How Not to Spin Your Wheels on the GMAT |

How Not to Spin Your Wheels on the GMAT

By QS Content Writer

Updated February 1, 2024 Updated February 1, 2024

"Wheel-spinning" is defined as spending time and energy on any task that is ultimately unnecessary.

While it’s nearly impossible to eliminate the wheel spin entirely, our goal is to reduce it as much as possible. Once you know the major concepts tested on the GMAT, wheel-spinning becomes a massive concern. That is, for most 500-level to 700-level test-takers, wheel-spinning is a major suck of time and energy. It’s easy enough to figure out what the question wants, but it’s still not absolutely clear how to get there. In fact, if you start arithmetic calculation before you’re clear about your path through the problem, it’s very likely that you will miss significant parts of the logic of the question.

Doing pointless arithmetic calculations might be more comfortable than really digging into the underlying logic of the question, but remember that without the logic you won’t get the answer.

However, there’s a way around this:

The approach I take to eliminate this is three-fold:

1) Skim:

What is the question actually asking? That is, what is the final sentence, or ultimate question? Look at the answer choices -how are they phrased?

Get an idea of what type of question this is. What topic? What format? What do you imagine the concept will be?

Take your time…

Give yourself 10 to 20 seconds to read the question and think about it before you rush into the calculation.

What is the question actually asking you to do? Can you create a little roadmap for next steps? Write down the steps if necessary.

2) Read for detail:

Write down all the bits and pieces of information that are presented. Go sentence-by-sentence.

This is basically just taking notes. What information is provided?

3) Restate the actual question:

You might not have the numbers immediately, but write down the question on your pad. Since this comes BEFORE calculation, this won’t usually involve numbers. Rather, write the goal of the question in English or shorthand. This way, when you’re stuck in a muddle of calculation, you can keep your eye on the ball.

If your equation has x and y in it, but you’re solving for y, write “y = ?”

If your equation involves percent change between two ratios, write “(new ratio – old ratio) / (old ratio) * 100.”

If the question is a data sufficiency question, this is doubly important.

After all, in the words of the Cheshire Cat, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Next: Calculate, warily.

Calculate with the assumption that you want to do as little Arithmetic as possible.

Develop an understanding of what Unnecessary Arithmetic is—hint: Long Division and Long Multiplication are almost invariably the slow way to calculate.

Refer back to the roadmap—check to make sure you’re on the right track.

Am I Spinning My Wheels?

Are you calculating something that won’t yield one of the five answer choices?

Remember that the answer choices are an integral part of the question!

There is a lot of information in the questions that is pointless once you look at the answer choices. For example, say you’re looking for the number with digits AB and they tell you A * B > 10. Don’t try A = 2 and B = 4 when your answer choices are 11, 12, 13, 21, and 31. In other cases, maybe the answer is clear. Stop calculating and pick the answer!

Just as in real life, no one is paying you to cross your Ts and dot your Is--certainty is overrated. They're paying you for getting the job done to some acceptable degree of efficacy. (If you're an accountant or an actuary, my apologies.) If you’re 81% sure, that's enough -- pick the answer and move on!

Are you calculating what they’re asking for?

Look at the answers before you’re done calculating--when you think you’re 80-85% of the way through. Find the one that looks the most realistic at this point. Try to make your answer look like this one. Aiming at an answer doesn’t mean you’ll absolutely get that particular answer, but it’s a good place to start. If you’re not looking at how the GMAT expresses its answers, how will you know what they want?

There are many mathematically equivalent ways to write most correct answers—especially in algebra and percentages—so you need to be aware of how the test expects you to write your answer. Mold and shape your answer to match the answers provided. When the basic form of your workings begins to look like the answer choices, then you’ll see whether you need to make any adjustments. In fact, looking at the answers quite often tips me off to something I might have missed earlier—even when I’ve read the question incorrectly. My internal dialogue goes something like this:

“Why does that answer have an N in it when mine doesn’t?”

“Because you accidentally dropped the N three lines ago, genius.”

Self-flagellation aside, at least I caught the problem. Look at your answers—they’re part of the question!

The Dumb Mistake Wheel-Spin

On a related note, it’s usually useful to scan the two or three previous lines of work just to make sure you haven’t done anything really silly. Do a brief estimation—is that normal? Do those numbers look like they work out? No point in beating yourself up about it—everyone makes silly errors. That’s probably not true—some people don’t, but they’re horrible and they got a 780 without studying anyway so they’re definitely not reading this guide.

In short, learn to catch your errors as you work. Shit happens. Deal with it. That’s the only way to move forward.


This article was originally published in December 2017 . It was last updated in February 2024

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