Whether you’re counting your bracket money from March Madness or looking forward to this week’s NBA Playoffs, basketball is in the air these days, and it offers a great opportunity for you to look at what good GMAT strategy looks like. You can see it particularly in kids or other pickup players – the NBA guys are all too good at it but you can pick it out there, too – the more aggressive the player, the more rebounds he collects. Many players are content to do what the coaches advised, to box out the opponent next to them and get in position for the rebound…but then they sit back and wait for the ball to fall in their hands. The elite players, really at any level, are those who have that extra instinct to GO GET THE BALL. They attack aggressively, not sit back passively. They get the rebound. And they’d be able to put that same technique to use on GMAT critical reasoning.

If you watch enough students attempt critical reasoning problems, you see the same theme. By far, most students are happy to box out and let the answer fall in their hands – they’ll identify the conclusion, take note of the premises, and then scan the answer choices for symptoms of a correct answer. They’ll say things like:

“Well, A repeats some of the same words so it might be right.”
“B just doesn’t seem relevant so I think I’ll eliminate that.”
“C kind of has some relevance to the conclusion so that could be the right answer.”

And they’ll talk around the problem without ever really going and getting it. Just as in rebounding, passivity is a recipe for mediocrity in critical reasoning. The best critical reasoners are aggressive – they’re on the attack. How can you become an aggressive critical reasoned?

1) Get mad at it. When you read the stimulus, accept that the argument will be weak, and focus your attention on finding and exploiting that logical weakness. The word “critical” is the first word of the question name for a reason – a major part of your job is to criticize the argument. Be skeptical from the beginning and treat the exercise as though you’re cross-examining whomever created such a flimsy argument. Be aggressive.

2) Do more than half your “work” before you look at the answer choices. Playoff basketball games are often won on the boards; critical reasoning problems are won on the stimulus. Hard problems use a handful of techniques to make the answer choices less than helpful. Answer choices include a lot of negation (the word “not” to make it hard to tell the exact direction of the sentence), or they start with what looks like an irrelevant lead-in to get you thinking “this isn’t even close”. If you’re not in tune with the argument’s weakness, they’ll be able to hide the right answer from you with relative ease. Your job is to know what kind of gap in logic you’re either trying to fill (strengthen) or exploit (weaken). The better you can understand the parameters of the correct answer, the more effectively you can hunt it down and avoid distraction.

3)Be aggressive. Most students skim the stimulus and answer choices looking for repeat language; surprisingly, few students really dive into the stimulus and get a handle on the argument and then truly analyze the answer choices. It’s like rebounding – students skim and hope the answer falls into their hands while they’re in the right position. To be a better critical reasoner, read arguments skeptically and aggressively. Criticize. Attack. Try going through a set of 20 CR questions without bothering with the answers until later – just poke holes in the logic as you read the paragraphs, training yourself to root out logical flaws.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is famous for a rebounding drill in which he brings out helmets and pads and forces his players to fight for rebounds. Izzo has a job waiting for him as a Veritas Prep Critical Reasoning tutor (there’s a “contact us” link on this page, Tom), as GMAT students around the world need to build a little of that aggression to better attack CR problems. Good things do happen to good people, but by far more good things happen to those who make them happen. Critical Reasoning is not a spectator sport. Be critical, be aggressive.