How to Spot Subtle Differences in GMAT Critical Reasoning Questions

One of the Critical Reasoning questions that students struggle with the most is the Roles of Boldface questions. This may be because they’re scarce (like diamonds), and therefore you aren’t likely to practice them as much as other question types. Or it may be because they ask you to differentiate among multiple definitions that all start to sound the same after a while. Is the first a position or is it an opinion, and is there any difference between those two? (Hint: there isn’t).

Roles of Boldface questions always ask about the roles of two different parts of the same passage. The two passages are separated by some amount of text, none of which is asked of you but all of which is nonetheless important. The five answer choices always present you with a description of the first part of the text, then a semi-colon, then the other part of the text. Much like sentence correction, your best friend on these questions is the process of elimination. You can eliminate answer choices that are incorrect on the first portion or the second portion until there is only one answer left.

To do this, you should logically and methodically eliminate answer choices once you see that they cannot possibly match up with the meaning of the passage. In a way, you’re like Lieutenant Commander Data on the starship Enterprise trying to understand human culture. Since you’re a robot, you can use deduction and logic to get to the right answer, but little else. Examining the choices one by one will isolate the correct answer given the specific premise (somehow I think Data would do quite well on the GMAT).

Let’s go through a fairly robust example and see how we can quickly eliminate erroneous choices:

Historian: In the Drindian Empire, censuses were conducted annually to determine the population of each village. Village census records for the last half of the 1600’s are remarkably complete. This very completeness makes one point stand out; in five different years, villages overwhelmingly reported significant population declines. Tellingly, each of those five years immediately followed an increase in a certain Drindian tax. This tax, which was assessed on villages, was computed by the central government using the annual census figures. Obviously, whenever the tax went up, villages had an especially powerful economic incentive to minimize the number of people they recorded; and concealing the size of a village’s population from government census takers would have been easy. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that the reported declines did not happen. In the historian’s argument, the two portions in boldface play which of the following roles?

(A)   The first supplies a context for the historian’s argument; the second acknowledges a consideration that has been used to argue against the position the historian seeks to establish.

(B)   The first presents evidence to support the position that the historian seeks to establish; the second acknowledges a consideration that has been used to argue against that position.

(C)   The first provides a context for certain evidence that supports the position that the historian seeks to establish; the second is that position.

(D)   The first is a position for which the historian argues; the second is an assumption that serves as the basis of that argument.

(E)    The first is an assumption that the historian explicitly makes in arguing for a certain position; the second acknowledges a consideration that calls that assumption into question.

The passage calls into question the truthfulness (And yes even the truthiness) of censuses taken over 300 years ago. The first portion seems to indicate the fact that the author wishes to contest, and the second part is some kind of opinion. The difference between the first part (fact) and the second part (opinion) should help us eliminate the incorrect choices. Let’s look at them one at a time:

A)     The first supplies a context for the historian’s argument; the second acknowledges a consideration that has been used to argue against the position the historian seeks to establish.

The first part is correct, but the second part is dead wrong. The author is not seeking to acknowledge a consideration that weighs against him; rather, he is in support of the second part. This is out.

B)      The first presents evidence to support the position that the historian seeks to establish; the second acknowledges a consideration that has been used to argue against that position.

This is the same principle as answer choice A. First part is fine, second part is a near-verbatim transcript of the second part of answer choice A. This one is out as well.

C)      The first provides a context for certain evidence that supports the position that the historian seeks to establish; the second is that position.

Bingo. This is correct on both portions. The first part is the context of the historian’s position, and the second part is exactly that opinion. We should check the other choices but this will be the correct answer.

D)     The first is a position for which the historian argues; the second is an assumption that serves as the basis of that argument.

The first part is not a position that anyone is arguing for or against. It’s simply a statement of fact. This answer can thus be eliminated.

E)      The first is an assumption that the historian explicitly makes in arguing for a certain position; the second acknowledges a consideration that calls that assumption into question.

The part is not an assumption either, so this answer choice can be eliminated in the same way as answer choice D.

The roles of boldface questions require you to keep a keen eye out for subtle differences in wording. However, they always tend to follow the same basic patterns, including two answer choices being incorrect about the first part and two being incorrect about the second part. Once you have understood the meaning of the passage, you have a much better chance of quickly eliminating the incorrect answer choices and selecting the correct answer. You may not go where no one has gone before, but at the very least you’ll boldly go directly to the correct answer.

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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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