How to Choose the Right Number for a GMAT Variable Problem

Pi to the 36th digitWhen you begin studying for the GMAT, you will quickly discover that most of the strategies are, on the surface, fairly simple. It will not come as a terribly big surprise that selecting numbers and doing arithmetic is often an easier way of attacking a problem than attempting to perform complex algebra. There is, however, a big difference between understanding a strategy in the abstract and having honed that strategy to the point that it can be implemented effectively under pressure.

Now, you may be thinking, “How hard can it possibly be to pick numbers? I see an “x” and I decide x = 5. Not so complicated.” The art is in learning how to pick workable numbers for each question type. Different questions will require different types of numbers to create a scenario that truly is simpler than the algebra. The harder the problem, the more finesse that will be required when selecting numbers. Let’s start with a problem that doesn’t require much strategy:

If n=4p, where p is prime number greater than 2, how many different positive even divisors does n have, including n? 

(A) 2

(B) 3

(C) 4

(D) 6 

(E) 8 

Okay in this problem, “p” is a prime number greater than 2. So let’s say p = 3. If n = 4p, and 4p = 4*3 = 12. Let’s list out the factors of 12: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 12. The even factors here are 2, 4, 6, 12. There are 4 of them. So the answer is C. Not so bad, right? Just pick the first simple number that pops into your head and you’re off to the races. Bring on the test!

If only it were that simple for all questions. So let’s try a much harder question to illustrate the pitfalls of adhering to an approach that’s overly mechanistic:

The volume of water in a certain tank is x percent greater than it was one week ago. If r percent of the current volume of water in the tank is removed, the resulting volume will be 90 percent of the volume it was one week ago. What is the value of r in terms of x?

(A) x + 10

(B) 10x + 1

(C) 100(x + 10)

(D) 100 * (x+10)/(x+100)

(E) 100 * (10x + 1)/(10x+10)

You’ll notice quickly that if you simply declare that x = 10 and r =20, you may run into trouble. Say, for example, that the starting value from one week ago was 100 liters. If x = 10, a 10% increase will lead to a volume of 110 liters. If we remove 20% of that 110, we’ll be removing .20*110 = 22 liters, giving us 110-22 = 88 liters. But we’re also told that the resulting volume is 90% of the original volume! 88 is not 90% of 100, therefore our numbers aren’t valid. In instances like this, we need to pick some simple starting numbers and then calculate the numbers that will be required to fit the parameters of the question.

So again, say the volume one week ago was 100 liters. Let’s say that x = 20%, so the volume, after water is added, will be 100 + 20 = 120 liters.

We know that once water is removed, the resulting volume will be 90% of the original. If the original was 100, the volume, once water is removed, will be 100*.90 = 90 liters.

Now, rather than arbitrarily picking an “r”, we’ll calculate it based on the numbers we have. To summarize:

Start: 100 liters

After adding water: 120 liters

After removing water: 90 liters

We now need to calculate what percent of those 120 liters need to be removed to get down to 90. Using our trusty percent change formula [(Change/Original) * 100] we’ll get (30/120) * 100 = 25%.

Thus, when x = 20, r =25. Now all we have to do is substitute “x” with “20” in the answer choices until we hit our target of 25.

Remember that in these types of problems, we want to start at the bottom of the answer choice options and work our way up:

(E) 100 * (10x + 1)/(10x+10)

100 * (10*20 + 1)/(10*20+10) = 201/210. No need to simplify. There’s no way this equals 25.

(D) 100 * (x+10)/(x+100)

100 * (20+10)/(20+100) = 100 * (30/120) = 25. That’s it! We’re done. The correct answer is D.

Takeaways: Internalizing strategies is the first step in your process of preparing for the GMAT. Once you’ve learned these strategies, you need to practice them in a variety of contexts until you’ve fully absorbed how each strategy needs to be tweaked to fit the contours of the question. In some cases, you can pick a single random number. Other times, there will be multiple variables, so you’ll have to pick one or two numbers to start and then solve for the remaining numbers so that you don’t violate the conditions of the problem. Accept that you may have to make adjustments mid-stream. Your first selection may produce hairy arithmetic. There are no style point on the GMAT, so stay flexible, cultivate back-up plans, and remember that mental agility trumps rote memorization every time.

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By David Goldstein, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston. You can find more articles by him here.