Interpreting the Language of the GMAT

Everyone who writes the GMAT must speak English to some degree. Since English is the default language of business, the GMAT is administered exclusively in that language. Some people feel that this is unfair. If you take an exam in your mother tongue, you tend to do better than if you took the exam in your second, third or even fourth language (I consider Klingon as my fourth language). However, even if you’re a native English speaker, the GMAT offers many linguistic challenges that make many people feel that they don’t actually speak the language. (¿Habla GMAT?)

There are different ways of asking the same thing on the GMAT. Sometimes, the question is simply: Find the value of x. Other times, you get a convoluted story that summarizes to: Find the value of x. While these two questions are essentially the same, and both have the same answer, the first scenario is easier for most students to understand than the second scenario. This is because the second question is exactly the first question but with an extra step at the beginning (watch your step!), and if you don’t solve the first step, you never even get to the crux of the question.

Consider the following two problems. The first one simply asks you to divide 96 by 6. Even without a calculator, this question should take no more than 30 seconds to solve. Now consider a similar prompt: “Sally goes to the store to buy 7 dozen eggs. When she leaves the store, she accidentally drops one carton containing 12 eggs. Unable to salvage any, she goes back into the store and buys two more cartons of 12 eggs each. Once home, she separates the eggs into bags of 6, in order to save space in the fridge. How many bags of eggs does Sally make?”

The second prompt is exactly the same as the first question, but takes much longer to read through, execute rudimentary math of (7 x 12 – 12 + 24) / 6, and yield a final answer of 16. Anyone who can solve the first question should be able to solve the second question, but fewer students answer the second question correctly. Between the two is the fine art of translating GMATese (patent pending) to a simple mathematical formula. Even for native English speakers, this can be difficult, and is often the difference between getting the correct answer and getting the right answer to a different question.

Let’s look at such a question that looks like it needs to be deciphered by a team of translators:

“X and Y are both integers. If X / Y = 59.32, then what is the sum of all the possible two digit remainders of X / Y?”

A) 560
B) 616
C) 672
D) 900
E) 1024

While this question may appear to be giving you a simple formula, it’s not that easy to interpret what is being asked. One integer is being divided by another, and the result is a quotient and a remainder. The remainder is then only one of multiple possible remainders, and all these possible remainders must be summed up to give a single value. The GMAT isn’t giving us a story on this question, but there’s a lot to chew on.

First off, the quotient doesn’t actually matter in this equation. X / Y = 59.32, but it could have been 29.32 or 7.32 or any other integer quotient, the only thing we care about is the remainder. This means that essentially X/Y is 0.32, and we must find possible values for that. Clearly, X could be 32 and Y could be 100, thus leaving a remainder of 32 and the equivalent of the fractional component of 0.32 in the quotient. This could work, and is two digits, which means that it’s one possible remainder on the list that we must sum up.

What could we do next? Well if 32/100 works, then all other fractional values that can be simplified from that proportion should work as well. This means that 16/50, which is half of the original fraction, should work as well. If we divide by 2 again, we get 8/25. This value satisfies the fraction of the quotient, but not the requirement that it must be two digits. We cannot count 8 as a possible remainder, but this does help open up the pattern of the remainders.

The fraction 8/25 is the key to solving all the other fractions, because it cannot be reduced any further. From 8/25, every time we increase the numerator by 8, we can increase the denominator by 25, and we will maintain the same fractional value. As such, we can have 16/50, 24/75, 32/100, 40/125, etc, without changing the value of the fraction. How far do we need to go? Well the question is asking for 2-digit remainders, so we only need to increase the numerator by 8 until it is no longer 2-digits. The denominator can be truncated, because when it comes to 40/125, all the question wants is 40.

Once we understand what this question is really asking for, it just wants the sum of all the 2-digit multiples of 8. There aren’t that many, so you can write them all down if you want to: 16, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56, 64, 72, 80, 88 and 96. Outside this range, the numbers are no longer 2-digits. This whole question could have been rewritten as: “Sum up the 2-digit multiples of 8” and we would have saved a lot of time (more than last month’s leap second brouhaha).

Solving for our summation is simple when we have a calculator, but there is a handy shortcut for these kinds of calculations. Since the numbers are consecutive multiples of 8, all we need to do is find the average and multiply by the number of terms. The average is the (biggest + smallest) / 2, which becomes (96 + 16) / 2 = 56. From there, we wrote out 11 terms, so it’s just 56 x 11 = 616, answer choice B.

It’s worth mentioning that there’s a formula for the number of terms as well: Take the biggest number, subtract the smallest number, divide by the frequency, and then add back 1 to account for the endpoints. This becomes ((96 – 16) /8) + 1, or (80 / 8) + 1 or 10 + 1, which is just 11.  If you only have about a dozen terms to sum up, it’s not hard to consider writing each one down, but if you had to sum up the 3-digit multiples of 8, you wouldn’t spend hours writing out all the different values (hint: there are 112). It’s always better to know the formula, just in case.

On the GMAT, you’re often faced with questions that end up throwing curveballs at you. Interpreting what the question is looking for is half the difficulty, and solving the equations in a relatively short amount of time is the other half. If all the questions were written in straight forward mathematical terms, the exam would be significantly easier. As it is, you want to make sure that you don’t give away easy points on questions that you know how to solve. On test day, the exam will ask you: “¿Habla GMAT?” and your answer should be a resounding “¡si!”

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Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you weekly advice for success on your exam.  After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.