GMAT Word Problems: Own them to Conquer Them

June 6, 2012
Lucas Weingarten

One of our wonderful student guest bloggers, Candice Batts, recently wrote about her on-going fight to conquer GMAT word problems.  Translating word problems into quantifiable, workable information is her GMAT Achilles’ heel.  Candice called me out at the tail end of that post and my response to her is something everyone wrestling with the same GMAT Problem Solving demon should hear.

GMAT BlogFirst of all, the strategies Candice lists in the last paragraph of her post are spot on.  Creating and taking quizzes in her online account (who doesn’t love the Quiz Banks tool?!?) and then reviewing BOTH the right AND wrong answers is critical to increasing your problem solving (PS) question skill level.  Also, making flashcards for the “Big Two” strategies (Picking Numbers and Backsolving) is a good idea to help train up on what type of PS question set-ups are good candidates for these strategic approaches.  Further, it sounds like Candice is exhibiting an even more effective prep behavior: looking for opportunities to employ these strategies.  After all, the more you look for them, the more you’ll see them.



Keep this in mind for GMAT word problems, as well…

Your 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 one of these on test day, but the infrequency of which you’ll use #1 compared to the frequency of which you’ll use #4 might surprise you.  Approaches #2 and #3 will get you through about half of the problems you’ll see on Test Day.  Also, never be afraid of #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 to not 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% is much better odds than 20%.

In terms of preventing multiple re-reads of a word problem, I suggest unpacking the information from the question onto your scratch paper as you go.  Test takers will often read a problem in its entirety, have a look at the answer choices, and do some thinking about it before ever doing any work on it.  Always put your pen to work.  Don’t make the GMAT any harder than it already is by trying to do everything in your head.  Plus, working through the information on paper may very well lead to insights you would have missed had you only been using gray matter.

Often times, students are left stunned by a problem, like a deer in headlights.  As I mention in that linked post, I recommend Step 1 drills (Step 1, by the way, is problem analysis).  Step 1 drills will increase your command, deepen your insight, and decrease your overall time spent on a word problem.  Here’s how you do it:

Compile a bunch of challenging questions covering all sorts of content and concepts, then focus only on taking control of the question.  As you read and record info, ask the problem some questions:  What is happening?  What information are you giving me?  What information are you missing?  What do you want me to figure out?  What do your answer choices look like?  What type of math are you testing (e.g., algebra, arithmetic, geometry)?  What math concept will I need to use to solve you (e.g., linear equations, percents, volume)?

Talk out loud.  Jot down notes.  And then, move on to the next problem as quickly as you can.  Go back and solve these problems later.  Here, I don’t care about you turning the crank; I just want you to get the machine loaded.  The focus of this exercise is to get you moving, get you working, and avoid standing still.  Learn how to take the first step on a GMAT word problem no matter what it says quickly and confidently.  After all, you can’t find the gold in the mud without getting dirty, right?

What is your Achilles’ Heel?  Post in the comments below, and we’ll talk about how you can overcome it on test day.

Lucas Weingarten Lucas Weingarten teaches students how to beat the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT for Kaplan Test Prep and is proud to have earned “elite instructor” status. Lucas writes extensively for Kaplan’s GMAT blog, and in addition to the GMAT and business school as primary subject matter, he regularly explores topics within higher education, economic systems, sustainability, and current events. Lucas spent his formative years in North Carolina and currently resides in Milwaukee, WI, though he has not yet found the part of the world wherein to bury his roots. He has an MBA with a dual concentration in entrepreneurship and finance from DePaul University in Chicago and is fortunate to have secured an adjunct teaching position there out of the department of management. Family, friends, and a seemingly endless stream of new hobbies keep Lucas busy and happy outside of the classroom. You can reach out any time by email ( or through the comments thread after his blog posts.

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