high the highest can go. That means 0, 1, 2, and 3 – a total of 6 pounds leaving 10 for the highest. It’s easy to get a “yes”.

Minimize the highest value / Maximize the others. Since highest = 5 gives you “no”, see if you can then minimize that highest (5) and maximize the others (4, 3, 2, and 1). But notice that that only gives you a total of 15, and you need to account for 16. And here you cannot give that extra pound to any of the lower values without matching a higher one (add it to 1 and you match 2; add it to 2 and you match 3; etc.). So this guarantees that the highest value is 6 or more, and the answer is sufficient, C.

More importantly, look at the technique – many great mathematical minds hate these problems because the “pure math” algebra is so ugly…but the GMAT loves these because they force you to think logically through a few situations. Since so many of these are Yes/No Data Sufficiency problems, keep in mind that your goals are to “prove insufficiency” looking for both a Yes and a No answer, by:

Minimizing the highest value by maximizing the others

Maximizing the highest value by minimizing the others

Minimizing the lowest value by maximizing the others

Maximizing the lowest value by minimizing the others

Essentially to ______ize one value, do the opposite to the others, and doing so will help you test the possible range. As you do so, make sure you consider:

-Can the values be nonintegers, negative numbers, or 0? (often the scenario dictates that the answer to a few of these is “no”)

-Can values repeat?

Min/Max Scenario problems can be a pain, as they maximize the amount of time you have to spend on them while minimizing your score. But if you know the game, you have an advantage – these problems are all about trial-and-error of Min/Max situations and about taking acute inventory of what is allowable for the values you do try. Play the game correctly, and you’ll be set up for maximal success with minimal (comparative) effort.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Mother Knows Best on Sentence Correction

GMAT Tip of the WeekSo it’s Mother’s Day weekend, and all of us should be thanking our moms this weekend. For all kinds of things, of course, but for one that you may not have realized all these years growing up:

Your mom taught you one of the greatest Sentence Correction lessons you’ll ever learn.

How? She told you to clean your room. Now, remember – when your mom told you to clean your room you were rarely doing it with disinfectant or using a deep-cleaner on the carpet. Your job wasn’t so much to deep clean your room chemically, but more to just “declutter” it, putting things away and tidying up for a cleaner, more livable space. She taught you the virtue of “everything in its place and a place for everything,” and in doing so gave you the tools you need to make Sentence Correction significantly easier.

Let’s demonstrate with a problem:

Visitors to the zoo have often looked up in to the leafy aviary and saw macaws resting on the branches, whose tails trail like brightly colored splatters of paint on a green canvas.

(A) saw macaws resting on the branches, whose tails trail
(B) saw macaws resting on the branches, whose tails were trailing
(C) saw macaws resting on the branches, with tails trailing
(D) seen macaws resting on the branches, with tails trailing
(E) seen macaws resting on the branches, whose tails have trailed

Much of this sentence is simply clutter. So many of the phrases add extra description, but are the kinds of things your mother would tell you to put away and “declutter” – namely, the prepositional phrases. So let’s get rid of the clutter with “to the zoo”; “often”; “in to the leafy aviary”; “on the branches”; and “whose tails trail like brightly colored splatters of paint on a green canvas”. On the GMAT, description often serves as clutter, so if you can envision the sentence without the descriptive clutter (similar to how your mom wanted to envision your bedroom), you’d be left with;

Visitors have looked up and saw macaws resting.

Without all of the clutter, your ear should tell you that this is just wrong – the expression should be parallel in timeline: “Visitors have looked up and seen macaws.” And that only leaves D and E.

Now, to make this next decision you’ll need to bring back some of the description, as you can see that the only remaining decision is between “with tails trailing” and “whose tails have trailed”. And here, yet again, is where your mother’s life lessons can help you. What did you often do to make sure your room passed your mom’s test? You took anything that *might* be considered clutter, buried it in a closet or under a bed, and then dug back in to pull out the things that you really wanted. And that’s the case on GMAT Sentence Correction – when you “eliminate” clutter you don’t get rid of it forever, you just ignore it temporarily. Here if you bring back the description in question, you have:

(D) seen macaws resting on the branches, with tails trailing
(E) seen macaws resting on the branches, whose tails have trailed

Here the description/modifiers are important, and astute test-takers should see that branches don’t have tails, but birds do (your mom probably took you to the zoo, too – one more lesson to thank her for). So E cannot be right, and the answer is D.

Most importantly here, remember what your mother taught you – a clean room is a happy room, and a clean, clutter-free sentence makes for much happier and more effective Sentence Correction. This weekend you have millions of reasons to thank your mom, but as you study for the GMAT you know that she’d be thrilled with even 700…

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: The Data Sufficiency Reward System

GMAT Tip of the WeekIf you’ve studied for the GMAT for a while, you likely have a decent understanding of the answer choices:

(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 are needed

And you probably have a device to help you both remember these answer choices and use process of elimination. Some like “AD/BCE” (make your decision on statement 1 and cross out one side), others like “1-2-TEN” (1 alone, 2 alone, together, either, neither). But, ultimately, remembering the answer choices (which are always attached to the question on test day anyway) and understanding how to use process of elimination is just the “price of entry” for actually solving these problems correctly. For true Data Sufficiency mastery and a competitive advantage, you should think of the answer choices this way:



As an added bonus it’s helpful for process of elimination (like the other tools) but as a strategic thought process it can be instrumental in using your time wisely and avoiding trap answers. Because what these answers really mean is:

___D___ — Each statement alone is sufficient
A_____B — One statement alone is sufficient; the other is not
___C___ — Both together are sufficient, but neither alone is sufficient
___E___ — The statements are not sufficient, even together

And since most Data Sufficiency questions are created with one of these constructs:

*One answer seems fairly obvious but it’s a trap
*One statement is clearly sufficient; the other is a little tricky
*One statement is clearly insufficient, but gives you a clue as to something you need to consider on the other

The above chart tells you how to better assess the answer given the answer that looks most promising. Consider a question like:

Set J consists of terms {2, 7, 12, 17, a}. Is a > 7?

(1) a is the median of set J
(2) Set J does not have a mode

For most, statement 1 looks very sufficient, as if a is the “middle number” then it would go between 7 and 12 on the list {2, 7, a, 12, 17}. That would mean that on this chart, you’re at A, as statement 2 is pretty worthless on its own:


You can very confidently eliminate B and probably E, too, but if you’re sitting on a “probable A,” you’ll want to consider one level above and one level below your answer on the chart. Why? Because if the answer is, indeed, trickier than your first-30-seconds-assessment, the options are that either:

*The statement you thought was sufficient was close, but there’s a little hiccup (you thought A, but it’s C)
*The statement you thought was not sufficient was actually really cleverly sufficient had you just worked a little harder to reveal it (you thought A, but it’s D)

This is what Veritas Prep’s Data Sufficiency book calls “The Reward System” – many questions are created to reward those examinees who dig deeper on an “obvious” answer via critical thinking, and to “punish” those who leap to judgement and fall for the sucker choice. If A is the sucker choice, the answer is almost always D or C, so you know what you have to do…check to make sure that statement 2 is not sufficient, and then check (often using statement 2) to make sure that you haven’t overlooked a unique situation that would show that statement 1 is actually not sufficient. And here, further review shows this:

If a = 7, a is still the median of the set, but 7 is NOT greater than 7, so that answer would be “no” – there’s a way that a is not greater than 7, so we actually need statement 2. If there is no mode, then a can’t be 7 (that would be a duplicate number, making 7 the mode). So the answer is C, and the Reward System thinking can help make sure you streamline your thought process to help you identify that. If you picked A you’re not alone – many do. But if you picked A and then considered the chart:


You should have spent that extra 30 seconds making sure that the answer wasn’t C or D, and that may have given you the opportunity to reap the rewards of thinking critically via the Data Sufficiency question structure.

So remember – merely knowing what the answer choices are is an elementary step in Data Sufficiency mastery; learning to use those to your advantage via the Reward System will help you avoid trap answers and stake your place among those being rewarded.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Your 3 Step Pacing Plan

GMAT Tip of the WeekWhat makes the GMAT difficult? For most examinees, the time pressure is arguably the biggest factor; given unlimited time, most 700-level aspirants could get most problems right, but with that clock ticking and time of the essence we’re all vulnerable to silly mistakes, mental blocks, and the need to give up on hard questions.

So how can you overcome the pressures of pacing? Try this three-step method:

1) Take Your Time

This may seem a bit counter-intuitive if you’re pressed for time, but the GMAT scoring algorithm so heavily punishes you for missing “easy” questions that you can’t afford to fall victim to silly or careless mistakes. Most test-takers could finish between 32-34 quant questions and 36-38 verbal questions in the 75 allotted minutes, but it’s that 37 quant / 41 verbal question allocation that forces examinees to budget time. If, for example, on quant you’d be great if you could average 2:20 per question instead of the allotted 2:05, that extra 15 seconds you’d like per question may well be your Achilles’ heel if, in your haste to get down closer to 2 minutes per question, you fall victim to:

-Silly calculation mistakes
-Setting up an equation incorrectly
-Leaving a problem one step short and picking the trap answer
-Answering “the wrong question” (e.g. they asked for y, you solved for x)

These mistakes, as you’ve likely seen in your practice tests and homework sets, are quite common, so make sure that you’re aware of them and know to slow down to avoid them. Double check your work, which can largely go wrong in the first 20-30 seconds of a problem (setting up a problem incorrectly) or the last 20-30 seconds (answering the wrong question, skipping a calculation step because it looks like you’ll get right to one answer choice). Know your common mistakes and spend that extra 10-15 seconds double-checking for them. Too many examinees, knowing that they’d need 10% more time than they have, do a “90% job on 100% of questions” (a lot of wrong answers) instead of a “100% job on 90% of questions” (making sure that when they can get a question right, they do. As we say often on the GMAT, your floor is more important than your ceiling – missing easy questions hurts you much more significantly than correctly answering hard question helps you. So step 1 on pacing – make sure that you take the time you need to successfully finish problems on which you’ve done most of the work right.

