Uh-Oh, I Don’t Know This GMAT Question…What Now?

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There will be questions on the GMAT that you don’t immediately know how to answer.

Picture this: It’s the day of your GMAT. You’re cruising through the Quant section, you’re feeling pretty good about things…and then up pops a doozy of a GMAT math question. It catches you off guard and you’re not quite sure what to do. You start to panic a bit. You read and re-read the question and now it just starts to look like a jumbled mess to you. The clock continues to tick away inexorably, and yet you’re not making any progress. You’re sure you could answer the problem if you had enough time, but time is not a luxury you have when taking the GMAT.

What do you do?

Whether you like it or not, there will be questions on the GMAT that you don’t immediately know how to answer. Yet, it’s your job to get as many right answers as possible. Here are three key strategies to help you keep a level head and calmly know how to proceed when you encounter these difficult problems on test day.

1. Start doing something

Students often feel like they should be able to immediately see how an entire problem will unfold from beginning to end if they’re to answer it correctly. If they don’t see all of the steps in their mind, then they sort of just throw in the towel. But that’s not always necessary.

I like the analogy of driving through the fog with your headlights on. If you’ve ever tried driving through thick fog, you know that it’s hard to see more than just a few feet in front of you. You certainly can’t see your ultimate destination way down the road, but you can see just far enough in front of you to make out the center line and drive as far as your headlights will illuminate. So you drive just that far. But then a funny thing happens: You can now drive a little further. And then a little further. And then further yet. And the next thing you know, having driven only as far as your headlights would allow you to see each time, you’re able to make it to your final destination.

The GMAT can work the same way. Even if you don’t know how to do the whole problem right away, you can almost always do something. Write down a formula. Draw a diagram. Sketch out an equation and solve for one of the variables. At the time you might not see how it will be helpful, but often the very act of doing something opens the door to the next step in the process, and then the next step after that becomes apparent, and eventually you’re able to tackle the entire problem.

2. Use non-standard math techniques

One of the most common things I hear from my students, especially on GMAT problem solving questions, is that they don’t know how to get started on certain problems. “If only I just knew how to begin, then I could do the rest of it,” they say. If you find that you’re having trouble knowing how to solve a problem in a traditional way, turn to non-standard GMAT math techniques. For example, if the answer choices are all numbers, try working backwards and plugging the answers into the question, starting with answer choice “C,” to see which one works. (Note: Click here for a free session that will teach you this important “Working Backwards” GMAT strategy). Or if the question and answer choices contain variables, make up numbers for those variables to make esoteric algebra problems more concrete (and therefore easier). And on GMAT geometry questions where the figure is drawn to scale, use that figure to your advantage by “eyeballing” the length of line segments or degree measure of an angle. There are a lot of useful strategies for out-thinking the test makers and avoiding difficult math if you train yourself to employ them properly.

3. Eliminate clearly wrong answer choices

There are always a couple “throw away” answer choices that you can eliminate if you just apply a little logic and common sense. On probability questions, for example, you can often take a step back and ask yourself: “Okay, big picture here, is the outcome in question likely or not likely?” For example, What is the probability of getting at least one “heads” on four consecutive flips of a coin? You may not know how to solve for the exact probability, but you certainly know whether there’s a good chance or a slim chance of the outcome occurring. In fact, given that the individual probability of getting a “heads” on one flip of a coin is 50%, then the likelihood of getting a “heads” is going to be really high (certainly greater than 50%) if I’m giving you four chances. If answer choice A is something really small like 1/16, then, you can eliminate it straight away. Likewise if answer choice B is also small, like 1/4, you can eliminate it as well. Just getting rid of those two answers will increase your guessing odds from 20% (1 in 5) to 33.3% (1 in 3). If you’re able to do that for every question you ultimately have to guess on, then statistically if you have to guess on six questions throughout the GMAT quant section, that’ll result in two more correct answers for you. Not bad.

Brett Ethridge is the founder of Dominate the GMAT, a leading provider of GMAT courses online and topic-specific GMAT video lessons. He has taught the GMAT for 9 years and loves working with students to help them achieve their highest potential. Brett is an entrepreneur, a triathlete, and an avid Duke basketball fan.

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