GRE Word Problems: Favorite Tricks and Traps

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - GRE Word Problems: Favorite Tricks and Traps by Chelsey Cooley

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The GRE is a fair test. GRE word problems will always give you enough info to turn the words into the right equations. However, that doesn’t mean they’ll make the translation easy or obvious! To make tough GRE word problems tougher, the test writers use certain words and phrases that they know are frequently misinterpreted. This makes you more likely to write down the incorrect equations and more likely to get the problem wrong.

“More Than/Less Than” GRE Word Problems

Example: There are six more strawberries than blueberries in the fruit salad.

Wrong translation: s + 6 = b

Right translation: s = b + 6

If you’re anything like me, when you see the words ‘six more’ next to the word ‘strawberries,’ you’ll immediately want to add six to the number of strawberries. Don’t!

When you see this wording, slow down. Check some specific numbers against the original problem to make sure your equation makes sense. For instance, what if there were 10 strawberries? The problem says that there are six more strawberries than blueberries, which means you’d have four blueberries. The right equation will work correctly when you plug in those numbers. Try it now to check the equations above.

“Total” GRE Word Problems

Example: Ebony spent a total of $60 on twelve books.

Wrong translation: b = $60

Right translation: 12b = $60

If you spend a total of $60 on multiple books, the $60 can’t be referring to the price for each book by itself. You’ll probably need to calculate the price per book before you can continue solving the problem. Do that by dividing 60 by 12, to learn that the price per book was $5. (By the way, you shouldn’t ever see a problem that just says “Ebony spent $60 on twelve books,” since that would technically be ambiguous! The problem should always clarify whether the $60 was a total, or a price for each book.)

“Each/Every” GRE Word Problems

Example: Each of the bricklayers laid 124 bricks.

Wrong translation: bricks = 124

Right translation: bricks = 124*bricklayers

If the problem specifies that each person in a group did something, you have to multiply the size of the task by the number of people who performed it. 124 bricks is how many you’d get if there were only one bricklayer. If there were ten bricklayers, you’d actually have to account for 1240 bricks. And if you don’t know how many bricklayers there are, you’ll need a variable, as in this example.

“Percent More” GRE Word Problems

Example: What number is 250% more than 50?

Wrong translation: (2.5)(50)

Right translation: (3.5)(50)

When you’re dealing with relatively small percentages, it’s easier to remember that you need to add 100% in order to calculate a percent increase. For instance, if you want to know what number is 40% more than 50, it doesn’t make sense to just multiply 0.4 by 50—that gives you an answer that’s much too small. Instead, you should add 100%, and multiply 140%, or 1.4, by 50.

With very large percent increases, things get less intuitive but the math rules stay the same. Always add 100% to the percent you’re given before you do the math, even if it’s already over 100%. To find the number that’s 250% more than 50, multiplying 2.5 (or 250%) by 50 isn’t enough. You need to multiply 350%, or 3.5, by 50 instead.

“At Least/At Most” GRE Word Problems

Example: Felix has at least twice as many hats as Raymond.

Wrong translation: f ≤ 2r

Wrong translation: 2f r

Wrong translation: f > 2r

Right translation: f ≥ 2r

First, even though at least sounds a lot like less, they’re actually opposites. If you have at least three brownies, that means you probably have more than three. Make sure the inequality is pointing in the correct direction—check it using specific numbers if you need to.

Second, use the ‘more than or equal to’ sign (≥) rather than a normal inequality symbol. If you have at least three brownies, you could actually have exactly three. Use the different symbol to express that idea.

Finally, twice as many is another example of tricky wording, just like the “more than” from the very first example in this article—if you put the 2 on the wrong side of the inequality while translating this one, reread that section and remember to double-check with numbers!

Forewarned is forearmed! GRE word problems use these words and phrases to make your job harder, but now that you’re aware of them, they’ll stand out every time you see them. When you spot one, slow down, don’t assume that your first instinct is correct, and double-check your equations. ?


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

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