2) Plan to Guess

Here’s where you get the time back. If you still know that the above strategy – take the time that you need – will leave you 5-6 minutes short of where you’d need to be to finish the section, then save that time by knowing that up to 3-4 times per section you’ll just guess early on a problem to bank that time for when you really need it. Why does this work? If you’re doing well on a section by successfully answering most of those questions within your ability level, you’re going to see some extremely difficult questions as your “reward” based on the adaptive algorithm. You WILL get questions wrong, and the key is to not invest too much time in questions that you were probably going to get wrong anyway. The problem with guessing is much more psychological than real – when you get stuck on a problem and “have to” guess, you get that panic feeling in your mind and it shakes your confidence for future questions. Plus you’ve probably spent up to your average pace-per-question (if not more) by that point, so you’re doubly worried…time is ticking away *and* you just had to blow a guess.

The remedy? Give yourself up to 4 “free passes,” questions on which you’ll just guess in the first 20-25 seconds if you realize that it’s probably beyond you and/or it will probably sap a lot of time. (For example, plenty of 750+ scorers have admitted that “hard to start” geometry problems fall into this category for them…geometry with detailed figures can be very time-consuming, so if they don’t see the path early on they know to just save that time for something more concrete) By consciously using a “free pass” instead of nervously venturing a guess, you own the guess as a strategy and not a cop-out, and you’ll save that time for when you need it and can best use it for correct answers.

3) Have a Pacing Plan

How do you know when you need to guess? Segment each section into approximate quarters and have benchmarks for where you’ll want to be. Since the clock ticks down from 75 minutes, have those benchmarks in mind the way you’ll see them:


After 10 questions —- 53 minutes remaining*
After 20 questions —- 33 minutes remaining
After 30 questions —- 14 minutes remaining
(which leaves about 2 minutes per question)


After 10 questions —- 55 minutes remaining*
After 20 questions —- 36 minutes remaining
After 30 questions —- 18 minutes remaining
(which leaves about 1:40 per question)

(*You can adjust these benchmarks to your liking; here we’re using a little more time in the initial 10 questions, not because “they’re more important” as the myth goes, but more because you can’t use any additional time at the end of the section, so if you’re going to err on pacing it’s better to get the early questions right and hustle a little later than it is to make silly mistakes early, banking time that won’t help you later.)

Whenever you’re more than a minute or so behind your desired pace, that’s when you’ll want to look at using a “free pass” within the next 4-5 questions to get back on track. By having a plan to check every 10 questions, you’ll avoid that pressure (and wasted time) that comes from calculating your pace-per-question frequently throughout the test (seriously, people do this – they’re so worried about not having enough time that they waste valuable time doing extra, irrelevant math problems!!) and you’ll have a contingency plan in place so that you’re not panicked if you are a little behind. If you’re behind, you have a “free pass” in your back pocket to help get back to where you want to be.

Pacing on the GMAT is tricky for everyone – that’s a major factor of what makes it “the GMAT.” But if you follow this process, you can make the best out of that limited time and maximize your chance of success. Remember, 75 minutes per section is hard for just about everyone, so even if you’re not comfortable with the pacing but you have a better plan for how to use that scarce resource, pacing can be your competitive advantage.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Change the Way You Think About Change-Related Graphics Interpretation

GMAT Tip of the WeekOne of the great benefits of the Veritas Prep Question Bank is that with its 4 million user responses to GMAT practice questions it does an excellent job of highlighting test-taker trends. These statistics can point out trap answers that examinees too readily fall for, conceptual areas that students need to address, and other valuable insights into the way the world takes the GMAT. And this week, one particular trend caught our eye in a major way:

Test-takers struggle mightily with the concept of “Rate of Change” vs. “Actual Number”.

Consider this quick data table, which displays the average monthly temperature in Chicago, Illinois:

Month…….Average High Temperature

Now, from a quick glance you should see that the temperature increases every month from February through July. But there’s another angle to this data, too, and challenging Integrated Reasoning questions can hinge on that exact point. The temperature INCREASES every month, but the GROWTH RATE declines – from February to March the temperature increases by 11.4 degrees, but from June to July it only goes up 4.3 degrees as summer temperatures level off. So while the data table above might clearly demonstrate that the temperature is rising (we promise, Chicago – although we know it hasn’t been too noticeable just yet!), an Integrated Reasoning question might show you this graph:

Based on this graph, most students would incorrectly answer the question: “From March through August, how many months did the average temperature decrease?”, as most would look at the graph and see several months of decline. But the important thing to keep in mind is “WHAT declined?”. And in this case it’s “the growth rate in the temperature” not “the temperature itself”. In this graph, any time the data point is above 0, that means the temperature increased. Only one month (August) was colder than the month prior.

This next graph will plot both “average temperature” and temperature growth” together to highlight this concept.

So what is the lesson? Make sure that you’re aware of the difference between the “actual number” and the “rate of change” and that you look for that concept to be tested on Graphics Interpretation questions. When newscasters say that “Apple’s earnings growth dropped 5% this quarter” that doesn’t necessarily mean that Apple lost money or didn’t improve upon the last quarter; it just means that it grew slower. Think back to physics classes and the difference between acceleration and velocity – “percent change” is the acceleration component, but people often mistake it for the velocity. And based on Question Bank data, every time this concept has been tested more than half of users missed this concept!

So remember – the rate of change can decline while the actual number still increases…just not as quickly. Understanding and recognizing this concept can keep both metrics positive for your Integrated Reasoning score.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: ASAP Test Taking Can Be Rocky (That’s Your Freaking Problem)

As Hip Hop Month draws to a close in the GMAT Tip of the Week space, it’s time to pass the torch to the new school; while Eminem, Tupac, the Wu Tang Clan, and other classic acts have taught you some important lessons about the GMAT, it’s time for the young bucks to impart some wisdom. So today we bring you an important message from A$AP Rocky, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar, who will show you one of the most common (f****g) problems that test-takers encounter while taking the GMAT.

In their incredibly-vulgar but even-catchier track “F*****g Problems,” they refrain “I love bad b******s that’s my f*****g problem; and yeah I like to f***, I’ve got a f*****g problem”. And in doing so, they (we promise) tell the familiar tale of GMAT pacing gone awry:

GMAT test-takers far too often go through easy-to-moderate level problems “A$AP”, which leads to a Rocky performance. Why? Because we love hard problems, that’s our effing problem. We’re in such a hurry to save time for the hardest problems out there that we make silly mistakes on the problems we should get right, then dump far too much time into the problems – those bad b*****s – that we probably wouldn’t have gotten right anyway.

Try this – look at your next practice test and see how you allocated your time. Your quant performance, for example, might look like:

Time taken….Correct/Incorrect

Because of the way the GMAT scoring algorithm works, missing “easy” questions – perhaps by going through them ASAP and not spending that extra few seconds double-checking your work – hurts you substantially more than getting really hard questions correct helps you. After all, the system has to assume that it’s possible for you to guess correctly on 20% of the questions way above your head, so it can chalk that up to “probability”, whereas when you miss easy questions that’s just on you. And if you look at this sample section breakdown, that’s likely what the user did – spending 1:22 and 1:12 on “easier” problems (those that came after another incorrect answer) and getting those wrong, while spending ~3 minutes on “harder” questions and not really helping the cause. Even that correct answer at the end came at the expense of some valuable time and may well have been a guess (or could have been guessed correctly, anyway.

The problem that many GMAT students have – and it’s human nature, so you just need to be aware of it – is that they disproportionately spend their time on those “bad b******s” hard problems and go through the easier problems a little too ASAP. In doing so, they often make just enough careless mistakes on the easier questions that their score suffers mightily. So how can you fix that? Let’s borrow a line from A$AP Rocky as he opens the song in question:

“Hold up, b*****s simmer down…”

What he means, obviously, is to spend that extra 5-10 seconds on early problems to “hold up / simmer down” and double-check your work to make sure that you didn’t make a careless mistake or dive right into a trap answer. Those seconds are more valuable to you in rescuing yourself from a silly error than they are in attacking a problem that you probably wouldn’t have gotten right, anyway. ASAP answers can be rocky.

Now, you may be asking “okay, I’ll spend an extra 5 seconds per question double-checking my work, but what if I’m already short on time – where does that time come from?”. And the answer is this – most students struggle to comfortably complete the full section in 75 minutes, but most could complete most of that section – maybe 33-34 quant or 38-39 verbal questions – comfortably in that time. So rather than rush through all 37 / 41 questions ASAP leading to a rocky performance, learn from A$AP’s next lyric:

“Taking hella-long, b***, give it to me now”

Meaning, of course, on problems that would take you a hella-long time to answer, rather than spend 2-4 minutes en route to what might end up being a blind guess, anyway, make your guess now (and make that thing pop like a semi or a nine…). If you know you can’t comfortably answer all the questions in 75 minutes, give yourself 2-3 time-saving “I pass” questions per section, and when you see something that seems labor-intensive and outside your comfort zone, blow in your 20% shot at a guess and bank that 2 minutes to make sure you do your best work on the problems that you should get right. It’s better to do your best work on 34 quant questions and completely blow off 3 than it is to do 90% effective work on all 37, as silly little mistakes on the easier questions will significantly hold back your score. If you can get a question right, get it right.

