GMAT Tip of the Week: Watch the Curveball

It’s the first week of the Major League Baseball season, a sure sign of springtime and a massive celebration in most MLB cities as fans begin the season with new hope and a spirit of outdoor community. And if you’re watching, it can provide you with valuable insight to your forthcoming GMAT appointment. Because like most elite pitchers, the GMAT has a nasty curveball.

The curveball in baseball is a pitch that looks to be heading toward one point, but that toward the last second moves dramatically to a different point, baffling the batter in one of two ways. It either looks like it’s going to be a strike, but dances away from the batter’s bat out of the strike zone as the batter swings hopelessly at thin air. Or it looks like it’s safely away from the plate for a ball, but then drops right into the strike zone leaving the batter looking. In either case, the misdirection causes the batter to make a bad decision – he either swings at a ball or doesn’t swing at a strike.

The GMAT is a master of misdirection, and particularly on the verbal section it throws a mean curveball that forces you into bad decisions – either you “swing” at a wrong answer or you “get caught looking” at a right answer.

Consider this example:

Citizen: Each year since 1970, a new record has been set for the number of murders committed in this city. This fact points to the decreasing ability of our law enforcement system to prevent violent crime.
City Official: You overlook the fact that the city’s population has risen steadily since 1970. In fact, the number of murder victims per 100 people has actually fallen slightly in the city since 1970.

Which one of the following, if true, would most strongly counter the city official’s response?

A. The incidence of fraud has greatly increased in the city since 1970.
B. The rate of murders in the city since 1970 decreased according to the age group of the victim, decreasing more for younger victims.
C. Murders and other violent crimes are more likely to be reported now than they were in 1970.
D. The number of law enforcement officials in the city has increased at a rate judged by city law enforcement experts to be sufficient to serve the city’s increased population.
E. If the health care received by assault victims last year had been of the same quality as it was in 1970, the murder rate in the city last year would have turned out to be several times what it actually was.

In this example, the City Official’s conclusion is essentially to refute the citizen’s claim that “you’re not doing an adequate job preventing violent crime”, and he bases that refutation on the fact that, actually, the murder rate has decreased. His argument is essentially:

Premise: The murder rate is down
Conclusion: We’re doing a better job preventing violent crime

So in order to weaken that conclusion, you should be looking for a choice that exploits the gap “murder is only one type of violent crime” – you want a choice that shows that another type of violent crime, or violent crime overall, is up.

And here’s where the curveball comes in:

Answer choice E gives you exactly what you’re looking for, showing that people are being violently assaulted at a high rate, they’re just not dying. The murder rate is down, but not because violent crime is down. But most examinees miss that point because they see “If the health care…” and think that this answer choice is way out of the strike zone. Health care? Why are we talking about health care? That has nothing to do with violent crime!

The answer is (E). 

And that’s the curveball. The GMAT item writers know that test takers are vulnerable to quick judgment – if an answer “looks wrong” after 3-5 words, many students will eliminate it immediately. “Caught looking” just like a batter facing a nasty curveball. How can you avoid the curveball?

  • Read more than just the first few words of CR and RC questions. Be patient, particularly if you haven’t yet seen a perfect answer choice. That perfect choice might just be hiding behind a curve.
  • If you can’t provide a commonly-tested reason (verb tense, subject-verb agreement…) for eliminating an SC answer choice based on the first few words of an answer choice, look at the last few words. Often SC questions try to curveball you with an awkward-sounding beginning of an answer choice, but the crystal-clear decision can be made on the last few words.
  • Pay attention to curveballs when you miss questions in practice. As you start to see how they’re executed you’ll develop more of a sense for them for test day.

As baseball players know, your first season in the big leagues, you struggle to hit the curveball, but as you get more experience your eye can recognize it much more quickly. The GMAT is similar – pay attention to curveballs as you practice this April and you’ll have an eagle eye as the admissions season progresses to “the Fall Classic”, round one deadlines in October.

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