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GMAT Math For Beginners

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Every GMAT student has a different math background they bring to test preparation. Some of you are wizards with numbers; others aced calculus back in the day, but haven't cracked a book in years; still others shy away from anything having to do with numbers.

If you are in one of the first two groups, GMAT math may require plenty of study time, but it probably doesn't cause much anxiety. If you're number-phobic, it's a different story.

Square One

If you feel like you're starting to approach GMAT Math from scratch, the most important thing to remember is: You can learn it. It might not be easy, but the GMAT isn't designed to test how much high school and college math you remember. The exam focuses on thinking skills. You need to master only enough math to show off your thinking skills.

Before you launch into a prep course or start charging through The Official Guide, there are three areas in which you should focus: basic numeracy, beginning algebra, and word translations.

Basic Numeracy

Some people are just "good with numbers." I don't know to what extent you can develop that talent as an adult, but I do know you can gain some skills that will give you many of the same benefits on the GMAT.

Get comfortable with fractions, decimals, and percents, converting one from the other, and developing an intuitive understanding of what they mean. Real-world examples are very helpful here. You may be good at approximating 20% from shopping sales; if you have a stock or mutual fund portfolio, you are looking at decimals all the time.

A key word in that last paragraph is "approximating." Many people who have a well-developed "number sense" have a knack for approximating, then adjusting their results. If local sales tax is 8%, they figure out 10% (which is much easier), then nudge the number down a bit.

You can't simulate 20 years of practice in a couple of months before the GMAT, but you can start developing those skills. Even a little bit helps. Many of these techniques fall under the heading of "mental math," and you can read some of my mental math tips here.

Beginning Algebra

Without rock-solid basic algebra skills, you won't do very well on the GMAT Quantitative section. There's no way around that.

If you look at an equation or variable and quiver in fear, it's time to seek help. Take a class at a local community college or work through the first several chapters of a high-school algebra book. Before you start GMAT Math preparation, you should be able to solve equations with one variable, solve systems of equations with two variables, and simplify equations, all without much effort.

Word Translations

While algebra is important, many GMAT Quantitative questions are word problems. Before you get to do any algebra, you have to convert two or three sentences to something more mathematical. (Here's an example.)

Some students have trouble with this, even if they remember the mechanics of high-school algebra and geometry. Like basic algebra, it is something that needs to be almost automatic if you are to excel on the GMAT.

Start by memorizing some key words: "less" almost always represents subtraction, "per" indicates division (as in "miles per hour"), and "is" often signals an equals sign.

Getting Comfortable

This threefold foundation won't eliminate the challenges of GMAT Math--in a way, all it does is prepare for a whole new set of difficulties! However, too many students try to skip over the basics and catch up along the way. It almost never works.

Much better to spend a few weeks at the outset ensuring that you've mastered the basics, even if you feel silly relearning material you first saw when you were twelve years old. It will make the rest of preparation much more efficient and effective.

About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

 Total GMAT Math The comprehensive guide to the GMAT Quant section. It's "far and away the best study material available," including over 300 realistic practice questions and more than 500 exercises! Click to read more.