Naturally, this takes practice to implement, and so it’s important to get a feel for your own pacing (ideally you never need to guess, but realistically most students do at some point). Which is why the Veritas Prep practice tests include pacing statistics per question (your pace vs. the average pace for all users) *and* a feature entitled “The Three Easiest Question You Got Wrong” to help you determine which types of questions require that extra 5-10 seconds to make sure you’re not leaving those easy points on the table. With any pacing or “triage” strategy, you’ll need to practice to see how it works for you, and if ‘finding a test that’s real is your f**** problem, bring your practice to our Item Response Theory tests and maybe we can solve it’.

Most importantly, recognize that one of the biggest f**** problems test takers have on the GMAT is going through problems ASAP and leaving themselves vulnerable to silly mistakes and a rocky performance. Don’t bank the time for those “bad b*****s”, the hardest problems out there; instead, hold up/simmer down, double-check for silly mistakes, and maximize your score. We hope this pep talk turns into a pep rally as you celebrate GMAT success.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Tupac Slow Jams the GMAT

Where the Venn Diagram of “Hip Hop Month in the Veritas Prep GMAT Tip space” and “Guy who Photoshops all the preview images for these posts does so for the last time before leaving for an amazing new opportunity” intersects, you’ll find a lot of Boyz II Men, rap ballads, and other assorted slow jams playing bittersweetly in the background. And as it so happens, arguably the best of those slow jams – Tupac’s “Life Goes On” – is a perfect metaphor for GMAT test-day strategy:

“How many brothers fell victim to the streets, rest in peace young brother there’s a heaven for a G. I’d be a liar if I told you that I’ve never thought of death. My brother, we’re the last ones left.”

While Pac isn’t necessarily talking about the GMAT, he might as well be, as arguably the single most important test-day strategy you need to have in mind is, essentially, Life Goes On. The computer-adaptive algorithm ensures that just about everyone will “lose” questions like Tupac loses homeboys. How many questions will fall victim to the pressures of time and difficulty? More than you’d think. The CAT algorithm is designed to keep testing your upper threshold of ability, so you will miss questions even if – and actually especially if – you’re doing really well. The key is to recognize that life goes on, that struggling through a problem or even guessing on a few problems isn’t a terrible thing. Like Tupac says in the line “my brother, we’re the last ones left” the GMAT is a test of survival and not as much of pure mastery. You need to roll with the punches and keep looking forward.

To better exemplify the Life Goes On approach to test-day strategy, take this lesson from GMAC’s OG, Dr. Rudner. The brain behind the GMAT’s scoring algorithm was once taking the exam (for both “fun” and “quality control”) in pursuit of a perfect 51 on the quant section. At one point he encountered a question that he couldn’t quite solve – even with a PhD in statistics and a day job that *is* the GMAT – but couldn’t let go of, either. As the minutes ticked by and his multiple approaches to the problem continued to fall short, he says he laughed to himself that “I wrote the algorithm – I know this is stupid to waste time on one question when one single question probably won’t affect my score” but still he soldiered on. And when he checked the internal report the next day to see his question-by-question performance and the statistics on that particular item, he had to laugh again – that question was an unscored, experimental item that absolutely did not count toward his score. Life goes on; you’ll fall victim to a few questions now and then, and you have to know that it’s okay to let them go.

So as you take the GMAT, remember:

-You will miss questions and you can miss quite a few questions and still get a great score. Don’t let any one question affect your confidence or your pace.

-You can guess to save time. The 37 questions in 75 minutes quant pace and 41 in 75 verbal pace is aggressive for most students, who would perform significantly better if the section were just 3-4 questions shorter. Don’t rush through and make silly mistakes on several questions because you’re intent on doing your best on absolutely every question; if you need to guess on couple awful-looking questions to bank a few minutes to perform comfortably on the others, that’s not a bad strategy.

-Not all questions will look difficult, and that’s okay too – don’t let the “hard questions mean you’re doing well” logic convince you of the inverse, that an easy question means you’ve blown it. You may see an easy experimental, or you may find that a question looks easy but has a subtle twist that you didn’t see that makes it hard. Don’t try to read into your performance as you go – that mental energy and time are better spent solving the problem you’re on. Easy or hard, life goes on.

On the GMAT, as in life, hardships will hit you but life goes on. You’ll miss questions like we’ll miss Jeremy; in either case, Tupac can slow jam you back to success.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Started From the Bottom, Now We Here

As Hip Hop Month rolls along in the GMAT Tip space, we’ll pass the torch from classic artists to the future, today letting Drake take the mic.

In MBA-speak, Drake is a natural Kellogg candidate, a collaborative type who loves group projects, always appearing on tracks with other artists and bragging not just about his own success, but “now my whole team here.” So in that teamwork spirit, let’s work with Drake to help him solve his most famous math problem with some lyrics of his own:

The problem:
“The square root of 69 is 8 something; I’ve been trying to work it out”

The solution: “Started from the bottom, now we here.”

On the GMAT, a problem that asks you for the square root of a not-that-common square (you have to have the squares memorized up to about 15 and you should know that 25^2 is 625, too) is almost always going to be an exercise in “starting from the bottom,” using the answer choices to help guide your work. The GMAT doesn’t care if you can calculate the square root of 69, but it does care about whether you can leverage assets like answer choices to help you solve the problem. So on a problem like Drake’s, answer choices might look like:

(A) Between 6 and 7
(B) Between 7 and 8
(C) Between 8 and 9
(D) Between 9 and 10
(E) Between 10 and 11

And in that case, starting from the bottom – looking at the answer choices before you begin your work – can tell you two things:

1) You don’t need an exact number; an estimate will suffice.
2) They’re giving you the numbers to use as an estimate; if you start in the middle of the range (using 8 and 9), you can determine whether you need bigger or smaller numbers.

So if you try 8^2 to give yourself a range of numbers, you’ll see that the square root of 69 is going to be bigger than 8, since 8^2 is 64. So then try the next highest integer, 9, and when you see that 9^2 is 81, bigger than 69, you’ve bracketed in the range at between 8 and 9 and you don’t need to do any more work. When math looks like it could be labor-intensive, the answer choices often show you that you don’t have to do it all!

Even if the problem were a bit tougher, and gave exact numbers like:

(D) 8.31
(E) 8.66

You could again lighten the load by picking an easier-to-calculate number in between, like 8.5. That’s not the easiest math in the world, but multiplying by 5s is typically fairly quick and you’d see that the number has to be less than 8.5 (since 8.5-squared is 72.25).

So the lesson is this – on most Problem Solving and Sentence Correction questions, it pays to “start at the bottom” so to speak, at least taking a quick glance at the answer choices to see if anything jumps out to help you guide your work on the problem. For Problem Solving, some of the prime candidates are:

  • If the units digits of the answers are all different, you can shortcut the multiplication
  • If one variable from the problem (say the problem has x, y, and z) is missing in the answers (say they only have x and z), you’ll want to start working to eliminate that missing variable
  • If the answer choices contain telltale signs of a certain shape or relationship (the square root of 3 usually comes from a 30-60-90 or equilateral triangle; pi usually comes from circles), your job is to find and leverage that shape
  • If the answer choices include fractions, you can use the factors in the numerator and denominator to guide your math (for example, if three of the choices have a denominator of 3 and two have a denominator of 6, part of your work will include the question “will the denominator be even?”)

On Sentence Correction, pay attention to the first and last words (or phrases) of the answer choices for obvious differences. You may see:

  • Two use a singular pronoun (its) and three use a plural (their) – this means that as you read the sentence you’re looking to find the noun that the pronoun refers to
  • The answer choices use different tenses of the same verb (are vs. were vs. have been) – this means that your job is to pay attention to the timeline in the sentence to see which verb tenses are consistent with the logical sequence of events
  • Two use “that of (noun)” and three just use the noun – this means that there’s a comparison going on, and you need to determine whether you’re comparing the possessions (the GDP of Canada vs. that of the UK) or the nouns themselves

Naturally, there are many, many more examples of clues that the answer choices can leave for you, so the true lesson is as simple as Drake’s lyrics. On Problem Solving and Sentence Correction problems, start (briefly) from the bottom to see if there’s anything you can glean from a quick peek at the answers that will help you more quickly get “here”, to the right answer.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Learning Math from Mathers

March has traditionally been “Hip Hop Month” in the GMAT Tip of the Week space, so with March only hours away and winter weather gripping the world, let’s round up to springtime and start Hip Hop March a few hours early, this time borrowing a page from USC-Marshall Mathers. There are plenty of GMAT lessons to learn from Eminem. He’s a master, as are the authors of GMAT Critical Reasoning, of “precision in language“. He flips sentence structures around to create more interesting wordplay, a hallmark of Sentence Correction authors. But what can one of the world’s greatest vocal wordsmiths teach you about quant?

