Last year, I wrote a series of entries about the critical reasoning problems that were recently added to the GRE. Since it’s been a while, let’s revisit that question type — and check out another aspect of critical thinking that confounds many of you.
Here’s a type of problem that’s caused no end of consternation to a lot of my students:
Residents of this state are obligated to renew their driver’s license in two circumstances only: if they accumulate six or more points in moving violations, or if they obtain citizenship in another country. Clarice, who is a citizen of only this country, has been involved in only one accident, which added three points to her license. Therefore, Clarice has no reason to renew her driver’s license at this time.
The argument above depends on which of the following assumptions?
I’m not going to show you the answer choices because the essence of this problem needs to be taken care of long before you ever look at a single choice. When I ask my students for the assumption, I invariably hear answers such as the following:
- “The author assumes that Clarice didn’t receive points from sources other than accidents.”
- “The author assumes that Clarice wasn’t already a citizen of some other place.”
- “The author assumes that Clarice didn’t do something else that would make her have to renew her license.”
All of these wrong answers fall for the same trap: thinking in the way that the test makers want you to think. The test makers say, “Hey! Look at these conditions. Clarice didn’t meet any of them. So, there’s no reason for her to renew her license.” And a lot people look at that line of reasoning and say, “Aha! I bet Clarice DID meet one of those conditions, in some sneaky way.” Then they start drumming up clever ways to force poor Clarice to retake her driver’s exam.
This is what I like to call going down the wrong rabbit hole. The test makers show you a rabbit hole, saying basically, “Hey, you! Think about THIS.” And so you think about whatever “this” is, and you think about it really hard, and the problem is that you shouldn’t have even started thinking along those lines in the first place.
Let’s back up a bit.
Consider this argument:
Boris isn’t obligated to exercise. Therefore, there is no reason for Boris to exercise.
Or how about this one:
There is no law mandating that Boris be kind to his mother. Therefore, he should be a jerk to her.
How do those arguments sound? Terrible, you say?! But why? If I’m not required to do something, doesn’t that mean I have no reason to do it?
Here, again, is the argument about Clarice, but condensed to the essentials:
Clarice isn’t required to renew her driver’s license. Therefore, she has no reason to renew her driver’s license.
It’s tricky to spot the error the first time someone throws you an argument like this, because renewing a driver’s license is boring and lame, so your brain fills in the gap in the argument: “The only reason anyone would ever renew their license was if they had to.” But that’s not necessarily true: that’s an assumption. Maybe Clarice gets a tax credit for renewing her license, or renewing the license will get some of her points taken away, or renewing the license provides some other benefit to something completely unrelated. We don’t know.
Remember this nugget of logical wisdom when you take the GRE: just because a person isn’t required to do something, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t or they won’t!
Climate change is a very serious issue, but as a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, I sometimes grumble that global warming can’t come soon enough. It wouldn’t be a true Wisconsin winter if we didn’t get at least one blizzard in March, and I found myself last week shoveling desperately through a waist-high mound of heavy, densely packed snow deposited by snowplows at the foot of my driveway. My usual strategy in such situations is “stay in the house until the roommate has to go somewhere first.” Unfortunately, he was out of town, so I had to excavate the driveway myself if I wanted any shot of pulling my car out of the garage.
I get the feeling that many of you view the taking GRE the same way I view shoveling snow: as a chore. Something unpleasant that takes a lot of time and work, that you have no choice about, and that if you were king of the world, you’d never have to deal with.
You might expect that, as a professional GRE teacher, I’d be disappointed that so many of you are as excited to study for the GRE as you are to clean the bathroom. And in some respects, I am. As I wrote recently, I honestly believe that studying for the GRE is a valuable experience, and I’d like for more of my students to be excited by the prospect of becoming smarter and cleverer.
In another light, however, I actually wish that GRE students viewed the test more like a chore. Chores have something going for them: nobody doubts their ability to complete one. As much as I loathe shoveling snow, I knew after a set amount of unpleasant labor, my driveway would be clear and I could pull my car out and move on with my life. We all dread mowing the lawn, folding laundry, and unloading the dishwasher, but we never entertain for even a second the possibility that we won’t be able to bring any of these chores to a successful conclusion. Nobody approaches a loaded dishwasher thinking, “Oh man oh man oh man THIS MIGHT BE THE DISHWASHER THAT ENDS ME.”
