GMAT Tip of the Week: Make 2016 The Year Of Number Fluency

GMAT Tip of the WeekWhether you were watching the College Football Playoffs or Ryan Seacrest; whether you were at a house party, in a nightclub, or home studying for the GMAT; however you rang in 2016, if 2016 is the year that you make your business school goals come true, hopefully you had one of the following thoughts immediately after seeing the number 2016 itself:

  • Oh, that’s divisible by 9
  • Well, obviously that’s divisible by 4
  • Huh, 20 and 16 are consecutive multiples of 4
  • 2, 0, 1, 6 – that’s three evens and an odd
  • I wonder what the prime factors of 2016 are…

Why? Because the GMAT – and its no-calculator-permitted format for the Quant Section – is a test that highly values and rewards mathematical fluency. The GMAT tests patterns in, and properties of, numbers quite a bit. Whenever you see a number flash before your eyes, you should be thinking about even vs. odd, prime vs. composite, positive vs. negative, “Is that number a square or not?” etc. And, mathematically speaking, the GMAT is a multiplication/division test more than a test of anything else, so as you process numbers you should be ready to factor and divide them at a moment’s notice.

Those who quickly see relationships between numbers are at a huge advantage: they’re not just ready to operate on them when they have to, they’re also anticipating what that operation might be so that they don’t have to start from scratch wondering how and where to get started.

With 2016, for example:

The last two digits are divisible by 4, so you know it’s divisible by 4.

The sum of the digits (2 + 0 + 1 + 6) is 9, a multiple of 9, so you know it’s divisible by 9 (and also by 3).

So without much thinking or prompting, you should already have that number broken down in your head. 16 divided by 4 is 4 and 2000 divided by 4 is 500, so you should be hoping that the number 504 (also divisible by 9) shows up somewhere in a denominator or division operation (or that 4 or 9 does).

So, for example, if you were given a problem:

In honor of the year 2016, a donor has purchased 2016 books to be distributed evenly among the elementary schools in a certain school district. If each school must receive the same number of books, and there are to be no books remaining, which of the following is NOT a number of books that each school could receive?

(A) 18

(B) 36

(C) 42

(D) 54

(E) 56

You shouldn’t have to spend any time thinking about choices A and B, because you know that 2016 is divisible by 4 and by 9, so it’s definitely divisible by 36 which means it’s also divisible by every factor of 36 (including 18). You don’t need to do long division on each answer choice – your number fluency has taken care of that for you.

From there, you should look at the other numbers and get a quick sense of their prime factors:

42 = 2 * 3 * 7 – You know that 2016 is divisible by 2 and 3, but what about 7?

54 = 2 * 3 * 3 * 3 – You know that 2016 is divisible by that 2 and that it’s divisible by 9, so you can cover two of the 3s. But is 2016 divisible by three 3s?

56 = 2 * 2 * 2 * 7 – You know that two of the 2s are covered, and it’s quick math to divide 2016 by 4 (as you saw above, it’s 504). Since 504 is still even, you know that you can cover all three 2s, but what about 7?

Here’s where good test-taking strategy can give you a quick leg up: to this point, a savvy 700-scorer shouldn’t have had to do any real “work,” but testing all three remaining answer choices could now get a bit labor intensive. Unless you recognize this: for C and E, the only real question to be asked is “Is 2016 divisible by 7?” After all, you’re already accounted for the 2 and 3 out of 42, and you’ve already accounted for the three 2s out of 56.

7 is the only one you haven’t checked for. And since there can only be one correct answer, 2016 must be divisible by 7…otherwise you’d have to say that C and E are both correct.

But even if you’re not willing to take that leap, you may still have the hunch that 7 is probably a factor of 2016, so you can start with choice D. Once you’ve divided 2016 by 9 (here you may have to go long division, or you can factor it out), you’re left with 224. And that’s not divisible by 3. Therefore, you know that 2016 cannot be divided evenly into sets of 54, so answer choice D must be correct. And more importantly, good number fluency should have allowed you to do that relatively quickly without the need for much (if any) long division.

So if you didn’t immediately think “divisible by 4 and 9!” when you saw the year 2016 pop up, make it your New Year’s resolution to start thinking that way. When you see numbers this year, start seeing them like a GMAT expert, taking note of clear factors and properties and being ready to quickly operate on that number.

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By Brian Galvin.