GMAT critical reasoning

Don’t let reality get in the way of your GMAT, part II: critical reasoning

  In an old GMAT blog post featuring an incredible woman who answered more than 4,000 CR and RC practice questions, I wrote some decidedly unsexy stuff about the reality of improving your GMAT CR and RC results: unfortunately, if your fundamental reading precision isn’t very good, it can take a lot of work to move the needle on your GMAT verbal score.

“Fine,” you might be thinking, “but I’m not an imprecise reader. I swear – I’m not! My GMAT RC is going fine. So why am I bad at GMAT CR?”

I’ve heard that question from perhaps hundreds of GMAT test-takers over the years. There are plenty of possible answers, but I’ll focus on just one here: you might be letting reality get in the way of your GMAT critical reasoning.

That might sound snarky, and I suppose that it is: I’m not really a big fan of what the GMAT tests. I would argue that GMAT verbal questions require you to read with an unrealistic sort of intensity: if somebody plops a report on your desk tomorrow, you’re going to skim it for key takeaways, facts, and quotable bits of data. If you’re dissecting the author’s tone or carefully determining what might weaken the author’s argument on page 23 of that work report, you’re probably wasting time that could be better spent… I don’t know, maybe doing your job or something?

More importantly: in real life, you’re expected to, um, know stuff. For example, if your boss asks you to evaluate a one-paragraph plan to replace your firm’s incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient LEDs, then it’s a good thing if you know something about light bulbs, right? And if you know about a third type of light bulb – say, a cutting-edge titanium bulb that consumes even less energy than an LED – then your boss would be impressed with your useful, outside knowledge, right?

But on GMAT critical reasoning questions, if you start thinking beyond that one paragraph, you’re screwed. As soon as you let reality – in the form of outside knowledge or ideas – enter your mind, you’re much more likely to miss the question. (And yes, the light bulb example refers to a real GMAT CR question, albeit a not terribly difficult one: see OG 2017 edition, #553.)

Here’s another example, loosely adapted from a retired test question:

In the nation of Pelmenistan, 20% of 18-year-olds are left-handed, while just 10% of 45-year-olds and 2% of 70-year-olds are left-handed. But the percentage of children born left-handed has never changed in Pelmenistan, nor have societal attitudes toward left-handedness.

Which of the following, if true, most helps to explain the variation in left-handedness among Pelmenistanis?

Before we get to the answer choices: when I first saw the official version of this question in 2008, I got it wrong. Why? I let reality get in the way of my test-taking. You see, I totally thought that I knew the answer immediately: left-handers are more likely to perish in accidents in factories or while operating heavy machinery, since most industrial machines are designed for right-handers. I actually learned this in an economics class in Chile as an undergraduate.

So I was certain that the answer had to have something to do with accidents or machinery or something. But I was wrong.

Back to our show:

Which of the following, if true, most helps to explain the variation in left-handedness among Pelmenistanis?

A) A substantial number of Pelmenistani men are born with only one arm. B) In Pelmenistan, left-handers are no more likely to perish in accidents than right-handers. C) In Pelmenistan, ambidexterity is considered a gift from God. D) In Pelmenistan, women have a lower life expectancy than men, and they are more likely to be born left-handed. E) Pelmenistan was named after a type of dumpling that is traditionally eaten with the right hand only.

“Easy,” I thought, “the answer is clearly B. This is all about the accidents. My Chilean economics professor told me so!” So I picked B and moved on.

Do you see my error? I cherry-picked the answer choices, looking for an answer that mentioned factories or industrial accidents or something like that. I “found” what I was looking for – but then misread it. It says that lefties are no more likely to perish in accidents. But I subconsciously refused to read it correctly, because I “knew the truth.”

And once I misread answer choice B, I compounded my mistake by not paying much attention to the other answer choices – A, C, and E are irrelevant, but if I’d thought about D a little bit more, maybe I would have questioned my love for B.

But I didn’t. I was too jacked up about my outside knowledge, and as a result, I did a sh**ty job of reading what was right in front of me.

So when you answer GMAT CR questions, always stay inside the narrow constructs of the passage. If the passage tells you that mix-handed GMAT tutors enhance their pedagogical genius by eating Namibian caterpillars, then you have to believe them. If the passage tells you that the sky in Pelmenistan is a nice shade of Denver Broncos orange, then you have to believe them. Read what’s on the page, and ignore anything else that pops into your head.

Remember: the GMAT is just a standardized test. It’s not reality. Stay inside the GMAT’s meticulously-drawn lines on critical reasoning, and good things will happen.

