Picture this: a friend texts you and asks, “Do you want to get a pizza and watch a movie after work?”. Do you find that odd at all?

But now picture this: that same friend asks, instead, “Do you want to get a pepperoni, mushroom and olive pizza with white sauce on thin crust from Domino’s and watch a Critically-Acclaimed Inspiring Underdog movie on Neflix after work?”. That’s strange, right? And why is that? Because it’s so specific.

Well, on the GMAT you’ll often see questions that ask for something oddly specific; “What is the value of x?” is pretty normal, but “What is the value of 6x – y?” is the equivalent of the specific pizza and odd Netflix category question. Why did they ask that? Often that’s a clue, and if you notice that clue it will help you better set up the problem. Consider this example:

Reflect on what this question is asking about. Not x. Not y. But to paraphrase Netflix, “a partially coefficiented combination of additive variables with a strong horizontal lead.” 6x – y. That’s oddly specific, so your first inclination should be, “Is there an easy way to get 6x – y?” as opposed to, “Let’s start solving for x” (which of course you can’t do here…that’s why E is a trap answer choice).

With that in mind, even if you’ve forgotten (or temporarily blanked on) some exponent rules, you should immediately be thinking, “I have 2x – how does that become 6x,” and, “Where does the subtraction come from?”.

The 6x, of course, comes from breaking 27 down into 3^3, so that you have (3^3)^2x, which then becomes 3^6x. And then with that, you have a fraction:

And that’s where the subtraction comes from. When you divide two exponents of the same base, you subtract the exponents, so now you have your 6x – y ready to go. Of course, from there, you need to get a base of 3 on the other side of the equation, so you can express 81 as 3^4, and now you know that 6x – y = 4, answer choice B.

Most importantly here, when the GMAT asks you an oddly-specific question in the vein of the oddly-specific Netflix category, you should seize on that specificity. Very frequently on the GMAT, it’s easier to solve for that oddly-specific combination of variables than it is to solve for any of the individual variables themselves!

On Problem Solving questions this can save you plenty of time, taking that extra few seconds to ask yourself how you’d arrive at that specific combination. On Data Sufficiency, this practice can be even more a matter of correct or incorrect. Data Sufficiency problems often give you sufficient information to arrive at the oddly-specific combination from the question stem, but insufficient information to determine any of the individual components. Imagine this problem as a Data Sufficiency problem:

Here, as you know from above, Statement 1 is sufficient, but if you go into the problem trying to solve for the variables individually, you’ll likely think that you need Statement 2 so that you can plug the value of y back into Statement 1 to supply the value of x. That way you’ll have the entire picture filled in: x = 1, y = 2, and 6x – y = 4.

But you don’t NEED Statement 2, so on a question like this the GMAT will punish you for not seeing that Statement 1 alone is sufficient. And it’s only sufficient because of that oddly-specific question stem. Check out this follow-up question (with a similar setup, but variables changed to a and b since the actual numbers will change):

Here you cannot use Statement 1 to get directly to the oddly-specific question stem. You can get to 4a – b = 4, but that doesn’t tell you about 6a – b. So here, the answer is C because you need Statement 2 so that you can solve for each variable individually.

More often than not, when the GMAT asks for an oddly-specific combination of variables it provides a way to arrive at it. So pay attention to the question itself: if it’s asking for something out of the ordinary or oddly specific, see that as a thinly-veiled clue that allows you to be the Confident GMAT Problem Solver With Excellent Think Like The Testmaker Skills En Route To A 700+ that you know you can be.

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*By Brian Galvin.*