On his latest album, Eminem talks about feeling like a “Rap God”. And while that track – 6,077 words in 6 minutes, or about 18 Reading Comprehension passages’ worth of words – is more dense than anything you’ll have to read for the GMAT, it supplies a few nuggets of wisdom that can dramatically increase your score, most notably this lyric in which he mocks other MCs who have accused him of being too mainstream, too pop:

“I don’t know how to make songs like that
I don’t know what words to use”
Let me know when it occurs to you
While I’m ripping any one of these verses that versus you

Now, while Em is mocking other emcees, he could very well be mimicking the way that the GMAT would mock *you* on certain problems. The GMAT is designed in large part to be a “quantitative reasoning” test as opposed to a “math” test, and leads a lot of students to stare at problems nervously saying, essentially, “I don’t know how to solve problems like that; I don’t know what tools to use”. All the while, the 75-minute section clock ticks down and the GMAT sits back, smirking, thinking “let me know when it occurs to you how to solve this problem that versus you”.

In other words, difficult GMAT problems are often difficult because people waste a lot of time sitting scared not knowing how to get started. And in many of those cases, the way to get started is to go much more “mainstream” than you’d think. Consider this example:

With # and & each representing different digits in the problem below, the difference between #&& and ## is 667. What is the value of &?


(A) 3
(B) 4
(C) 5
(D) 8
(E) 9

Now, many would look at this problem and think “I don’t know how to solve problems like that…”, as it’s not a classic “Algebra” problem, but it’s not a straight-up “Subtraction” problem, either. It uses the common GMAT themes of Abstraction and Reverse-Engineering to test you conceptually to see how you think critically to solve problems. And in true Eminem-mocking form, the key to a complicated-looking problem like this is a lot more mainstream than it is advanced. You have to just get started playing with the numbers, testing possibilities for # and & and seeing what you learn from it.

When GMAT students lament that “I don’t know what tools to use” to start on a tough problem, they’re often missing this piece of GMAT wisdom – *that’s* the point. You’re supposed to look at this with some trial-and-error like you would in a business meeting, throwing some ideas out and eliminating those that definitely won’t work so that you can spend some more time on the ones that have a good chance. In this case, throw out a couple ideas for #. Could # be 5? If it were, then you’d have a number in the 500s and you’d subtract something from it. There’s no way to get to 667 if you start smaller than that and only subtract, so even with pretty limited information you can guarantee that # has to be 6 or bigger.

And by the same logic, try a value like 9 for #. That would give you 900-and-something, and the most that ## could be is 99 (the largest two-digit number), which would mean that your answer would still be greater than 800. You need a number for # that allows you to stay in the 667 range, meaning that # has to be 6 or 7. That means that you’re working with:

6&& – 66 = 667


7&& – 77 = 667

And just by playing with numbers, you’ve been able to take a very abstract problem and make it quite a bit more concrete. If you examine the first of those options, keep in mind that the biggest that & can be is 9, and that would leave you with:

699 – 66 = 633, demonstrating that even at the biggest possible value of &, if # = 6 you can’t get a big enough result to equal 667. So, again, by playing with numbers to find minimums and maximums, we’ve proven that the problem has to be:

7&& – 77 = 667, and now you can treat it just like an algebra problem, since the only unknown is now 7&&. Adding 77 to both sides, you get 7&& = 744, so the answer is 4.

More important than this problem, however, is the takeaway – GMAT problems are often designed to look abstract and to test math in a different “order” (here you had two unknowns to “start” the problem and were given the “answer”), and the exam does a masterful job of taking common concepts (this was a subtraction problem) and presenting them to look like something you’ve never seen. The most dangerous mindset you can have on the GMAT quant section is “I don’t know how to solve problems like this” or “I’ve never seen this before”, whereas the successful strategy is to take a look at what you’re given and at least try a few possibilities. With symbol problems (like this), sequence problems, numbers-too-large-to-calculate problems, etc., often the biggest key is to go a lot more mainstream than “advanced math” – try a few small numbers to test the relationship in the problem, and use that to narrow the range of possibilities, find a pattern, or learn a little more about the concept in the problem.

If your standard mindset on abstract-looking problems is “I don’t know how to solve problems like that”, both Em and the G-Em-A-T are right to chide you a bit mockingly, as that’s often the entire point of the problem, to reward those who are willing to try (the entrepreneurial, self-starter types) and “punish” those who won’t think beyond the process they’ve memorized. Even if you don’t become a GMAT God, if you follow some of Eminem’s lessons you can at least find yourself saying “Hi, my name is…” over and over again at b-school orientation.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Synchronizing Twizzles in Critical Reasoning

GMAT Tip of the WeekAs the Sochi Olympics enter their final weekend, we all have our lists of things we’ll miss and not miss from this sixteen-day celebration of snow and ice. We’ll almost all miss the hashtag #sochiproblems, the cutaway shots of a scowling Vladimir Putin, the bro show of American snowboarders and TJ Oshie, and the debate over whether the skating judges conspired to give Russia the team gold and the US the ice dancing gold.

And almost none of us will miss Bob Costas’s pinkeye, aggressive interviews designed to make Bode Miller cry, prime time events that lasted well past bedtime for a school night, and the way that announcers for figure skating so critically point out potential deductions and problems even while these athletes do unconscionably amazing things on thin blades on ice.

But we can learn from those skating announcers. They’re critical because the job demands it, because the untrained eye doesn’t recognize those ever-important subtleties that take otherwise amazing performances and separate the gold from the bronze. Much like a good Critical Reasoning test-taker has to notice those subtle-but-significant flaws that make otherwise-valid arguments fail, skating judges and announcers make their money by noting those tiny flaws. That’s the way the game is played.

So your job on Critical Reasoning questions is essentially to be a figure skating announcer – you need to notice those subtle flaws. In skating, sometimes the twizzles aren’t perfectly synchronized; in Critical Reasoning, too, sometimes the premises and conclusion aren’t perfectly synchronized. As an example, try this problem:

The team of Schleicher and Sun should win the gold medal in ice dancing. After all, they were leading after the short program and they skated the long program with fewer mistakes than any other pair. Therefore, they should end up with the highest overall score.

The argument above relies on which of the following assumptions?

(A) None of the judges will allow bias to affect their scoring decisions.

(B) Schleicher and Sun also skated the short program with fewer mistakes than any other pair.

(C) Schleicher and Sun did not make any noticeable mistakes in either the short or the long program.

(D) Factors other than their number of mistakes do not affect a pair’s overall score.

(E) Schleicher and Sun’s twizzles were perfectly synchronized.

On the surface, the argument above may make a lot of sense. But look at the way that the major premise (“they skated the long program with fewer mistakes”) and the conclusion (“they should end up with the highest overall score”) are not synchronized. “Fewest mistakes” isn’t the same thing as “highest score”. If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you might bring in that knowledge that degree of difficulty plays a factor, as often does the difficulty toward the latter half of the long program. But even if you didn’t have that outside knowledge – which you won’t have on most GMAT CR questions – you should see that the premise and conclusion are not synchronized. They don’t talk about the same thing, even though it’s close. And *that* is the blueprint for most Strengthen/Weaken CR questions – when the premise and conclusion aren’t quite synchronized, when they leave a little room in between them because they’re not talking about the exact same thing, that’s where you know you can be critical. That’s where the deductions lie.

In this question, that leaves D open as a correct answer. Since “Number of mistakes” is part of – but not necessarily all of – the scoring of a pair’s routine, choice D exploits that little lack of synchronization. More important is the lesson – just as the television announcers are quick to point out unsynchronized twizzles, you should train yourself to notice those little lacks of synchronization between premise and conclusion. Often this can happen when:

  • the premise is a subset of the conclusion (like “number of mistakes” and “overall score”, or “arrests” and “crimes committed”)
  • the premise and conclusion are very similar but not quite the same thing (like “revenue” and “profit”)
  • the premise or conclusion adds a limiting word that makes it narrower than the other (for example, if the conclusion is about “manufacturing costs” but the premise is only about “overall cost”)

Remember, the question type “Critical Reasoning” has “critical” right there in the name – like figure skating announcers, then, you need to be critical as the job demands it. So steal a page from their book – if the premise and conclusion aren’t synchronized, you have to acknowledge that flaw.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: What Do the Olympics and Sentence Correction Have in Common?

GMAT TipThe Winter Olympics start tonight in Sochi, and while journalists tweet about the less-than-ideal living conditions in the Russian resort town the athletes themselves have a job to do.  Whether they’re skiing or luging or bobsledding, the vast majority of athletes will share one goal:

Get downhill quickly.

On GMAT Sentence Correction problems, that should be your goal, too.  Olympians will get downhill quickly by focusing all their momentum and vision to the bottom of the mountain, and on Sentence Correction you’ll want to focus most of your attention “downhill” on the answer choices.

What does that mean?

While the “top of the mountain” – the original sentence itself – is certainly important, keeping your eyes downhill toward the answer choices is the best way to notice the decisions that the GMAT is asking you to make.  Paying attention to differences in the answer choices will help you to determine which portions of the prompt are most important.

For example, consider these fragments of answer choices:

(A) …..have been

(B) …..has been

(C) …..had been

(D) …..have been

(E) …..has been

If you’re reading a 40-word sentence, it’s helpful to know beforehand that the two most important things here are:

has been vs. have been – Subject/Verb Agreement.  Make sure you find the subject of the verb!

had been vs. has/have been – Verb Tense / Logical Timeline.  Make sure that you assess the timeline of events with an eye for “is this event still happening” (if so, eliminate “had been”) or “is this event over (if so, the answer is C)

Or consider this example:

(A) which….

(B) and which….

(C) which…..

(D) and which…

(E) which….

Here there’s one primary decision you need to make – is there a previous “which” phrase in the non-underlined portion that you need to link to the answer choice with “and which”, or not?