GMATPrep Question Pack FAQ, part II: GMAT “fake tests”

(This is part two in a series on the GMATPrep Question Pack.  If you’re interested in reading more about the basics of the GMATPrep Question Pack, please check out part one.) Q: What is the best way to use the quant questions in the GMATPrep Question Pack?  Should I do the questions in order, or should I randomize them, or…?

A: Here comes a very long answer.  Consider yourself warned.

If you want, you could just do the questions in order, the same way you would use the GMAT Official Guide or any other GMAT test-prep book.  But I think it’s better to compile the GMATPrep Question Pack exercises into what I call “fake tests,” since there’s a desperate shortage of computerized practice tests that use actual, retired GMAT questions.

Here’s how it works:  for quant, select the questions that you think are appropriate for your level.  If you’re struggling on the quant section of the GMAT, maybe you should stick with the easy and medium questions.  If you’re consistently scoring in the mid-40s or above on the quant section, then you should probably select all of the medium and hard questions, as shown below.  And then hit the buttons for “random” and “study” mode.

GMATPrep Question Pack fake GMAT tests

This will give you a nice, randomized selection of questions, vaguely approximating the feel of the actual GMAT exam.  This isn’t a perfect approach, since the actual GMAT is adaptive, and the GMATPrep Question Pack “fake tests” are randomized.  But to be honest, the actual GMAT exam often feels pretty darned random, and if you select your GMATPrep Question Pack difficulty levels correctly, the 37-question “fake test” will feel very much like an actual GMAT exam.

The only problem is that you’ll have to set your own timer for 75 minutes, and you’ll have to stop yourself when you’ve completed 37 questions.  The software won’t do it for you.  That’s annoying, but easily fixed with the help of a stopwatch or a kitchen timer.

Sure, this isn’t exactly the same thing as taking, say, a GMATPrep practice test.  You won’t get a scaled score.  But these “fake tests” will give you an opportunity to test your mettle on real GMAT questions, under timed conditions.

Even without a scaled section score, you can learn a ton from your mistakes. Did you make a lot of careless errors under time pressure?  Did you have to scramble at the end of your “fake test” because you spent too much time on a handful of hard questions?  Should you have been quicker to let the tougher questions go?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you probably need to focus carefully on your timing and accuracy before you take the actual GMAT exam.  So the GMATPrep “fake tests” aren’t exactly perfect, but they’re still an outstanding tool for improvement if you’re diligent about analyzing your errors and your timing.

Q:  What about verbal?  How should I use the verbal questions in the GMATPrep Question Pack?

A:  On the quant side, I would argue that the GMATPrep Question Pack “fake tests” offer a reasonable facsimile of the actual GMAT experience.  On the verbal side, I’m not so sure.

In theory, you could select a nice cross-section of GMAT sentence correction, reading comprehension, and critical reasoning questions, and then select “random” and “exam” mode, just as you would for the quant “fake tests.”  And then you could do 41 questions in 75 minutes, and it would feel much like the actual GMAT.  In theory.

Here’s the problem:  there’s a little hitch in the GMATPrep Question Pack software, and if you select “random” and “exam” mode for reading comprehension questions, you’ll only receive one question for each reading comprehension passage, instead of the three or four questions that you would  see on each RC passage on an actual GMAT exam.  So you might see 10 or 12 or 15 reading comprehension passages in your “fake test”, and each of those passages would include only one question.  Not fun.

The only alternative is to select “in order” instead of “random,” but then you’ll see an endless series of consecutive reading comprehension questions.  And obviously, that isn’t realistic, either.

So the bottom line is that you can’t really do anything to produce semi-realistic verbal “fake tests.”  And that’s a sad story.  You can, however, skip the reading comprehension questions, and stick with critical reasoning and sentence correction only (in “random” and “exam” mode).  You’ll probably have an easier time finishing 41 questions in 75 minutes when there aren’t any reading comprehension questions included, but at least you’ll be able to do something that resembles an actual test.  If nothing else, you’ll get some good exposure to official questions, and your stamina will be vaguely challenged by the experience, especially if you do a quant section beforehand.

And then if you really want to do some extra GMAT reading comprehension practice, you can just do those questions in order.

Q: When should I use the GMATPrep Question Pack?

A: As I discussed in part one of this series, the GMATPrep Question Pack contains some of the newest official GMAT questions available, and it is definitely one of the best GMAT study resources out there.  But it’s wise to avoid burning through the best materials too early in the study process, so you might want to make sure that your quant and verbal fundamentals are sound before you rip through all of your official GMAT materials, including the GMATPrep Question Pack.

