You’ve made it. After months of study, mountains of flash cards, and enough time spent on our YouTube channel that you’re starting to feel like Brian Galvin is one of your roommates, you’re at the test center and the GMAT — not the essay or something, but the real GMAT, in all its evil glory, complete with exponents and fractions — is about to begin. You’re nervous but excited, and cautiously optimistic for the first question: maybe it’ll be something like “What’s (2²)³?” or a work rate problem about how long it’d take George Jetson to burn down a widget factory. You mostly remember these questions, so you click “Begin”, and this is what you see:

*A palindrome is a number that reads the same front-to-back as it does back-to-front (e.g. 202, 575, 1991, etc.) p is the smallest integer greater than 200 that is both a prime and a palindrome. What is the sum of the digits of p? *

*A) 3*

*B) 4*

*C) 5*

*D) 6 *

*E) 7*

Thud.

I don’t know about you, but I’m petrified. I mean, yeah, I know what you’re saying — I’m the bozo who just dreamed up that question — but I don’t know where it came from, and I’m sort of thinking I might need to summon an exorcist, because I must be possessed by a math demon. What does that question even say? How the heck are we going to solve it?

This is such a common GMAT predicament to be in that I’m willing to bet that 99% of test takers experience it: the feeling that you don’t even know what the question is saying, and the sense of creeping terror that maybe you don’t know what any of these questions are saying. This is by design, of course. The test writers love these sort of “gut check” questions that test your ability to calmly unpack and reason out a cruel and unusual prompt. So many students take themselves out of the game by panicking, but like any GMAT question, once we get past the intimidation factor, the problem is simple at heart. Let’s try to model the process.

We’ll start by clarifying our terms. Palindrome, palindrome … what on earth is a palindrome!? Is that some sort of hovercraft where Sarah Palin lives? Where are our flash cards? Maybe we should just go to law school or open a food truck or something, this test is absurd.

Wait, the answer is right in front of us, in the very first line! “A palindrome is a number that reads the same back-to-front as it does front-to-back.” Phew, OK, and there are even some examples. So a palindrome is a number like 101, 111, 121, etc. Alright, got that. And it’s prime … prime, prime … OK, right, that WAS on a flashcard: a prime number is a number with exactly two factors, such as 2, or 3, or 5, or 7. So if we were to make lists of each of these numbers, primes and palindromes, we’d have

Primes: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, …

Palindromes: 101, 111, 121, 131, …

and we want the first number that’s greater than 200 that appears on both lists. OK!

Now let’s think of where to start. We know our number is greater than 200, so 202 seems promising. But that can’t be prime: it’s even, so it has at least three factors (1, itself, and 2). Great! We can skip everything that begins/ends with 2, and fast forward to 303. That looks prime, but what was it that Brian kept telling us about divisibility by 3 … ah, yes, test the sum of the digits! 3 + 0 + 3 = 6, and 6 divides by 3, so 303 also divides by 3.

Our next candidate is 313. This seems to be our final hurdle: a lot of quick arithmetic. That’s what the question is testing, after all, right? How quickly can you factor 313?

It sure seems that way, but take one last look at the answers. The GMAT tests efficiency as much as anything else, and it has a way of hiding easter eggs for the observant. Our largest answer is 7, and what’s 3+1+3? 7! So this MUST be the answer, and any time spent factoring 313 is wasted time.

We made it! In hindsight, that didn’t really feel like a math problem, did it? It was testing our ability to:

1) Remember a definition (“prime”)

2) Actually read the question stem (“a palindrome is…”)

3) Not panic, and try a few numbers (“202”? “303”?)

4) Realize that heavy calculation is for suckers, and that the answer might be right in front of us (“check the answers”)

So we just had to remember, actually read the directions, have the courage to try something to see where it leads, and look for clues directly around us. I don’t know about you, but if I were running a business, those are exactly the sort of skills I’d want my employees to have; maybe these test writers are on to something after all!

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