At first glance, the Quant section of the GMAT doesn’t seem too bad –– after all, the math tested on the GMAT barely hits the high school level, and all the questions can be solved without a calculator. But as anyone who has taken the GMAT will tell you, the Quant section is extremely tough. So what makes this section so challenging? While the math is basic, it’s tested in ways you may not be familiar with. Data Sufficiency questions are completely new to most students, while even some apparently innocuous Problem-Solving questions can throw the most quant-savvy CFA for a loop. The GMAT requires you to know the math inside and out, and not only to solve problems but to recognize when you have enough information to do so. However, with some hard work practicing and getting familiar with the test, acing the GMAT Quant section is an attainable goal. Here are some tips that can help you get the most out of your study time and help you feel confident about the Quant section on the GMAT.
Review the math, learn some strategies, and adopt a flexible approach.
At the very heart of GMAT prep is a thorough review of the basic math that appears frequently on the test; you need to know topics like number properties, fractions, rates, solving for x, and basic geometry beyond perfectly. Equally important are strategies such as plugging in, picking a number, and working backward, which can be used not only to save time but also to check your answers. But the key to success on GMAT Quant? Flexibility. When working through Quant questions, try the “math class” way, but also practice alternative strategies. Be flexible in your approach: sometimes it’s better to use algebra, but other times plugging in is the way to go. By utilizing a variety of approaches in your practice, you’ll be able to recognize the best way to do each problem come test day. To score higher, you need to get questions correct, and to do so quickly.
Find your own pacing.
There are 62 minutes for 31 questions. That works out to 2 minutes per question. But not all questions take the same amount of time. Don’t be afraid to spend a little more time than average working at a problem that you know how to do. Usually, the questions with the easiest math have the most text (and therefore may take the longest). And keep in mind that for every Data Sufficiency question with 3 huge blocks of text there’s a 25-second exponent problem waiting for you a few questions away. Practice enough to know the types of questions that tend to take you longer than others. When you go in to take the GMAT, you should know how long you plan to spend on each type of problem. If you see something confusing, with lots of indecipherable text, or that you don’t have a clue about… guess and move on! You don’t want to get stuck on any one single problem.
Become familiar with the way GMAT asks questions, and know that sometimes you don’t need to solve for x.
We’re trained as kids to solve for x whenever we see an equation. While you still need to know how to solve for x, the GMAT is usually looking for something different. If a question is asking for the value of an expression like 2x + 3y, for example, you probably won’t need to find the individual values of x and y; nine times out of ten, there’s some way to get the expression 2x + 3y to somehow appear after doing a little bit of algebra. Similarly, questions on the GMAT typically require test-takers to notice things such as the difference of squares, factored forms, and expressions that can be simplified by applying exponent rules. If you see an algebraic expression that can be simplified, simplify it. Also, be on the lookout for restrictions on numbers. For example, if the question states “a and b are positive integers”, you’ll probably need to use that fact to solve the problem. And on Data Sufficiency questions, remember that you only need to recognize if there’s enough information available to solve the problem; you don’t actually need to solve it. So don’t keep working to get a solution; you could send yourself down a 7 ½-minute rabbit hole!
Keep it simple.
The GMAT is difficult, but the math is very basic. If you’re doing something that takes too long or seems too hard, you’re doing it wrong. The solution is always elegant and clever. If you sense that things are going the wrong way, scratch out your work and start over.
Be realistic about your study goals and expectations.
There are literally thousands of practice problems out there, dozens of companies that offer CATs, and countless hours of GMAT videos on YouTube. Don’t try to do everything all at once. Develop a study plan that works with your schedule. Be real with yourself, and carve out time in your life to devote to studying for the GMAT every day. Make studying for the GMAT a habit. And when you do crack open a book, prioritize official GMAT CATs, the Official Guide, and the Official Guide Supplements over third party materials.
Here are some general tips about taking the GMAT that apply to both Quant and Verbal:
- Understand (generally) how the algorithm works. The GMAT is a computer adaptive test. You start the test with a 500 score. The test algorithm serves you a “500-level” item, meaning that you have roughly a 50% chance of getting this question correct. If you get the item correct, your score goes up and the next question served is slightly harder. As the test calculates your score, the algorithm serves items that you have a roughly 50% chance of getting correct. That is why even high-scoring students will not get every single question correct (for example, once the test calculates your score to be 750 you will get “750-level” questions which test-takers scoring 750 have a 50% chance of getting correct (in theory). So, the score depends not only on how many questions the student gets correct but also on which questions the student was served.
- All that being said, don’t try to figure out the algorithm while you’re taking the GMAT. Just because you get an easier question that doesn’t necessarily mean you got the previous one incorrect. Trying to calculate your score as you go is basically impossible and will lead to frustration. Or it could completely throw you off your GMAT game. Remember, at least half your performance on the GMAT comes down to psychology; you want to be in the best possible mental state while taking it.
- Understand that the GMAT is hard for everyone. As mentioned, by design you should only be served questions that you have a 50-50 shot of getting correct. Don’t get frustrated if the items you see are difficult — that’s intended. This is especially tough for high-achieving students who are accustomed to always getting A’s in school. Even if you’re shooting for 750+, you don’t need to get every single question correct. Your score is based not only on the number of questions you get right but also on the difficulty of those questions. You can miss plenty of questions and still get a great score.
- Finish the darn test. One thing to know about the algorithm is that if you don’t finish all items the algorithm gets thrown off and your score will suffer as a result. If you’re running short on time just click, click, click to the end!
Mike has been helping students with test preparation and math since 1996 when he helped a good friend pass the New York State Regents exam in Geometry. Originally from Airmont, New York, Mike attended Cornell University where he earned an undergraduate degree in Mathematics. In 2005, Mike won a Math for America Newton Fellowship and later earned a tuition-free Master’s Degree in Mathematics Education from Columbia University. He then developed and taught accelerated math curricula at The Anderson School in Manhattan, a public school for gifted children. During that time he also served on an item writing committee to develop test questions for New York State standardized mathematics tests.