The answer choices in Sentence Correction problems quite often give away at least one of the primary decisions that you’ll need to make, so if you glance at the answer choices for an obvious decision you can save quite a bit of time and energy by hunting specifically for the word or phrase that controls that decision and not by reading the original sentence hoping to stumble on it.

In short, keep your eyes downhill when attempting Sentence Correction problems, looking at the answer choices for obvious differences like:

  • Verb differences
  • Pronoun differences
  • Singular/plural noun differences
  • The presence vs. absence or difference between connector words (like “and”, “or”, “but”, etc.)
  • Notable differences between the first and last words of each answer choice

When you see obvious differences, go back to the prompt with that decision point in mind.  Looking downhill is the most efficient way to win the race, whether you’re Julia Mancuso in the Olympic downhill or a GMAT student on an SC question.  Go to the answer choices; go for the gold.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Peyton Manning & Omaha!

The crisis has largely been averted. As we approach Sunday’s Super Bowl, our collective eyes are no longer intently watching the thermometer in East Rutherford wondering how a polar vortex might affect the most American of all holidays, Super Bowl Sunday. We can now get back to the number we all REALLY care about:


How many times will Peyton Manning yell “Omaha” during the game?

The current estimate from Las Vegas sportsbooks is 27.5.

While we all poke fun at Peyton’s repetitive cadence and while Peyton himself cashes in on endorsement deals from all the biggest firms in Nebraska, let us not forget that there are two major GMAT lessons you can learn from Peyton’s “Omaha” calls at the line:

1) Do the same thing every time.

Peyton Manning says Omaha a lot. He’s incredibly deliberate and repetitive in everything he does. And it’s taken him to the summit of his industry. GMAT test takers would be wise to heed his example – note that Peyton deals with time pressure (the play clock, the 2-minute drill) all the time but his deliberation makes him comfortable. And by doing the same thing over and over again his routine is incredibly effective at getting him through the first few seconds of any important play.

You should do the same. In a word problem, you should always read actively, assign variables, and check for anything unique in the answer choices, all in the first 30 seconds of seeing the problem. In a Critical Reasoning problem, you should read the question stem first, identify your goal, and usually check the conclusion, all within the first 30 seconds. When exponents are present you should look for relationships between the bases (and try to get them all the same) and look for opportunities to factor addition/subtraction into multiplication, all in the first 30 seconds. Good GMAT test-takers are boring – they have a system for each type of problem and their first 30 seconds are typically somewhat scripted. They don’t see “unique snowflakes” in each question, but instead they see standardized components and go to work on them.

Peyton yells “Omaha”, never “Des Moines” or “Topeka”. Learn from the man. Form good habits and stick to them. Be predictable, be boring, be successful.

2) But be flexible.

The reason Peyton yells “Omaha” is to allow for flexible play calls at the line of scrimmage. Reportedly, the Broncos go to the line with two different play calls in mind, and “Omaha” signals that they’re going to the B play. In football, like on the GMAT, you have to be flexible. Sometimes the defense surprises you and you need to go a different direction.

This comes up often on the GMAT – you start to set up the algebra but realize that your second step gets messier than what you started with. You have to call an Omaha and go back to testing answer choices. You identify clearly that statement 1 is sufficient but then statement 2 points out that you haven’t even considered the possibility of a non-integer. You have to call an Omaha and reassess statement 1. You’ve eliminated answers A, B, and C but D and E are awful, too. You need to call an Omaha and reconsider which decision points you’re using to dictate your choices. Maybe that clumsy-looking sentence structure is valid, after all.

You can’t yell out “Omaha” in the test center without repercussions, but you can heed the advice from what “Omaha” stands for. On the GMAT you’ll find that most questions are best answered with a regimented-to-the-point-of-boredom approach, but that sometimes you have to be ready to adapt. Omaha covers all of that. So as you watch the Super Bowl this Sunday, pay attention to Peyton Manning, a master of both rigidity and flexibility. The road to New York City, Palo Alto, and Cambridge goes right through Omaha.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Richard Sherman, the Sorry GMAT, and the Result You’re Going To Get

By now you’ve seen the interview heard round the world – Richard Sherman’s immediate post-game interview with Erin Andrews – and all the fallout from it: Twitter hysteria, discussions about what that Twitter hysteria says about culture, little kid parodies, and everything else. And regardless of what you think about Richard Sherman, if you’re reading a blog post about MBA admissions you want to be Richard Sherman:

-Richard Sherman is one of the best in the world at his profession
-Richard Sherman went to Stanford
-Richard Sherman is going to New York to compete at the highest level anyone in his profession can reach

So whatever words you’d use to describe Sherman’s interview – confident, cocky, arrogant, calculated – you’ll want to bring some of that into the GMAT with you, because in the world of the GMAT you’ll face a lot of sorry questions like Crabtree and if you strategically use Sherman’s bravado you know what result you’re going to get (and it’s a good one).

Here’s why – the GMAT is, really, a lot like Michael Crabtree. Crabtree is a very good wide receiver – he’s big, fast, etc. – just like the GMAT is a very difficult test (it’s clever, labor-intensive, etc.). But both Crabtree and the GMAT are predictable, and if you know what they’re going to do you can approach them with the same level of confidence. And like a defensive back can approach Crabtree, there are two ways that you can approach the GMAT and its traps:

1) Woe is me. When you see a Data Sufficiency question like:

The product of consecutive integers a and b is 156. What is the value of b?

(1) b is prime

(2) b > a

You might fall for the trap answer, D. You’ll break down 156 into 13 times 12 (and realize that you can’t break 13 down any further so there’s no other way to recombine the prime factors to find consecutive integers with a prime), and note that b has to be 13 and a has to be 12. So choice A is, indeed, sufficient. And then when you get to statement 2 you’ll think – yeah, freebie. 13 is bigger than 12, so it has to be 13. But wait – why can’t it be -12 while a is -13? You’ve fallen into the trap – you assumed negative! Woe is you…why do you keep falling for these traps?!

2) The GMAT is mediocre. And when you test a great test-taker like me with a mediocre question like that, that’s the result you’re going to get.

If you go Richard Sherman on a question like this, you’re angry at it. They’re not going to beat you with a mediocre and commonplace trap like “bet you forgot it could be negative”. You’re above that…they may beat you with a crazy challenge that’s way over your head, but they’re not going to beat you with a sorry trap like “could be negative” or “doesn’t have to be an integer”. Now, like Richard Sherman you have to prepare – Sherman KNEW that when Crabtree took off for the corner of the end zone it was going to be a corner fade / jump ball, and you should KNOW that when the GMAT includes an inequality in Data Sufficiency there’s a big change that negative/positive comes into play. So you do have to prepare like a champion to be a champion.

But there’s also a huge question of attitude. When the GMAT traps you, don’t get sad, get mad. Take it upon yourself to not let them beat you with a trap they’ve beaten you with before. Some people fall into a trap and get nervous that they’ll fall into it again. The Stanford-bound like Richard Sherman make it a point to never make that same mistake again, and they see that as a fun challenge. “Oh no GMAT – not today…I know your game and you’d better step it up to beat me”

Remember, attitude and confidence count for a lot whether it’s the NFC championship or the GMAT, and how you approach common GMAT traps can have a lot to do with your performance. Don’t fear those mistakes you’ve made a couple times – realize that they’re so commonplace and predictable as to be mediocre.


Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of The Week: Tonya Harding Teaches Data Sufficiency

Twenty years later, the figure skater you’d never have called “trendy” was trending last night. As ESPN aired its 30 For 30 special on Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, the biggest pre-OJ story of 1994 became the hottest topic of early 2014. Heading into the 1994 Olympics, both Nancy and Tonya were Olympic veterans, having placed 3rd and 4th, respectively, at the 1992 Games. With 1992 gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi out of the way, the table was set for a Nancy vs. Tonya showdown and both were up to the task, Tonya having been 1991 U.S. Champion and Nancy having won that title in 1993.

Tonya Harding was poised to recapture that glory of 1991-92, having shaken off some personal issues to refocus on skating. And with two Americans guaranteed to make the Olympic team, it seemed overwhelmingly likely that Nancy and Tonya would represent the U.S. together and that Tonya would have her best-ever chance at an Olympic medal. And then it all came crumbling down because Jeff Gillooly doesn’t understand Data Sufficiency.

Here’s the question, and here are the facts. Will Tonya Harding make the Olympic team? The top two finishers make the team, and Tonya is as good as Nancy but maybe a little better or maybe a little worse, and both of them are better than the rest of the field. So if we assess this as a Data Sufficiency prompt, we’d have:

Is Tonya one of the two highest values in Set USA?

(1) Nancy > Tonya > all other values in Set USA

Statement 1 here is sufficient – if we can prove that Tonya is at the very worst the second-best competitor, she’s guaranteed to make the team. But then along came Jeff Gillooly, not the sharpest tool in the shed, making one of the most common GMAT mistakes anyone can make.

Jeff Gillooly picked C.

Jeff Gillooly took a look at a Statement 2 that only existed in his own mind and went for it, hiring a goon to club Nancy Kerrigan in the knee and introduce this statement to the problem: “Set USA does not contain Nancy”. The problem then looked like:

Is Tonya one of the two highest values in Set USA?

(1) Nancy > Tonya > all other values in Set USA

(2) Set USA does not contain Nancy

Jeff Gillooly looked at that problem and made the same mistake that so many GMAT test-takers make. He thought “If together Nancy and Tonya are the two highest values, and then if Nancy isn’t in the set, then Tonya is guaranteed to be one of the two highest values in the set (and therefore make the Olympic team and win me and my creepball moustache a free trip to Norway!).” So Jeff Gillooly picked C, forgetting that there are two clauses to that answer choice:

(C) Both statements TOGETHER are sufficient, but NEITHER statement ALONE is sufficient.

