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Mar
27
2013

# GRE Reading Comp Logic: the Wrong Rabbit Hole

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.

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!

Dec
21
2012

# GRE Verbal: Use the Clues

The #1 mistake you can make on GRE short verbal problems is looking at the choices too soon. When you solve a short verbal problem, whether it’s a text completion or a sentence equivalence, you should figure out what kind of word should go in the blank before you look at the choices.

Think of it this way: the test makers aren’t your friend. They’re not trying to help you out. So they’re not just going to write random wrong answer choices; they’re going to write wrong answers that will influence your thinking. Don’t fall in for that nonsense.

Here’s a relatively easy problem that turns ugly if you look at the choices too soon:

The Leonidas Achievement Award, though ostensibly prestigious, is held in low repute by some scholars who claim that favoritism runs rampant and that the judges are ______.

A) Partisan

B) Incompetent

C) Immoral

D) Stupid

E) Ugly. Like, really, really ugly.

Did you read the choices before solving the problem? You need to break that habit. Focus on the sentence: the judges are [blank], and the only clue you’ve got is that “favoritism runs rampant.” So, you need a word that indicates that the judges are not fairNow look at the choices: even if you don’t know that partisan means “partial to a specific person,” you can confidently pick it because none of the other words mean “unfair.” Easy problem. Ba-da boom, ba-da done.

If you look at the choices first, though, the story is much uglier. You could argue that the role of a judge is to be impartial, so a judge who plays favorites is bad at her job (B, incompetent). You could argue that people trust judges to be objective, and a judge who betrays that trust is a bad person (C, immoral) or foolish for attaining such a noble responsibility and then shirking it (D, stupid). You could even argue that the judges are ugly, like really really ugly (on the inside).

In short, you could argue a lot of things. And as I wrote last year, any time you find yourself arguing with the GRE, you’re wrong. Look at it this way: either you’re wrong, or the person who literally makes a living writing the test — and can probably score double 170′s in her sleep — is wrong. Let your competition waste their time arguing with the GRE; you have an ego to put aside and points to score.

On the verbal section, that means you need to stop being creative and start using the clues the test makers give you. Don’t argue: use. The sentence says the judges were unfair. So the right answer has to mean “unfair.” Ba-da boom. Ba-da done.

Sep
27
2012

# GRE Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning, Part III: The Perils of Jaywalking

In this entry and in this one, I discussed two patterns of reasoning that can help you unravel tough problems in GRE reading comprehension. Today our logical journey continues with a look at a classic GRE reasoning flaw of a more quantitative bent: confusing numbers with percentages.

Here’s a silly argument that showcases the flaw nicely:

Common wisdom holds that crossing the street at a corner is safer than jaywalking (that is, crossing in the middle). But annual statistics show that many more pedestrians are hit by cars while crossing at a corner than while jaywalking. Hence, our common intuition is wrong: pedestrians who jaywalk are actually safer than those who don’t.

Are you convinced? I sure hope not, because if so you’ve just dramatically decreased your life expectancy. This argument supports a claim about safety — which is a matter of percentages — with evidence that deals in pure numbers. That’s how the GRE makes such a goofy claim sound so good. The spuriousness (vocab word!) of this reasoning comes to light easily with the help of our old friend, picking numbers. Consider:

Number of corner-crossers: 100
Number of injured corner-crossers: 11

Number of jaywalkers: 10
Number of injured jaywalkers: 10

What’s more dangerous? Jaywalking, clearly — 100% of those people got rammed by cars! Yet the number of law-abiding street-crossers who got injured is greater, simply because there are many more of those people to begin with.

Note that not all GRE arguments use numbers and percentages incorrectly — some do it right. But whenever math comes up in a GRE verbal problem, look closely at the author’s logic to make sure its numeric and proportional crossovers aren’t ridiculous.

