How to Approach Difficult GMAT Problems

SAT/ACTMy students have a hard time understanding what makes a difficult GMAT question difficult. They assume that the tougher questions are either testing something they don’t know, or that these problems involve a dizzying level of complexity that requires an algebraic proficiency that’s simply beyond them.

One of my main goals in teaching a class is to persuade everyone that this is not, in fact, how hard questions work on this test. Hard questions don’t ask you do to something you don’t know how to do. Rather, they’re cleverly designed to provoke an anxiety response that makes it difficult to realize that you do know exactly how to solve the problem.

Take this official question, for example:

Let a, b, c and d be nonzero real numbers. If the quadratic equation ax(cx + d) = -b(cx +d) is solved for x, which of the following is a possible ratio of the 2 solutions?

A) –ab/cd
B) –ac/bd
C) –ad/bc
D) ab/cd
E) ad/bc

Most students see this and panic. Often, they’ll start by multiplying out the left side of the equation, see that the expression is horrible (acx^2 + adx), and take this as evidence that this question is beyond their skill level. And, of course, the question was designed to elicit precisely this response. So when I do this problem in class, I always start by telling my students, much to their surprise, that every one of them already knows how to do this. They’ve just succumbed to the question writer’s attempt to convince them otherwise.

So let’s start simple. I’ll write the following on the board: xy = 0. Then I’ll ask what we know about x or y. And my students shrug and say x or y (or both) is equal to 0. They’ll also wonder what on earth such a simple identity has to do with the algebraic mess of the question they’d been struggling with.

I’ll then write this: zx + zy = 0. Again, I’ll ask what we know about the variables. Most will quickly see that we can factor out a “z” and get z(x+y) = 0. And again, applying the same logic, we see that one of the two components of the product must equal zero – either z = 0 or x + y = 0.

Next, I’ll ask if they would approach the problem any differently if I’d given them zx = -zy – they wouldn’t.

Now it clicks. We can take our initial equation in the aforementioned problem: ax(cx +d) = -b(cx+d), and see that we have a ‘cx + d’ on both sides of the equation, just as we’d had a “z” on both sides of the previous example. If I’m able to get everything on one side of the equation, I can factor out the common term.

Now ax(cx +d) = -b(cx+d) becomes ax(cx +d) + b(cx+d) = 0.

Just as we factored out a “z” in the previous example, we can factor out “cx + d” in this one.

Now we have (cx + d)(ax + b) = 0.

Again, if we multiply two expressions to get a product of zero, we know that at least one of those expressions must equal 0. Either cx + d = 0 or ax + b = 0.

If cx + d = 0, then x = -d/c.

If ax + b = 0, then x = -b/a.

Therefore, our two possible solutions for x are –d/c and –b/a. So, the ratio of the two would simply be (-d/c)/(-b/a). Recall that dividing by a fraction is the equivalent of multiplying by the reciprocal, so we’re ultimately solving for (-d/c)(-a/b). Multiplying two negatives gives us a positive, and we end up with da/cb, which is equivalent to answer choice E.

Takeaway: Anytime you see something on the GMAT that you think you don’t know how to do, remind yourself that the question was designed to create this false impression. You know how to do it – don’t hesitate to dive in and search for how to apply this knowledge.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? We have GMAT prep courses starting all the time. And be sure to follow us on FacebookYouTubeGoogle+ and Twitter!

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

Help! My Practice Test Score Seems Wrong!

MBA Interview QuestionsSo you’ve taken your GMAT practice test, looked at your score, and investigated a little further. If you’re like many GMAT candidates, you’ve tried to determine how your score was calculated by:

  • Looking at the number you answered correctly vs. the number you answered incorrectly, and comparing that to other tests you’ve taken.
  • Analyzing your “response pattern” – how many correct answers did you have in a row? Did you have any strings of consecutive wrong answers?

And if you’ve taken at least a few practice tests, you’ve probably encountered at least one exam for which you looked at your score, looked at those dimensions above, and thought “I think my score is flawed” or “I think the test is broken.” If you’re taking a computer-adaptive exam powered by Item Response Theory (such as the official GMAT Prep tests or the Veritas Prep Practice Tests), here’s why your perception of your score may not match up with your actual, valid score:

The number of right/wrong answers is much less predictive than you think.
Your GMAT score is not a function of the number you answered correctly divided by the number you answered overall. Its adaptive nature is more sophisticated than that – essentially, its job is to serve you questions that help it narrow in on your true score. And to do so, it has to test your upper threshold by serving you questions that you’ll probably get wrong. For example, say your true score is an incredibly-high 790. Your test might look something like:

Are you better than average?  (You answer a 550-level question correctly.)

Ok, are you better than a standard deviation above average? (You answer a 650-level question correctly.)

Ok, you’re pretty good. But are you better than 700 good?  (you answer a 700-level question correctly)

Wow you’re really good.  But are you 760+ good? (You answer a 760 level question correctly.)

If you’re 760+ level are you better or worse than 780? (You answer a 780-level question correctly.)

Well, here goes…are you perfect? (You answer an 800-level question incorrectly.)

Ok, so maybe one or more of those earlier questions was a fluke. Are you better than 760? (You answer a 760 question correctly.)

Are you sure you’re not an 800-level student? (You answer 800 incorrectly.)

Ok, but you’re definitely better than 780, right? (You answer a 780 correctly.)

Are you sure you’re not 800-level? (You answer an 800-level question incorrectly.)

And this goes on, because it has to ask you 37 Quant and 41 Verbal questions, so as the test goes on and you answer you own ability level correctly, it then has to ask the next level up to see if it should increase its estimate of your ability.

The point being: because the system is designed to hone in on your ability level, just about everyone misses several questions along the way. The percentage of questions you answer correctly is not a good predictor of your score, because aspects like the difficulty level of each question carry substantial weight. So don’t simply count rights/wrongs on the test, because that practice omits the crucial IRT factor of difficulty level.

Now, savvier test-takers will then often take this next logical step: “I looked at my response pattern of rights/wrongs and based on that it looks like the system should give me a higher score than it did.” Here’s the problem with that:

Of the “ABCs” of Item Response Theory, Difficulty Level is Only One Element (B)…
…and even at that, it’s not exactly “difficulty level” that matters, per se. Each question in an Item Response Theory exam carries three metrics along with it, the A-parameter, B-parameter, and C-parameter. Essentially, those three parameters measure:

A-parameter: How heavily should the system value your performance on this one question?

Like most things with “big data,” computer adaptive testing deals in probabilities. Each question you answer gives the system a better sense of your ability, but each comes with a different degree of certainty.  Answering one item correctly might tell the system that there’s a 70% likelihood that you’re a 700+ scorer while answering another might only tell it that there’s a 55% likelihood. Over the course of the test, the system incorporates those A-parameters to help it properly weight each question.

For example, consider that you were able to ask three people for investment advice: “Should I buy this stock at $20/share?” Your friend who works at Morgan Stanley is probably a bit more trustworthy than your brother who occasionally watches CNBC, but you don’t want to totally throw away his opinion either. Then, if the third person is Warren Buffet, you probably don’t care at all what the other two had to say; if it’s your broke uncle, though, you’ll weight him at zero and rely more on the opinions of the other two. The A-parameter acts as a statistical filter on “which questions should the test listen to most closely?”

B-parameter: This is essentially the “difficulty” metric but technically what it measures is more “at which ability level is this problem most predictive?”

Again, Item Response Theory deals in probabilities, so the B-parameter is essentially measuring the range of ability levels at which the probability of a correct answer jumps most dramatically. So, for example, on a given question, 25% of all examinees at the 500-550 level get it right; 35% of all those at the 550-600 level get it right; but then 85% of users between 600 and 650 get it right. The B-parameter would tell the system to serve that to examinees that it thinks are around 600 but wants to know whether they’re more of a 580 or a 620, because there’s great predictive power right around that 600 line.

Note that you absolutely cannot predict the B-parameter of a question simply by looking at the percentage of people who got it right or wrong! What really matters is who got it right and who got it wrong, which you can’t tell by looking at a single number. If you could go under the hood of our testing system or another CAT, you could pretty easily find a question that has a “percent correct” statistic that doesn’t seem to intuitively match up with that item’s B-parameter. So, save yourself the heartache of trying to guess the B-parameter, and trust that the system knows!

C-parameter: How likely is it that a user will guess the correct answer? Naturally, with 5 choices this metric is generally close to 20%, but since people often don’t guess quite “randomly” this is a metric that varies slightly and helps the system, again, determine how to weight the results.

With that mini-lesson accomplished, what does that mean for you? Essentially, you can’t simply look at the progression of right/wrong answers on your test and predict how that would turn into a score. You simply don’t know the A value and can only start to predict the “difficulty levels” of each problem, so any qualitative prediction of “this list of answers should yield this type of score” doesn’t have a high probability of being accurate.  Furthermore, there’s:

Question delivery values “content balance” more than you think.
If you followed along with the A/B/C parameters, you may be taking the next logical step which is, “But then wouldn’t the system serve the high A-value (high predictive power) problems first?” which would then still allow you to play with the response patterns for at least a reasonable estimate. But that comes with a bit more error than you might think, largely because the test values a fair/even mix of content areas a bit more than people realize.

