By Toby Blackwell, professional GMAT tutor for Varsity Tutors.
Life would be much easier if all decisions and situations were cut and dry. But, in reality, there's usually some sort of in-between area, which makes a situation (and by extension, life) complicated.
Business schools want students who can work in this 'gray area', because most situations in the business world aren't answered easily with a 'yes' or a 'no'. And as a tool to assist B-School admissions officers, the GMAT spotlights those who could thrive in the “gray area” by testing how well you can look at all sides of a problem and consider many possible angles.
We actually see this concept tested in all parts of the GMAT. In the Essay, you are supposed to not only analyze the argument presented, but also fix it. In the Verbal Section, Critical Reasoning problems often require you to consider alternative explanations for certain situations. Sentence Corrections are most successfully answered by pre-phrasing, but you also have to be willing to accept other answer choices that are different from what you come up with - but still correct.
And then there's the Quantitative Section, where you use your math skills. Math is straightforward, right? You put numbers in the correct formula, and, voila, there's your answer. And everyone will have the same answer, because it's math. It's either right or wrong. Simple enough.
But the GMAT isn't a Math test. This idea seems foreign sometimes. You have to review or learn Algebra and Geometry and reach back into the very distant past to remember things like even/odd and prime numbers and remainders.
But these are just tools that the GMAT gives you in order to accomplish the main goal: The GMAT really tests you on how well you take the GMAT. And one of the keys to do well is considering the strange exceptions; the anomalies; and the less obvious possibilities.
Knowing this, you can go into the test remembering: “Unless I'm told otherwise, EVERYTHING is in play.” The types of numbers to be considered is extensive, so make sure you don't leave any of them out. Because, it's that number you forget to consider that will trip you up.
In Problem Solving, tricky “COULD BE” and “MUST BE” questions require you to think of exceptions in order to eliminate wrong answers and zero in on correct ones. But the importance of considering all the possibilities is most directly and most often seen in Data Sufficiency problems, like this one:
Does x = y?
1) x = √y²
When you look at the firsst statement, and do a little bit of the math, you end up with x=y, right? Well, y² actually has two roots: y and -y. So, in one case, the answer to the question is 'Yes,' and in the other case, it's 'No'.
Statement 1: INSUFFICIENT. But you'd only know that if you realized that negative numbers are able to be used. Statement 2 tells us that x is 3 times y. So x cannot equal y, right? 'Always No' means 'Sufficient', so that must be the answer. But, what if y is something unusual, like zero? Then x is zero, and you have a 'Yes' situation.
So, Statement 2 is INSUFFICIENT, which you'd only know if you remembered to include zero, with its unusual properties, as an option for x and y. The only way this works is if x and y are zero, so the answer to your question is 'Always Yes'. So choice C, 'Together' is your answer.
This is just one way that the GMAT rewards those who consider more than the obvious possibilities. Because, just as there are more than just positive integers that can be used in Math problems, so are there more than just the usual solutions to upcoming challenges in the business world. And business schools want students who can see both those oft-considered solutions and a bunch of new possibilities.
Toby Blackwell is a professional GMAT tutor for Varsity Tutors. He graduated with honors and received his Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University. He scored a 770 on the GMAT.