4 Tips for Difficult Word Problems on the GMAT

Word problems on the GMAT often do not require particularly difficult algebra to solve. Most of the time, solving simple linear equations or using a formula is all that is required. The key is to not be intimidated by the length of the description and to be able to pull out the relevant information and set up the correct equation/s. These 4 tips will help you tackle any Problem Solving question that is significantly wordy.

  1. Write down what the question is asking. The final sentence of a word problem will tell you what the answer choices represent. Do you need to find a certain variable’s value? The probability of an event? An expression representing a relationship?
  2. Translate the Math to English.Go through each sentences one-by-one. Write down any important variables and numbers on your scratch pad, and give them labels (i.e. x = # of tickets bought by adults, 1100 = total employees in a factory). Use these common translations to help:
    •       ADDITION: increased by ; more than ; combined ; together ; total of ; sum ; added to ; and ; plus
    •       SUBTRACTION: decreased by ; minus ; less ; difference between/of ; less than ; fewer than ; minus ; subtracted from
    •       MULTIPLICATION: of ; times ; multiplied by ; product of ; increased/decreased by a factor of
    •       DIVISION: per ; out of ; ratio of ; quotient of ; percent (divide by 100) ; divided by ; each
    •       EQUALS: is ; are ; was ; were ; will be ; gives ; yields ; sold for ; has ; costs ; adds up to ; the same as ; as much as
    •       VARIABLE or VALUE: a number ; how much ; how many ; what
  3. Clock the answer choices. One of them must be correct. Are they numbers or variables? If they are numbers – a common way to solve word problems is to work backwards, or backsolve. This is a great way to approach an especially complicated question where setting up the algebra would take a lot of time. If there are variables, can you pick numbers? For percent questions, or questions with unknown starting values, always pick 100.
  4.  Identify the concept. If you can look past the immediate question for a moment, and identify the overall concept tested, you will be better able to remember the relevant formulas and the steps needed to solve. Common concepts associated with word problems include: rates & speed, averages, ratios and proportions, solving sets of equations, probability, permutations and combinations, and percents.

As you study for the GMAT, try to label each word problem with a “concept” – you will notice how the concepts will repeat!

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Vivian Kerr is a regular contributor to the Veritas Prep blog, providing tips and tricks to help students better prepare for the GMAT and the SAT.