GMAT Tip of the Week: Kanye West’s Everything I Am Teaches Critical Reasoning

GMAT Tip of the Week“Everything I’m not made me everything I am,” says Kanye West in his surprisingly-humble track Everything I Am. And while, unsurprisingly, much of what he’s talking about is silencing his critics, he might as well be rapping about making you an elite critic on Critical Reasoning problems. Because when it comes to some of the most challenging Critical Reasoning problems on the GMAT, everything they’re not makes them everything they are. Which is a convoluted way of saying this:

On challenging Strengthen and Assumption questions, the correct answer often tells you that a potential flaw with the argument is not true.

Everything that’s not true in that answer choice, then, makes the conclusion substantially more valid.

Consider this argument, for example:

Kanye received the most votes for the “Best Hip Hop Artist” award at the upcoming MTV Video Music Awards, so Kanye will be awarded the trophy for Best Hip Hop Artist.

If this were the prompt for a question that asked “Which of the following is an assumption required by the argument above?” a correct answer might read:

A) The Video Music Award for “Best Hip Hop Artist” is not decided by a method other than voting.

And the function of that answer choice is to tell you what’s not true (“everything I’m not”), removing a flaw that allows the conclusion to be much more logically sound (“…made me everything I am.”) These answer choices can be challenging in context, largely because:

1) Answer choices that remove a flaw can be difficult to anticipate, because those flaws are usually subtle.

2) Answer choices that remove a flaw tend to include a good amount of negation, making them a bit more convoluted.

In order to counteract these difficulties, it can be helpful to use “Everything I’m not made me everything I am” to your advantage. If what’s NOT true is essential to the conclusion’s truth, then if you consider the opposite – what if it WERE true – you can turn that question into a Weaken question. For example, if you took the opposite of the choice above, it would read:

The VMA for “Best Hip Hop Artist” is decided by a method other than voting.

If that were true, the conclusion is then wholly unsupported. So what if Kanye got the most votes, if votes aren’t how the award is determined? At that point the argument has no leg to stand on, so since the opposite of the answer directly weakens the argument, then you know that the answer itself strengthens it. And since we’re typically all much more effective as critics than we are as defenders, taking the opposite helps you to do what you’re best at. So consider the full-length problem:

Editor of an automobile magazine: The materials used to make older model cars (those built before 1980) are clearly superior to those used to make late model cars (those built since 1980). For instance, all the 1960’s and 1970’s cars that I routinely inspect are in surprisingly good condition: they run well, all components work perfectly, and they have very little rust, even though many are over 50 years old. However, almost all of the late model cars I inspect that are over 10 years old run poorly, have lots of rust, and are barely fit to be on the road.

Which of the following is an assumption required by the argument above?

A) The quality of materials used in older model cars is not superior to those used to make other types of vehicles produced in the same time period.

B) Cars built before 1980 are not used for shorter trips than cars built since then.

C) Manufacturing techniques used in modern automobile plants are not superior to those used in plants before 1980.

D) Well-maintained and seldom-used older model vehicles are not the only ones still on the road.

E) Owners of older model vehicles take particularly good care of those vehicles.

First notice that several of the answer choices (A, B, C, and D) include “is not” or “are not” and that the question stem asks for an assumption. These are clues that you’re dealing with a “removes the flaw” kind of problem, in which what is not true (in the answer choices) is essential to making the conclusion of the argument true. Because of that, it’s a good idea to take the opposites of those answer choices so that instead of removing the flaw in a Strengthen/Assumption question, you’re introducing the flaw and making it a Weaken. When you do that, you should see that choice D becomes:

D) Well-maintained and seldom-used older model vehicles ARE the only ones still on the road.

If that’s the case, the conclusion – “the materials used to make older cars are clearly superior to those used in newer ones” – is proven to be flawed. All the junkers are now off the road, so the evidence no longer holds up; you’re only seeing well-working old cars because they’re the most cared-for, not because they were better made in the first place.

And in a larger context, look at what D does ‘reading forward’: if it’s not only well-maintained and seldom-driven older cars on the road, then you have a better comparison point. So what’s not true here makes the argument everything it is. But dealing in “what’s not true” can be a challenge, so remember that you can take the opposite of each answer choice and make this “Everything I’m Not” assumption question into a much-clearer “Everything I Am” Weaken question.

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By Brian Galvin