Process of Elimination with Sherlock Holmes

Is anyone else as obsessed with the BBC’s Sherlock as I am? In addition to the amazingly well-plotted stories and the awesome performances in this latest carnation, Sherlock Holmes is a character we can’t seem to get enough of. From the prime-time CBS version “Elementary” to the Guy Richie movies starring Robert Downey Jr., the deer-stalker-wearing sleuth is everywhere! So how can we apply his powers of deduction to even the most dreaded GMAT Critical Reasoning question? By following this famous Sherlock quote:

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Harder Critical Reasoning questions can be frustrating, especially when the correct answer is not what you would initially expect. It can leave us feeling more like a Watson than a Sherlock, two steps behind and always playing catch-up. How often do we read all the CR options and think, well none of these match my prediction – I don’t think any of these are right! What to do? If you’re a fan of the Conan Doyle stories or any of the latest Holmes shows, you know that Sherlock Holmes always uses process of elimination.

Start with what is impossible. By the design of the GMAT, we know some answer choices must be less likely than others to answer the question. In fact, it’s likely that only two of the answer choices will even come close, so begin by trying to identify those 2-3 obviously “impossible” options.

Left with 2-3 options remaining, we know 1 is correct and the 1-2 others are slightly less probable. Look for the differences between the choices. In order for the 1-2 “wrong” answers to be wrong, there must be elements about them that make them less probable. Here’s where Sherlock Holmes would whip out his magnifying glass and really bring out his analytical big-guns. Take a good long look at the options.

Is there any extreme language or a subtle shift in scope in one or more of the choices that make them even slightly less probable than the others? Is there one that doesn’t relate as closely to the specificity of the question being asked?

Remember: the answer choices are always DIFFERENT and you can exploit those differences!

We’ll have to wait until later in the year for Series 3 of “Sherlock” to find out how Sherlock Holmes escaped his fake suicide, but until then, challenge yourself on some advanced Critical Reasoning questions to work untimed and deconstruct the answer choices. If you can think like the test-maker, your process of elimination abilities will rival those of Sherlock himself!

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Vivian Kerr is a regular contributor to the Veritas Prep blog, providing tips and tricks to help students better prepare for the GMAT and the SAT.