Quarter Wit Quarter Wisdom: How to Read GMAT Questions Carefully

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomWe all know that we need to be very careful while reading GMAT questions – that every word is important. Even small oversights can completely change an answer for you. This is what happens with many test takers who try to tackle this official question. Even though the question looks very simple, the way it is worded causes test-takers to often ignore one word, which changes the solution entirely. Let’s look at this question now:

Alice’s take-home pay last year was the same each month, and she saved the same fraction of her take-home pay each month. The total amount of money that she had saved at the end of the year was 3 times the amount of that portion of her monthly take-home pay that she did NOT save. If all the money that she saved last year was from her take-home pay, what fraction of her take-home pay did she save each month?

(A) 1/2
(B) 1/3
(C) 1/4
(D) 1/5
(E) 1/6

Let’s consider the question stem sentence by sentence:

“Alice’s take-home pay last year was the same each month, and she saved the same fraction of her take-home pay each month.”

Say Alice’s take-home pay last year was $100 each month. She saves a fraction of this every month – let the amount saved be x.

“The total amount of money that she had saved at the end of the year was 3 times the amount of that portion of her monthly take-home pay that she did NOT save.”

What would be “the total amount of money that she had saved at the end of the year”? Since Alice saves x every month, she would have saved 12x by the end of the year.

What would be “the amount of that portion of her monthly take-home pay that she did NOT save”? Note that this is going to be (100 – x). Many test takers end up using (100 – x)*12, however this equation is not correct. The key word here is “monthly” – we are looking for how much Alice does not save each month, not how much she does not save during the whole year.

The total amount of money that Alice saved at the end of the year is 3 times the amount of that portion of her MONTHLY take-home pay that she did not save. Now we know we are looking for:

12x = 3*(100 – x)
x = 20

“If all the money that she saved last year was from her take-home pay, what fraction of her take-home pay did she save each month?”

From our equation, we have determined that Alice saved $20 out of every $100 she earned every month, so she saved 20/100 = 1/5 of her take-home pay.

Therefore, the answer is D.

Often, test-takers make the mistake of writing the equation as:

12x = 3*(100 – x)*12
x = 300/4

However, this will give them the fraction (300/4)/100 = 3/4, and that’s when they will wonder what went wrong.

Be extra careful when reading GMAT questions so that precious minutes are not wasted on such avoidable errors.

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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!

How to Simplify Percent Questions on the GMAT

stressed-studentOne of the most confounding aspects of the GMAT is its tendency to make simple concepts seem far more complex than they are in reality. Percent questions are an excellent example of this.

When I introduce this topic, I’ll typically start by asking my class the following question: If you’ve completed 10% of a project how much is left to do?  I have never, in all my years of teaching, had a class that was unable to tell me that 90% of the project remains. It’s more likely that they’ll react as though I’m insulting their collective intelligence. And yet, when test-takers see this concept under pressure, they’ll often fail to recognize it.

Take the following question, for example:

Dara ran on a treadmill that had a readout indicating the time remaining in her exercise session. When the readout indicated 24 min 18 sec, she had completed 10% of her exercise session. The readout indicated which of the following when she had completed 40% of her exercise session.

(A) 10 min. 48 sec.
(B) 14 min. 52 sec.
(C) 14 min. 58 sec.
(D) 16 min. 6 sec.
(E) 16 min. 12 sec.

Hopefully, you’ve noticed that this question is testing the same simple concept that I use when introducing percent problems to my class. And yet, in my experience, a solid majority of students are stumped by this problem. The reason, I suspect, is twofold. First, that figure – 24 min. 18 sec. – is decidedly unfriendly. Painful math often lends itself to careless mistakes and can easily trigger a panic response. Second, anxiety causes us to work faster, and when we work faster, we’re often unable to recognize patterns that would be clearer to us if we were calm.

There’s interesting research on this. Psychologists, knowing that the color red prompts an anxiety response and that the color blue has a calming effect, conducted a study in which test-takers had to answer math questions – the questions were given to some subjects on paper with a red background and to other subjects on paper with a blue background. (The control group had questions on standard white paper.) The red anxiety-producing background noticeably lowered scores and the calming blue background boosted scores.

