The First Step On GMAT Math Questions

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You're looking at a question, you have an inkling of how to do it, you're just not quite sure how to set it up. You read back through the question, think you have a better idea, just don't know what to do with that one variable. You glance at the answer choices, that doesn't help.

You look at the clock, and realize you've just spent a minute, and then you look at your scratchwork: nothing.

That is unacceptable. Something was going on in your head in all of that time, and you have nothing to show for it. Odds are you'll have to do some of that work over again, and it's nearly certain that you just wasted plenty of time.

Do Something

To avoid this fate, my prescription is simple. (It's vague, too, I realize, but we'll work on that.) Do something! Anything!

Here are some examples of what you could've been doing for that minute:

  • Copy down a diagram.
  • Jot down the numbers from the question.
  • Give names (x, y, etc.) to the unknowns in the question.
  • Start working on an approach that you're not confident about.
  • Write down whatever is going on in your head.
Notice a pattern? Yep, all five of those tips involve moving your pen. That's no accident. You're probably not going to be able to do the entire question in your head, so you're going to have to transfer your thinking to paper at some point. Start early, and save time.

Turn Off the Filter

Think of the first 30-45 seconds as a mini-brainstorming session. If you don't immediately see how to do the question, turn off your internal filter and dream up as many ways of attacking the question as you can. (It's likely that, if you've extensively studied GMAT math, you have all the requisite techniques, you're just not calling the right one to mind.)

If none of those approaches seem obviously right, pick one that you think might work, and start doing it. If none of the approaches seem even remotely correct, it's a good time to guess. You may think you'll eventually figure out the question, but if you've invested 45-60 seconds and have nothing, the evidence is starting to mount against you.

This tip doesn't require a lot of explanation and can be reduced to a soundbite or two. If you're stuck, do something. If you're pen isn't moving, start moving it. More answers and methods come to mind when you're doing something than when you're sitting there idle, worrying about whether you'll ever think of the right approach.



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.