Read past the comma, Gillooly. Tonya Harding was sufficient ALONE. With Nancy Kerrigan out of the picture, Tonya won the US Nationals meaning that even had Nancy been absolutely amazing on the ice in that competition Tonya at worst would have gotten second and gone to the Olympics. In GMAT-speak, even though we all love having two pieces of information, if we only need one of them we’re punished for using both. If one statement alone is sufficient, you can’t pick C. Don’t be a Gillooly!

Since not many (if any) actual GMAT problems will be about Tonya Harding, let’s see this same concept in action with a real GMAT problem:

Is 0 < x < 1? (1) x^2 < x (2) x > 0

As you unpack statement 1, you’ll probably recognize that a fraction like 1/2 satisfies that inequality. If you square 1/2 you get 1/4, a number less than the original. So most people will look at statement 1 and say “x has to be a fraction, so that’s probably sufficient”. But then statement 2 hits a lot of people’s minds like a club to the knee – “Oh, but I need to know that it’s positive, too! I’ll pick C.”

Go back, though – if you try a negative fraction like -1/2, when you square it it becomes positive, and x^2 is greater than x. Statement 2 already tells us that x is positive – statement 1 is sufficient ALONE. All statement 2 really does is reinforce something that was already sufficient alone. Statement 2 is the Gillooly trap. Before you pick C, you’d better make sure that neither statement is sufficient ALONE. And like in the Nancy/Tonya situation, a statement (or skater) is often sufficient ALONE only through some hard work – beware the “easy way out” statement that makes C seem “obvious” when you could have taken a few extra steps (a little extra algebra, some extra work on your triple salchow) to make a statement sufficient ALONE.

There are plenty of lessons that a GMAT test-taker can take from the Nancy/Tonya saga – cheaters always get caught, make sure your shoelaces are tied before you enter the test center – but one reigns supreme above them:

Don’t use both statements if one alone will do the trick. Don’t be a Gillooly.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Keep the Bridge Clear and Your Score High

The GMAT, it seems, is a lot like politics:

-You can’t win them all – in fact, with Item Response Theory scoring much like with democracy you can achieve a resounding “victory” with even 55-60% success in many cases.

-You’ll have gaffes and blunders along the way and you’ll have no choice but to recover from them as best you can.

-You’ll have to think quickly on your feet and make sound, logical decisions with incomplete information and in less-than-ideal circumstances.

-You’ll need to make compromises – you might be able to get a question right in 4-5 minutes but you’ll need to make the conscious decision to let that one go in favor of having more “capital” (time) to spend on future questions.

-And when you do succeed, the rewards last for a long term (2-6 years in politics; 5 years is how long your GMAT score stays valid).

So when thinking about the GMAT and how to approach it, it’s only reasonable that you might consider the example of Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge.

Allegedly, Chris Christie became so fixated on a setback (the mayor of Fort Lee, NJ did not publicly endorse Christie for NJ Governor) that in the end didn’t matter (Christie still won in a landslide) that he allowed it not just to clog his mind but also cloud his judgment, clogging the heavily-trafficked George Washington Bridge into New York City as “punishment” for the citizens of Fort Lee. And in so doing, Christie followed the not-so-successful example of GMAT test takers everywhere:

When the GMAT deals you a setback, don’t let it shut down the whole system – keep the bridge clear!

Just across the bridge from Fort Lee in Manhattan, a Veritas Prep student (to preserve her anonymity, let’s call her “Christie”) Chris Christied her way out of a 700+ score a few years ago. Here’s the transcript (well, re-enactment) of her call to VP headquarters after her test:

CHRISTIE:Can someone please help me? I just finished the GMAT and I don’t know what to do or where to go from here.

INSTRUCTOR: Sure, yeah – tell me how the test went for you and we’ll see if we can figure out what went wrong.

CHRISTIE:I was getting above 700 on all my practice tests and I got a 590 today. I don’t know what to do. What happened?

INSTRUCTOR: Well let’s start breaking it down. Tell me about the quant section – did you run out of time? Can you pinpoint a question or two that you think may be responsible for getting you down?

CHRISTIE:It honestly felt great for the first 25 questions or so. My pacing was good – I actually had a little more time than I thought so I could double-check some answers and spend some extra time drawing out geometry figures. But then around question 30 I noticed a couple easy questions in a row since the test is adaptive I knew that meant I was doing poorly. I tried to stay focused but after all that hard work, to know that I blew it, I just couldn’t. I finished the section – I guessed on the last two because I just couldn’t focus now – and that’s when I knew that it was over.

INSTRUCTOR: Wow, ok – that’s frustrating because it sounded like everything had been going really well. I understand how that must have felt.

CHRISTIE:It was terrible. I ran to the bathroom during the break and just started crying. All that hard work, all those practice tests… I know the break is for 8 minutes but I couldn’t tell how long I was in there. I didn’t want to go back into the test room still crying, but every time I thought I could stop and go back to finish the test – to at least see my verbal score – I’d start crying again. By the time I got back to my seat the verbal clock had already been running and I lost probably 4-5 minutes.

INSTRUCTOR: Wow, so it sounds like things really went downhill. I’m so sorry for you. Do you remember much from the verbal section?

CHRISTIE: I tried to read but I was still shaking a little from crying and my eyes were blurry, plus I was so far behind on time. I guessed on a few because I just couldn’t focus, and then by the time I could compose myself again the questions were really, really easy and that got me teared up again. I couldn’t even try on Reading Comp – I couldn’t focus long enough on a passage to really get through it, so I guessed on just about all of those and probably most of the Critical Reasoning. It was bad – I was just so upset for having blown it like that.

INSTRUCTOR: So wait – you basically didn’t even do the verbal section, but your score was still a 590 right?


INSTRUCTOR: That’s almost a full standard deviation above average. What was your split between quant and verbal?

CHRISTIE: Um, I think it was about 88th percentile quant and maybe 5th percentile verbal. That part was really bad.

INSTRUCTOR: So think about that, though – your verbal was terrible because you were so upset for having bombed the quant, but you didn’t bomb the quant at all. You had a great quant section!

CHRISTIE: Oh…I hadn’t thought about it like that.

INSTRUCTOR: My advice for next time, Christie – you have to let it go even if you know you made a mistake or feel like you’re struggling. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself!


What can we learn from Christie in Manhattan? Don’t let setbacks hold you back. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow (or the next question). Don’t let a setback clog your mind or clog the bridge – we have to keep moving forward. Whether your goal is an 800 or a 1600 (Pennsylvania Avenue), you won’t get that by dwelling on the past or focusing on the little bumps in the road on your way there. You have to keep the bridge – and your mind – clear.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? Try our own new, 100% computer-adaptive GMAT practice test and see how you do. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Goodbye to “No, But…” and Hello to “Yes, And…”

GMAT Tip of the WeekIt’s a new year, which is often a good time for a new mindset. And if you’ve already decided that 2014 is the year for you to get serious about graduate school, the “hard work pays off” mindset is one you’ve already adopted. So before the year gets too old and habits get too hard to change, try adding one more new outlook to your study regimen (and your life) this year:

“Yes, and…”

A common mantra for improv acting and comedy, “Yes, and…” is immensely helpful when studying, too, mostly because it replaces the single most counterproductive mindset in all of GMAT Preparation, “No, but…”

Here’s the difference: in improv shows, a “no, but” response shuts the scene down and makes it an argument between the actors. When an improv actor makes a decision she has to go with it; if she wants to play the NYPD cop with a British accent, her costar can’t try to counteract it “No, but my character needs you to have a Brooklyn accent!”. The scene would die and the audience would either be confused or just plain ticked off. “Yes, and…” allows the costar to accept that choice – the British accent – and create an interesting scene (“Yes, and I have a Boston accent…what do Brits and Bostonians have in common? They both hate the Yankees…”).

“No, but” similarly shuts down your learning capacity. “No, but” is defensive and combative – when students get a wrong answer they often try to debate it, either with their teacher or the solution in the book: “No but I thought you always had to…” or “No but I divided by x and got…”. In those cases you’re forgetting that your goal in GMAT preparation isn’t to be right on every practice question, but instead to learn from every question so that you’re right more often on test day. “Yes, and…” is the philosophy of saying “yes, I see that the answer is D and here is how the test is twisting my logic against me” or “Yes this seems to violate the rule I was applying and here’s the reason that the rule doesn’t apply here.”

“Yes, and…” accepts that the test is hard but learnable, that you know you’ll make mistakes but you’re ready to learn from them and work to improve. And “Yes, and…” fits the GMAT perfectly well – the “no, but” mentality usually stems from either adherence to “rules” that are either tendencies more so than rules (“being” is usually wrong on Sentence Correction, but it’s definitely not a rule) or limited-use rules that the GMAT will tempt you with when they don’t apply (you can always divide both sides of an equation by a variable UNLESS that variable could be 0).

The “no, but” response is one that tries to disprove the test, to know more than the test/teacher/book – and *sometimes* you’ll be right, but way, way more often you’ll be missing an important point that is much easier absorbed with a “yes, and” mentality. Because the GMAT isn’t a cram-and-regurgitate test, but rather a test of reasoning and critical thinking, “no but”ing your way through practice problems can leave you mired in a memorization state when you could be learning to think more critically and pick up on tendencies of the test.