At the very least, the GMATPrep Question Pack definitely isn’t the first resource you should turn to when preparing for the GMAT, and it makes sense to use it only when you feel 100% ready.  For most of you, that means saving the GMATPrep Question Pack until the last few weeks before your actual GMAT exam.

Q: I finished a GMATPrep Question Pack “fake test” and now I can’t access the questions I completed!  WTF?

A:  Yeah, welcome to the wonderful world of janky GMAC software.  (And yes, I’m proud that I managed to use the word “janky” on a GMAT blog.)

I also mentioned this in part one of this series, but it’s always a good idea to take screenshots of the questions you missed immediately after finishing anything in the GMATPrep software, including both the “real” GMATPrep tests and the GMATPrep Question Pack “fake tests.”  It’s annoying, but it’s also the only way to be 100% certain that you don’t miss an opportunity to review the questions.

 

5 reasons why the LSAT can help your GMAT score

In an earlier post, I profiled the amazing Ms. HP, who completed a mind-blowing quantity of critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions before earning a 750 on the GMAT.  Astute readers might have noticed that most of her practice questions—roughly 3,225 out of the 4,000 that she completed—came from the LSAT, not the GMAT. And you might be wondering:  is it really worthwhile to use LSAT materials, when you have absolutely no intention of suffering through law school?  Does the LSAT really help you to succeed on the GMAT?

For most of my GMAT students—especially the high-achieving, hard-studying types who are aiming for at least a 650—the answer is an enthusiastic yes.  And here are five reasons why the LSAT might be a worthwhile supplement to your GMAT study materials:

Reason #1:  It's all about reading carefully

At their core, the reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions on the GMAT and the LSAT require exactly the same skills.  Success on either exam requires the ability to read complicated (and often boring) texts, carefully understand the nuances of those texts, and flawlessly evaluate the arguments in the texts, without bringing in outside information.

If you pick up a mass-market GMAT test-prep book, you’ll see plenty of lessons on the different “types” of critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions.  You could learn the strategies and mapping techniques for different question types, and your score might improve as a result.   But if you can’t comprehend the nuances of the (often miserably convoluted) texts on the exam, you’re in trouble.  The key to verbal success—on both the GMAT and the LSAT—is understanding the text EXACTLY is it’s written on the page.

So sure, it’s worthwhile to think about certain ways to analyze or “map” particular question types on CR and RC; those techniques can be useful for some students.  But success on the GMAT verbal section is mostly about the precision of your reading, and your ability to battle your way through the miserable CR and RC passages that appear on the exam.  And the LSAT, with its spectacularly dense language, helps you build this skill at least as well as GMAT questions.

Reason #2:  Official GMAT RC and CR questions are in short supply

The bad news is that the total supply of official GMAT questions really isn’t all that large, even if you purchase everything you can get your hands on.  If you do every single publicly available GMAT question (by, say, purchasing GMAC’s repeat-heavy test-prep package for $263.80), you might amass a grand total of approximately 400 distinct critical reasoning questions and 400 reading comprehension questions, give or take a few dozen.  For many of you, that’s more than enough.  For others, it’s nowhere near sufficient to reach your peak performance on the GMAT.  If you’re in the latter category, you could definitely use some help from the LSAT.

But there’s another problem with the official GMAT questions: some of them are far too easy if your goal is a 650 or above.  GMAC publishes a reasonably representative cross-section of questions in their guides, ranging from the very easiest (“200-level questions,” in theory) to the very toughest (“800-level questions,” if such a thing exists).  If you’re shooting for a top-tier GMAT score, the easiest RC and CR questions might be a waste of your time.  Perhaps only the toughest 50% of GMAT Official Guide questions will give you an adequate verbal workout.

Fortunately, the supply of official LSAT questions is nearly limitless.  Last time I checked, the fine folks who produce the LSAT have, at one time or another, published more than 60 official LSAT exams, each of which contains roughly 50 critical reasoning questions (called “logical reasoning” on the LSAT) and 25 reading comprehension questions, for a grand total of more than 4500 usable questions.

The bottom line:  if you need extra critical reasoning or reading comprehension practice, you’ll never run out of LSAT questions—even if you’re as wildly ambitious as the incredible Ms. HP.