Now, the GMAT doesn’t give you a red background, but it does give you unfriendly-seeming numbers that likely have the same effect. So, this question is as much about psychology as it is about mathematical proficiency. Our job is to take a deep breath or two and rein in our anxiety before we proceed.

If Dara has completed 10% of her workout, we know she has 90% of her workout remaining. So, that 24 min. 18 sec. presents 90% of her total workout. If we designate her total workout time as “t,” we end up with the following equation:

24 min. 18 sec. = 0.90t

Let’s work with fractions to solve. 18 seconds is 18/60 minutes, which simplifies to 3/10 minutes. 0.9 is 9/10, so we can rewrite our equation as:

24 + 3/10 = (9/10)t
(243/10) = (9/10)t
(243/10)*(10/9) = t
27 = t

Not so bad. Dara’s full workout is 27 minutes long.

We want to know how much time is remaining when Dara has completed 40% of her workout. Well, if she’s completed 40% of her workout, we know she has 60% of her workout remaining. If her full workout is 27 minutes, then 60% of this value is 0.60*27 = (3/5)*27 = 81/5 = 16 + 1/5, or 16 minutes 12 seconds. And we’ve got our answer: E.

Now, let’s say you get this problem with 20 seconds remaining on the clock and you simply don’t have time to solve it properly. Let’s estimate.

Say, instead of 24 min 18 seconds remaining, Dara had 24 minutes remaining (so we know we’re going to underestimate the answer). If that’s 90% of her workout time, 24 = (9/10)t, or 240/9 = t.

We want 60% of this, so we want (240/9)*(3/5).

Because 240/5 = 48 and 9/3 = 3, (240/9)*(3/5) = 48/3 = 16.

We know that the correct answer is over 16 minutes and that we’ve significantly underestimated – makes sense to go with E.

Takeaway: Don’t let the question-writer trip you up with figures concocted to make you nervous. Take a breath, and remember that the concepts being tested are the same ones that, when boiled down to their essence, are a breeze when we’re calm.

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

Avoid Obtaining the Wrong Values in Percent Increase Questions

stressed-studentMany test takers make mistakes in percent increase quantitative GMAT questions, not because they do not understand the principle of percent increase, but rather, because they don’t evaluate the correct values.

A quick recap: percent increase questions can be identified (often literally) by the words “percent increase,” and tend to be word problems that don’t read in the most straightforward manner. The first step to take when working towards answering these questions is to be cautious and evaluate them carefully.

The second step is to, of course, use the percent increase formula – (new value – initial value) / (initial value) x 100%.

Let’s start by going through a sample GMAT practice problem:

In 2005, 25 percent of the math department’s 40 students were female, and in 2007, 40 percent of the math department’s 65 students were female. What was the percent increase from 2005 to 2007 in the number of female students in the department?

A) 15%
B) 50%
C) 62.5%
D) 115%
E) 160%

At first can be difficult to determine what the answer is for this question, but keep in mind that the best place to start looking is in the last sentence and/or the actual question that is posed. In this case, the new value is the number of female students in 2007, “the number of female students in the department?”

By working backwards through this problem, we would take  40% of 65 (our final value), which we can easily calculate as 0.4*65 (or 2/5*65), giving us a total of 26 students in 2007.

Our initial value must then be the number of female students in 2005, which we can get by calculating 25% of 40. 0.25*40 (or 1/4*40) leaves us with a total of 10 female students in 2005.

Breaking up the question up into smaller, more manageable chunks gives us the ability to plug 26 and 10 into the percent increase formula – (26‐10)/10 = 16/10 = 1.6 = 160%. Therefore, the correct answer is E.

This strategy of not trying to figure out the conclusion without evaluating all the separate parts of the question is important to tackle percent change GMAT problems, but can be applied across a variety of quantitative questions. Understanding that these questions can be much more manageable, and are more about strategy versus understanding complex math concepts, is the key to success on the Quantitative Section.

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By Ashley Triscuit, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston.