How to Tackle Evenly Spaced Sets on the GMAT

MBA Applicant Evaluation WorkshopThere’s an amusing anecdote told about the great 18th century mathematician, Carl Friedrich Gauss. Apparently, when Gauss was young, he was something of a troublemaker in school, and as a punishment for one of his disruptive outbursts, his teacher ordered him to calculate the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 100 inclusive, thinking that such a calculation would be taxing and time-consuming. Gauss simply scratched his head, thought for a few seconds, and then astonished his teacher and classmates by spitting out the answer: 5,050. He was about seven years old when this happened.

So then, how is it possible for a child – a genius, perhaps, but still a child – to do such an extensive computation in his head? The answer involves exploiting certain properties of evenly spaced sets. An evenly spaced set, as the name implies, is one in which the gap between each successive element in the set is equal. So a set consisting of consecutive integers would be evenly spaced, as would a set consisting of consecutive multiples of 2 or consecutive multiples of 3, etc.

It is always true of evenly spaced sets that the median – the middle term of the set – is equal to the mean, or arithmetic average, of the set. Moreover, the mean can be calculated by adding the high and the low terms of the set, and then dividing by 2. We can use this property in conjunction with the equation: Average * Number of Terms = Sum to calculate the sum of any large evenly spaced set.

In the case of the set of the integers from 1 to 100 inclusive, it works like this:

Average = (High + Low)/2 = (100 + 1)/2 = 101/2 = 50.5.

The Number of Terms = 100. Technically, the equation for finding the number of terms in an evenly spaced set is [(High-Low)/increment] + 1, but clearly, there are 100 terms between 1 and 100. Just remember, when using this formula, we want to add one to make sure we’re not leaving off the last term.

Average * Number = 50.5 * 100 = 5050.

Not too bad, even for a seven-year-old. (Note to those curious about the history of mathematics, this isn’t exactly how Gauss did the calculation, but it’s close enough.)

Now let’s see this concept in action on the GMAT:

For any positive integer n, the sum of the first n positive integers equals (n(n+1))/2. What is the sum of all the even integers between 99 and 301? 
A) 10,000
B) 20,200
C) 22,650
D) 40,200
E) 45,150 

Notice that we don’t have to bother with the formula they give us. The set of all evens from 99 to 301 inclusive will really be from 100 to 300, as those are the lowest and highest even terms of the set, respectively.

Average = (High + Low)/2 = (300 + 100)/2 = 400/2 = 200.

Number of Terms = [(High-Low)/increment] + 1 = [(300-100)/2] + 1 = 101. (Note: we divide by ‘2’ here because we only want even numbers, or multiples of 2. Thus, there is an increment of 2 between each successive term in the set.)

Average * Number = 200 * 101 = 20,200. The answer is B. Not bad.

Great, you think. Now I can just go on autopilot and apply these formulas anytime I encounter a huge evenly spaced set. But the GMAT doesn’t work like that. Sometimes we use a formula, but just as often, we’ll use logic, or we’ll pick a number, or we’ll work with the answer choices.

This cannot be repeated enough: Quantitative Reasoning is not a math test. It’s a test that requires some mathematical knowledge in order to make good decisions under pressure. Sometimes the best decision is doing little or no math at all.

Consider the following question:

How many positive three-digit integers are divisible by both 3 and 4? 
A) 75
B) 128
C) 150
D) 225
E) 300 

First, note that any number that is divisible by both 3 and 4 will be divisible by 12, as 12 is the least common multiple of 3 and 4. Perhaps you also noted that we’re dealing with an evenly spaced set here, and that, if the set consists of multiples of 12, the increment is clearly 12. But this question is very different from the previous one because we’re not required to calculate a sum. We just need to know how many multiples of 12 exist between 100 and 999.

If my increment is 12, I know I’ll be dividing by 12 at some point. But I can see that my (High – Low) will be at most (999 – 100) = 899. (Technically, our highest multiple of 12 in this set is 996 and our low term is 108, but there’s actually no need to discern this.) Clearly 899/12 will be less than 100, so there have to be fewer than 100 terms in the set. Now look at the answer choices. Only A is less than 100, so I’m done. I don’t have to finish the calculation.

Takeaway: You will be learning many useful formulas for the GMAT, but make sure you don’t use them blindly. Expect to mix formal algebra with the well-worn strategies of picking numbers and working with the answer choices. On the GMAT, flexibility and mental agility will always take precedence over rote memorization.

*GMATPrep questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council.

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By David Goldstein, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston. You can find more articles by him here.