By Chris Ryan, Director of Instructor and Product
The thought of algebra
gives you hives. You’d rather discuss
any topic but prime numbers. And you
bitterly wonder why geometry is tested on the GMAT – the Graduate Management Admissions Test, after
all. It’s not like you want to be an
Well, the GMAT is what
it is: a hoop to jump through for business school. Whether knowing “rate times time equals distance”
translates to academic and financial victory (or not!) is a moot question. You want to get an MBA. And crouching between you and that degree is
the giant spider of middle- and high-school math.
alone. Many other b-school candidates
share your apprehension. But in order to
beat the GMAT, you’re going to have to revisit some math skills that you likely
haven’t had to use in 5 – 10 years.
What are math
skills? There are three types, all tied
A bunch of facts you know, such as “2x2=4”.
A bunch of processes you can perform, such as how
to factor 72 into prime numbers.
An underlying comprehension you have that connects
the facts, the processes, and the real world.
To get better at
math, then, you do several things. You acquire
more facts. You learn more processes (in
fact, these are stored completely differently in the brain). And you connect them together to the real
world – you understand those facts
Sounds so simple in
the abstract, right? Here are five
strategies to guide you as you hearken back to your junior-high math classes.
a) Go proudly back
If necessary, return
all the way to first grade with your head held high. Math is hierarchical – you can’t multiply if
you can’t add. To put it better, you
can’t understand multiplication if
you don’t understand addition.
So return to first
principles: arithmetic of whole numbers, positives and negatives, simple
fractions and decimals. Multiplication
tables and square roots. Get the facts,
the processes, and the understanding down pat for those early topics, and build
upwards from there.
Believe it or not,
many GMAT problems assume that you’ve internalized various mathematical facts,
and without them at your mental fingertips, things will be harder and slower
than you’d like. Quick, what’s 11 x
11? 9 x 7? The square root of 225? If this sort of question has you scratching
your head or reaching for a calculator, you should prepare yourself for a trip back
to rebuild the fundamentals (no, calculators are NOT allowed on the
are many mechanical operations that you’re going to have down pat too. What’s ½ + 5/6? 0.001 x 5,260? How about x squared raised to the 3rd
power? The GMAT is going to assume that
you can quickly and seamlessly perform certain operations to solve
problems. For most people, it takes a
little (or a lot of) practice to get your math ‘muscles’ back. So, if you didn’t like algebra the first time
around, now’s your chance to master it again!
b) Ask yourself the
George Polya, a
prominent mathematician, wrote a great little book called “How to Solve It,”
which is all about mathematical problem-solving. (I know: you have it on your Amazon wish
that on every problem, you ask yourself these simple, killer questions:
What are they
asking you for? In other words, what is
the unknown? Can you give it a name?
What information have they given you?
What is the condition that links up the information
they’ve given you and the unknown? In
other words, how are these things all connected?
Can you think of a related problem? A simpler problem, maybe?
You’ll be amazed at
the progress you can make, once you’ve built the habit of asking these
questions every time. And who knows –
you may even forget that you “dislike” solving math problems.
c) Review + redo every
This is a gong I’ve
banged in other contexts, but I’ll bang it again: don’t satisfy yourself with
doing a problem once, quickly checking the answer and moving on. Always choose depth over breadth, if you
must. Spend the time to create
flashcards of entire problems, with solutions on the back, and then deal
yourself a bunch and force yourself to redo them yet again. Knowing a few problems cold – and the
mathematical principles underlying them – will help you a ton; knowing many
questions kind-of-sort-of is no use at all.
d) Master the multiple
approaches to a problem.
problem-solving will be robust and flexible when you have more than one path to
the goal. To develop your confidence for
a particular problem, don’t rest until you grasp all the possible ways to solve
For instance, you
can solve many number-properties problems either by plugging numbers or by
applying rules. Each method has its
advantages. The key is to know both methods well – so that they
reinforce each other and so that you can switch between them easily.
e) Be honest with
yourself, but don't stop believing.
Yes, you haven’t
yet acquired or mastered all the skills that you need to do well on GMAT
math. But you must believe that you
can. Believe that you can even change
your identity in this respect; you can tear up the label “bad at math” that’s
been hanging around your neck since sixth grade.
You CAN do well on
GMAT math, as long as you’re prepared to spend enough time and concentrated energy
to build up the basics and dig deeply into problems until you know them
cold. You are indeed smarter than your
14-year old self!