By contrast, a staggering number of GRE students fear exactly this: that the GRE will be the end of them. Some of you call the GRE a “chore,” but in actuality you don’t view it as a chore at all. You view it as a trial. You think that, maybe, you won’t succeed. And I know that on some days, the “maybe” tilts dangerously toward a “probably.” Watching my students suffer because they fear their own potential is the most heartbreaking aspect of my job.
Yesterday morning I was lucky enough to TA a practice test for Jesse Evans, one of the best teachers in the whole company. While talking about the despair that shrouds a lot of students who take their first practice test, Jesse uttered a line that I and the other TA’s promptly confessed to each other we were going to steal. The line was this:
“Don’t confuse being uncomfortable with being incapable.”
This was such a simple statement that I was simultaneously blown away by Jesse’s wisdom and stunned that I hadn’t come up with it myself. When you take the GRE, many things about it make you feel uncomfortable: using math you haven’t touched in eight years; reading prose full of words you don’t know; working with question formats you’ve never seen before, and the list goes on. But just because you’re uncomfortable with something doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do it. If you knew the formulas once, you can learn them again. If you don’t know the meaning of a word, you can memorize it. If a question format seems weird now, it won’t seem weird after you’ve done a hundred problems that use it.
Outside, in the bitter cold, with my nose running and my muscles burning, I felt the keenest discomfort as I hacked through several feet of hard, nasty snow. But I never doubted for a second that someday my ordeal would be over and I’d be able to say, “I did that!” as I got in my car and caromed triumphantly through the gap in the snowdrift. Don’t read too much into your own discomfort on the GRE. Just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean that you’re incapable.
Today I got an email from a student who was perplexed that his GRE quantitative score was dropping on his tests. Toward the end of the email the student said:
I have been doing all the homework and a lot of practice problems [that] I’m doing fairly well on. I have been getting 70-90% correct in the quiz bank and on homework.
Many of you do exactly what this student does: when you do your GRE homework, you keep tallies of your right/wrong answers, then compare your homework performance to your MST performance. And then you get discouraged because your MST performance is worse.
But hang on a sec. Your homework problems are untimed, non-adaptive, and done in small chunks. Your MST problems are timed, adaptive, and done in the context of a grueling 4-hour exam. Of course you’ll do worse on the MST! That’s not a sign you’re doing something wrong. That’s not surprising. It’s downright commonplace.
When you finish a problem set, review it thoroughly to reinforce what you did right, and identify and squelch what you did wrong. But don’t keep score. “I got X questions right” is a thoroughly useless piece of information; all it can do is discourage you. Keep score when it counts: on Test Day.
A friend of mine works as a product leader at a medical software company. He gets to design software and make strategic decisions about its development — which features to include, which not to, that kind of stuff. That seems like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, because he’s a high-level dude, he has to deal with some unpleasant stuff as well, such as disciplining (and sometimes firing) bad employees.
One of the things he learned in his role is that people are surprisingly bad at articulating solutions to problem behaviors. For example, one of his employees missed a lot of deadlines because he kept getting distracted, and the reason for his persistent distraction was email: whenever a “new message” notification popped up in Outlook, the employee would drop whatever he was doing to read the email.
My friend asked him, “What are you going to do to stop getting distracted from your work?”
And the employee said, “I’m not going to read my emails as they come in from now on.”
Sound like a sensible thing to say to your boss? I thought so. My friend didn’t. He pointed out that “not getting distracted by email” is the goal. Saying “I won’t read incoming emails” is essentially a restatement of the goal; it doesn’t say how that goal will be achieved. A better answer would have been, “I will turn off my email when I’m coding and only answer it at designated points in the day,” or, “I’m going to turn off popup email notifications.”
I don’t think I know a single person — myself included — who doesn’t waste unholy amounts of time reading Facebook, texting, watching Netflix, or whatever. Everybody talks about how “busy” they are, yet it seems to be an open secret that no matter how busy someone claims to be, they still find ways to kill half their week doodling around Pinterest. Think about your own life: have I just described it, or haven’t I?