Reason #3:  official LSAT questions are far better than “knockoff” GMAT questions

In theory, you could use “non-official” GMAT questions (written by GMAT test-prep firms) instead of official LSAT questions.  But no matter what GMAT test-prep companies may tell you, official LSAT questions are far more useful than any “knockoff” questions written by GMAT test-prep companies.

Verbal questions—on both the GMAT and the LSAT—are incredibly nuanced, and it’s unbelievably difficult for GMAT test-prep companies to even begin to replicate those nuances.  Every official LSAT or GMAT test question is edited, tested, re-edited, and re-tested by small army of standardized test experts.  By the time an official question appears in an actual exam (or in the GMAT Official Guide), it will be incredibly nuanced… and 100% error-free.

Simply put, it’s impossible for test-prep companies to perfectly replicate the precision of “real” LSAT or GMAT verbal questions, and knockoffs from test-prep companies can be a dangerous substitute for the real thing.  At best, non-official verbal questions will be a benign waste of your time, since they won’t really sharpen your ability to identify the nuances of official LSAT and GMAT questions; at worst, non-official RC and CR questions will teach you to identify the wrong nuances, and your skills will actually decline.  Put another way, “knockoff” questions are often difficult in ways that do not accurately reflect the real GMAT test.

For more on the dangers of overreliance on “knockoff” GMAT questions, please visit another crusty old GMAT Ninja blog post:  Beware the Knockoffs.

Reason #4:  official LSAT questions are harder than the GMAT

This is arguably the best reason to use LSAT reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions for your GMAT studies: LSAT questions are more difficult than most GMAT questions.

If you open up an official LSAT book, you’ll immediately notice that the passages are longer and the language is more challenging than anything you’ve ever seen on the GMAT.  And that’s wonderful, especially if your goal is to score above a 700.  Even if your natural reading ability is absolutely spectacular, I promise that the hardest LSAT critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions will make you sweat.

Please forgive my use of a sports cliché here, but using LSAT questions for GMAT studies is comparable to a baseball player taking practice swings with a weighted bat before stepping to the plate:  by the time the batter (or the test-taker) actually swings a real bat (or takes a real GMAT), the task of swinging (or answering GMAT verbal questions) will feel at least somewhat easier.

Again, the single most important skill tested on GMAT CR and RC questions is your ability to battle your way through dense language and to understand the passage exactly as it’s written.  So if you want to work out your reading muscles, nothing in the test-prep world is better than retired LSAT exams.

 Reason #5:  the differences between LSAT and GMAT questions are mostly cosmetic

As mentioned above, the single biggest difference between LSAT and GMAT questions is that the LSAT questions are, on average, wordier and more difficult.  But if you skim through the questions in an LSAT critical reasoning section, you’ll find some question styles that rarely appear on the GMAT.

The most obvious example is the LSAT’s “parallel reasoning” questions, which ask you to identify the answer choice with the logical pattern that most closely resembles the original passage.  Parallel reasoning questions do appear occasionally on the GMAT, but they’re exceedingly rare.

We could split hairs over a few other differences between LSAT and GMAT verbal questions, but nearly all of those differences are minor.  The GMAT seems to prefer realistic-sounding critical reasoning passages about business and politics, while the LSAT often strays into philosophical discourses, abstract logic, and legal topics.  Many LSAT answer choices arguably sound like “legalese,” with plenty of mumbo-jumbo about premises and conclusions and patterns of reasoning.  And the GMAT’s “boldfaced” critical reasoning questions never appear on the LSAT, at least not exactly in the same format.

Though these differences might be off-putting if you’re not used to the LSAT, the skills required to succeed on the LSAT are exactly the same as those needed to beat the GMAT.  You need to read the critical reasoning and reading comprehension passages with pinpoint precision.  You need to have a flawless understanding of the scope of each CR passage, and you need to ensure that outside information doesn’t stray into your thought process.  The minor stylistic differences do nothing to change the core skills required for success on both exams.

I’m the first to admit that a pile of LSAT books won’t magically cure all of your GMAT verbal ailments, and I’ll happily concede that the LSAT isn’t a perfect replica of the GMAT.  But if you need a challenge on critical reasoning or if you’ve exhausted the supply of official GMAT reading comprehension questions, then a stack of LSAT books is the next-best thing.  Fresh LSAT questions will help your GMAT score more than redoing GMAT questions for a second time, and official LSAT questions are infinitely better than an endless diet of “knockoff” materials from GMAT test-prep companies.

So no, the LSAT isn’t perfect.  But if you’re dedicated to maximizing your GMAT verbal score, then the LSAT can be an outstanding complement to the official GMAT materials.

GMAT verbal underperformance

I recently received an email from a lovely mother of three who has done an absolutely heroic job of raising her GMAT quantitative score from 18 to 36 in just a few months. That’s an amazing jump, and her math tutor deserves a cookie. Unfortunately, the poor woman has seen her GMAT verbal score move in the opposite direction in the past few months: she’s gone from a 33 to a 26 to a 24. If you were her, you’d probably be pretty upset, too.

Believe it or not, she’s absolutely not alone. I think that about 20-30% of the people I meet have experienced some sort of inexplicable verbal calamity on the GMAT. By “calamity,” I just mean that their official GMAT scores don’t match their practice test scores—and unfortunately, the scores sometimes aren’t even close. This seems to happen much more often on the verbal than on the math section, and it took me quite a few years to figure out why that might be the case.

First of all, I really don't think that the GMAT official guides necessarily give you a good sense of what “real” verbal questions feel like. Very few of the reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions in the official guide seem to be much tougher than, say, 650-level questions. I've seen plenty of actual GMAT passages that are nearly incomprehensible, but there are very few such passages in the official guides. (Many of my students--especially those who scored above a 35 on the verbal section--seem to share my opinion on this.) The bottom line is that students who rely primarily on the GMAT OGs might be thrown off by the surprisingly difficult critical reasoning and reading comprehension passages on the real test.

Worse yet, some students rely far too heavily on "knockoff" test-prep material, and you know how I feel about that. It's outrageously difficult for GMAT test-prep companies to accurately copy the nuanced style of the verbal section of the GMAT, and non-official practice questions are inevitably very different from the real thing. In a lot of cases, using these materials can actually do more harm than good, unfortunately. Students grow accustomed to the question-writing style of their chosen test-prep firm, and then suffer mightily when they take the actual GMAT exam. The best test-prep firms offer some good techniques for tackling the verbal, but I think it’s a mistake to rely too heavily on their practice tests. There is no replacement for official GMAT and LSAT materials, and most students will do best if they use “knockoff” tests sparingly.

But I think the most important reason for verbal underperformance has nothing to do with study habits: many test-takers are simply way too “amped” when they start the verbal section. For pretty much everybody, the quant section of GMAT is an intense experience--you're racing against the clock, the adrenaline starts to flow, and you push yourself as hard as you possibly can. You take your little eight-minute break, and then you go back in to the testing room, foaming at the mouth, ready to rip the verbal to shreds.

And in your haste to power your way through the verbal, you get a little bit too intense, and maybe you skip a word here or there. You finish with a few minutes to spare, or maybe more. And then your score sucks. Why? If you're not reading very, very carefully, you'll get GMATed by every verbal question type. Even if you miss just one key word on every other question, you'll do massive, massive damage to your overall GMAT score.

Case in point: an unusually brilliant JD/MBA applicant hired me for two weeks of fast-paced, balls-to-the-wall GMAT lessons. This guy is at an Ivy League law school, and he's ridiculously smart, even when compared to other Ivy League lawyer types. He hired a GMAT tutor just to help him to shake off some math rust, and he needed basically no help on verbal. On the GMATPrep test that he took before his first tutoring session with me, Mr. Ivy League Law scored a 37 on math, and somewhere in the mid-to-high 40s on verbal. So we focused on math, and brought his actual GMAT quant score up to a 47 after just a couple of weeks.

Awesome, right? But hold on: Mr. Ivy League Law was so amped after the math that he raced through the GMAT verbal section at breakneck speed, and finished with 20 minutes (!!) to spare. His verbal score dropped to a 41. That's still enough for a 710 composite, but if he'd taken a few more deep breaths, he could have easily gotten a 750. (Not that it really matters--a 710 is high enough, and Mr. Ivy League Law will soon be Mr. Ivy League JD/MBA. But he’s a great illustration of how an overaggressive approach to verbal can sabotage your score.)

So I’m convinced that stress, exhaustion, and haste are the biggest culprit for almost everybody whose real GMAT verbal score doesn’t seem to match their practice test scores. If you have a tendency to race too much on the verbal, taking a few deep breaths might be more important than any studying you could possibly do. When you finish the quant, use your eight-minute break to re-orient yourself. Grab a snack or a drink or a smoke or whatever makes you happy, and relax a little bit. Focus on being precise and thorough and alert on the verbal. Even if you're a slow reader, you'll gain much more from being calm, focused, and accurate than you'll lose from having to guess on a small handful of the 41 verbal questions.