How Hard is the Verbal Section of the GMAT?

Two weeks ago I wrote an article about whether the GMAT was hard. It is a question I get asked regularly from many different students with many different interpretations of what “hard” actually means. On test day, you may get a question that seems impossible to solve, and yet most other students get it right. This means that the question wouldn’t be considered difficult by the GMAT (say a 500 level question), but for you it seemed exceptionally difficult. The notion of difficulty is thus subjective, and while many would argue that the GMAT is hard, I have a much simpler explanation I have been postulating for the past couple of years:

The GMAT is not hard, the GMAT is tricky.

Last time, I examined how the GMAT attempts to trick students by using subtle word meaning and blatant misdirection from a predominantly mathematical point of view. Today, I’d like to elaborate on how these same elements apply to the verbal section as well.

A brief recap for those who haven’t read the previous article: The difference between hard and tricky is primarily that the GMAT will not test any material that wasn’t covered in a standard high school curriculum. Obviously, having a degree in English literature will give you an edge on many types of verbal questions, but a post-secondary education in the language is not necessary to solve any problem. The reason for this is to put students on as even a footing as possible. The downside of this is that the material cannot be advanced, by its very nature its high school level material.

The GMAT therefore has to offer difficult questions based on material that’s not inherently too difficult. What are some easy ways to make simple material more challenging? The first one is the timing aspect, so you only have a limited amount of time to answer the questions, but moreover you feel the pressure of time running out on you constantly. If you had unlimited time to answer the questions, most people would score significantly higher on the GMAT, so managing your time is paramount to getting a top score.

This is the same reason as to why there’s no spell check on the AWA. With a spell check, it’s a lot harder to differentiate between someone who has a mastery of the English language and someone who can just rely on the red underline in Word (or my bane: the green underline). It also forces you to have to come up with synonyms or alternatives if you’re unsure of the ideal phrasing (or trying to paraphrase the word “question” again).

To highlight these elements, let’s look at simple question that underscores the trickiness of the GMAT:

Even today, lions can be seen ruling the African plains, hunting almost any animal that crosses its path and intimidating all but the most intrepid hunters.

(A) lions can be seen ruling the African plains

(B) lions are able to be seen ruling the African plains

(C) lions rule the African plains

(D) the lion rules the African plains

(E) the lion species rules the African plains

This sentence correction question asks us to choose among several answers that all sound pretty similar. In fact, the first three answer choices are very similar, just with varying degrees of superfluous text added to each. The other two answers also seem very similar, but play around with the number of the subject. There seems to be a split along the number of the subject, but other than that, the choices seem distressingly similar.

At first glance, many students concentrate on the first part of the sentence and essentially ignore everything after the underlined portion. After all, if it were important, wouldn’t it be underlined? This tends to lead to a differentiation among the first three answer choices, all of which essentially say the same thing. In this case, most students would gravitate towards answer choice C as it is the most succinct version of the text. However the slight meaning difference between answers A and C leads many students to debate the merits of each answer choice. Often this can lead to indecision between the choices and an educated guess just to move on to the next question.

However, if you’ve gone down this path here (or on another similar question), you’ve fallen into a classic GMAT trap. You’ve just spent time deciding between two answer choices that are both incorrect! This process can be very frustrating on practice tests, but you’ll never know whether this situation arose on the actual GMAT because you’ll never know what the correct answer was (the NSA would know, though). What happened in this situation? The GMAT misled you into contrasting two answer choices with virtually identical meanings.

The difference between the first three answer choices and the last two hinges on the number of the subject. If the subject is plural, we need lions; if it’s singular, we need lion or lion species (this is singular even though it doesn’t sound like it!). The key to making this decision lies in the pronoun “its” located at the end of the line. Since the pronoun is singular, the subject must also be singular in order to avoid making an antecedent agreement error. Neither answer choice A nor C can be correct, so it must be either D or E. The correct answer will be D as it is the only one that has a logical meaning. If the subject were the lion species, it would be nonsensical to imagine crossing paths with a species. Answer D is also more succinct, which adds to its appeal (like driving a nice car).

The decisions asked of you on the GMAT do not tend to be hard, but they also do not tend to be straight forward. A lot of questions will try to mislead you or trick you into focusing on the wrong thing. Spending a minute choosing between two incorrect answer choices seems absurd, and yet it happens time and time again on this exam. The rules of grammar being tested on this exam, much like the mathematical rules being tested in the quant section, are not the hardest rules imaginable. However, they are specifically chosen to tricky and deceptive.

Going back to the industrial strength lock analogy I used two weeks ago, the same lessons can be applied in both verbal and quant. If you know the combination to the safe, you will get the correct answer quickly. If you’re attempting a brute force approach with every possible combination, you will certainly run out of time. However if you know which options to eliminate and which options to keep, you’ll do well on the test. As Kenny Rogers put it: You got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.

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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.