By: Rowan Hand of Your GMAT Coach“I know how to do the math, but I wouldn’t know how to do that question.” This is a pretty common scenario among beginning GMAT students. It points to an interesting phenomenon: you can understand the math content required to solve, but fail to understand what the question is actually asking. In other words, the failure lies in the “meta-analysis,” or interpretation, of the question. This is actually the hardest part of the GMAT. After all, the GMAT doesn’t really test math skills: in fact, most of the math knowledge required is stuff we saw by age 16. Rather, the GMAT tests your ability to interpret simple information presented in a very difficult way.
Put another way, GMAT questions are written in a very careful way:First, the questions must provide all of the information necessary to objectively solve the question. It’s has to be there, or we won’t be able to solve it! Second, the questions must obscure the information to the point where it’s difficult to interpret. That is, the questions must be spelled out and unclear at the same time. This balance is difficult to strike and it’s worth a tip of the hat to GMAT question writers. (They’re definitely underpaid.)
So what can we, as test-takers, do about the difficult nature of these questions?There are a few things. First, examine the difference between “lack of math knowledge” and just plain “misreading the question.” After a reasonable level of proficiency (550-600), the problem will usually be about “what the question wants” rather than math gymnastics. Second, I suggest you start writing notes in the margins of their own work:
- Where is the point that you got lost?
- What can you do not to do this the next time you do this question?
Still having trouble figuring out what it wants?Rewrite the question in your own words, really focusing on what it’s asking. Can you make the language precise enough to make it clear what the test-writer wants from you? Try to figure out what the “concept” is. It’s sort of like the punchline to a joke: it’s the payoff, or the clever thing the test-writer expected you NOT to see. In other words, we need to figure out WHAT, SPECIFICALLY the test-writers are actually asking us about in this question. Once we have that, we’ll be able to look at it from a position of knowledge. Having the destination is the first step.
“In a situation like X, Y is usually a pretty good move.”Really take time and justify to yourself—in writing—what the purpose of the next step is:
- Why are you moving x from the right side of the left side of the equation?
- Why have you chosen to multiply everything by 6 instead of using 6 as a common denominator?
- Can you cancel any terms in the fraction before you multiply?
- Could you justify any of these answers to me if I asked you in person?
Try for YourselfHere are a few useful guidelines for applying the “Question Time” approach to solving GMAT questions.
- Rephrase the question in your own words
- Determine the “concept” the question is
- Take notes, re: your reasoning, as you proceed
- Note where the 500 test-taker fails, where the 600 test-taker fails, where the 700 test-taker fails, etc.