GMAT Tip of the Week: Mother Knows Best

GMAT Tip of the WeekThis weekend is Mother’s Day here in the United States, and also, as the first full weekend in May, a weekend that will kick off a sense of study urgency for those intent on the September Round 1 MBA admissions deadlines. (If your mother were here she’d tell you why: if you want two full months to study for the GMAT and two full months to work on your applications, you have to start studying now!)

In honor of mothers everywhere and in preparation for your GMAT, let’s consider one of the things that makes mothers so great. Even today as an adult, you’ll likely find that if you live a flight or lengthy drive/train from home, when you leave your hometown, your mother loads you up with snacks for the plane, bottled water for the drive, hand sanitizer for the airport, etc. Why is that? When it comes to their children – no matter how old or independent – mothers are prepared for every possible situation.

What if you get hungry on the plane, or you’re delayed at your connecting airport and your credit card registers fraud because of the strange location and you’re unable to purchase a meal?! She doesn’t want you getting sick after touching the railing on an escalator, so she found a Purell bottle that’s well less than the liquid limit at security (and also packed a clear plastic bag for you and your toiletries). Moms do not want their children caught in a unique and harmful (or inconvenient) situation, so they plan for all possible occurrences.

And that’s how you should approach Data Sufficiency questions on the GMAT.

When a novice test-taker sees the problem:

What is the value of x?

(1) x^2 = 25

(2) 8 < 2x < 12

He may quickly say “oh it’s 5” to both of them. 5 is the square root of 25, and the second equation simplifies to 4 < x < 6, and what number is between 4 and 6? It’s 5.

But your mother would give you caution, particularly because her mission is to avoid *negative* outcomes for you. She’d be prepared for a negative value of x (-5 satisfies Statement 1) and for nonintegers (x could be 4.00001 or 5.9999 given Statement 2). Knowing those contingencies, she’d wisely recognize that you need both statements to guarantee one exact answer (5) for x.

Just like she’d tie notes to your mittens or pin them on your shirt when you were a kid so that you wouldn’t forget (and like now she’ll text you reminders for your grandmother’s birthday or to RSVP to your cousin’s wedding), your mom would suggest that you keep these unique occurrences written down at the top of your noteboard on test day: Negative, Zero, Noninteger, Infinity, Biggest/Smallest Value. That way, you’ll always check for those unique situations before you submit your answer, and you’ll have a much better shot at a challenge-level problem like this:

The product of consecutive integers a, b, c, and d is 5,040. What is the value of d?

(1) d is prime

(2) d < c < b < a

So where does mom come in?

Searching for consecutive integers, you’ll likely factor 5,040 to 7, 8, 9, and 10 (the 10 is obvious because 5,040 ends in a 0, and then when you see that the rest is 504 and know that’s divisible by 9, and you’re just about done). And so with Statement 1, you’ll see that the only prime number in the bunch is 7, meaning that d = 7 and Statement 1 is sufficient. And Statement 2 seems to support that exact same conclusion – as the smallest of the 4 integers, d is, again, 7.

Right?

Enter mom’s notes: did you consider zero? (irrelevant) Did you consider nonintegers? (they specified integers, so irrelevant) Did you consider negative numbers?

That’s the key. The four consecutive integers could be -10, -9, -8, and -7 meaning that d could also be -10. That wasn’t an option for Statement 1 (only positives are prime) and so since you did the “hard work” of factoring 5,040 and then finally got to where Statement 2 was helpful, there’s a high likelihood that you were ready to be finished and saw 7 as the only option for Statement 2.

This is why mom’s reminders are so helpful: on harder problems, the “special circumstances” numbers that mom wants to make sure you’re always prepared for tend to be afterthoughts, having taken a backseat to the larger challenges of math. But mother knows best – you may not be stranded in a foreign airport without a snack and your car might not stall in the desert when you don’t have water, but in the rare event that such a situation occurs she wants you to be prepared. Keep mom’s list handy at the top of your noteboard (alas, the Pearson/Vue center won’t allow you to pin it to your shirt) and you, like mom, will be prepared for all situations.

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By Brian Galvin.