GMAT Tip of the Week: Critical Reasoning 911

By now you’ve seen the YouTube video, the autotunes, the reenactments… Charles Ramsey’s 911 call took the world by storm this week, hoisting him to pop culture sensation status reminiscent of our old friend Antoine Dodson.

And at the same time as he was saving three kidnap victims, Charles Ramsey may also have been saving your GMAT verbal score.

You see, Charles’s first couple sentences were, as GMAT students like to say, “out of scope”. He began the call by talking about his meal at McDonald’s:

Hey check this out, I just came from McDonalds right? And I’m on my porch eating my little food…

Now, in the grand scope of the situation – terrified women breaking out of a house, a 911 dispatcher trying to make sense of the situation and send officers to the scene – Mr. Ramsey’s Quarter Pounder and fries has nothing to do with anything. But in the next breath he tells the whole story and gives the dispatcher exactly what he needs to alert the proper authorities and rescue the women. Which is almost exactly how many Critical Reasoning answer choices are structured – where many GMAT students would eliminate a correct answer choice by thinking “McDonald’s? Why are we talking about McDonald’s? This is out of scope!” the astute test-takers and 911 dispatchers realize that “I’d better hang on the line to see if he’s going somewhere with this.”

Simply put, in Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension answer choices, the right answer often begins with 5-10 words that seem horribly out of scope. That’s bait – the testmaker wants you to eliminate the choice without reading further, and will reward those who are patient to see what the full answer has to say. Consider this example, from the Veritas Prep Question Bank:

Asset protection manager: This year, for the fifth consecutive fiscal year, we’ve managed to reduce the number of in-store thefts by more than 20% of the previous year’s figure, evidence that our store continues to profit from our vigilance against shoplifting.

Which of the following, if true, would most weaken the asset protection manager’s argument?

(A) Six years ago the store had the highest number of thefts of any store in the region.
(B) The store’s gross sales dropped by nearly 8% from the previous year’s figure.
(C) By utilizing motion-controlled cameras and digital imaging software, similar stores have reduced theft by more than 50% over the same time period.
(D) As the store’s clientele has become more affluent, the dollar value of items reported stolen has more than doubled over the last five years.
(E) Punishments for shoplifters in the city in which the store is located have been steadily becoming more lenient over the last five years.

The correct answer choice begins with a phrase that looks out of scope – why should it matter that the store’s clientele has become more affluent? We’re talking about shoplifting, not about the socioeconomic status of the surrounding community. But wait – that lead-in gets to the point after the comma: the affluent clientele have led the store to stock higher-priced items, meaning that while the number of thefts has gone down the dollar value of those thefts has still risen. That directly weakens the conclusion that the store is profiting from the decrease in thefts.

The correct answer is (D).

So much like the 911 dispatcher this week could have written off Mr. Ramsey’s call as “why do I care about McDonald’s… click,” the patience to let the answer choice finish even if it takes its sweet time getting there will help you make productive decisions on test day. As you learn to Think Like the Testmaker to better avoid Critical Reasoning traps and pitfalls, you may want to think like Charles Ramsey.

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