GMAT Strategies for the Math-Challenged

By Chris Ryan, Director of Instructor and Product Development, ManhattanGMAT.

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 architect.

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.

You’re not 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 together:

  1. A bunch of facts you know, such as “2x2=4”.
  2. A bunch of processes you can perform, such as how to factor 72 into prime numbers.
  3. 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 and processes.

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 to basics.

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 GMAT!).

Similarly, there 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 Polya questions.

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 list.)

Polya recommends that on every problem, you ask yourself these simple, killer questions:

  1. What are they asking you for? In other words, what is the unknown? Can you give it a name?
  2. What information have they given you?
  3. 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?
  4. 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 problem.

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.

Your 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 that problem.

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!

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