How to Make Rate Questions Easy on the GMAT

Integrated Reasoning StrategiesI recently wrote about the reciprocal relationship between rate and time in “rate” questions. Occasionally, students will ask why it’s important to understand this particular rule, given that it’s possible to solve most questions without employing it.

There are two reasons: the first is that knowledge of this relationship can convert incredibly laborious arithmetic into a very straightforward calculation. And the second is that this same logic can be applied to other types of questions. The goal, when preparing for the GMAT, isn’t to internalize hundreds of strategies; it’s to absorb a handful that will prove helpful on a variety of questions.

The other night, I had a tutoring student present me with the following question:

It takes Carlos 9 minutes to drive from home to work at an average rate of 22 miles per hour.  How many minutes will it take Carlos to cycle from home to work along the same route at an average rate of 6 miles per hour?

(A) 26

(B) 33

(C) 36

(D) 44

(E) 48

This question doesn’t seem that hard, conceptually speaking, but here is how my student attempted to do it: first, he saw that the time to complete the trip was given in minutes and the rate of the trip was given in hours so he did a simple unit conversion, and determined that it took Carlos (9/60) hours to complete his trip.

He then computed the distance of the trip using the following equation: (9/60) hours * 22 miles/hour = (198/60) miles. He then set up a second equation: 6miles/hour * T = (198/60) miles. At this point, he gave up, not wanting to wrestle with the hairy arithmetic. I don’t blame him.

Watch how much easier it is if we remember our reciprocal relationship between rate and time. We have two scenarios here. In Scenario 1, the time is 9 minutes and the rate is 22 mph. In Scenario 2, the rate is 6 mph, and we want the time, which we’ll call ‘T.” The ratio of the rates of the two scenarios is 22/6. Well, if the times have a reciprocal relationship, we know the ratio of the times must be 6/22. So we know that 9/T = 6/22.

Cross-multiply to get 6T = 9*22.

Divide both sides by 6 to get T = 9*22/6.

We can rewrite this as T = (9*22)/(3*2) = 3*11 = 33, so the answer is B.

The other point I want to stress here is that there isn’t anything magical about rate questions. In any equation that takes the form a*b = c, a and b will have a reciprocal relationship, provided that we hold c constant. Take “quantity * unit price = total cost”, for example. We can see intuitively that if we double the price, we’ll cut the quantity of items we can afford in half. Again, this relationship can be exploited to save time.

Take the following data sufficiency question:

Pat bought 5 lbs. of apples. How many pounds of pears could Pat have bought for the same amount of money? 

(1) One pound of pears costs $0.50 more than one pound of apples. 

(2) One pound of pears costs 1 1/2 times as much as one pound of apples. 

Statement 1 can be tested by picking numbers. Say apples cost $1/pound. The total cost of 5 pounds of apples would be $5.  If one pound of pears cost $.50 more than one pound of apples, then one pound of pears would cost $1.50. The number of pounds of pears that could be purchased for $5 would be 5/1.5 = 10/3. So that’s one possibility.

Now say apples cost $2/pound. The total cost of 5 pounds of apples would be $10. If one pound of pears cost $.50 more than one pound of apples, then one pound of pears would cost $2.50. The number of pounds of pears that could be purchased for $10 would be 10/2.5 = 4. Because we get different results, this Statement alone is not sufficient to answer the question.

Statement 2 tells us that one pound of pears costs 1 ½ times (or 3/2 times) as much as one pound of apples. Remember that reciprocal relationship! If the ratio of the price per pound for pears and the price per pound for apples is 3/2, then the ratio of their respective quantities must be 2/3. If we could buy five pounds of apples for a given cost, then we must be able to buy (2/3) * 5 = (10/3) pounds of pears for that same cost. Because we can find a single unique value, Statement 2 alone is sufficient to answer the question, and we know our answer must be B.

Takeaway: Remember that in “rate” questions, time and rate will have a reciprocal relationship, and that in “total cost” questions, quantity and unit price will have a reciprocal relationship. Now the time you save on these problem-types can be allocated to other questions, creating a virtuous cycle in which your time management, your accuracy, and your confidence all improve in turn.

*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.