Like most offices in the United States today, Veritas Prep’s headquarters had its fair share of water cooler and coffemaker discussions about yesterday’s final episode of the Serial podcast. Did Adnan do it? Did Jay set him up? Why does Don get a free pass based on a LensCrafters time-card punch? Does Best Buy have pay phones? The one answer we can give you is “we used MailChimp” so there’s that at least.

The other answer we can give you? Sarah Koenig would do pretty darned well on Data Sufficiency questions, where often it’s just as important to determine what you don’t know as it is to determine what you do. While the internet buzzed with theories certain that Adnan did it, that Jay did it, that a recently-released serial killer did it, Koenig was often ridiculed for being so noncommittal in her assessment of whether Adnan is guilty or not. But that’s an important mentality on Data Sufficiency questions, as one of the common ways that the GMAT will bait you is giving you information that seems overwhelmingly sufficient (The Nisha call! The phone was in Leakin Park!) but that leaves just enough doubt (Why did Jay’s story change so much?) that you can’t prove a definitive answer. And like the jury in the Serial case, we all have that tendency to jump to conclusions (“well if he didn’t kill her, who did?”) and filter out information that we don’t like (Christina Gutierrez’s performance…). This Serial-themed Data Sufficiency problem should exemplify (forgive the lack of subscript formatting, but a sequence problem in a Serial blog post seemed fitting):

The infinite (serial) sequence a1, a2, …, an, … is such that a1 = x, a2 = y, a3 = z,a4 = 3 and an = a(n-4) for n > 4. What is the sum of the first 98 terms of the sequence?

(1) x = 5

(2) y + z = 2

As people unpack the mystery in this problem, they start to see what’s going on. If an = a(n-4), then each term equals the term that came four prior. So the sequence really goes:

x, y, z, 3, x, y, z, 3, x, y, z, 3…

So although it looks like a pretty massive mystery, really you’re trying to figure out x, y, and z because 3 is just 3. And here’s a common way of thinking:

Statement 1 is not sufficient, but it gets you one of the terms. And Statement 2 is not sufficient but it gets you two more. So when you put them together, you know that the sum of one trip through the 4-term sequence is 5 + 2 + 3 = 10, so you should be able to extrapolate that to the whole thing, right? Just figure out how many trips through will get you to term 98 and you have it; like the Syed jury, you have the motive and the timeline and the cell phone records and Jay’s testimony, so the answer has to be C. Right?

But let’s interview Sarah Koenig here:

Sarah: The pieces all seem to fit but I’m just not so sure. Statement 2 looks really bad for him. If we can connect those dots for y and z, and we already have x, we should have all variables converted to numbers. Literally it all adds up. But I feel like I’m missing something. I can definitely get the sum of the first 4 terms and of the first 8 terms and of the first 12 terms; those are 10, and 20, and 30. But what about the number 98?

And that’s where Sarah Koenig’s trademark thoughtfulness-over-opinionatedry comes in. There is a giant hole in “Answer choice C’s case” against this problem. You can get the sequence in blocks of 4, but 98 is two past the last multiple of 4 (which is 96). The 97th term is easy: that’s x = 5. But the 98th term is tricky: it’s y, and we don’t know y unless we have z with it ( we just have the sum of the two). So we can’t solve for the 98th term. The answer has to be E – we just don’t know.

Now if you’ve heard yesterday’s episode, think about Dana’s “think of all the things that would have to have gone wrong, all the bad luck” rundown. “He lent his car and his phone to the guy who pointed the finger at him. That sucks for him. On the day that his girlfriend went missing. That’s awful luck…” And in real life she may be right – that’s a lot of probability to overcome. But on the GMAT they hand pick the questions. On this problem you can solve for the 97th term (up to 96 there are just blocks of 4 terms, and you know that each block sums to 10, and the 97th term is known as 5) or the 99th term (same thing, but add the sum of the 98th and 99th terms which you know is 2). But the GMAT hand-selected the tricky question just like Koenig hand-selected the Adnan Syed case for its mystery. GMAT Data Sufficiency questions are like Serial…it pays to be skeptical as you examine the evidence. It pays to think like Sarah Koenig. Unlike Jay, the statements will always be true and they’ll always be consistent, but like Serial in general you’ll sometimes find that you just don’t have enough information to definitively answer the question on everyone’s lips. So do your journalistic due diligence and look for alternative explanations (Don did it!). Next thing you know you’ll be “Stepping Out!!!” of the test center with a high GMAT score.

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*By Brian Galvin*