The last time we looked at a short verbal problem, it was of the “ridiculously, stupidly difficult” variety. You might find it interesting to see how the GRE test makers use challenging vocabulary, but on a medium-difficulty problem. Here’s a two-blank sentence completion we cover in our GRE Bootcamp event:
The social reformer proposed locating juvenile detention facilities close to parks, playing fields, and greenbelts, theorizing that (i) _____ to such sites could have a favorable effect on the troubled youths, as opposed to the (ii) _____ influence associated with locations in the heart of high-crime slum areas.
In a multi-blank sentence completion, there are three choices for each blank. But I’m not even going to show the choices to you yet, because you shouldn’t look at them on Test Day until you figure out the meaning of the blanks yourself.
One nice trick on these problems is to start with the blank that’s easiest to figure out. I’ll start with the first blank here because, in my opinion anyway, it’s the clearest one. But never start with the first blank just because it’s first!
The reformer wants these parks and fields to be “close to” the detention facilities, so the first blank needs to mean “closeness” or something.
Now look at your options for that blank:
Uh oh, vocabulary! But contrary to the last problem, this one has a backdoor. “Diversity” is a word you know, and it definitely doesn’t mean “closeness,” so knock it out. And I’ve found that ubiquity is a pretty commonly studied word; you might very well know that it means “universality,” which also doesn’t make any sense. So even if you have no idea what propinquity is, you can click it confidently on Test Day: it’s gotta be the answer.
Let’s look at the second blank now. “As opposed to” is an excellent clue phrase; it signals that the second blank is the opposite of “favorable.” In addition, the phrase “high-crime slum areas” is a rather explosive clue that whatever “influence” the second blank describes is negative.
Quick tip: don’t get overly fancy with your predictions. If you happen to think of a word like “unfavorable” or “negative,” that’s great. But if not, don’t sweat it. Your prediction doesn’t even have to be a single word; it can be a descriptive phrase, like “not the greatest!” The point is that you make a prediction, not that it be exquisite. We’re making predictions to guard ourselves against the insidious influence of the wrong choices, not to guess the exact right choice.
Now look at your options for blank two:
More vocabulary! But, even if you didn’t know that malevolent means “evil” or “harmful,” you should recognize the prefix mal-, which means “bad.” (Think of every word you can that starts with “mal-”: malignant, malady, malice, malign … none of them mean happy things!) So malevolent has to be the word you seek. This is another case when, even if you aren’t sure of the vocabulary, you can be sure of the choice you’re clicking.
Don’t get frightened just because a GRE short verbal problem has vocabulary you don’t know. It’s true that a hard problem will force you to know some ridiculous words, or guess; but a medium-level problem like this one features several varieties of back entrances that let you bypass most of the words. Notice how, to get this problem right, you don’t even have to care what propinquity, timorous, and propitious are! This is the kind of point you should expect to score on Test Day.
Who else is waiting impatiently for Season 3 of the BBC’s Sherlock? Rumor has it that filming of the new season will begin on March 18. If you are Sherlocked like me and pacing the floors, desperate to find out how he survived, here’s something that can keep you occupied until our beloved Holmes and Watson return to us.
Find solace in what Sherlockians refer to as The Canon – the original works and writings by Arthur Conan Doyle. I recently read A Study in Scarlet (you can read it for free here) and not only was my Sherlockian soul sated, but I also discovered many gems of GRE vocabulary tucked into the text. Give it a read, and keep your vocabulary notebook nearby, as you’re sure to find plenty of words to add to your “To Be Looked Up” list.
Cases of mysterious vocab you will find within A Study in Scarlet include:
Next up: The Sign of Four. I’m eager to discover the lexicographic lovelies that await me there.
In closing, some words of wisdom for your prep:
“Study for the GRE if convenient. If inconvenient, study all the same.”
If you’re reading anything that has good GRE vocab in it, we’d love to hear about it! Please share in the comments below.
When I say “GRE vocabulary,” you might think I mean words like panacea and moribund. But in the past year, I’ve discovered that (aherm) esoteric words aren’t the only ones to give my students headaches. Seemingly (cough) innocuous words like “some,” “many,” and “most” instigate no end of consternation on the new GRE‘s logic-based reading comp problems.
Have a look at what I’m talking about:
Most of Bob’s students are graduate students, and most graduate students at Bob’s university are in a PhD program. Bob owns a hamster, as do many of his students, and most of Bob’s students think he’s a great teacher.
If the statements above are true, which of the following must also be true? Select all that apply.
A) Most of Bob’s students are in a PhD program.
B) Some hamster-owning students think Bob is a great teacher.
C) Some graduate students think Bob is a great teacher.
Let’s examine these statements one by one. First, is it true that most of Bob’s students are in a PhD program? The relevant information is this:
- Most of Bob’s students are grad students
- Most grad students are PhD students
If your intuition is confused, you can pick numbers to make sense of the situation, even though this is a verbal problem!
Suppose that Bob has 5 students. On the GRE (and, for that matter, in real life), the word “most” means “more than half.” So, at minimum 3 of Bob’s students are grad students. Now suppose that there are 1,000 grad students. If “most” of them are getting a PhD, that means there are at least 501 PhD-chasers. This leaves up to 499 students who AREN’T getting a PhD — and Bob’s 3 grad students could easily be among them.
So, no: choice (A) doesn’t have to be true. It could be true, sure, but it doesn’t have to be. Avoid the GRE’s “could be true” answers on “must be true” questions!
Next, check out (B): Some hamster-owning students think Bob is a great teacher. The relevant information this time is this:
- Most of Bob’s students think he’s great
- Many of his students own a hamster
This is cake if you know what “many” means. For some reason, many (cough!) of you think it means “most,” perhaps because both words are four letters long and start with “m.” Not so! “Many” is actually a synonym for “some:” it means, for the precise purposes of the GRE, “at least one.”
(Side note: if you don’t think that’s true — if you think that “many” means “a lot more than one” or some such — consider that “many” is a subjective word that hangs on context. One hair on my head isn’t very many at all, but one cockroach in my soup, I think you’ll agree, is already too “many!”)
So all we’ve got from the stimulus is that at least one of Bob’s students owns a hamster. And that one hamster-owning student could easily be among the few who think Bob sucks. This is another choice that could be true but doesn’t have to be.
On Test Day, there will always be at least one right choice on an “all that apply” question, so if you ever cross out (A) and (B), you know that (C) is right without even checking it. For practice’s sake here, though, let’s give it a look: Some graduate students think Bob is a great teacher.
Well. You know that most of Bob’s students think he’s a great teacher, and you also know that most of Bob’s students are grad students. If Bob has 5 students, that means there has to be a minimum of 3 in each category. Here’s what that could look like:
Student 1: Grad Student
Student 2: Grad Student
Student 3: Grad Student, Thinks Bob is Great
Student 4: Thinks Bob is Great
Student 5: Thinks Bob is Great
Notice that despite my best effort to avoid overlap, some overlap was unavoidable: with 3 grad students, 3 fans of Bob, and only 5 total students, at least one student had to be both. So yes: “some” (i.e., at least one) students are both grad students AND think Bob is great.
These problems don’t just test your ability to make good deductions. They also test your ability to not make bad deductions. On Test Day, think everything through, picking numbers if you have to — and before Test Day, ask us in the comments if you’re confused about these or other examples you’ve encountered!
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 ______.
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 fair. Now 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.
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.