So a Circle Walks into a Bar…


It sounds like the beginning of a math joke, but it isn’t.

“So a right triangle is inscribed into a circle…”

That’s the premise of a couple interesting GMAT questions that I came across lately, so I thought I’d share the issues that these problems bring. First it’s important to define that term inscribed. It’s the kind of term that you may have come across several times without ever knowing what it means because the visual diagram that accompanies the problem has you covered. In geometry, when we talk about something being inscribed we mean that it is drawn inside another shape such that all of its corners touch the edge of the larger shape without going outside of it. When a shape is inscribed within a circle it’s a little like that shape has a custom-built bubble surrounding it.

Now back to our problem. So there’s a right triangle in a bubble. So What? Well that particular situation actually gives us a very important piece of information. Whenever a right triangle is inscribed in a circle, the hypotenuse of the triangle is the diameter of the circle. That’s a fantastic rule, and one you ought to remember, but when we get to the difficult end of the quant section where a question like this is likely to occur, we’re probably going to need more than that.

So what other concepts fit in with this rule? Well, our rule gives us a fantastic way to find the hypotenuse of the triangle if we know something about the circle (or vice-versa), so a nice extra step is when the GMAT asks about the length of one of the other sides of the triangle. When would we be able to find the length of the other sides of the right triangle knowing only the length of the hypotenuse? When it’s a special right triangle! So, be on the lookout for 30:60:90 triangles or 45:45:90 triangles. Even if these aren’t immediately apparent, remember that every distance from the center of the circle to the edge of the circle is a radius, and drawing one or more of these radii in often gives you more opportunity to solve.

Keep this fantastic rule and these tips in mind the next time you come across a similar problem!