Suppose, for example, that you’re not really all that bright, but you had the world’s greatest geometry teacher in high school and have enough of a gambling addiction that you’re oddly good with probability. If your first several – high A-value – problems are Geometry, Probability, Geometry, Geometry, Geometry, Probability… you might get all three right and have the test considering you a genius with such predictive power that it never actually figures out that you’re a fraud.

To make sure that all subject areas are covered and that you’re evaluated fairly, the test is programmed to put a lot of emphasis on content balancing, even though it means you’re not always presented with the single question that would give the system the most information about you.

If you have already seem a lot of Geometry questions and no Probability questions, and the best (i.e., highest A-value) question at the moment is another Geometry question, then the system may very well choose a Probability question. The people who program the test don’t give the system a lot of leeway in this regard—all topics need to be covered at about the same rate from one test taker to the next.

So simply put: Some questions count more than others, and they may come later in the test as opposed to earlier, so you can’t quite predict which problems carry the most value.

Compounding that is:

Some questions don’t count at all.
On the official GMAT and on the Veritas Prep Practice Tests, some questions are delivered randomly for the express purpose of gathering information to determine the A, B, and C parameters for use in future tests. These problems don’t count at all toward your score, so your run of “5 straight right answers” may only be a run of 3 or 4 straight.

And then of course there is the fact that:

Every test has a margin of error.
The official GMAT suggests that your score is valid with a margin of error of +/- 30 points, meaning that if you score a 710 the test is extremely confident that your true ability is between 680 and 740, but also that it wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow you scored 690 or 720. That 710 represents the best estimate of your ability level for that single performance, but not an absolutely precise value.

Similarly, any practice test you take will give you a good prediction of your ability level but could vary by even 30-40 points on either side and still be considered an exceptionally good practice test.

So for the above reasons, a test administered using Item Response Theory is difficult to try to score qualitatively: IRT involves several metrics and nuances that you just can’t see. And, yes, some outlier exams will not seem to pass the “sniff test” – the curriculum & instruction team here at Veritas Prep headquarters has seen its fair share of those, to be sure.

But time and time again the data demonstrates that Item Response Theory tests provide very reliable estimates of scores; a student whose “response pattern” and score seem incompatible typically follows up that performance with a very similar score amidst a more “believable” response pattern a week later.

What does that mean for you?

  • As hard as it is to resist, don’t spend your energy and study time trying to disprove Item Response Theory. The only score that really matters is the score on your MBA application, so use your time/energy to diagnose how you can improve in preparation for that test.
  • Look at your practice tests holistically. If one test doesn’t seem to give you a lot to go on in terms of areas for improvement, hold it up against the other tests you’ve taken and see what patterns stand out across your aggregate performance.
  • View each of your practice test scores more as a range than as an exact number. If you score a 670, that’s a good indication that your ability is in the 650-690 range, but it doesn’t mean that somehow you’ve “gotten worse” than last week when you scored a 680.

A personal note from the Veritas Prep Academics team:
Having worked with Item Response Theory for a few years now, I’ve seen my fair share of tests that don’t look like they should have received the score that they did. And, believe me, the first dozen or more times I saw that my inclination was, “Oh no, the system must be flawed!” But time and time again, when we look under the hood with the psychometricians and programmers who consulted on and built the system, Item Response Theory wins.

If you’ve read this far and are still angry/frustrated that your score doesn’t seem to match what your intuition tells you, I completely understand and have been there, too. But that’s why we love Item Response Theory and our relationship with the psychometric community: we’re not using our own intuition and insight to try to predict your score, but rather using the scoring system that powers the actual GMAT itself and letting that system assess your performance.

With Item Response Theory, there are certainly cases where the score doesn’t seem to precisely match the test, but after dozens of my own frustrated/concerned deep dives into the system I’ve learned to trust the system.  Don’t try to know more than IRT; just try to know more than most of the other examinees and let IRT properly assign you the score you’ve earned.

Getting ready to take the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And as always, be sure to follow us on Facebook, YouTubeGoogle+ and Twitter!

By Brian Galvin and Scott Shrum.

GMAT Tip of the Week: The Least Helpful Waze To Study

GMAT Tip of the WeekIf you drive in a large city, chances are you’re at least familiar with Waze, a navigation app that leverages user data to suggest time-saving routes that avoid traffic and construction and that shave off seconds and minutes with shortcuts on lesser-used streets.

And chances are that you’ve also, at some point or another, been inconvenienced by Waze, whether by a devout user cutting blindly across several lanes to make a suggested turn, by the app requiring you to cut through smaller streets and alleys to save a minute, or by Waze users turning your once-quiet side street into the Talladega Superspeedway.

