When You’ll Need to Bring Outside Knowledge to the GMAT

Ron Point_GMAT TipsIt is often said that outside knowledge is not required on the GMAT. The idea is that everyone should be on relatively equal footing when starting to prepare for this exam, minimizing the advantage that someone with a B.Comm might have over someone with an engineering or philosophy degree. Of course, it’s difficult to determine at what point does outside knowledge begin and end. Knowing that there are 26 letters in the (English) alphabet or that blue and red are different colors is never explicitly mentioned in the GMAT preparation, but the concepts certainly can come up in GMAT questions.

This statement “No outside knowledge is required on the GMAT” is true in spirit, but a fundamental understanding of certain basic concepts is sometimes required. The exam won’t expect you to know the distance between New York and Los Angeles (19,600 furlongs or so), but you should know that both cities exist. The exam will always give you conversions when it comes to distances (miles to feet, for example), temperatures (Fahrenheit to Celsius) or anything else that can be measured in different systems, but the basic concepts that any human should know are fair game on the exam.

If you think about the underlying logic, it makes sense that a business person needs to be able to reason things out, but the reasoning must also be based on tenets that people can agree on. You won’t need to know something like all the variables involved in a carbon tax or on the electoral process of Angola, but you should know that Saturday comes after Friday (and Sunday comes afterwards).

Let’s look at a relatively simple question that highlights the need to think critically about outside knowledge that may be important:

Tom was born on October 28th. On what day of the week was he born?

1) In the year of Tom’s birth, January 20th was a Sunday.
2) In the year of Tom’s birth, July 17th was a Wednesday.

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 but neither statement is sufficient alone.
D) Each statement alone is sufficient to answer the question.
E) Statements 1 and 2 are not sufficient to answer the question asked and additional data is needed to answer the statements.

Since this is a data sufficiency question, it’s important to note that we must only determine whether or not the information is sufficient, we do not actually need to figure out which day of the week it is. Once we know that the information is knowable, we don’t need to proceed any further.

In this case, we are trying to determine Tom’s birthday with 100% certainty. There are only 7 days in a week, but we need a reference point somewhere to determine which year it is or what day of the year another day of that same year falls (ideally October 27th!).

Statement 1 gives us a date for that same year. This should be enough to solve the problem, except for one small detail: the day given is in January. Since the Earth’s revolution around the sun is not an exact multiple of its rotation around itself, some years contain one extra day on February 29th, and are identified as leap years. The day of January 20th gives us a fixed point in that year, but since it is before February 28th, we don’t know if March 1st will be 40 days or 41 days away from January 20th.   Since this is the case, October 28th could be one of two different days of the week, depending on whether we are in a leap year, and so this statement is insufficient.

Statement 2, on the other hand, gives us a date in July. Since July is after the possible leap day, this means that the statement must be sufficient. Specifically, if July 17th was a Wednesday, then October 28th would have to be a Monday. You could do the calculations if you wanted to: there are 14 more days in July, 31 in August, 30 in September and 28 in October, for a total of 103 days, or 14 weeks and 5 days. The 14 weeks don’t change anything to the day of the week, so we must advance 5 days from Wednesday, taking us to the following Monday. Statement 2 must be sufficient, even if we don’t need to execute the calculations to be sure.

Interestingly, if you consider January 20th to be a Sunday, then you could get a year like 2013 in which the 28th of October is a Monday. 2013 is not a leap year, so July 17th is also a Wednesday and either statement would lead to the same answer. However, if you consider January 20th to be a Sunday, you could also get a year like 2008, which was a leap year, and then October 28th was a Tuesday. July 17th would no longer be a Wednesday, which is why the second statement is consistently correct whereas the first statement could lead to one of two possibilities. Some students erroneously select answer choice D, that both statements together solve this issue. While the combination of statements does guarantee one specific answer, you’re overpaying for information because statement 2 does it alone. The answer you should pick is B.

On the GMAT, it’s important that outside knowledge not be tested explicitly because it’s a test of how you think, not of what you know. However, some basic concepts may come up that require you to use logic based on things you know to be true.  You will never be undone on a GMAT question because “I didn’t know that,” but rather because “Oh, I forgot to take that into account.” The GMAT is primarily a test of thinking, and it’s important to keep in mind little pieces of knowledge that could have big implications on a question. As they say, knowing is half the battle (G.I. Joe!).

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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.