It does not surprise anyone when they learn that the properties of circles are tested on the GMAT. Most test-takers will nod and rattle off the relevant equations by rote: Area = Π*radius ^2; Circumference = 2Π* radius; etc. However, many of my students are caught off guard to learn that the equation for a circle on the coordinate plane is our good friend the Pythagorean theorem. Why on earth would an equation for a right triangle describe a circle?
Take a look at the following diagram in which a circle is centered on the origin (0,0) in the coordinate plane:
Designate a random point on the circle (x,y.) If we draw a line from the center of the circle to x,y, that line is a radius of the circle. Call it r. If we drop a line down from (x,y) to the x-axis, we’ll have a right triangle:
Note that the base of the triangle is x, and the height of the triangle is y. So now we have our Pythagorean theorem: x^2 + y^2 = r^2. This is also the equation for a circle centered on the origin on the coordinate plane. [The more general equation for a circle with a center (a,b) is (x-a)^2 + (y-b)^2 = r^2. When a circle is centered on the origin, (a,b) is simply (0,0.)]
This ends up being an immensely useful tool to use on the GMAT. Take the following question, for example:
A certain circle in the xy-plane has its center at the origin. If P is a point on the circle, what is the sum of the squares of the coordinates of P?
(1) The radius of the circle is 4
(2) The sum of the coordinates of P is 0
So let’s draw this, designating P as (x,y):
Now we draw our trust right triangle by dropping a line down from P to the x-axis, which will give us this:
We’re looking for x^2 + y^2. Hopefully, at this point, you notice what the question is going for – because we have a right triangle, x^2 + y^2 = r^2, meaning that all we need is the radius!
Statement 1 is pretty straightforward – if r = 4, we can insert this into our equation of x^2 + y^2 = r^2 to get x^2 + y^2 = 4^2. So x^2 + y^2 = 16. Clearly, this is sufficient.
Now look at Statement 2. If the sum of x and y is 0, we can say x = 1 and y = -1 or x = 2 and y = -2 or x = 100 and y = -100, etc. Each of these will yield a different value for x^2 + y^2, so this statement alone is clearly not sufficient. Our answer is A.
Takeaway: any shape can appear on the coordinate plane. If the shape in question is a circle, remember to use the Pythagorean theorem as your equation for the circle, and what would have been a challenging question becomes a tasty piece of baklava. (We are talking about principles elucidated by the ancient Greeks, after all.)