Ask Dr. David: Critical Reasoning in the Eyes of an Expert

“How can I improve my Critical Reasoning ability?” is a common question for any GMAT instructor, but particularly for our own David Newland, who owns a 99th percentile LSAT score in addition to several 99ths on the GMAT.  As an expert on both GMAT Critical Reasoning and its LSAT counterpart, Logical Reasoning, David is regularly sought out by those seeking advice on CR questions.  Here’s his most common reply:

Rather than focus on particular question types, let’s discuss how you can “see” critical reasoning the way an expert does. This ability can help you to perform well on all of the critical reasoning question types!

 1) Narrow your focus. Critical reasoning (and, in fact, the whole verbal section) is about narrowing your focus. You are given lots of information but not all of it is at the same level of importance.

The Veritas Prep Critical Reasoning book demonstrates how to break the argument down into context, evidence, and conclusion.

Clearly your attention should be focused on the evidence and the conclusion. This is where the path to the correct answer lies. But what role does the context play? Why is the context there if it is not something to focus on?

There are actually two roles that the context plays:

  • Fairness - the context is there to ensure that the critical reasoning section is not a vocabulary test. It ensures cultural and linguistic fairness so that everyone has a chance to answer correctly if they apply the right logic.
  • Distraction - the context is also there for a not so generous reason, many of the incorrect answer choices are based on focusing too much on the context.

By narrowing your focus, you can avoid most of the trap answers that catch so many test takers. Obviously you should not bring in outside information, but you also should not give too much of your focus to the background information either. It is the evidence that must lead to the conclusion.

2) Stop and gather yourself and notice anything that is not quite what was expected. Many people just push through a critical reasoning stimulus and fail to really take advantage of what is there. An expert gathers himself after each phrase or each sentence just the way you should on Reading Comprehension after each paragraph!

An argument generally is constructed with the context first, then the evidence and the conclusion is often the last part of the argument. By stopping and gathering yourself you are able to see the argument form in front of you.

There are two big things to look for as you read, each of these will be easier to spot if you pause and gather yourself.

  • Shifts in language. You will often hear experts talking about shifts in language. These can be from one noun to another, for example, from “physical growth” to “maturity.” Clearly these are not the same thing – a person can be fully grown physically without yet being mature – and you can see that the Flaw, Assumption, Weakness, or Strengthen answer would likely be something to do with the difference between “being fully grown physically” and “being mature.”
  • Unnecessary and unexpected wording. This often involves adjectives and adverbs. For example, maybe the argument is doing a fine job of telling you that one cause of a recession is that wealth is too concentrated in a society. Yet the conclusion in the argument says “the ONLY cause of recession is that wealth is too concentrated…” Now you know that the Flaw or Assumption or Weakness, etc. has to do with this use of “only” – a use which is not supported by the evidence.

If you can internalize these things you will be doing most of your work on Critical Reasoning as you read the argument itself and as you analyze it. You will know what to focus on and may even have a very strong idea of what the answer must be before you even move to the answer choices. That is seeing critical reasoning the way an expert does.

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David Newland has been teaching for Veritas Prep since 2006, and he won the Veritas Prep Instructor of the Year award in 2008. Students’ friends often call in asking when he will be teaching next because he really is a Veritas Prep and a GMAT rock star!

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