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!
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.
When asked recently for a student success story, I immediately thought of Heather (not her actual name). Like a sizable portion of students who come to Kaplan, Heather had already taken the GRE after preparing on her own, and her scores were not high enough. She was a senior in college, with a hefty course load and a time-consuming job in her field that required a lot of travel.
Right from the start of class, Heather and I were in frequent email contact, figuring out how she should structure her study time so she could take her test a couple weeks after the end of a twice a week class. She was a diligent, goal-oriented student.
Her Test Day came, and she fell short of the scores she needed to be considered for the grad program she wanted. Her math score was a little over what she needed, but her verbal score was significantly below an acceptable level.
This is the point where too many potential graduate students passively accept their inadequate score fate, feeling powerless over what seems like an insurmountable obstacle.
“I’m over this test” she wrote to me. I replied, “You don’t strike me as someone who just gives up. Give yourself the day to stew, and then let’s get practical.” I sent my phone number, she sent hers, and although I was away on vacation, we arranged for a good time to talk.
Heather also wrote back that she’d calmed down after a run and talking to her parents and to a fellow student, a year ahead of her, who took the test 4 times until she got a barely adequate score, and now she’s in grad school.
We worked together to set up a specific set of strategies and a study schedule. Heather repeated some class sessions, partly to see if she could get some new insights, and partly just to keep up her studies. She committed to learning as many of the top 500 vocabulary words as possible (she got all but about 30 of them). She practiced eliminating wrong answer choices to improve her chances of getting right answers with strategic guessing.
To hone her reading comprehension skills, we came up with the idea of reading articles from economist.com, newyorker.com, ft.com and terryteachout.com. The idea was to read challenging writing quickly, actively and critically.
She stayed in touch, reporting on what she was working on. You can do something similar with a friend or family member; the point is to have someone–a “coach”– who’ll keep encouraging you to stick with your work and help you past the times when you feel stuck or frustrated.
Test Day #3 arrived, and I have to admit, I was nervous! The phone rang late that day, with Heather’s number on the caller ID. She did it! She maintained her math score and improved her verbal score so significantly that she could have her applications considered.
Today, Heather is in the middle of her first year in her first choice grad school program. She grabs me on Gchat periodically to catch up and let me know how things are going in school. Hearing from her always makes my day, and I’m glad to be able to share her story with you. My hope is that you can take a cue from the Heather’s persistence and focus in order to drive you toward GRE Test Day success.
Recently a reader asked me to post about strategies for long Reading Comprehension passages and Bolded Statement questions. (Mohamed also asked about vocab strategies, which I will discuss soon. Be sure to see previous vocabulary-related posts from my Kaplan colleagues.)
The Kaplan New GRE Verbal Workbook includes a chapter devoted to Reading Comprehension, as well as sets of practice questions and additional resources. One of these resources is a list of additional tips for tackling the Reading Comprehension section, including Bolded Statements questions. These tips are found on pages 78-80, and I’m going to borrow from them here.
There are differences between real-world reading and reading GRE passages is that on the GRE:
- On Test Day, you don’t care about the facts in the passage — you only care about ideas. A passage might tell you that the character Superman first appeared in 1938. You don’t care what year Superman was introduced, but you care about WHY the author told you that. The passage may then go on to describe how the powers attributed to Superman have changed over time. In that case, knowing that Superman has been around for 70+ years might be important.
- Prior knowledge is not welcome on Test Day. Forget everything you might know about Superman — everything you need to know will be contained within the passage. Wrong answer choices play on things that test-takers understand to be logically true, but if those facts aren’t mentioned in the passage, you don’t care.
- If a passage tells you Superman has a twin sister, then as far as you are concerned, he has a twin sister. The passage text is TRUE. Period. You may question texts as much as you like in real-world reading, but on the GRE, accept that whatever the passage is telling you is correct.
Bolded Statement questions should be tackled the same way as other Reading Comprehension question types. In these questions, you REALLY don’t care about the facts or details. You ONLY care about the purpose of the statements, and you consider each statement separately. Is it an opinion? An example? An argument? If it is an argument, is it the passage’s primary or secondary argument, or perhaps a counterargument? Is it evidence, and if so, of what? You care about the purpose of each statement in relation to the other sentences in the passage.
Let me repeat that. Just as with other question types, you must consider Bolded Statements in the context of the passage as a whole. Do not skip the un-bold statements; they are your context clues for figuring out the role the Bolded Statements play.
Have a question about grammar, punctuation, usage, or style? Email me at email@example.com and put “blog question” in your subject line. Then look for a response here!
So, you are preparing yourself for the GRE and you need to add some egghead words to your prodigiousand more commonly utilized line-up of text-speak, pop culture jargon, and 4-letter expletives (hey, studying for the GRE can be stressful!) Certainly, you are aware that there are tools for such a task to be found on many websites – Kaplan, of course, includes in our course offerings many effective means to increase and enrich your vocabulary.
Additionally, reading novels and certain newspapers and magazines (the ones that don’t cater to a fifth-grade reading level – all apologies to USA Today and People magazine, which are just fine for their purpose of informing and entertaining) will aid you in realizing heretofore unexplored words. However, perhaps even better fodder for the acquisition of headier, grad-level words can be found by examining trade journals and works of non-fiction. Try delving into the dense prose that can readily be found in such word hordes as The Wall Street Journal or Architectural Digest. Not into mergers and acquisitions? Is the study of buttresses not to your liking? Indeed, if you search with the slightest zest, you can locate a vocabulary-invigorating periodical that may actually speak to your own interests.
Moreover, since the New GRE Verbal section is known to traffic in questions concerning the logical analysis of arguments, your reading and appraising such content in political or economic publications, for instance, can’t help but serve you synchronous benefits.
Acquiring a rich and test-ready vocabulary via contextual clues found within the writing of an intelligent author rather than simply studying the dry drudgery of flashcards or daily list o’ words repetition is much more intuitive, organic, and heaven forbid, fun!
After all, The New GRE now limits its assessment of your word knowledge to sentence equivalence, text completions and words-in-context of reading comp passages. Since the GRE has retired its tired format of testing words in a vacuum (antonyms and analogies), why not learn them in a similar manner to that in which they are tested?