Use This Tip to Avoid Critical Reasoning Traps on the GMAT

When you’ve been teaching test prep for a while you begin to be able to anticipate the types of questions that will give your students fits. The reason isn’t necessarily because these questions are unusually hard in a conventional sense, but because embedded within these problems is a form of misdirection that is nearly impossible to resist. It’s often worthwhile to dissect these problems in greater detail to reveal some deeper truths about how the test works.

Here is a problem I knew I’d be asked about often the moment I saw it:

W, X, Y, and Z represent distinct digits such that WX * YZ = 1995. What is the value of W?

1. X is a prime number
2. Z is not a prime number

The first instinct for most students I work with is, “I’m told nothing about W in either statement. There have to be many possibilities, so each statement alone is not sufficient.” When this thought occurs to you during the test, it’s important to resist it. By this, I don’t mean that you should simply assume that you’re wrong – there likely will be times when your first instincts are correct. Instead, what I mean is that you should take a bit more time to prove your assumptions to yourself. If there really are many workable scenarios, it won’t take much time to find them.

First, whenever there is an unusually large number and we’re dealing with multiplication, we want to take the prime factorization of that large number so that we can work with that figure’s basic building blocks and make it more manageable. In this case, the prime factorization of 1995 is 3 * 5 * 7 * 19. (First we see that five is a factor of 1995 because 1995 = 5*399. Next, we see that 3 is a factor of 399, because the digits of 399 sum to a multiple of 3. Now we have 5 * 3 * 133. Last, we know that 133 = 7 * 19, because if there are twenty 7’s in 140, there must be nineteen 7’s in 133.)

Now we can use these building blocks to form two-digit numbers that multiply to 1995. Here is a list of two-digit numbers we can assemble from those prime factors:

3 * 5 = 15

3 * 7 = 21

3 * 19 = 57

5 * 7 = 35

5 * 19 = 95

These are our candidates for WX and YZ. There aren’t many possibilities for multiplying two of these two-digit numbers and still getting a product of 1995. In fact, there are only two: 95*21 = 1995 and 35*57 = 1995. But we’re told that each digit must be unique, so 35*57 can’t work, as two of our variables would equal 5. This means that we know, before we even look at the statements, that our two two-digit numbers are 95 and 21 – we just need to know which is which.

It’s possible that WX = 95 and YZ = 21, or WX = 21 and YZ = 95. That’s it. What at first appeared to be a very open-ended question actually has very few workable solutions. Now that we’ve established our sample space of possibilities, let’s examine the statements:

Statement 1: If we know X is prime, we know that WX cannot be 21, as X would be 1 in this scenario and 1 is not a prime number. This means that WX has to be 95, and thus we know for a fact that W = 9. This statement alone is sufficient to answer the question.

Statement 2: If we know that Z is not prime, we know that YZ cannot be 95, as Z would be 5 in this scenario and 5 is, of course, prime. Thus, YZ is 21 and WX is 95, and again, we know for a fact that W is 9, so this statement alone is also sufficient.

The answer is D, either statement alone is sufficient to answer the question, a result very much at odds with most test-taker’s initial instincts.

Takeaway: the GMAT is engineered to wrong-foot test-takers, using our instincts against us.  Rather than simply assuming our instincts are wrong – they won’t always be – we want to be methodical about proving our intuitions one way or another by confirming them in some instances, refuting them in others. By being thorough and methodical, we reduce the odds that we’ll step into one of the traps the question-writer has set for us and increase the odds that we’ll answer the question correctly.