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  • Audra Zook

Scratch Paper Tips for the GMAT Quantitative Section


If you've ever spent time working through GMAT Quant questions, you know that they can get pretty weird and complex! This is especially true if you're aiming for a 700+ score. Taking clear, effective notes is essential--here are a few tips, from my own studies, on how to make the most of your scratch paper.


1) Don't waste your first read-through

I almost always start taking notes my first time through the question, creating equations to model the word problem or making a chart. Sometimes I will realize my approach isn’t working (e.g., I began making a single d=rt equation when the rates vary over the course of the problem) and start over, but even then, it is better than starting from scratch. If I do this consistently, I rarely have to re-read the question to understand what it is about, though I do re-read to ensure that my chart/equations are correct (and often a third time, at the end, to see if all the parts fit together properly in the context of my chosen answer).


2) Beware the "easier" way

While the ability to step back, analyze the problem, and find an unconventional (and faster) method is an essential skill, insisting on finding such shortcuts can backfire. I have realized in the middle of some questions that I could have chosen an “easier” number to substitute or used an alternative technique. But, unless I can tell I would get really bogged down in my current method or am otherwise 95-100% sure that the other method would be faster, I stick with the current method. It’s tempting to do otherwise, but I think it often wastes time. Processes like long division and multiplication are tedious, but they are also quick and automatic. I won’t suddenly forget what I am supposed to do and require extra time to figure it out again, which is always a risk when reframing the problem. As long as I do not rush or get sloppy, I usually arrive at the correct answer. I then try the new method when I go back and review.


3) Notate smarter

I often use arrows to demonstrate relationships that are not easy to depict mathematically, such as if two quantities “go together” or if I am calculating a quantity from another. I find this greatly helps me keep track of relevant information without falling into the trap of assuming the two quantities are equal or the same type of thing. Of course, the arrow itself is not important—I am sure there are many methods that would accomplish the same purpose. On a similar note, I try to leave some space when creating charts and equations so that I can add labels and brief notes around them, as high-level questions tend to contain information that is not easily distilled into a few variables (or at least not on the first try).


Would you like to share your own tips? Have questions about any of these methods? Feel free to reach out! I'd love to hear from you.

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