GMAT Strategies for the Math-Challenged

GMAT Strategies for the Math-Challenged

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:

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 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 may have 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! 

GMAT Strategies for the Verbally-Concerned
by Chris Ryan, Director of Instructor and Product Development, ManhattanGMAT

Many students are concerned about the math side of the GMAT. But what if you have the opposite issue?

Maybe you can solve equations just fine; it’s this “fuzzy language stuff” that gets you down. Maybe your teachers never gave you a good solid foundation in grammar. Maybe English isn’t your first language, in which case I sincerely admire you. Or maybe you’re not so bad at English, but you want to do great on the verbal because you’re actually really worried about the math – and you want to get all the points you can.

Whatever the cause is, you are concerned about the verbal side of the exam.

Fear not!  Here are five strategies to guide you.

a) Break down Sentence Correction.

Grammar isn’t fuzzy at all. Grammar is the set of rules for putting words into sentences. In fact, grammar is very much like a puzzle; sentence parts fit together precisely. Master the fitting rules, and Sentence Correction becomes practically mechanical.

True, English grammar can be a little tricky, because no central authority holds sway over the language. So you have to study how the GMAT makes certain controversial calls, particularly if you’re a native speaker. For instance, consider the following two sentences:

1) I play sports like lacrosse and soccer.
2) I play sports such as lacrosse and soccer.

In its “Manual of Style and Usage,” the New York Times says that you should prefer #1.  And to my ear, #1 sounds great.  But all you care about is the GMAT – and the GMAT says that like means similar to, but such as means for example.  So go with the GMAT’s call, and go with #2.

Likewise, study how the GMAT specifically applies stylistic principles, such as clarity and concision. In the wider world, these concepts may be sprawling. But on the exam, concision always means something very specific; for instance, you should say indicates rather than is indicative of.

Use the Official Guides and the GMAT Prep practice exams as your primary source material for Sentence Correction problems. And to master the rules of GMAT grammar and style, get our Sentence Correction Guide.

b) Rewrite Sentence Correction sentences to retrain your ear.

Even though I’m a native speaker of English, my ear can be wrong. Even with my command of the grammar rules, I can sometimes get Sentence Correction practice problems wrong just like the next person. What do I do to improve?

Any time I get an SC problem wrong, I apply a great technique to hone my ear and my grasp of subtle rules. What I do is burn the correct sentence into my mind. All it takes is one patient minute of review, during which I rewrite the sentence in a notebook with the correct answer inserted. As I do so, I analyze the rules that make this version of the sentence correct, in comparison with the wrong answer choices. Finally, I say the sentence aloud.

Store the sentence in your head using two different senses – sight and hearing. Force yourself to produce it two different ways – on paper and aloud. Then you’ll always have it somewhere inside you, and you’ll remember the associated rules that much better.

This technique is especially helpful for idiom mastery. By the way, don’t go off and study huge lists of idioms that you find on the Internet or in non-GMAT-specific books. You need to grasp and recall the idioms that appear on the real GMAT, in sentences as they appear on the GMAT. So reviewing a GMAT-specific list is useful. Making such a list is even more useful. And writing out corrected Official Guide or GMAT Prep sentences that contain those idioms? That’s super-useful.

c) On Reading Comp and Critical Reasoning, practice taking stripped-down notes.

More than Sentence Correction, these two verbal types force you to imagine. In Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension, you have to imagine a situation, a controversy, a set of objects and actors and events in the real world.

First paragraph of a sample RC passage: In the mid-nineteenth century, one of the most expensive metals, pound for pound, was aluminum. Emperor Napoleon III is said to have served his most eminent guests on plates of aluminum, reserving golden plates for less-favored visitors. The reason for aluminum’s high cost was not its scarcity; in fact, aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust. Rather, aluminum was very difficult to extract from any of its ores and in fact was not isolated as a chemical element until 1825. Not until 1886 did two 23-year-old chemists, Charles Hall and Paul Héroult, independently discover an electrolytic process that required only relatively common materials and electricity (even if in large quantities) to produce aluminum.

If, on the test, you just let your eyes run over that paragraph, you would be sunk. If you never awakened any corresponding thoughts or images – if you never imagined the aluminum and all the rest – you wouldn’t be able to answer questions correctly.

How do you force yourself to imagine? By writing a little bit down.

Don’t copy down the whole paragraph, word for word. You don’t have time, and you’ll get lost in details. Remember, you don’t have to answer the questions using only these notes!

Rather, try to capture the gist – and the gist ONLY! Rephrase to simplify. And make sure it’s all connected.

1800’s: Alum – super-$.
             Ex: Emperor
Why so expensive?
             Not b/c scarce!
             But b/c hard to isolate
1886: 2 guys found easier way

After you’ve created notes like these, you understand the basic point of the paragraph – because you’ll have imagined the important parts. Practice such a note-taking technique, and no crazy topic or convoluted argument can really throw you.

d) On Reading Comp, do extra passages on topics you dislike – and pretend to be interested.

You might not like history. Or chemistry. Or the history of chemistry. In that case, the paragraph above might have made you gag.

Get over it!

Whatever distaste you feel for the subject, whatever self-pity you experience for having drawn the “aluminum” passage – laugh it off. And then get into the subject. Pretend that you care.

Wow, I had no idea that aluminum was once super-expensive! That’s strange!

Wonder why it was so expensive? Was it scarce? No. Oh, I see – it was hard to get out of the ore.

Go ahead and be geeky. No one is listening to your thoughts. Everything can be interesting. If you stop telling yourself that you don’t like a certain subject, you might just taste it for the first time – and discover that you actually don’t mind it so much. Then it’s so much easier to learn.

Guess what – you have to temporarily learn something about four subjects (on four passages). And it’s almost impossible to learn something that you hate. So give this liking thing a try – and practice it on extra passages. By doing so, at least you won’t be afraid any more of the topics you dislike.

To a lesser degree, the same thing holds true for Critical Reasoning. If certain argument situations or topics annoy you, bore you, depress you – well, pretend you care. Get into the situation. And do extra problems.

e) On both Critical Reasoning and Reading Comp, review by finding the proof.

On these two question types, four of the answer choices are lies. Only one is the truth. (The exception is “except” questions, of course.) This observation may seem obvious, but it points to a review tactic you should always take advantage of: analyze how the truth was there all along.

This does NOT mean you should always try to predict the answer from the question stem. In some cases, you can “fill in the blank” before looking at the answer choices. For instance, if you’re asked to Find the Assumption on a Critical Reasoning question, and the argument has a logic gap, you may be able to articulate the missing puzzle piece ahead of time. Likewise, for a Specific Detail question on Reading Comp, you should go find the truth in the passage and boil it down to fighting weight before looking at the answer choices.

In other cases, you should definitely NOT try to predict the answer. For instance, on general Reading Comp questions, you should generally dive right in and try to eliminate the lies. The right answer may be expressed at a level of abstraction that you didn’t anticipate.

However, the right answer must always be right. It must be true. So, as you review the question, study the heck out of how it matches up to the passage or the argument. 

Likewise, study how the “close-but-not-right” answers are false. Don’t content yourself with fuzzy understanding.


The Verbal section of the GMAT is no walk in the park. Coming last in the sequence, it hits you when you’re most tired and least focused. But prepare using the strategies above, and you’ll find yourself looking forward to the Verbal section!

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