GMAT: How to Handle Word Problems in Problem Solving

by on October 11th, 2010

Word problems on the GMAT get an unfair reputation for being especially challenging. However, it’s helpful to think of them as just dressed-up algebra. The real challenge is that they are (1) long, (2) boring, and (3) require translation from ‘English’ to ‘Math.’ Here are a few questions to ask yourself to make sure you fully break down and understand the problem BEFORE you start to solve!

What is the problem really asking?

Make sure to understand what the answer choices represent. Are they the total number of dollars of profit? The profit accumulated by Jenny only? The percent increase in profit from June to July? Taking the time to do this will also ensure you never leave a problem half finished. If you dive into setting up an equation too quickly, you may realize half-way through that you’re solving for the wrong variable. Sometimes word problems will add an extra step at the end. You may be busy solving for “x” and forget that the problem is asking for the value of “1/x”.

What information am I given?

The best thing about word problems is that they offer information in an organized manner. Go sentence by sentence, translating any ‘English’ into ‘Math,’ looking for the relationship between variables, and creating variables for unknowns (for example, “Jenny’s profit” might become J, or “total profit” might become T).

What do the answer choices tell me?

Are there variables in the answer choices? See a bunch of numbers? Can you Backsolve, plugging the answer choices back into the problem using trial-and-error? Often the answer choices will give you clues on how to go about solving. Remember, one of them must be correct!

What formulas do I know?

After you’ve broken down the question, you can start to think about setting up and solving it. If this problem deals with distance and speed, you might need to use the D = R x T formula. If I involves Average Speed, perhaps Average Speed = Total Distance / Total Time. Use your brain as a Rolodex. You’ve spent so much time memorizing formulas, now comes the pay-off! Flip through your mental Rolodex and pull up any relevant formulas. Ask yourself if they would be helpful for the problem at hand.

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