GMAT Tip of the Week: Gary Johnson, Aleppo, and What To Do When Your Mind Goes Blank

GMAT Tip of the WeekArguably the biggest news story this week was presidential hopeful Gary Johnson’s reply to a foreign policy question. “What is Aleppo?” is what Johnson responded, his mind evidently blanking on the epicenter of Syrian civil war and its resulting refugee crisis. And regardless of your opinion of Johnson’s fitness to be the architect of American foreign policy, there’s one major lesson there for your GMAT aspirations:

In pressure situations, it’s not uncommon for your brain to fail you as you “blank” on a concept you know (or should know). So it’s important to have strategies ready for that moment that very well may come to you. To paraphrase the Morning Joe question to Johnson:

What would you do about “Aleppo?”

Meaning: what would you do if your mind were to go blank on an important GMAT rule or formula?

There are four major strategies that should be in your toolkit for such a situation:

1) Test Small Numbers
You should absolutely know formulas like exponent rules or relationships like that between dividend, divisor, and remainder in division, but sometimes your mind just goes blank. In those cases, remember that math rules are logically-derived, not arbitrarily ordained! Math rules will hold for all possible values, so if you’re unsure, test numbers. For example, if you’re forced to solve something like:

(x^15)(x^9) =

And you’ve blanked on what to do with exponents, try testing small numbers like (2^2)(2^3). Here, that’s (4)(8) = 32, which is 2^5. So if you’re unsure, “Do I add or multiply the exponents?” you should see from the small example that you definitely don’t multiply, and that your hunch that, “Maybe I add?” works in this case, so you can more confidently make that decision.

Similarly, if a problem asked:

When integer y is divided by integer z, the quotient is equal to x. Which of the following represents the remainder in terms of x, y, and z?

(A) x – yz
(B) zy – x
(C) y – zx
(D) zy – x
(E) zx – y

Many students memorize equations to organize dividend, divisor, quotient, and remainder, but in the fog of war on test day it can even be difficult to remember which element of the division problem is the dividend (it’s the number you start with) and which is the divisor (it’s the one you divide by). So if your mind has blanked on any part of the equation or on which element is which, just test it with small numbers to remind yourself how the concept works:

11 divided by 4 is 2 with a remainder of 3. How do you get to the remainder? You take the 11 you started with and subtract the 8 that you get from taking the divisor of 4 and multiplying it by the quotient of 2. So the answer is y (what you started with) minus zx (the divisor times the quotient), or answer choice C.

Simply put, if you blank on a rule or concept, you can test small numbers to remind yourself how it works.

2) Use Process of Elimination and Work Backwards From the Answer Choices
One beautiful thing about the GMAT is that, while in “the real world” if you need to know the Pythagorean Theorem and blank on it, you’re out of luck (well, unless you have a Google-enabled Smartphone in your pocket which you almost certainly do…), on the GMAT you have answer choices as assets. So if your own work stalls in progress, you can look to the answer choices to eliminate options you know for sure you wouldn’t get with that math:

What is x^5 + x^6? You know you don’t add or multiply those exponents, so even if you don’t see to factor out the common x^5, you could eliminate answer choices like x^11 and x^30.

Or you can look to the answer choices to see if they help you determine how you’d apply a rule. For example, if a problem forces you to employ the side ratios for a 45-45-90 triangle and you’ve forgotten them, the presence of some square roots of 2 in the answer choices can help you remember. The square root of 2 is greater than 1, and two sides must match, so if someone spots you “the rule includes a square root of 2” the only thing it can really be is the ratio x : x : x(√2)

Gary Johnson should have been so lucky – had the question been posed as, “What would you do about Aleppo, which is either a DJ on the new Drake album; the epicenter of the Syrian crisis; or a new restaurant in the Garment District?” he would get that question right every single time. Answer choices are your friends…when you blank, consult them!

3) Think Logically
Similar to that 45-45-90 “what else could it be?” logic, many times when you blank on a rule, you can work your way to either the rule itself or just to the answer by thinking logically about it. For example, if you end up with math that includes a radical sign in the denominator and can’t quite remember the steps for rationalizing the denominator:

What is 1/(1 – √2)?

(A) √2
(B) 1 – √2
(C) 1 + √2
(D) -1 – √2
(E) √2 – 1

Not all is lost! Sure, algebraically you should multiply the numerator and the denominator by the conjugate (1 + 2) but you can also logically work with this one. The numerator is 1, and the denominator is 1 – the square root of 2. You know that 2 is between 1 and 2, so what do you know about the denominator? It’s negative, and it’s a fraction (or decimal), so once you’ve taken 1 divided by that, your answer must be a negative number to the left of -1 – only answer choice D would work. So, yeah, you blanked on the steps, but you can still employ logic to back into the answer.

4) Write Down Everything You Know
Blanking is particularly troublesome because it’s that moment of panic. You’re trying to retrace your mental steps and the answer is elusive; it’s a moment you’re not in control of at that point. So take control! The more you’re actively working – jotting down other related formulas or facts you know, working on other facets of the diagram or problem and saving that step for last, etc. – the more you’re controlling, or at least actively managing, the situation.

Gary Johnson couldn’t get away with a “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” style talk-through-it (“Um, I know it’s not the name of any congressmen; it’s not Zika, it’s not…”) without looking dumb, but no one is going to audit your scratchwork and release it to Huffington Post, so you’re free to jot down half-baked thoughts and trial calculations to your heart’s content. Actively manage the situation, and you can work your way through that dreaded “my mind is blank” moment.

So learn from Gary Johnson. No matter how much you’ve prepared for your GMAT, there’s a chance that your mind will go blank on something you know that you know, but just can’t recall in the moment. But you have options, so heed the wisdom above, and let Trump or Clinton handle the gaffes for the day while you move on confidently to the next question.

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By Brian Galvin.