GMAT Tip: Word Problems

Photograph by Justin Pumfrey/Getty Images

The GMAT Tip of the Week is a weekly column that includes advice on taking the Graduate Management Admission Test, which is required for admission to most business schools. Every week, an instructor from a top test-prep company will share suggestions for improving your GMAT score. This week’s tip comes from Andrew Mitchell, director of pre-business programs and GMAT instructor at Kaplan Test Prep.

You could argue that every GMAT word problem is unique. However, the trained test-taker knows that while there is infinite variability in the yarns GMAT test-makers spin, the fiber of GMAT word problems is actually quite limited. Whether I am supposed to string seven different-colored beads on a necklace or play football against the same five teams again and again, I am dealing with the exact same problem.

The GMAT is a standardized test and we must use its standardized format to our advantage if and whenever we can. Sure, there is plenty of content we need to master, plus strategies we need to learn and rules we need to memorize. But once all that is accomplished, we realize that our approach to GMAT word problems is limited to just five options:

1. Do the math.

2. Pick some numbers to use in place of variables.

3. Use the numbers in the answer choices to solve.

4. Critically think our way around the math.

5. Guess strategically.

That’s it. You will have to use each of these on test day, but the infrequency with which you’ll use No. 1, compared to the frequency of which you’ll use No. 4, might surprise you. Also, never be afraid of No. 5.  No one knows how to do every single question on the GMAT. At some point during the test—at several points, actually—you are going to have to guess. The trick to guessing is not to do it blindly. It is very likely that after a modest amount of critical thinking, you’ll be able to whittle down the five answer choices to four, three, or even two. And 50 percent is much better odds than 20 percent.

Mitchell helps manage Kaplan Test Prep’s GMAT business, including marketing, program development, and delivery. Still an active GMAT and GRE instructor, Mitchell is leading Kaplan’s efforts to revamp its curriculum to teach the GMAT’s new Integrated Reasoning section. A best-selling author, his previous experience includes consulting for the Pentagon and product development at Google. Mitchell graduated from Harvard University with a B.S. in physics in 2001 and completed his MBA in 2007 at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.