Keep the GMAT Simple

There is a lot of value in keeping things simple. Simplicity is a beautiful thing, especially when combined with functionality. Think of the designs Apple comes up with (or at least did when Steve Jobs ran the show): products were simple, sleek, stylish, and routinely worked flawlessly.  The appeal and popularity of these machines is steeped in how effortlessly they perform their functions, combining reliable functionality and timeless elegance.

In the verbal section of the GMAT, the Sentence Correction portion contains a modicum of this Apple-esque style (just check for worms first). Particularly when it comes to choosing among very similar expressions in a sentence, simpler is usually preferable. When reading a George R.R. Martin novel, you can marvel at how expansive and detailed the fictional world is, or you can sigh at the colossal waste of paper spent describing irrelevant and superfluous minor characters who have no impact on the story line. The test-makers of the GMAT definitely fall into the latter of the two categories. To paraphrase Monty Burns: “We’ve heard enough about Bliz-Blaz and Him-Ham already. Get to the bloody point.”

In the famous mnemonic KISS, we are warned to “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. Usually, the most succinct version of a word or term will be the correct one the exam is looking for, but you must also ensure that there isn’t some other kind of issue that needs to be resolved first. Let’s look at two simple examples of these kinds of issues:

Like many famous jazz trumpet players, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie played many other musical instruments, including the piano.

(A)   Like

(B)   As have

(C)   Just as with

(D)   Just like

(E)    As did

At first glance, each of these five options appears to be somewhat synonymous with the other four. This is almost a game of guessing which expression is preferable to the other four, as there won’t be lines and lines of text to analyze and deconstruct. Luckily, you can still eliminate answers by looking at the rules of grammar (or by using your ear). Answer choices B and E both contain verbs, which makes the phrase grammatically incorrect if you take it as a whole (As have many… trumpet players, John… played many other musical instruments…) These are known as auxiliary verbs, as they serve to add function or meaning to a sentence. These choices are both incorrect grammatically and awkward sounding to most people, so you can eliminate them from contention.

Between answer choices A, C and D (AC/DC?), there is no obvious grammatical rule that will come into play, but rather a logical tenet to be as concise and unambiguous as possible. Answer choice C “Just as with” fails both criteria, and appears to be strictly inferior to answer choice D “Just like”. Answer choice D is in turn inferior to answer choice A, the succinct and correct “Like”. This word is concise and captures the essence of what is being asked without unnecessarily complicating the sentence.

The correct answer is A.

It is worth reiterating that removing redundancy and awkwardness from a sentence is important, but valid grammatical errors remain the first aspect to be verified in sentence correction. In other words, keeping it short is ideal when the answer choices are equivalent, but brevity is not a substitute for correctness. Consider this question instead:

In order to ensure that chemical reactions in the lab behave as predicted by their mathematical formulas, it is important that heat be applied evenly over the total surface area of the flask instead of a series of irregular points on its surface.

(A)   Instead of

(B)   As compared with

(C)   In contrast with

(D)   Rather than to

(E)    As against being at

Once you eliminate the borderline-insane answer choice E, you’re again left with multiple answer choices that look very similar. In particular, I can’t imagine how someone could pick between the two quasi-identical answer choices B and C. This can also be used to your advantage, since the GMAT always gives you five answer choices of which only one is correct, if two answers say exactly the same thing, neither of them can be the correct answer. This means that I’m fairly confident that the answer will be A or D, but let’s keep all four answer choices as possibilities for now.

The real question here is what’s being compared. The question is illustrating that we need to apply the heat evenly over the entire surface, not just to a series of points. In simpler terms, we’re comparing this to that, so they must have equivalent form. Since the first part is outside of the underline, we have no control over it, and it indicates applying the heat “over the entire surface”. To match this form, we need to have a preposition at the beginning of the second part, such as “to a series of irregular points”. In this case, the word “to” is the key differentiator between the choices, and the answer must then be D. All the other choices lack a preposition to link the comparison, with the possible exception of answer choice E (which looks like a failed attempt at legalese).

The correct answer is D.

When dealing with short, possibly single word answer choices, it’s important to first identify whether the answer choices are identical. If they are not, then grammar and logic must be applied to whittle down the choices. If two choices are very close but not quite exactly identical, then you should select the shortest answer that makes the sentence succinct and unambiguous. The exam is not looking for prose or garrulous rambling to demonstrate that you completed the assigned reading. Business is about getting to the right answer without wasting excessive time. When it doubt, remember to KISS.

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Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you weekly advice for success on your exam.  After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.

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