The Importance of the Question Stem

Speak OutThere are so many types of Critical Reasoning questions that sometimes it’s confusing to tell your Method of Reasoning from your Argument Structure! Students are always instructed to read the question stems first and discern the specific category of CR question from them, but there’s another more important reason to hone in on the specific wording of the question stem: it gives away the answer!         

It does this by creating an expectation for what “type” of information you’re looking for in the answer choices (which you usually can use to make a prediction). If you’re ever stuck between two choices, always go back and carefully examine the specific wording of the question stem! Let’s look at an example:

The Larchmont Animal Shelter has four types of animals available for adoption: dogs, cats, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Two years ago, rabbits were the least popular adopted pet, but last year rabbits were by far the most commonly adopted type of animal. The number of dogs, cats, and guinea pigs adopted did not change dramatically from year to year.

Which of the following, if true, provides the most likely reason for the shift in rabbit popularity?

(A) Last year, the Larchmont Animal Shelter introduced an incentive: people who adopted a dog did not have to pay for its shots if they agreed to foster a rabbit for two weeks.

(B) More government funding allowed the Larchmont Animal Shelter to build a “Rabbit Room” addition to their building last year, allowing prospective owners to get “one-on-one” time with individual rabbits before adoption.

(C) Animal control found a large illegal rabbit farm last year, and transferred hundreds of rabbits to the Larchmont Animal Shelter to be put up for adoption.

(D) Several vicious dog-bite attacks in the Larchmont area were heavily covered by the media last year, leading potential pet-owners to reconsider their pet of choice.

(E) Early last year, a new Pixar movie featuring a talking bunny was among the highest-grossing films at the box office.

The correct response is (E).

This is a method of reasoning question. We can tell this because of the phrase “provides the most likely reason.” The correct answer will explain WHY the described outcome occurred: why rabbits were suddenly popular. The incorrect choices will NOT explain this. Also note the importance of the word “most.” It’s technically possible that more than one choice could explain the shift in rabbit popularity!

If a movie about a talking bunny was suddenly incredibly popular, that would help account for why rabbits suddenly became more desirable as pets.

(A) potentially explains the shift – since it’s possible that the rabbit-fosterers would eventually adopt the rabbits, but (E) is much more likely. Similarly, (B) somewhat supports the shift, but does not explain why the desire to adopt rabbits suddenly increased.

Remember going forward to look carefully at diction and phrasing of CR question stems – the correct answer can hinge on the meaning of just one word!

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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.