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Pigeonholing GMAT Questions

This post is inspired by a recent student of mine who was able to improve from a 480 on his diagnostic to a 660 on the real GMAT. He was great at categorizing GMAT questions, but he really started seeing a jump after he took the below advice to heart.

If you spend enough time studying for the GMAT, you inevitably run into advice espousing the best approach for certain situations. If Word Problems give you difficulty, you probably know what I’m talking about. For Rates, set up the R*T = D table. For Overlapping Sets, use a double-matrix or write out a formula and start filling it in, and so on.  Generally, the advice takes the form of: set up a table, fill in the table, solve, and now you’ll get 700. Though I do endorse the use of tables and find them to be very beneficial in certain situations, they can become counterproductive for some people. Why? Because, in focusing so much on categorizing a question and inserting all the data into a table, students deviate from the fundamental problem-solving strategies that should be the foundation of the approach toward any GMAT question. Whether you’re dealing with a question that concerns rates, divisibility, combinations, or fractions, you should have the same systematic approach for solving the questions:

#1: Understand the situation

#2: Identify what you’re solving for

#3: Determine how  you’ll use the given info to solve

#4: Execute

When test-takers begin mindlessly using the tables, they’ve essentially jumped to step #4 without having explicitly gone through the previous three steps. Though the tables are certainly helpful, their primary benefit is in helping you organize the information in a question that has a lot of moving parts. But if you haven’t made sense of these moving parts and haven’t identified how the table will help you answer the question, then you’ll ending committing a cardinal GMAT sin: doing math without knowing why! The style of reasoning for answering GMAT questions is no different from the approach used to solve problems in everyday life. Figure out what the problem is, understand what information is available to you, and determine how you’ll use that information to address the problem. Once you’ve gone through these steps, I wholeheartedly advise that you use tables where appropriate, but be careful that you don’t view tables as the end-all-be-all of answering a GMAT question.


Erfun Geula
Erfun Geula

Erfun Geula is a professional GMAT tutor, based in New York City. He has scored in the 99th-percentile of the GMAT three different times, he has written and edited hundreds of practice GMAT questions, and he has over 7,000 hours of tutoring experience.

  1. Thanks for the advice. When do you think tables are appropriate?

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