Cracking the Word Problem, Part 2: Real-World Logic

57466134_6114dac660_z.jpgMath can be an esoteric discipline. It is used by physicists and astronomers (and mathematicians, of course) to describe conditions and realities foreign to our everyday experiences.

Word problems, on the other hand, do the exact opposite.

The popularity of word problems among test-makers, if not test-takers, is in part because these problems test reality-based reasoning skills. A good word problem demonstrates the answer to that classic question, “Of what use is math in real life?”


Most situations described in word problems stick closely to what is reasonable and expected. If you answer a question about mileage and determine that Stan drove his car 3,280 miles in two hours on one gallon of gas, you would be well advised to check your calculations.

This realism can be especially helpful if you need to decide whether to round up or down. Consider the following situation:

  • Forty-three children are going on a school trip to the zoo. Five parents have vans that each carry six children. The other parents have cars that hold only four children. In addition to the five van drivers, how many parents will need to drive their cars to get all 43 students to the zoo?

Mathematically speaking, the answer is 3.25. However, one quarter of a car is not so easy to find nowadays, to say nothing of the fourth of a parent who supposedly drives it! The alert student (you) will realize that the solution is to round up—the trip requires five vans and four cars.

Sometimes the action of the problem is a clue to the operation or formula needed. This is especially true when you are analyzing geometry problems. The people in perimeter questions, for example, spend an inordinate amount of time applying borders to tablecloths, surrounding their pools with bricks, and buying picture frames. Folks in questions about square footage (area) are almost always carpeting their homes or laying grass seed. The student (still alert and still you) who begins to read a problem about a ladder leaning against a wall or a tree and its shadow should recognize that the right triangle described is probably leading to a question involving the Pythagorean theorem.

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What type of geometry do you think the following problem requires?

  • Barry is insulating his windows with weather stripping. He has six windows, 18” by 36” each. Barry has 20 yards of double-sided foam tape. Does he have enough tape to insulate all six windows? (See answer at bottom of page)


There are several operations necessary here, but the first step is to realize that the windows are rectangular, and weather stripping goes
around windows. Kudos to you if you figured out that this question involves perimeters!

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, we have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with word problems, math in general, or any other school subject. Our Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware are available to answer your questions and provide solutions. You may reach either of them by calling A+ Test Prep and Tutoring at 215-886-9188.

(The answer is yes. Barry only needs 18 yards. He has more than enough tape.)

Photo credit: melanie cook

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