is GMAT verbal arbitrary and subjective?

I received an interesting  GMAT-related email this weekend, and wanted to share the question with anybody who might be interested:

… I don’t see how I can improve my level in verbal. This section looks so arbitrary and subjective. Most official answers in SC, RC and CR are highly arguable. It also explains why most people get a low score in verbal while there is no required knowledge for this section contrary to quant. I don’t understand how people manage to nail this section… I never scored steadily. Yesterday I made a 40 on a prep test, today I made a 20… Is there some magic to understand what test makers expect from the candidates?

There are some great questions in here, some of which, unfortunately, do not have great answers. But I’ll do my best to pick apart some of the topics in here.

First of all, I think that GMAT sentence correction is not at all subjective. In theory, the GMAT tests your knowledge of standard, written American English grammar and usage. In practice, I can see why many of the principles tested in GMAT sentence correction seem completely arbitrary. As somebody who has worked for much of the last decade as an editor and GMAT tutor, I can assure you that the GMAT concerns itself with a lot of rules that would slip right past the vast majority of copy editors. A sizable minority of “wrong answers” on GMAT would be completely fine in most major American newspapers, and an even larger minority of the “wrong answers” would be considered completely acceptable spoken English, at least in some parts of the English-speaking world.

However, I don’t think that the arbitrary topic selections should be confused with subjectivity. If you pick up a good usage dictionary or style guide (Bryan Garner’s The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style is my personal favorite), you’ll find endless collections of rules that most people never think about. The GMAT applies these rules consistently–even if the GMAT tests a seemingly arbitrary subset of those rules.

For most people, the easiest way to make progress on verbal is to very thoroughly learn the major grammar and usage rules that appear on the GMAT. Manhattan GMAT’s sentence correction book is probably the best self-study resource for this purpose; PowerScore’s book isn’t too bad, either. If you struggle to learn grammar from a book, then a good  GMAT tutor could help straighten you out; the GMAT forums also have some fantastic sentence threads with great explanations.

Similarly, critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions in the official GMAT material are extremely consistent. Sure, they can get outrageously difficult, but the test-writers are trying to test your ability to understand the nuance of language, your ability to notice fine details, and your ability to stick to the internal logic of a passage. If you think that answers to official critical reasoning questions are arbitrary, it might be because you’re allowing yourself to “think outside the question.” Once you spend enough time with official GMAT material (and again, a study partner or a good GMAT tutor might be useful), you’ll start to see how the test is rigid and consistent in its application of logical principles.

If you want to improve your reading comprehension and critical reasoning skills without paying a bunch of money for a tutor, I strongly recommend reading The Official LSAT SuperPrep, or at least the parts that describe logical reasoning (LSAT’s version of critical reasoning) and reading comprehension. It’s not necessarily an easy read, but it might help to convince you that the people who write the GMAT are systematic, even if they are kind of evil.

Here comes the rough part.

Unpleasant dose of reality, part 1: I think that it can be incredibly hard to improve your score in reading comprehension. It takes a ton of practice, and possibly a fair amount of guidance. During my long, ugly history of teaching test-prep (SAT, GRE, ACT, TOEFL, TOEIC… including a stint as a TOEFL book writer), I’ve rarely seen anybody make large improvements in reading comprehension with anything less than a herculean GMAT study plan. You could make moderate improvements in a few weeks, but major gains on reading comprehension usually take months. (Occasionally, I can browbeat a smart-but-lazy teenager into doing much better on the ACT or SAT in a few weeks, but that’s not a skill problem–it’s a focus problem.)

Unpleasant dose of reality, part 2: unless you’re using official GMAT (or LSAT or GRE) material, “knockoff” verbal questions actually ARE completely subjective and arbitrary, at least some of the time. I strongly discourage my students from touching any verbal material other than that found in the GMAT official guide, the official GMAT verbal review guide, GMATPrep, and official LSAT books. (Manhattan GMAT is an exception of sorts, but I still don’t think that anybody should rely exclusively on MGMAT for verbal. Manhattan does an absolutely amazing job, but their material is still designed as a copy of the real thing, and like all copies, the material inevitably has its biases and imperfections.)

So if you’ve taken tests from any sources other than the aforementioned, you should expect your GMAT verbal scores to be completely random. Trust me, it is more difficult to write “real GMAT reading comprehension questions” than you can possibly imagine, and most test-prep companies would never dream of spending the money it takes to produce, test, and polish a truly accurate set of GMAT verbal questions. Focus exclusively on official material for a month or two, and the GMAT will start to look much less arbitrary and subjective.

Thank you for the great set of questions! You’re surely not the only person who has these thoughts, and I wish you all the best with your GMAT studies.

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