Completing the Square

Matt Trzcinski February 1, 2012

What is completing the square?
”Completing the square” is the method used to rewrite a quadratic expression in terms of a square. Recall that a quadratic expression has the form a2 x2 + a1 x + a0 , where x is the variable and a2 , a1 and a0 are real numbers, and that a square is any quantity times itself, written x2 . To complete the square we utilize the identity1 x2 + bx + b 2



b 2




Before continuing, take a moment to expand the square on the right-hand side to see where the left-hand side comes from and why they are equivalent. The identity in Equation (1) tells us that whenever we have a quadratic expression in the same form as the left-hand side we can rewrite it as a square. The process of rewriting a quadratic expression so that it matches the left-hand side is called ”completing the square.”

How to complete the square
In order to develop this process, observe the form of the quadratic expression in Equation (1). First, the leading coefficient is 1. Second, the constant term depends on the coefficient b 2 of x; specifically it must equal 2 . These observations motivate the main two steps of completing the square. The process, overall, has three steps: 1. Rewrite the quadratic expression so that the leading coefficient is 1; 2. Rewrite the quadratic expression so that there is a constant term of 3. Rewrite the quadratic expression as a square by using Equation (1). Let us look at a few examples which illustrate how to complete the square.
b 2 2 ;


1 Equation (1) is called an identity because it is true for any value of x or b. In this sense, it is just like the equation for the Difference of Squares:

a2 − b2 = (a + b)(a − b) or the Pythagorean Identity sin2 (θ) + cos2 (θ) = 1.



EXAMPLE 1 Complete the square on the expression x2 + 16x + 64. SOLUTION. First, to complete the square we must have a leading coefficient of 1. Since this is already the case, we can move to Step 2. b 2 The second step requires a constant term of the form 2 . In practice, it is a good idea to list the following quantities: b = 16,
b 2

= 8,

b 2 2

= 64.
b 2 2 . b 2 2 .

Observe that the constant term is already of the form

So, by Equation (1), the expression can be rewritten in the form x + b us that 2 = 8. Thus, x2 + 16x + 64 = (x + 8)2 .

Our list tells

b b Before performing Step 2, write the list of values for b, 2 , and 2 . Once the expression is in the form of Equation (1), completing then square becomes a simple matter of substituting each quantity from the list. Note, however, that the quantity b is known only when the leading coefficient is 1. Such is the case in the next example.


EXAMPLE 2 Complete the square on the expression 4x2 + 16x + 8. SOLUTION. Notice that in this example the coefficient of x2 is not 1, so we do not immediately know b. To obtain it, factor the leading coefficient from each term to get 4(x2 + 4x + 2). (2)

Now, the quadratic in the parentheses has a leading coefficient of 1 enabling us to create our list: b b 2 b = 4, 2 = 2, = 4. 2
b However, there is not a constant term2 of the form ( 2 )2 present in Expression (2). In order b to complete the square, there must be. So, we add and subtract the quantity ( 2 )2 = 4 to get

4(x2 + 4x + 2) = 4 x2 + 4x + (4 − 4) + 2 = 4 x2 + 4x + 4 + (−4 + 2) = 4(x2 + 4x + 4 − 2). Observe that both adding and subtracting preserves the identity of Expression (2) while simultaneously introducing our necessary constant term. Since completing the square reb quires a specific constant of the form ( 2 )2 we ignore, for the time being, any other constants that don’t fit that form. That is, we only care about the x2 + 4x + 4 since it is a perfect square.
2 Recall

that terms are expressions separated by addition, whereas factors are separated by multiplication.
b 2 2

Thus, the 4 out front does not constitute a term of the form




Finally, as in the previous example, the expression x2 + 4x + 4 can be rewritten in the b 2 b form x + 2 . Our list tells us that 2 = 2. Thus, 4x2 + 16x + 8 = 4 (x + 2)2 − 2 = 4(x + 2)2 − 8.

Many students feel uncomfortable with factoring out the leading coefficient during the first step. The temptation is to instead divide each term by the leading coefficient. While this is a very useful technique, it can only be used when the quadratic expression appears within an equation3 . This may give the impression that completing the square with equations is done differently than with expressions. However, the same three step procedure still applies. This is demonstrated in the following example by supposing the expression given in Example 2 had appeared in an equation. EXAMPLE 3 Solve the quadratic equation 4x2 + 16x + 8 = 0 by completing the square. SOLUTION. In this example, the quadratic expression appears in an equation. To isolate x, we will first complete the square on the quadratic and then take the square root on both sides of the equation. Notice that since the quadratic expression appears in an equation, we can complete step 1 by division rather than by factoring. Doing so, we divide both sides of the equation by 4 to get x2 + 4x + 2 = 0; or, moving the constant to the other side of the equal sign, x2 + 4x = −2. Since the quadratic expression is the same as in the previous example, so is the list associated with it; b 2 b = 4. b = 4, 2 = 2, 2
b This time, rather than both adding and subtracting, we will simply add the quantity ( 2 )2 to both sides of the equation:

x2 + 4x = −2 x2 + 4x + 4 = (−2) + 4 x2 + 4x + 4 = 2. Note that this has the same effect as both adding and subtracting 4 on the left-hand side. That is, it preserves equivalence. Each equation above has the same solution set.
3 Recall that an expression is a mathematical phrase representing a number and that an equation equates two expressions, creating a statement which is either true or false. The values which make an equation true comprise its solution set. It is the preservation of solution sets that forces us to ”do the same thing to both sides.” Each time we ”do the same thing to both sides,” we create a new equation. However, this new equation has the same solution set as its predecessor. When manipulating an expression not in an equation, it too must be equivalent to its predecessor. However, the equivalence is not of solution sets, but of value. This forces us to do things which would cause the new expression to reduce to the old one, such as adding zero or multiplying by one.



The left-hand side is now a square. b 2 b as x + 2 , recalling that 2 = 2. So,

We can therefore rewrite it by Equation (1)

x2 + 4x + 4 = 2 is equivalent to (x + 2)2 = 2. Now that the left-hand side is a square, to isolate x we need only take a square root on both sides of the equation. Doing so and simplifying, we get √ x+2=± 2 and x = −2 ± √


When to complete the square
Completing the square is the method of rewriting a quadratic expression as a square. Most students will need to complete the square when • Solving quadratics as in Example 3 and, more generally, deriving the Quadratic Equation; • Re-expressing a quadratic in vertex form; or • Identifying conics and quadric surfaces. As a technique, however, there is no limitation on its usage. Whenever a quadratic type equation needs to be transformed into a square, complete the square.


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