Aug
13
2012

# GRE Vocab-Rich Reading, Now with Movie Tie-Ins!

Summer’s not over yet, and we’re all grabbing up our last chances to sit poolside, page-turner in hand, passing a late summer afternoon reading whilst baking in the sun. Reading and summer go together like peanut butter and jelly, and conveniently enough, so do reading and GRE vocab-building.

You just have to choose books that will expand your GRE vocabulary, and there is certainly one for everyone. Below is a range of recommendations sure to keep you rapt. They all have movie adaptations too, so you can engage in that other favorite summer pastime when it just gets too hot outside. Be sure to listen for more GRE vocab in the movie.

Also, keep a notebook nearby to scribble down words you don’t know so you can look them up – although the great thing about reading is that the context will often define the word for you. Conveniently, that’s also how you are tested on vocab on the GRE – Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions require you to use context to choose the correct answers.

Pick up these books and see if you can define the meanings of the words listed. Let us know in the comments what books you are reading this summer, and what vocab words you’ve learned from them!

Life of Pi

by Yann Martel

Page-turning: 5

Vocab level: 4

Yes, but how is the movie?: ?

With a movie version coming out in November 2012, this book is sure to become even more well-known in the near future. An Indian boy is stranded on a boat with a tiger after losing his family in a shipwreck. Definitely suspenseful, and full of great GRE vocab words like:

• disheveled
• incredulous
• deference
• forestall

Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen

Page-turning: 4

Vocab level: 5

Yes, but how is the movie?: 5

Summer is a great time to revisit old favorites, and anything by Austen is going to have at least one great GRE vocab word per page. So get ready for some seriously elevated language, but the romantic plots keep good readers more than engaged. Also adapted into an *excellent* movie by Ang Lee, and starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in the title roles.

• affected
• resolute
• denote
• prescience

The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

Page turning: 5

Vocab level: 3

Yes, but how is the movie?: 5

Who knew the biggest summer blockbuster could also be a great place to go for new GRE words? You can hunt out zingers such as:

• despondency
• irreparable
• assailant
• haggard
• plaintive

Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

by Helen Fielding

Page-turning: 5

Vocab level: 3

Yes but how’s the movie?: 4

A daft lass searches for love in mishap after mishap in these addictively hilarious novels. While her language is not always erudite, British Bridget does throw some fifty-centers your way, such as:

•  tremulous
• proportionate
• impediment
• idyllic

Mar
16
2012

# GRE Vocabulary Study Tip: Word Groups

The GRE tests your vocabulary in various ways. To correctly answer Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion questions, you have to know something about all of the words in the answer choices. Students often ask, “How can I increase my vocabulary before Test Day?”

The Kaplan answer to that is simple: Think like a thesaurus, not like a dictionary. Knowing detailed definitions for 100 words is not as useful as knowing approximate synonyms for 200-300. Kaplan offers an inexpensive app for learning vocabulary. Kaplan’s Verbal Workbook has a chapter devoted to vocabulary, and in it are several pages of word groups. For example, grouped under “Difficult to Understand” are 14 related words, including abstruse, cryptic, and enigmatic. If you learn this group you will recognize any of these words on Test Day.

There are different ways to practice learning word groups. I prefer a “reverse flash card” method, and I especially recommend it to my students who are not native English speakers.

1. First, read the word group.
2. Then, write the heading on one side of a card.
3. Then, on the back of the card, write ONLY THE WORDS YOU RECOGNIZE from the list. As you learn the definitions of other words, add them to the card as well.

As an example, looking at words that mean “Antagonize” on page 260 of the Verbal Workbook, you would write Antagonize on the front of the card, then on the back write the words you recognize from this list:

ANTAGONIZE: To annoy or provoke to anger

CLASH
CONFLICT
INCITE
IRRITATE
OPPOSE
PESTER
PROVOKE
VEX

If you don’t know a word, look it up. Once you are comfortable with it, add it to your flash card. In the end you have a stack of cards with word groups you know, so you can flip through them at any time to reinforce vocabulary you have already built.