Our tendency to distract ourselves may be okay in general, but it’s a bit tragic where the GRE is concerned, because it means that many of you are effectively impeding yourselves from getting the score that you deserve. The hours you spend re-watching Game of Thrones instead of studying knock points off your Test Day score, and as awesome as that TV show is, you’ll surely agree it’s not as awesome as your dreams.
And so I find myself asking my students, “What are you going to do to stop getting distracted from your work?”
And they say to me, “I’m not going to get distracted from now on! I’m going to study so hard!”
And I’m here today to tell you: that doesn’t work. Saying, “I will work! I won’t get distracted!” is a restatement of your goal. It doesn’t say how you will achieve that goal. Once you identify behaviors that are actively reducing your future GRE score, you have to devise concrete, specific solutions. You have to figure out how you’re going to stop those behaviors.
Say, “I’m going to cancel my Netflix account for the next three months,” or, “I’m going to turn my phone off when I study,” or, “I’m going to download ‘self control‘ programs and block my favorite websites when I study,” or, “I’m going to tell my roommate/girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse/parents/some hobo I just met to hide my Game of Thrones DVDs and only give them back after the GRE is over.”
Then you can confidently say you’ve solved your problem are on the path to the GRE score you deserve.
Last night I picked up a fascinating bit of test prep trivia from my TA in a GMAT Anywhere class, Stuart Kovinsky. I figured Stuart for a font of strange and interesting facts, as he’s been teaching for Kaplan since 1988, which is longer than many of you have been alive. Personally, in 1988 I was three years old, living in what was still the Soviet Union, and speaking Russian. So the first chance I got to chat with Stuart, I couldn’t help myself. “What was Kaplan even like in 1988?” I blurted, and off we went on a nerdy conversation about the bygone decades of test prep.
Now, Stuart is primarily an LSAT man — the LSAT being the test for law school — so most of his knowledge was about that test. He told me that the LSAT used to have a section called “Facts and Arguments,” in which students had to determine from a set of information whether certain conclusions could or couldn’t logically be deduced.
“That sounds fun!” I said. (Please understand that here at Kaplan we may have a slightly different notion of what “fun” is than you do.) “Why’d they get rid of it?”
Never in a thousand years would I have guessed Stuart’s answer. “Prep companies broke it,” he said. “They came up with strategies that let you do well even if you didn’t really understand what was going on.” I didn’t think test makers would ever change an exam in reaction to prep companies. But apparently, they have.
You know that moment when something suddenly “clicks,” and not only do you understand it, but you marvel that you ever failed to understand it before? Those moments aren’t exclusive to students — we teachers get them, too. And the moment Stuart introduced me to the concept of “breaking” a test — finding a way to do well on it without actually understanding any of the concepts it’s supposed to test — I experienced one of the loudest CLICKS of my entire teaching career.
Some students don’t actually want to master the GRE. They don’t want to get better at logic, critical thinking, and comprehension. And when they come to us, they don’t want us to teach them how to become better thinkers and readers.
They just want us to show them how to break the test.
Are you in this camp? Here’s an easy attitude check. Imagine that you had a friend on the inside — someone who could access ETS‘s records and implant a score for you. This friend could get you double 160′s, 170′s, whatever you wanted. Assume in this imaginary scenario that there was no risk of getting caught or facing any kind of negative repercussions. Imagine, in other words, that you could truly and thoroughly break the GRE — get a super high score without any effort or acquisition of actual skill or knowledge. Would you do it?
I know I’m just a GRE blogger here, and the bounds of my advice fall well short of lecturing you on ethics or on how to live your life. Simply, my point in writing you today is to ask you to say “no.”
I know that a lot of you think the GRE is an arbitrary hurdle whose results have no relation to how well you’ll do in grad school. However, there’s no getting around the fact that to improve your score on the GRE, you have to become smarter. You have to learn how to think and comprehend better. That’s why cramming worked for all your college tests, but not for this one. Whether you prep with us or on your own, your journey to a higher GRE score will be one of the most important cognitive experiences you ever undertake.
So please: don’t look for us or for any book to show you how to break the test. Desire instead to crush the GRE by actually becoming a smarter, better thinker.