To its credit, Waze is correcting one of its most common user complaints – that it often leads users into harrowing and time-consuming left turns. But another major concern still looms, and it’s one that could damage both your fender and your chances on the GMAT:

Beware the shortcuts and “crutches” that save you a few seconds, but in doing so completely remove all reasoning and awareness.

With Waze, we’ve all seen it happen: someone so beholden to, “I must turn left on 9th Street because the app told me to!” will often barrel through two lanes of traffic – with no turn signal – to make that turn…not realizing that the trip would have taken the exact same amount of time, with much less risk to the driver and everyone else on the road, had he waited a block or two to safely merge left and turn on 10th or 11th. By focusing so intently on the app’s “don’t worry about paying attention…we’ll tell you when to turn” features, the driver was unaware of other cars and of earlier opportunities to safely make the merge in the desired direction.

The GMAT offers similar pitfalls when examinees rely too heavily on “turn your brain off” tricks and techniques. As you learn and practice them, strategies like the “plumber butt” for rates and averages may seem quick, easy, and “turn your brain off” painless. But the last thing you want to do on a higher-order thinking test like the GMAT is completely turn your brain off. For example, a “turn your brain off” rate problem might say:

John drives at an average rate of 45 miles per hour. How many miles will he drive in 2.5 hours?

And using a Waze-style crutch, you could remember that to get distance you multiply time by rate so you’d get 112.5 miles. That may be a few seconds faster than performing the algebra by thinking “Rate = Distance over Time”; 45 = D/2.5; 45(2.5) = D; D = 112.5.

But where a shortcut crutch saves you time on easier problems, it can leave you helpless on longer problems that are designed to make you think. Consider this Data Sufficiency example:

A factory has three types of machines – A, B, and C – each of which works at its own constant rate. How many widgets could one machine A, one Machine B, and one Machine C produce in one 8-hour day?

(1) 7 Machine As and 11 Machine Bs can produce 250 widgets per hour

(2) 8 Machine As and 22 Machine Cs can produce 600 widgets per hour

Here, simply trying to plug the information into a simple diagram will lead you directly to choice E. You simply cannot separate the rate of A from the rate of B, or the rate of B from the rate of C. It will not fit into the classic “rate pie / plumber’s butt” diagram that many test-takers use as their “I hate rates so I’ll just do this trick instead” crutch.

However, those who have their critical thinking mind turned on will notice two things: that choice E is kind of obvious (the algebra doesn’t get you very close to solving for any one machine’s rate) so it’s worth pressing the issue for the “reward” answer of C, and that if you simply arrange the algebra there are similarities between the number of B and of C:

7(Rate A) + 11(Rate B) = 250
8(Rate A) + 22(Rate C) = 600

Since 11 is half of 22, one way to play with this is to double the first equation so that you at least have the same number of Bs as Cs (and remember…those are the only two machines that you don’t have “together” in either statement, so relating one to the other may help). If you do, then you have:

14(A) + 22(B) = 500
8(A) + 22(C) = 600

Then if you sum the questions (Where does the third 22 come from? Oh, 14 + 8, the coefficients for A.), you have:

22A + 22B + 22C = 1100

So, A + B + C = 50, and now you know the rate for one of each machine. The two statements together are sufficient, but the road to get there comes from awareness and algebra, not from reliance on a trick designed to make easy problems even easier.

The lesson? Much like Waze, which can lead to lack-of-awareness accidents and to shortcuts that dramatically up the degree of difficulty for a minimal time savings, you should take caution when deciding to memorize and rely upon a knee-jerk trick in your GMAT preparation.

Many are willing (or just unaware that this is the decision) to sacrifice mindfulness and awareness to save 10 seconds here or there, but then fall for trap answers because they weren’t paying attention or become lost when problems are more involved because they weren’t prepared.

So, be choosy in the tricks and shortcuts you decide to adopt! If a shortcut saves you a minute or two of calculations, it’s worth the time it takes to learn and master it (but probably never worth completely avoiding the “long way” or knowing the general concept). But if its time savings are minimal and its grand reward is that, “Hey, you don’t have to understand math to do this!” you should be wary of how well it will serve your aspirations of scores above around 600.

Don’t let these slick shortcut waze of avoiding math drive you straight into an accident. Unless the time savings are game-changing, you shouldn’t make a trade that gains you a few seconds of efficiency on select, easier problems in exchange for your awareness and understanding.

Getting ready to take the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And as always, be sure to follow us on Facebook, YouTubeGoogle+ and Twitter!

By Brian Galvin.