Getting Right Answers On The GMAT – By Seeing What You Have To See

Consider the following Data Sufficiency question.

If points A, B, and C  lie at three different locations in the coordinate plane, and points A and B lie on the x-axis, what is the area of triangle ABC?

(1)  The distance between point A and the y-axis and the distance between point B and the y-axis are both  2.

(2)  The distance between point C and the x-axis is 11.

While, yes, you have to understand the basics of coordinate geometry to understand the question, getting the right answer takes more than math knowledge. It takes seeing some key things, such as the following.

  • You have to see that the question says that the three points are “at three different locations.” Why? Because if you don’t, then given what is said in the question, that points A and B lie on the x-axis, and what is said in Statement 1, point A and point B could either be the same point, such as (2,0), or different points.
  • You have to see that the coordinates of points A and B are (-2,0) and (2,0), and that point has which set of coordinates doesn’t matter, because regardless of which point has which coordinates, the line segment between the two points forms the base of the triangle and has length 4.
  • You have to see that if you know the distance between C and the x-axis, you don’t need to know anything else about C, such as whether it lies above or below the x-axis, in order to have the height of the triangle.

If you were not to see those things, you might think that you need the x-coordinate of C or that you need to know the exact locations of A and B in order to calculate the area of the triangle, and  you might choose incorrect answer E. If you were to see those things, then likely you would realize that you have information sufficient for determining the length of the base and the height of the triangle and choose the correct answer, C.

So coordinate geometry is merely the foundation of the question, the answering of which is even more about vision than it is about math, and being to a large degree a test of vision is typical of GMAT quant questions.

In fact, many GMAT quant questions that could potentially be solved via extensive calculations are structured so that they can also be solved in well under a minute,  IF you see one key thing.

GMAT verbal questions are similarly tests of vision. For example, deciding that the following sentence is incorrectly written requires seeing which words are the subject and main verb and noticing that they don’t agree.

The planes that flew into the old airfield, the one located north of the village, which has been uninhabited for years, was built before the invention of the jet engine.

You could know all about subject verb agreement and about modifiers, and still, if you were to not see that “planes” does not agree with “was”, you wouldn’t realize that the sentence is flawed.

Seeing key things is also the path to getting Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension questions right. Knowing all kinds of Critical Reasoning strategies won’t get you the right answer to a question that has a key detail subtly mentioned in the prompt, unless you notice that detail. Noting the structure of a Reading Comprehension passage or using other commonly used approaches has to be combined with clearly seeing what passages say, and don’t say, if you are going to consistently get the right answer to Reading Comprehension questions.

There are multiple things that you can take from this discussion, and perhaps the most important is the following. In seeking to increase your score, likely you will have to work on the clarity with which you see things and on getting better at noticing key details. In other words, while it may seem to be the case that learning more concepts or strategies is the path to a higher score, it may be that actually what you have to work on the most is learning to see more. In fact, people often get stuck, scoring at the same level on test after test, even though they are spending many hours preparing between successive tests, and one reason that they get stuck is that rather than working on seeing more, they are just learning more GMAT related stuff.

So, whenever you are working on a question, or reviewing a question to see why you didn’t get it right the first time, the key question that you could be asking is, “What do I need to see in order to get this one right?”

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