Back in January, I wrote about a challenging quantitative problem from one of our free GRE events, the GRE Bootcamp. As we held another Bootcamp recently, let’s take a look at another hard problem from the event — a verbal one this time!
The _______ preconcert celebrations did not seem to suit what followed; the concert itself was low key, acoustic, and featured only one performer.
Since there are six choices, you know what kind of problem this is: a Sentence Equivalence. Your task is to pick two words that both fit the sentence and produce an equivalent effect. Don’t start with the choices, though: start with the sentence. Look for clues and try to figure out the meaning of the blank yourself.
The sentence is about a concert, and the blank describes the party that happened before the concert. Now, what clues have you got? Well, the celebrations “did not seem to suit” the concert. And what was the concert like? “Low key, acoustic, and [featuring] only one performer.” So the missing word has to be the opposite of that.
Sometimes, on more challenging GRE verbal problems, you need to prioritize your clues. The opposite of acoustic is electrically enhanced, so unless a bunch of people at the party were sticking forks into sockets, this clue doesn’t help. The part about featuring “only one performer” isn’t terribly helpful, either; all this tells you is that more than one person was at the party, which is kind of already the definition of a “party.”
But low key – now that is a helpful clue! Imagine going to a “low key” gathering. Now imagine what would be the opposite of that: crazy, perhaps? Loud? Okay, there’s your prediction. The two words you select should indicate that the party prior to the concert was a crazy, loud, and all-around extravagant affair.
Like all challenging short verbal problems, this one features outrageously difficult vocabulary. Whenever this happens, gravitate to the words you know and see if you should pick them or cross them off. You should experience no hesitation whatsoever when you do this: if it’s a word you know, either it matches what you predicted or it doesn’t. If you haven’t yet reached this point of no-hesitation, that’s okay. That’s what practice is for!
Let’s suppose you only know the three easiest words in this list: corrosive, garish, and exquisite. Acids are corrosive — they eat things away — so that doesn’t make any sense. Cross it out.
Garish has several definitions, but as it would pertain to a party means “showy, excessively elaborate, and loud.” Just what you were looking for to describe this party. Select!
Finally, exquisite means “particularly excellent,” and that’s a distraction in this problem. The test makers are exquisitely good at loading up the choices with distracting words like this (which is why you shouldn’t look at the choices first!). Just because the party was (to borrow the dictionary for a moment) “extraordinarily fine or admirable” doesn’t mean that it was loud, extravagant, or any other opposite of “low key.” I consider fruit snacks exquisite, but they don’t call attention to themselves. They are both exquisite and low key. Cross this choice out.
Even if you had no clue about the other words, you’d know to pick garish and one of the remaining three choices. That’s 1 in 3 odds, which is five times better than the 1 in 15 odds you’d get by stone-cold guessing. In the long run, improving your odds like this will pay off in more right answers and more points, even if you have to guess.
Let’s suppose that you’ve been keeping a vocabulary notebook, though, and did a monster job beefing up your vocabulary before Test Day. The word ersatz means “synthetic” or “artificial,” so that makes no sense. Another word that makes no sense in this sentence is resplendent, which means “gleaming” or “splendid.” This word produces an equivalent effect in the sentence as exquisite, but it’s the wrong effect! Cross it out.
Boom. The only word left is robustious, so that must be your synonym. Pick it with garish and celebrate an added point to your GRE score.
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.
If you’ve been studying your GRE vocabulary for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the concept of word groups: A list of words that all have similar-enough meanings to be considered, for GRE purposes, interchangeable synonyms. I haven’t heard a single person argue against the benefits of learning word groups, but memorizing the lists themselves isn’t the easiest proposition. The trick to learning word lists efficiently is to work with your brain’s natural inclination to remember words that are associated with other things. For example, which of these two sentences is more likely to help you remember the definition of “perspicacious”?
- “Perspicacious” means “keen” or “intelligent”.
- The company’s perspicacious president solved many of the business’s problems by determining the issues underlying the flat-lining sales.
While the first sentence is just a recitation of the word’s definition, the second word gives you a context and some color that you can use to remember the word’s meaning. On Test Day, when you see “perspicacious” among the answer choices of a text completion, you’ll recall the company president’s accomplishments and remember that the word means “intelligent”.
Now comes the part in which you get to inject some creativity into your otherwise-straightforward GRE studies: Pick one of the word groups, and write a paragraph-long story in which you use as many of the words from the group as possible. Before you start writing, pick an overarching plotline that fits with the group you’re working with.
If you’re working with the “criticize” word group, for example, the story could be about a harangued child whose mother and teacher constantly deride him. He could even have an older brother, who also excoriates him. Or, if you’re in a lighter mood, you can tackle the “funny” word group and write about a comedy duo whose jocular performance was filled with droll raillery, and much riposte.
The act of writing a paragraph for each key word group will give you a clear association between the words and not just one sentence, but an entire paragraph with context that will allow you to recall the definition when you see any of the words on GRE Test Day. Now get your imaginative juices flowing – let us know in the comments what you end up writing about!
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.