On a timed test like the GMAT, test-takers often fall victim to a simple fact about the way the English language works: we read from left to right.
Why is that? We’re often in such a hurry to make a decision on each answer choice that we make our decisions within the first 5-10 words of a choice without being patient and hearing the whole thing out. A savvy question creator – and rest assured that the GMAT is written by several of those – will use this against you, embedding something early in an answer choice and baiting you into a bad decision.
At Veritas Prep, we refer to this as one of two elements of the testmaker toolkit:
*”Hide the Right Answer”
*”Sell the Wrong Answer”
Consider this in a Sentence Correction question:
Immanuel Kant’s writings, while praised by many philosophers for their brilliance and consistency, are characterized by sentences a significant hurdle for many readers interested in his works.
A) so dense and convoluted as to pose
B) so dense and convoluted they posed
C) so dense and convoluted that they posed
D) dense and convoluted enough that they posed
E) dense and convoluted enough as they pose
This is a classic example of a hybrid “Hide the Right Answer” / “Sell the Wrong Answer” technique that preys on people’s desire to make a quick decision early in the answer choice. People do not like the (correct, but lesser-used) structure “so X that Y”, so they often eliminate A (the “hidden right answer”) for C (the “sold wrong answer”) because they prefer “so X that Y”. But the real decision to be made here isn’t one of sentence structure (both structures in A and C are correct) but rather one of verb tense (this is all ongoing, so “posed” in B, C, and D must be wrong”. Amazingly, very few students even get to the point at which they’ll notice the verb tense difference in pose/posed, having been so effectively drawn to the “false decision point” to the left. Those who are patient will be rewarded with a verb tense difference – one you should study quite a bit in practice – but many simply cannot help themselves and make their decision too early, too hastily, too far to the left-hand side of the screen.
Consider another example, this time from Critical Reasoning:
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 problem, the official’s conclusion is basically a direct contradiction of the previous claim that “you are not adequately preventing violent crime”, and he bases his contradiction on the fact that, hey look, the murder rate has gone down. His argument effectively reads:
Premise: The murder rate has gone down
Conclusion: Therefore we have done a good job preventing violent crime
In an effort to weaken his conclusion, you want to find a choice that exploits the gap “murder isn’t the only type of violent crime” – you want an answer that shows that another type of violent crime, or violent crime overall, is up.
And here’s where patience pays off (and haste hurts you):
Answer choice E does exactly what we want, 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 instead because healthcare is preventing the victims from dying. But hasty test-takers only see “If the health care…” and think that this answer choice is way out of scope. Why would health care be important in a discussion of crime?!
Again, patience is the key here – the testmaker knows that it can “Hide the Right Answer” by taking 10-12 words to get to the main point, and those of us racing to make our decisions quickly won’t have enough presence of mind to let it develop.
So take these lessons from the testmaker’s toolkit – the authors of hard questions will bet that you’ll work too quickly, make your decisions too far to the left-hand side of the screen, and miss the crucial part of the effective decision. Be patient, and more often you’ll be correct.
By Brian Galvin