So adopt a new mindset for the new year – “yes, and” is a powerful way to get the most out of your studies and other facets of your life.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? Try our own new, 100% computer-adaptive GMAT practice test and see how you do. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: No Resolution!

GMAT Tip of the WeekSo you have a few more days to commit to your New Year’s Resolution, and if you’re like most people you have something like 35 days until you break it. Resolutions don’t often stick, but if your New Year’s Resolution is to apply to business school in 2014, and if as part of that resolution you’re planning to get a high GMAT score, you’re in luck:

Data Sufficiency problems don’t need resolutions.

Or perhaps better put, they’re problems that don’t always need to be resolved. As long as you know that you could finish the problem, you don’t need to finish it (kind of like once you’ve proven to yourself by January 16 that you *could* make it to the gym by 6am every day this year, you’ll decide that that’s enough and start sleeping in). That’s because Data Sufficiency questions are about whether you could get an answer, not about what the answer actually is. Consider this question:

What is the value of x?

(1) x^2 – 5x – 5 = 0

(2) x > 0

While you *could* do all the work to solve for x, you could also pretty lazily answer C without resolving the problem by factoring statement 1 and incorporating statement 2. How? Since the quadratic in statement 1 has a negative for the non-x term, then the parentheses when you factor it will look like:

(x + ___)(x – ____)

Meaning that there is one positive and one negative value of x. So there are two solutions – a positive and a negative – for statement 1, and clearly statement 2 is no good on its own. But taken together, you know that of the two solutions that statement 1 gives you, it has to be the positive solution based on the definition given in statement 2. So even if you didn’t resolve the quadratic in statement 1, you can get to the answer (C) quickly, saving valuable time and energy for later questions in the quant section – or for fun and relaxation after your study session since you did make that resolution to do 20 problems a day in 2014.


Now a caveat – use this advice carefully, because although you may not need to resolve some Data Sufficiency problems, hard problems will reward those who are resolute. Consider this problem, which should look similar:

What is the value of x?

(1) x^2 – 4x + 4 = 0

(2) x > 0

In statement 1, you can actually factor that into: (x – 2)(x – 2) = 0, which means that x MUST equal 2, making statement 1 sufficient alone (and the answer A). So don’t go crazy not doing any work. If you don’t know for certain that you can avoid the work, do the work. But as you practice with Data Sufficiency, resolve to avoid at least some resolution. Make 2014 the year of efficiency (then the year of admission-cy).

Happy New Year from the GMAT Tip of the Week team! We resolve to be back next week with even more useful GMAT strategies to help make your 2014 successful.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? Try our own new, 100% computer-adaptive GMAT practice test and see how you do. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Become a Reading Comprehension Has Been (that’s a good thing)

GMAT Tip of the WeekOne of the things that makes Reading Comprehension difficult is the inclusion of so many words that you either don’t know or don’t spend much time thinking about. Triglyceride, germination, privatization, immunological.

But by the same token, certain words – those that you should think about regularly if you don’t already – can make your job exponentially easier. Consider, for example, these sentence fragments from the beginnings of official GMAT passages:


The antigen-antibody immunological reaction used to be regarded as typical…

Anthropologists studying the Hopi people of the southwestern United States often characterize…

The modern multinational corporation is described as having originated…

Many scholars have theorized that economic development, particularly…

In all of these cases, the first sentence of a passage describes something that “has been” considered to be the case or that “used to be regarded as typical.” And in all of these cases, the author’s main point in the passage (you can find most of these in the GMATPrep software available for download at to see for yourself) is to reject the “conventional wisdom” and either offer his own theory or show how things have changed since then. So what does that mean for you strategically?

When the first sentence of a passage talks about “the conventional wisdom,” there is a massive likelihood that the author’s main point is to buck convention.

Which means that if you start reading something about what “has been” or “is usually,” be ready for things to change. Look for the author’s transition to come – be it the word “however” or “but” or another paragraph that begins with “Alternatively…”, you’re very likely to find a transition coming up soon, after which will be the author’s purpose for writing the passage. And most comforting of all – it almost doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. Once you’ve determined that the other shoe is going to drop, you don’t have to worry much about the conventional wisdom unless they ask you for it. The author’s real mission is what comes after the transition so you can focus your attention there.

Now, this might fall under the category of “somewhat helpful” when you’re reading one practice passage, but consider how these will appear on test day – you’ll have been racing through Sentence Correction and Critical Reasoning prompts after having grinded out the quant section. Every advantage is a big help, and if you have insider information as to what the author is probably trying to do, you can read much more efficiently and confidently. Instead of reading and waiting for the author to prove the point, you can “attack”, looking proactively for what you’ll likely find.

So become a Reading Comprehension “Has Been” – if you see that the passage starts by talking about what has been or used to be the case, get ready for a change in direction to what the author thinks is now true. Thinking like a “has been” can be your ticket to achieving a score that “never was” possible before.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? Try our own new, 100% computer-adaptive GMAT practice test and see how you do. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Mental Agility

GMAT Tip of the WeekThe axiom has been tweaked and twisted so often that perhaps no one knows the exact term, but we all know the definition.

The definition of insanity is…
The definition of stupidity is…
(WAIT! Google confirms that it’s insanity, but you’ve probably heard it as any number of terms)

…doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Well, on the GMAT the definition changes from time to time, so we’ll add this caveat that applies to problems above the 600 level:

GMAT stubbornness is doing the same thing over and over again and being surprised when it doesn’t always work.

Here’s why – it would be wrong to categorically say that the GMAT is not testing your ability to learn, remember, and apply a process. To a fair extent the GMAT does test exactly that. But that’s not ALL it’s testing. Once you get to above-average level problems (and remember that’s above average in a pool that contains just about exclusively college graduates, so it’s an elite academic group to begin with) the GMAT is testing more than just “can you follow directions” – it’s testing things like “can you think on your feet when the situation changes,” “can you manage uncertainty,” and “can you find innovative ways to solve problems when the tried-and-true process doesn’t work.” And that’s where Mental Agility comes in – the GMAT, at the top end, will punish “one trick ponies” and reward those who can adapt on the fly. Consider an example (and please excuse the ugly in-line math formatting):

If a + 2b = (16 – b^2)/a, what is (a + b)^4?

It’s very easy to become seduced by the (16 – b^2) term, recognizing that as a classic “Difference of Squares” setup to be factored into (4 + b)(4 – b). And with good reason – the Difference of Squares rule is a very important concept and extremely helpful on plenty of GMAT problems. But here it makes the expression even messier – you can’t use it to eliminate or combine anything on the left hand side of the equation (a + 2b). So as much as you may beat your head against the wall trying, you need to find a new outlet. And that you can get by multiplying both sides by a to get rid of the denominator on the right:

a^2 + 2ab = 16 – b^2

Here’s where another common “squares” equation comes in: x^2 + 2xy + y^2 = (x + y)^2. If you can see that as your goal, then you have another outlet; you can add b^2 to both sides and you’ll have a squares equation ready to go:

a^2 + 2ab + b^2 = 16, which then becomes (a + b)^2 = 16. And if (a + b)^2 is 16 and we need (a + b)^4, we can square 16 to get 256.

The bigger lesson here is that it pays to have mental agility – many “hard” GMAT problems look easy in retrospect, as they’re not about grinding out long calculations or employing obscure rules. The range of math concepts tested on the GMAT is finite and (relatively, compared to what you learned in high school) small, but the GMAT makes it difficult by punishing those who don’t see the opportunity to change paths. IF your goal is to “grind” – to find a formula for each question, put your head down, and apply it – you may find some trouble. A few key takeaways from this problem include:

  • If the “obvious” process or rule isn’t working after a few steps, take a step back and see if there’s another way
  • If an algebra problem asks for a combination of variables (here it’s (a + b)^4) try to find a way to get that combination alone and not necessarily solve for that variable. Most “processes” you know are geared toward solving for individual variables; the GMAT knows that and loves to ask for combinations (like xy or (a + b)).
  • As you study, pay attention to which “surprise” techniques you didn’t see at first but ended up being the key to solving a problem. Having that quick reference list to scan through in your mind will pay off. For example, this “squares” rule can be extremely helpful any time you’re asked to solve for a combination of variables squared (like (a + b)^2) *or* for a combination of variables multiplied (like 2ab…that comes from that middle term in a^2 + 2ab + b^2).

Most importantly, recognize that while in life doing the same thing over and over again usually gives you the same results, on the GMAT questions are written specifically to reward those who aren’t afraid to change gears when “what’s always worked before” doesn’t work in this case. On 700+ level problems, insanity just might be doing the same thing over and over again and wondering why you didn’t get the same result; the GMAT rewards mental agility.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? Try our own new, 100% computer-adaptive GMAT practice test and see how you do. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Avoiding Writer’s Block On AWA

GMAT Tip of the WeekWhile it’s certainly not the score you care about most, the Analytical Writing Assessment can bring with it some stress and even despair. Why? For one, it comes first on the test, and for two it’s the only section that isn’t multiple choice. The answer isn’t already in front of you, but rather you have to create it yourself. And like this blog post (author’s note – I’m attending a conference with the folks from the Graduate Management Admissions Council and have a dinner in an hour with some of our partners in the industry before the conference, so I have 30 minutes to write something intelligible here), the AWA can lead directly to that panic you’ve likely felt on blue book exams and the night before book reports: writer’s block.

How can you combat that on the AWA?

1) Remember that there’s no (well, some but not a ton) shame in leaving an AWA essay “incomplete”.

