This Fraction Problem Is Harder Than It Looks


I’ve spoken with multiple students lately who received a disappointing (lower than they were expecting) score on the Quant section and who all said that the Quant felt relatively easy or straightforward. How is that possible?gmat factions

First of all, thinking that a test like the GMAT is easy is actually a warning sign: things probably are not going very well. If the test was going very well, then you’d be seeing some seriously hard—next to impossible—problems.

Second, the test writers are phenomenal at writing questions that don’t seem all that complicated but are in fact your worst nightmare. My worst nightmare is not an impossible question—I know I can’t do it, so I just pick and move on. My worst nightmare is a question that I think I can do, and I spend a decent chunk of time doing it, and then I get it wrong anyway—even though I’m sure I got it right!

Try this GMATPrep® fraction problem and you might see what I mean. Set your timer for 2 minutes. and GO!

* Of the 3,600 employees of Company X, 1/3 are clerical. If the clerical staff were to be reduced by 1/3, what percent of the total number of the remaining employees would then be clerical?

(A) 25%

(B) 22.2%

(C) 20%

(D) 12.5%

(E) 11.1%

What’s hard about this one? It looks completely straightforward!

Hmm…so I have 3,600 employees and 1/3 are clerical. That’s easy: 1,200 are clerical. Then I need to take 1/3 of that, so that’s 400. They want the percent of the total, so 400/3600 = 4/36 = 1/9 = ugh. Let’s see, a little quick long division right, 1/9 is 11.1%. Answer E. Done!

Where’s my mistake? Go find it. (Actually, find both of them.) Also note that my wrong answer was right there in the answer choices!!

Oh, I see what I did! I correctly found 1/3 of 1,200, which is 400, but that’s how many are getting laid off. The remaining number is 1,200 — 400 = 800. Argh! Okay, 800/3600 = 2/9 = 22.2%. The answer is B.

Sigh. Nope. Still wrong. Nightmare!

Okay, let’s try this again, step by painful step. Before I show the correct solution, see if you can figure out how to calculate the other two incorrect solutions. I’ll explain at the end.

Of the 3,600 employees of Company X, 1/3 are clerical.

There are 3,600 employees. 1/3 of the employees are clerical. (3600)(1/3) = 1200. So far so good: there are 1,200 clerical employees.

If the clerical staff were to be reduced by 1/3

Okay, this was one of my mistakes. The clerical staff is reduced by (1200)(1/3) = 400, so the remaining staff equals 800.

what percent of the total number of the remaining employees would then be clerical?

What is the total number of the remaining employees? Oh. The remaining employees. I started with 3,600, but I just laid off 400, so there are only 3,200 remaining. Here’s my second mistake. So the actual calculation should have been 800/3200 = 8 / 32 = 1/4. The correct answer (for real this time!) is 25%, or answer A.

Note to those who got this one right: you can see how easy it would be to make any of those other mistakes, right? Imagine the pressure of test day, you know this is the real thing, you’re worried about the timing…and all those things just make these little mistakes even more likely. So, just because you got it right this time doesn’t mean that you’re immune to making these kinds of mistakes in general.

One more note before we talk about the other two wrong answers. When working directly with students, I notice repeatedly that the most common time for careless errors comes towards the end of the problem when the student feels that s/he has already cracked it. I do the same thing: we know now that we’re going to get it right, so we want to finish it off as quickly as possible, and we sort of start to look forward to the next problem already. And then BAM! Careless error. (And, of course, the wrong answer is usually in the mix of answers, because the GMAC folks have done their homework and figured out what errors we’re most likely to make!)

Did you figure out how to get to wrong answers C (20%) or D (12.5%)? Answer D is a result of a mistake we’ve already seen: incorrectly using 400 instead of 800 for the remaining clerical employees. In this case, though, we would use the correct figure of 3,200 for the denominator: 400/3200 = 4/32 = 1/8 = 12.5%.

For C, 20%, I didn’t find a really obvious way to get to that error. In looking at the mix of answers, though, I think it’s possible that the question-writer thought, Hmm, the correct answer is 25% and then the 3 wrong answers are all weird numbers with decimals. So I’d like to have another normal answer in the mix. Then, nobody will pick 25% just because it looks nice, since 20% will also be there. And maybe people will actually think that it must be one of the weird numbers, since there are three of those, so test-takers who have to guess will be less likely to guess 25%. Perfect! I’m done writing this problem.

Key Takeaways for This Looks Pretty Easy! Problems:

(1) Be alert: there’s a pretty good chance that the problem is not as easy as it looks. The GMAT test-writers have mastered the art of making a problem look easier than it is.

(2) Take the problem step-by-step. Write out ALL of your work. (You should be doing this anyway on all Quant problems—it doesn’t take less time to write while you’re thinking, and you will save yourself many careless mistakes if you do actually write out your work.)

(3) Watch out for the I’ve got this/I’m almost done! distraction. When you think you’ve cracked the problem, then focus in even more—I’m going to get this and I’m not going to make a last-minute mistake! Don’t start thinking about the next problem, or where you are in the section, or whether you might not need to save a little bit of time by speeding up now that you know what you’re doing, or I can’t wait till this stupid test is over!! No. Finish this problem. Then move to the next one. 📝

* GMATPrep® questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.

Can’t get enough of Stacey’s GMAT mastery? Attend the first session of one of her upcoming GMAT courses absolutely free, no strings attached. Seriously. 

stacey-koprinceStacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT  for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests. Check out Stacey’s upcoming GMAT courses here.

  1. varun January 14, 2013 at 8:51 am

    very true my dear frz , very true

  2. Salman January 14, 2013 at 7:54 am

    Interesting question. In fact, even though i did get the answer right, i spent a minute checking if i had made some mistake. The one thing that I tell my GMAT students is that the GMAT is an ANALYTICAL exam, and people who do well are usually the ones who are able to analyze well. In fact this is the one central theme in almost all the GMAT questions, be it math or verbal. In other words, those who think they can be taught to “CRACK” the GMAT are in for a major surprise…. the only thing they are able to “crack” is their own minds.

    So here again, if anybody wants to do the GMAT well, he or she MUST work on improving analytical skills.

  3. Stacey Koprince January 7, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Thanks for commenting, Michael. Yes, you’ve got it – this is an example of a not-too-hard problem that is nevertheless hardER than it seems, simply because of the set-up of both the question stem and the answer choices. It’s not terribly hard to answer it correctly… but it’s not terribly hard to answer it INcorrectly either, even when you do know what you’re doing. 🙂

  4. Michael January 4, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    No, Emily. It was supposed to be an example of a question that you may possibly rush through if not careful. Keep in mind that understanding basic instructions like the ones put forth in this article are equally as important when writing the GMAT test. Hopefully, you learn to achieve this fundamental requirement before writing the GMAT, otherwise you will likely have issues.

  5. Deepak December 30, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Thanks to this article, Stacey, I am a tad more vigilant while solving the questions. As you rightly pointed out, its easy to make a mistake once you know you have cracked the problem. Great tip!

  6. emily December 26, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    Is this supposed to be a hard question?

  7. sue December 16, 2012 at 4:36 am