# Different ways of solving a contest problem (Part 2)

The following problem appeared on the American High School Mathematics Examination (now called the AMC 12) in 1988:

If $3 \sin \theta = \cos \theta$, what is $\sin \theta \cos \theta$?

When I presented this problem to a group of students, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of creativity shown when solving this problem.

Yesterday, I presented a solution using triangles. Here’s a second solution that I received: begin by squaring both sides and using a Pythagorean trig identity.

$9 \sin^2 \theta = \cos^2 \theta$

$9 (1 - \cos^2 \theta) = \cos^2 \theta$

$9 - 9 \cos^2 \theta = \cos^2 \theta$

$9 = 10 \cos^2 \theta$

$\displaystyle \frac{9}{10} = \cos^2 \theta$

$\displaystyle \pm \frac{3}{\sqrt{10}} = \cos \theta$

We use the Pythagorean identity again to find $\sin \theta$:

$\displaystyle \frac{9}{10} = \cos^2 \theta$

$\displaystyle \frac{9}{10} = 1 - \sin^2 \theta$

$\sin^2 \theta = \displaystyle \frac{1}{10}$

$\sin \theta = \displaystyle \pm \frac{1}{\sqrt{10}}$

Therefore, we know that

$\sin \theta \cos \theta = \displaystyle \left( \pm \frac{1}{\sqrt{10}} \right) \left( \pm \frac{3}{\sqrt{10}} \right) = \displaystyle \pm \displaystyle \frac{3}{10}$,

so the answer is either $\displaystyle \frac{3}{10}$ or $\displaystyle -\frac{3}{10}$. However, this was a multiple-choice contest problem and $\displaystyle -\frac{3}{10}$ was not listed as a possible answer, and so the answer must be $\displaystyle \frac{3}{10}$.

For a contest problem, the above logic makes perfect sense. However, the last step definitely plays to the fact that this was a multiple-choice problem, and the concluding step would not have been possible had $\displaystyle -\frac{3}{10}$ been given as an option.