If you’re like many GMAT examinees, you’ve found yourself in this familiar situation. You KNOW the rules for exponents. You know them cold. When you’re multiplying the same base and different exponents, you add the exponents. When you’re taking one exponent to another power, you multiply those exponents. A negative exponent? Flip that term into the denominator. A number to the zero power? You’ve got yourself a 1.
But as thoroughly and quickly as you know those rules, this exponent-based problem in front of you has you stumped. You know what you need to KNOW, but you’re not quite sure what you need to DO. And that’s an ever-important part about taking the GMAT – it’s necessary to know the core rules, facts, and formulas, but it’s also every bit as important to have action items for how you’ll apply that knowledge to tricky problems.
For exponents, there are three “guiding principles” that you should keep in mind as your action items. Any time you’re stuck on an exponent-based problem, look to do one (or more) of these things:
1) Find Common Bases
Most of the exponent rules you know only apply when you’re dealing with two exponents of the same base. When you multiply same-base exponents, you add the exponents; when you divide two same-base exponents, you subtract. And if two exponents of the same base are set equal, then you know that the exponents are equal. But keep in mind – these major rules all require you to be using exponents with the same base! If the GMAT gives you a problem with different bases, you have to find ways to make them common, usually by factoring them into their prime bases.
So for example, you might see a problem that says that:
2^x * 4^2x = 8^y. Which of the following must be true?
(A) 3x = y
(B) x = 3y
(C) y = (3/5)x
(D) x = (3/5)y
(E) 2x^2 = y
In order to apply any rules that you know, you must get the bases in a position where they’ll talk to each other. Since 2, 4, and 8 are all powers of 2, you should factor them all in to base 2, rewriting as:
2^x * (2^2)^2x = (2^3)^y
Which simplifies to:
2^x * 2^4x = 2^3y
Now you can add together the exponents on the left:
2^5x = 2^3y
And since you have the same base set equal with two different exponents, you know that the exponents are equal:
5x = 3y
This means that you can divide both sides by 5 to get x = (3/5)y, making answer choice D correct. But more importantly in a larger context, heed this lesson – when you see an exponent problem with different bases for multiple exponents, try to find ways to get the bases the same, usually by prime-factoring the bases.
2) Factor to Create Multiplication
Another important thing about exponents is that they represent recurring multiplication. x^5, for example, is x * x * x * x * x…it’s a lot of x’s multiplied together. Naturally, then, pretty much all exponent rules apply in cases of multiplication, division, or more exponents – you don’t have rules that directly apply to addition or subtraction. For that reason, when you see addition or subtraction in an exponent problem, one of your core instincts should be to factor common terms to create multiplication or division so that you’re in a better position to leverage the rules you know. So, for example, if you’re given the problem:
2^x + 2^(x + 3) = (6^2)(2^18). What is the value of x?
You should see that in order to do anything with the left-hand side of the equation, you’ll need to factor the common 2^x in order to create multiplication and be in a position to divide and cancel terms from the right. Doing so leaves you with:
2^x(1 + 2^3) = (6^2)(2^18)
Here, you can simplify the 1 + 2^3 parenthetical: 2^3 = 8, so that term becomes 9, leaving you with:
9(2^x) = (6^2)(2^18)
And here, you should heed the wisdom from above and find common bases. The 9 on the left is 3^2, and the 6^2 on the right can be broken into 3^2 * 2^2. This gives you:
(3^2)(2^x) = (3^2)(2^2)(2^18)
Now the 3^2 terms will cancel, and you can add the exponents of the base-2 exponents on the right. That means that 2^x = 2^20, so you know that x = 20. And a huge key to solving this one was factoring the addition into multiplication, a crucial exponent-based action item on test day.
3) Test Small Numbers and Look For Patterns
Remember: exponents are a way to denote repetitive, recurring multiplication. And when you do the same thing over and over again, you tend to get similar results. So exponents lend themselves well to finding and extrapolating patterns. When in doubt – when a problem involves too much abstraction or too large of numbers for you to get your head around – see what would happen if you replaced the large or abstract terms with smaller ones, and if you find a pattern, then look to extrapolate it. With this in mind, consider the problem:
What is the tens digit of 11^13?
Naturally, calculating 11^13 without a calculator is a fool’s errand, but you can start by taking the first few steps and seeing if you establish a pattern:
11^1 = 11 –> tens digit of 1
11^2 = 121 –> tens digit of 2
11^3 = 1331 –> tens digit of 3
And depending on how much time you have you could continue:
11^4 = 14641 –> tens digit of 4
But generally feel pretty good that you’ve established a recurring pattern: the tens digit increases by 1 each time, so by 11^13 it will be back at 3. So even though you’ll never know exactly what 11^13 is, you can be confident in your answer.
Remember: the GMAT is a test of how well you apply knowledge, not just of how well you can memorize it. So for any concept, don’t just know the rules, but also give yourself action items for what you’ll do when problems get tricky. For exponent problems, you have three guiding principles:
1) Find Common Bases
2) Factor to Create Multiplication
3) Test Small Numbers to Find a Pattern
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This article first appeared here GMAT Tip of the Week: 3 Guiding Principles for Exponent Problems