Quarter Wit, Quarter Wisdom: The 3-Step Method to Solving Complex GMAT Algebra Problems

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomIf you have been practicing GMAT questions for a while, you will realize that not every question can be solved using pure algebra, especially at higher levels. There will be questions that will require logic and quite a bit of thinking on your part.  These questions tend to throw test-takers off – students often complain, “Where do I start from? Thinking through the question takes too much time!” Unfortunately, there is no getting away from such questions.

Today, let’s see how to handle such questions step-by-step by looking at an example problem:

N and M are each 3-digit integers. Each of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, and 8 is a digit of either N or M. What is the smallest possible positive difference between N and M?

(A) 29
(B) 49
(C) 58
(D) 113
(E) 131

This is not a simple algebra question, where we are asked to make equations and solve them.

We are given 6 digits: 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8. Each digit needs to be used to form two 3-digit numbers. This means that we will use each of the digits only once and in only one of the numbers.

We also need to minimize the difference between the two numbers so they are as close as possible to each other. Since the numbers cannot share any digits, they obviously cannot be equal, and hence, the smaller number needs to be as large as possible and the greater number needs to be as small as possible for the numbers to be close to each other.

Think of the numbers  of a number line. You need to reduce the difference between them. Then, under the given constraints, push the smaller number to the right on the number line and the greater number to the left to bring them as close as possible to each other.

STEP 1:
The first digit (hundreds digit) of both numbers should be consecutive integers – i.e. the difference between 1** and 2** can be made much less than the difference between 1** and 3** (the difference between the latter will certainly be more than 100).

We get lots of options for hundreds digits: (1** and 2**) or (2** and 3**) or (6** and 7**) or (7** and 8**). All of these options could satisfy our purpose.

STEP 2:
Now let’s think about what the next digit (the tens digit) should be. To minimize the difference between the numbers, the tens digit of the greater number should be as small as possible (1, if possible) and the tens digit of the smaller number should be as large as possible (8, if possible). So let’s not use 1 or 8 in the hundreds places and reserve them for the tens places instead, since we have lots of other options (which are equivalent) for the hundreds places. Now what are the options?

Let’s try to make a pair of numbers in the form of 2** and 3**. We need to make the 2** number as large as possible and make the 3** number as small as possible. As discussed above, the tens digit of the smaller number should be 8 and the tens digit of the greater number should be 1. We now have 28* and 31*.

STEP 3:
Now let’s use the same logic for the units digit – make the units digit of the smaller number as large as possible and the units digit of the greater number as small as possible. We have only two digits left over – 6 and 7.

The two numbers could be 287 and 316 – the difference between them is 29.

Let’s try the same logic on another pair of hundreds digits, and make the pair of numbers in the form of 6** and 7**. We need the 6** number to be as large as possible and the 7** number to be as small as possible. Using the same logic as above, we’ll get 683 and 712. The difference between these two is also 29.

The smallest of the given answer choices is 29, so we need to think no more. The answer must be A.

Note that even if you try to express the numbers algebraically as:

N = 100a + 10b + c
M = 100d + 10e + f

a lot of thought will still be needed to find the answer, and there is no real process that can be followed.

Assuming N is the greater number, we need to minimize N – M.

N – M = 100 (a – d) + 10( b – e) + (c – f)

Since a and d cannot be the same, the minimum value a – d can take is 1. (a – d) also cannot be negative because we have assumed that N is greater than M. With this in mind, a and d must be consecutive (2 and 1, or 3 and 2, or 7 and 6, etc). This is another way of completing STEP 1 above.

Next, we need to minimize the value of (b – e). From the available digits, 1 and 8 are the farthest from each other and can give us a difference of -7. So b = 1 and e = 8. This leaves the consecutive pairs of 2, 3 and 6, 7 for hundreds digits. This takes care of our STEP 2 above.

(c – f) should also have a minimum value. We have only one pair of digits left over and they are consecutive, so the minimum value of (c – f) is -1. If the hundreds digits are 3 and 2, then c = 6 and f = 7. This is our STEP 3.

So, the pair of numbers could be 316 and 287 – the difference between them is 29. The pair of numbers could also be 712 and 683 – the difference between them is also 29.

In either case, note that you do not have a process-oriented approach to solving this problem. A bit of higher-order thinking is needed to find the correct answer.

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Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!