“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?
Remember that many GMAT questions can’t be answered in strict mathematical terms. Don’t be afraid to write a little English to clear up your thinking! Third, I recommend repeating nasty questions daily—step-by-step—until they are no longer mysterious. Repeat questions? Yes, until you can do each step in your sleep. You need to wrap your brain around the language of the questions, which means doing it until the penny drops. Sometimes that takes 3, 4, or even 5 tries. Or more! Whatever is necessary.
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?
This type of thinking is invaluable at an advanced level. Justify your thinking. Otherwise, it remains muddy and undirected.
Try for Yourself
Here are a few useful guidelines for applying the “Question Time” approach to solving GMAT questions.
- Rephrase the question in your own words
>What is it really saying?
- Determine the “concept” the question is
>What’s the punch line?
- Take notes, re: your reasoning, as you proceed
>Why am I doing this?
- Note where the 500 test-taker fails, where the 600 test-taker fails, where the 700 test-taker fails, etc.
>Am I seeing everything they want? Is it really as simple as it seems? The final step gives confidence that the question has been read and interpreted correctly. It eliminates the “haze of uncertainty” that many feel around GMAT questions.
So what’s actually going on?
It has been suggested that this “verbalizing” of thoughts encourages deliberate and conscious thought. Thinking about “why” you’re deciding to take a certain step allows us to keep an eye both on performance and on the potential success or failure of each step. High-performance athletes still have coaches primarily because they need an external voice to help them work through problems that might not be obvious to them “internally.” Learn to do this for yourself.
Transferring Learnings to Other Problems
Interestingly, a focus on the “why” allows us to detach from the problem. What’s the goal? It helps us to decide what an appropriate next step would be. That is, we can “chunk” the problems better. Like a modern-day Michel Lotito (the French entertainer who ate all kinds of crazy things), we can take bites out of it rather than forcing ourselves to swallow it all at once. If you’re trapped at the other end—focusing on one approach to the exclusion of others—it allows perspective. Maybe the corner you’re in really is too small. Happily, the more process-oriented we make our work, thoughts, and distinctions, the more applicable they are to future GMAT problems! Rowan Hand is a professional GMAT tutor with over 9 years of experience. He has studied at Dartmouth College, Reed College, Paris-IV Sorbonne, and the London Film School. In addition to GMAT prep tutoring, Rowan is an experienced Personal Coach and a Master Practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). He devotes much of his time to studying and perfecting Accelerated Learning techniques. Check out his blog and all of his great services here at www.yourgmatcoach.com