What to Do if You’re Struggling with GMAT Solutions

stressed-studentOne of the most misleading parts of the whole GMAT experience is the process of reading the solution to a math problem in the Quant section. When you try the problem, you struggle, sweat, and go nowhere; when they explain the problem, they wave a snooty, know-it-all magic wand that clears everything up. But how did they think of that? What can you do to think like them (or barring that, where do they keep that magic wand, and how late do we have to break into their house to be sure they’re asleep when we steal it)?

The short answer is that they struggled just like you did, but like anybody else, they wanted to make it look easy. (Think of all the time some people spend preening their LinkedIn or their Instagram: you only ever see the flashy corporate name and the glamour shot, never the 5 AM wake up call or the 6 AM look in the mirror.) Solution writers, particularly those who work for the GMAC, never seem to tell you that problem solving is mostly about blundering through a lot of guesswork before hitting upon a pattern, but that’s really what it is. Your willingness to blunder around until you hit something promising is a huge part of what’s being tested on the GMAT; after all, as depressing as it sounds, that’s basically how life works.

Here’s a great example:

I haven’t laid eyes on it in thirty years, but I still remember that the rope ladder to my childhood treehouse had exactly ten rungs. I was a lot shorter then, and a born lummox, so I could only climb the ladder one or two rungs at a time. I also had more than a touch of childhood OCD, so I had to climb the ladder a different way every time. After how many trips up did my OCD prevent me from ever climbing it again? (In other words, how many different ways was I able to climb the ladder?)

A) 55       

B) 63       

C) 72       

D) 81        

E) 89

Just the thought of trying 55 to 89 different permutations of climbing the ladder has my OCD going off like a car alarm, so I’m going to look for an easier way of doing this. It’s a GMAT problem, albeit one on the level of a Google interview question, so it must have a simple solution. There has to be a pattern here, or the problem wouldn’t be tested. Maybe I could find that pattern, or at least get an idea of how the process works, if I tried some shorter ladders.

Suppose the ladder had one rung. That’d be easy: there’s only one way to climb it.

Now suppose the ladder had two rungs. OK, two ways: I could go 0-1 then 1-2, or straight from 0-2 in a single two step, so there are two ways to climb the ladder.

Now suppose that ladder had three rungs. 0-1, 1-2, 2-3 is one way; 0-2, 2-3 is another; 0-1, 1-3 is the third. So the pattern is looking like 1, 2, 3 … ? That can’t be right! Doubt is gnawing at me, but I’m going to give it one last shot.

Suppose that the ladder had four rungs. I could do [0-1-2-3-4] or [0-1-3-4] or [0-1-2-4] or [0-2-4] or [0-2-3-4]. So there are five ways to climb it … wait, that’s it!

While I was mucking through the ways to climb my four-rung ladder, I hit upon something. When I take my first step onto the ladder, I either climb one rung or two. If I climb one rung, then there are 3 rungs left: in other words, I have a 3-rung ladder, which I can climb in 3 ways, as I saw earlier. If my step is a two-rung step instead, then there are 2 rungs left: in other words, a 2-rung ladder, which I can climb in 2 ways. Making sense?

By the same logic, if I want to climb a 5-rung ladder, I can start with one rung, then have a 4-rung ladder to go, or start with two rungs, then have a 3-rung ladder to go. So the number of ways to climb a 5-rung ladder = (the number of ways to climb a 3-rung ladder) + (the number of ways to climb a 4-rung ladder). Aha!

My pattern starts 1, 2, 3, so from there I can find the number of ways to climb each ladder by summing the previous two. This gives me a 1-, 2-, 3-, … rung ladder list of 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, and 89, so a 10-rung ladder would have 89 possible climbing permutations, and we’re done.

And the lesson? Much like a kid on a rope ladder, for a GMAT examinee on an abstract problem there’s often no “one way” to do the problem, at least not one that you can readily identify from the first instant you start. Very often you have to take a few small steps so that in doing so, you learn what the problem is all about. When all else fails in a “big-number” problem, try testing the relationship with small numbers so that you can either find a pattern or learn more about how you can better attack the bigger numbers. Sometimes your biggest test-day blunder is not allowing yourself to blunder around enough to figure the problem out.

Congratulations: that’s the hardest GMAT problem you’ve solved yet! (And bonus points if you noticed that the answer choices differed by 8, 9, 9, and 8. I still have OCD, and a terrible sense of humor.)

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