The graders and schools know that the AWA is a bit artificial; it’s a writing sample but in the real world you’ll have plenty of time to edit your work, research topics, pass it along to a colleague for a review, and use the Microsoft Word thesaurus feature to make it sound smarter. But on the AWA you have exactly 30 minutes in a higher-stress environment. Your grade will reflect that – a few typos here and there won’t hurt you, and if you have to hastily write a conclusion to wrap it up it’s not going to be devastating to your score. In fact, the worst thing you can do is let the AWA cause you undue stress for the rest of the exam. Relax and know that your essay is going to be shorter than you’d probably want it if you were presenting to the board at your company and you’ll realize later that you could have used a better phrase or example. The AWA is, by design, a short examination, so don’t worry.

2) Plan ahead.

Writer’s block comes when you don’t know what to say next, so make sure you *do* know what to say next. Before you begin writing, jot down 3-4 problems with the argument in question (all AWA essays ask you to “analyze an argument”) so that your body paragraphs are already brainstormed before you get there. Then write based on those notes. Much like a blue book exam, as long as you know the general topic (e.g. “one assumption the author makes is that current trends will continue”) you can write circles around it to come up with what looks to be a decent paragraph (e.g. “but suppose, for a second, that the growth rate were to dramatically slow down, bucking the conventional wisdom. That would force the organization to dramatically change its strategy…”). Even if it’s not ideal, it will give the reader a glimpse of your writing ability and a chance to show that you can craft/organize an argument on the fly. Sure, you should be able to do better, but in terms of disaster management at least you won’t hit a point 15 minutes into the essay at which you don’t know what to type next.

3) Use a template in your practice tests and then replicate it on test day.

In many ways, more than half your AWA essay should be mentally written before you even get to the test center. The instructions are always the same, and the format should therefore always be the same. Your first paragraph should be an introduction, the last a conclusion, and between should be three body paragraphs each exposing a problem with the argument. And since most of your job is to show clear organization, you can have the transitions between paragraphs (e.g. “Another assumption the author makes is that ______________________. This may not be the case, however, as _______________________. Therefore, the author should take care to _____________________________.”) pre-selected so that all you have to do is fill in some content items from the prompt and you’re all set.

4) Don’t let “perfect” get in the way of “good enough”.

The AWA is the gateway to the rest of the test. If you stay relaxed, confident, and efficient you’ll turn over into the Integrated Reasoning section and then the rest of the test with your mind sharp, your demeanor calm, and your potential high. A 5 (or even a 4.5) on the AWA won’t keep you out of any schools that a 6 would have gotten you into, so don’t try to be perfect. Your job is to get it done adequately and save the stress for the sections that matter more (or, really, to just not stress at all, but obviously that’s tough to avoid).

Rest assured that a pretty well-written essay can easily be written in less time than it takes Domino’s to make and deliver your pizza. This blog post is (we hope) living proof. Good luck out there!

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? Try our own new, 100% computer-adaptive GMAT practice test and see how you do. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Subconsciously Speaking

GMAT Tip of the WeekDo some of your best ideas come while you’re driving, running, taking a shower or just about to fall asleep? Have you ever spent what felt like an eternity reading a solution over and over again to no avail, only to revisit that problem a few days later and know how to do it almost so intuitively that just feels easy?

There are reasons for that – that happens to everyone, and while it can’t really help you on test day (there are no known Pearson/VUE test centers that will let you take the GMAT on a treadmill or under running water), it can absolutely give your study routine a much needed lift. The simple advice?

Put the book down.

Not immediately, and not forever, but from time to time you need to take breaks in your study routine to give your subconscious a chance to process all the work you’re doing. Some of the most effective GMAT study comes after you’ve “studied” when you’re not officially studying at all. You *get* factors, multiples, and divisibility when you’re noticing that the number on your dinner bill is divisible by 3 or that the prime factors of that 65 on the speed limit sign are 5 and 13. You’ve begun to really master Sentence Correction when you see both that this sentence is using the common “both X and Y” structure and see that it’s written incorrectly because the verb “see” came before the word “both” and therefore is redundant after the word “and” (it’s either “see both that X and that Y” or “both see that X and see that Y”). You have the GMAT right where you want it when your study extends to those places you want to be outside the library.

So how can you use this advice productively?

1) When you’re studying exhausted, let yourself rest. This doesn’t mean that you can always claim “Exhausted! Not studying!”, but if you’ve been at it for two hours and you feel like you’re beating your head against a wall and not getting anywhere, it’s just good strategy to let it rest and let your mind process it on its own time and in its own way.

2) Take entire days off. With muscle training, rest days are essential to allow the muscles to build up after you’ve broken them down. And the brain is just that, a muscle. Your subconscious is your brain’s way of regenerating and reorganizing itself – that’s an important process, so give your brain time to do it.

3) Challenge yourself to use GMAT concepts and thought processes outside of GMAT books. GMAT practice problems are designed to be challenging, and most solutions and content review units can be dryer and denser than you’d ever find entertaining. But you can let yourself “win” when you’re the one to calculate the tip or divide up the bill at dinner, or when you convert kilometers to miles while driving (a 10k is 6.2 miles, so every kilometer is approximately 3/5 of a mile). In that way, you’re proving to yourself that you know the concept and you’re challenging yourself to apply the concept…and the GMAT is more an application test than just a knowledge test, so practical application practice is some of the best practice you can get.

Most importantly, trust in the power of your subconscious mind to strengthen and organize the fruits of your conscious study labor. There’s value in rest, so give your brain that chance to rest up before your next monster study session.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? Try our own new, 100% computer-adaptive GMAT practice test and see how you do. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin

GMAT Tip of the Week: Beware the Coincidence

GMAT Tip of the WeekToday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, and amidst all of the memorial articles and TV specials and conspiracy theories, you’ll undoubtedly see that email forward that details the eerie similarities between the two presidents assassinated almost 100 years apart, Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln:

– Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln, and Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy
– Both men were assassinated by men with three names (Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth), each containing 15 letters
– Both were elected in ’60, and then succeeded by vice presidents named Johnson, etc.

And while it’s fascinating every time you read it, it’s just a bunch of coincidences. Even the flaxseediest protester in front of the White House can’t put together an argument for why any of those coincidences could possibly scream “conspiracy” or anything other than “sometimes there are coincidences.” No matter how much significance we want to ascribe (but Kennedy was killed in a LINCOLN town car, and Lincoln is owned by Ford, and Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater!) to events that happen concurrently, often those things are just coincidences. And realizing that “coincidences happen” can help you master Critical Reasoning problems.

Much like the Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences, other coincidences happen frequently on the GMAT and bait us into trying to see them as related. Consider these facts:

Beginning in the early 1990s, New York City instituted a program called “broken window policing,” in which even small acts of vandalism or petty crime were actively pursued, prosecuted, and corrected. The prevailing wisdom was that such policing would both send a message to would-be criminals and encourage all citizens to take more pride in their city and each other. Between 1994 and 2001 the violent crime rate steadily decreased by over 50%, from a rate of 1,861 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 1994 down to 851 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2001.

What can you conclude? Your mind wants to see the “broken window policing” policy as the cause of that dramatic decrease in crime. But based simply on the above can you prove it? What if the two are just coincidences; what if a massive decrease in the unemployment rate or (as predicted in the bestseller Freakonomics) a dramatic decrease in the birth rate of potential criminals were the drivers? When you’re presented with those facts above, your mind naturally tries to link them together, but in GMAT Critical Reasoning you have to consider the idea that two concurrent facts – no matter how much they might seem related – could just be coincidences. Consider this problem:

About two million years ago, lava dammed up a river in western Asia and caused a small lake to form. The lake existed for about half a million years. Bones of an early human ancestor were recently found in the ancient lakebottom sediments on top of the layer of lava. Therefore, ancestors of modern humans lived in Western Asia between 2 million and 1.5 million years ago.

Which one of the following is an assumption required by the argument?

(A) There were not other lakes in the immediate area before the lava dammed up the river.
(B) The lake contained fish that the human ancestors could have used for food.
(C) The lava under the lake-bottom sediments did not contain any human fossil remains.
(D) The lake was deep enough that a person could drown in it.
(E) The bones were already in the sediments by the time the lake disappeared.

When you read the stimulus here, you’re likely to accept it as pretty airtight truth. The bones in that part of the fossil record are proof that people lived during that time period, right?

But what if the bones are just coincidentally in those sediments? The ONLY evidence we have is those bones, so before we take this conclusion at face value we should consider whether they’re really the smoking gun that they’re set out to be. And there’s the possibility that they just coincidentally happened to be in that part of the sediments during whatever archaeological dig found them. Perhaps they were much more recent but an earthquake shook them down a few hundred thousand years deeper into the sediments; perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald III and his punk teenage friends decided to play a trick on the archaeologists and deposited the bones (of a man named Lincoln?) in that sedimentary zone as a prank. If you can see that “bones in the sediment now” doesn’t necessarily “bones in the sediment during that timeframe” – if you can see that it might be a coincidence – you’ll realize that answer choice E is necessary to take away the coincidence factor.

Notice, too, about this problem that it’s of the “Assumption” variety. Quite often Assumption questions are hard mainly because it’s so easy to buy the argument at face value – to see two concurrent items as causal or related because they just seem so likely to fit. That’s why it’s important to make sure you emphasize the “Critical” part of Critical Reasoning. Do not buy the argument – keep in mind that two events could always be coincidental or correlated if you don’t have definite proof that one caused the other.

Heed this wisdom, and your 700+ score will be no strange coincidence.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? Try our own new, 100% computer-adaptive GMAT practice test and see how you do. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin