When not providing insight into the fascinating world of the GMAT, I enjoy watching detective shows on television. In many episodes, one of the detectives must delve into the mind of the perpetrator – actually try to think as the perpetrator does. In so doing, the seemingly random clues come together (often via a slow motion or black and white flashback scene) leading to an insight that breaks the case.
I am going to advocate taking on this television detective mentality in approaching GMAT problems. Perhaps there is a further parallel as the mind of the GMAT question writer may seem to be just as scary a place as the mind of a criminal. But the ability to think like a GMAT test writer can provide multiple benefits including enabling you to get more questions right and allowing you to have more confidence in your answers.
So let’s try think about three lessons we can take from our favorite crime dramas and apply to the GMAT.
1) Take nothing for granted. Hour long television shows only run about 42 minutes, leaving little time for discussion that doesn’t advance the plot. Therefore, if two characters spend two minutes discussing how someone just refinished his floors, you can bet that this fact will come back to help solve the case. The same is true of GMAT problem solving problems. Rarely is there excess information. The author is not going to provide a number or equation if you do not need to use it. If you find yourself stuck, go back and identify the information that have not yet used. Additionally, actively seek out the links between the information provided in the problem, as a every GMAT question is wrapped in a tight little package just like a good procedural drama. If you feel two pieces of information are divergent, go back and try to find the unifying factor.
2) Anticipate the fall guy. Rarely, is the first prime suspect (the abusive boyfriend, the crooked business partner, etc.) the actual perpetrator. GMAT writers also put fall guys out there – trap answers that may seem tempting. In fact, on harder problems it is likely that several of the wrong answers were designed with a specific error in mind (e.g. calculating the wrong ratio, performing an illegal algebraic move, etc.). One good exercise for reviewing problem solving problems is to try to identify these trap answers and the specific mistake that would lead you to that wrong answer. The more confidant you are in identifying these traps, the less likely you will fall into one.
3) Consider the alternatives. If it was obvious from the start who the perpetrator was, no one would watch the show. In fact, there is a rumor that Agatha Christie actually wrote her novels through the last chapter then decided who the most unlikely suspect was and went back and made adjustments to the story accordingly (it says so on her Wikipedia page so it must be true, right?). Many question stems in both problem solving and data sufficiency provide a similar base that could lead to multiple endings (i.e. the author could go several different directions or ask several different questions based on the same information).
Evaluating these different options is another valuable tool that allows you to get more mileage out of each problem you complete. Many students view completing as many problems as possible as the optimal study method. I would argue that preparing yourself to successfully complete as many problems on the real GMAT as possible is the actual goal – and thinking about the other options helps broaden your scope or learning on each problem.
To this end, when reviewing a problem, try to come up with at least one different question that could have been asked based on the same information and consider how this new question might have changed your approach. On data sufficiency problems, you might also consider alternate statements that could have been provided and if these alternatives would be sufficient alone or in combination with the other statements provided.