GMAT Tip: Answer the Right Question

Test-takers frequently answer the wrong question, such as how much gas was used to make a trip instead of how much remained in the tank Photograph by Jens Goerlich/Gallery Stock

This tip on improving your GMAT score was provided by Brian Galvin at Veritas Prep.

Incorrectly answering a GMAT question is always frustrating, but some incorrect answer choices are more devastating than others. Some questions are just very difficult, and nearly everyone will miss a couple of those on the test. But because of the adaptive nature of the GMAT, incorrect answers on easier questions hurt your score more than incorrect answers on hard questions. Missing questions you should have gotten right can be particularly frustrating and detrimental.

Nothing is worse than doing all the work right but still getting the question wrong. There’s no “partial credit” on the GMAT, as there may have been on tests in high school, so whether you had absolutely no clue or you made a silly error, you’ll be punished. And one “silly error” appears more often than all the rest: answering the wrong question.

Take, for example, this question:

Jason’s car gets 50 miles to the gallon. If he began his trip with a full 14-gallon tank and drove at an average speed of 60 miles per hour for exactly 5 hours, how much fuel was left in his tank at the end of the trip?

Now, your steps to solve this problem will be to determine how many miles he drove (300 miles) and then to determine how much gas he used (at 50 miles per gallon, he’d need 6 gallons to cover 300 miles).  At this point, the calculations on your paper will likely say 6 gallons. The answer choices will probably look something like:

A)    5
B)    6
C)    8
D)   12
E)   14

In a question such as this, 6 will almost undoubtedly be an answer choice. If so, it will probably be the most frequently chosen incorrect answer. Why is it wrong? The question doesn’t ask “how much fuel did he use?” but “how much fuel was left in the tank? If he started with 14 gallons and used 6, he’ll have 8 left, making the answer C, not B.

The GMAT tests, among other things, presence of mind. If you can grind out calculations but don’t keep perspective on what the numbers actually mean or represent, you’ll fall into trap answers.  Students are often so relieved that their calculations produced a number that matched one of the answer choices that they lose track of what that number really means. Do not succumb to that trap.  Note that answering the wrong question tends to be a common trap when:

• A problem involves two or more variables. (You solve for x, but the question asked for y)

• A word problem includes two or more people or entities. (If it’s Machine A and Machine B, make sure you keep them straight)

• A word problem involves easily convertible units. (If the problem gives you hours, check to see if you need to convert to minutes)

• A word problem gives you a starting amount (like a full 14-gallon tank) or includes a number that you didn’t consider in any of your calculations (a signal that maybe you missed something)

• A problem asks about a combination. (“What is the value of m + n?” It’s easy to solve for the individual variables and not put them together)

As you make these mistakes in practice (you almost surely will; everyone does), don’t write them off as silly mistakes. Make sure you identify what you missed in the question and make a mental note that the type of problem you missed may come up again. You may even want to draw a question mark at the top of your scratch-work pages on test day to remind yourself not to answer the wrong question. Remember, while these mistakes may seem careless and silly, the impact they have on your score is every bit as serious as simply not knowing how to do the problem. In a way it’s more serious because they’re taking points off the board that should have been yours.

For more practice, visit the Veritas Prep GMAT question bank where you can work through realistic GMAT questions and review detailed solutions.

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