Learn How to Begin a GMAT Problem by Focusing on Keywords in the Question Stem

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomToday, we will not begin our post as we usually do by introducing the topic we intend to discuss. Instead, we will directly ask you to think about a question. The reason is this – when faced with similar questions on the GMAT without any preface, we often struggle to identify the concept being tested, which is the starting point of our efforts. Our post today focuses on how to observe the keywords in the question stem, and how to know where to go from there.

Take a look at this example Quant question:

The length and width of a rectangle are integer values. What is the area of the smallest such rectangle that can be inscribed in a circle whose radius is also an integer?

(A) 12 
(B) 24 
(C) 36 
(D) 48 
(E) 60

Now here is the problem – the question stem does not give us any numbers! We don’t know any dimensions of the rectangle or the circle, yet the answer choice options are very specific numbers! So how do we begin? The smallest positive integer is 1, so should we start by testing the radius of the circle as 1, and then try to go on from there? And if 1 doesn’t work, then move on to 2, 3, 4… etc?

No – we are not a computer algorithm and on top of that, the GMAT only gives us around 2 minutes to figure out the answer. With this in mind, the question should enough clues to make all all of that trial and error testing unnecessary. So if plugging in numbers isn’t the way to go, how should we start solving this problem?

Now, the moment we read “rectangle inscribed in a circle”, what comes to mind is that a rectangle has 90 degree angles, and hence, the diagonal of the rectangle is the diameter of the circle (an arc that subtends a 90 degree angle at the circumference is a semicircle). The rectangle inside of the circle will look something like this:





Now we can see that we have a circle with a diameter (AB) and 90 degree angles subtended in each semicircle (angle AMB and angle ANB).

Essentially then, we have two right triangles (triangle AMB and triangle ANB) that share the hypotenuse AB. Also, it’s important to note that each side of these triangles is an integer – since we know the radius of the circle is an integer, the diameter has to be an integer too. This should make us think of Pythagorean triples!

Whenever all three sides of a right triangle are integers, they will form a Pythagorean triple. Can you have a right triangle with all integer sides such that the length of one side is 1? No. There are no Pythagorean triples with 1 as a side. The smallest Pythagorean triple we know of is 3, 4, 5 (so there can be no right triangle with all integer sides such that the length of one side is 2, either).

We already know Pythagorean triples are the lengths of the sides of right triangles where all sides are integers. What we need to internalize is that ONLY Pythagorean triples are the lengths of sides of right triangles where all sides are integers. You cannot have a right triangle with all integer sides but whose sides are not a Pythagorean triple.

This means that the smallest right triangle with all integer sides is a 3, 4, 5 triangle.

Now note that in the given question, the hypotenuse is the diameter of the circle. We are given that the radius of the circle is an integer, so the diameter will be twice an integer, i.e. an even integer.

So we know the hypotenuse is an even integer, but as we discussed last week, the hypotenuse of a primitive Pythagorean right triangle must be odd. So this triangle must be a non-primitive Pythagorean triple. The smallest such triple will be twice of 3, 4, 5, i.e. the triangle will have sides with lengths 6, 8, 10.

This means the sides of the rectangle must be 6 and 8, while its diagonal must have a length of length 10. The area of the rectangle, then, must be 6*8 = 48. The answer is D.

Finally, at the end of the post we have figured out that this post is a continuation of last week’s post on properties of Pythagorean triples! We hope you enjoyed it!

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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!