GMAT Tip of the Week: Put the Critic in Critical Reasoning

Admit it: you’re a critical person. When you drive, you criticize the others on the road. When you’re in a long line at a store or DMV, you criticize the way the establishment runs things. When you’re at the airport, you criticize the way that others dress and act. No need to deny it — like anything, being critical is a matter of interpretation as to whether it’s a good or bad thing. Critical person? Bad. Critical thinker? Harvard material. And on the GMAT, it pays to embrace your inner critic.

One of the least-used but most-useful ways of doing so takes place on Critical Reasoning questions that ask you to identify an assumption that an author makes when constructing an argument. True, the correct answer will strengthen, and not weaken, the author’s conclusion, but we’re much better at criticizing than we are at defending, and when given the option we should probably choose the former.

Consider this argument and question:

When it rains for more than an hour immediately before or during a baseball game, the game is canceled. Therefore, tomorrow’s game is sure to be canceled.

The author of the argument above assumes which of the following?

(A) The manager of the home team has already begun planning his pitching rotation around the impending cancellation.

(B) The ticket office has issued a statement to ticketholders regarding the rain check policy.

(C) It will rain for an extended period of time leading up to tomorrow’s scheduled game time.

Looking at the answer choices, each seems to be a good reason to believe the conclusion, that the game will be cancelled. If, according to choice A, the manager is already planning for a cancellation, it seems quite likely that the game is doomed. If, according to choice B, the ticket office has begun its preparations for a cancellation, it’s also likely that the game won’t be played. But neither of these is a correct answer for an assumption that the author makes, regardless of whether they would aid his case if they were true.

An assumption is a missing premise — one upon which the author’s argument depends. This fact can help you to navigate answer choices, as if the correct answer is required in order to believe the author’s argument, if it weren’t true then the argument would fail to hold. Accordingly, you can quickly turn these questions into opportunities to be critical, something you do quite well!

To use what we call the Assumption Negation Technique, which allows you to convert these assumption questions into Weaken questions, take each answer choice and negate it, making it an opposite statement. When done so, the correct answer will directly contradict the author’s conclusion, while the others will fall safely out of scope. To negate these answer choices:

(A) The manager of the home team has NOT begun planning his pitching rotation around the impending cancellation.

WRONG: Whether or not the manager has begun to prepare for the cancellation has no bearing on whether it will rain enough for the game to be cancelled. The manager may have many reasons not to have begun that prep, most of which are unrelated to the weather.

(B) The ticket office has NOT issued a statement to ticketholders regarding the rain check policy.

WRONG: Again, whether the ticket office has begun preparing for a cancellation — or whether it even has a rain check policy to begin with — has no bearing on whether the game will be cancelled.

(C) It will NOT rain for an extended period of time leading up to the game’s scheduled start time.

CORRECT: Our only basis for concluding that the game will be canceled is the rainout policy described in the argument. If it were true that it would not rain, we’d have no way to conclude anything about the game. This demonstrates that choice C is essential to the author’s argument; without it, the argument is meaningless.

By using these opportunities to allow yourself to be more critical, you can answer these questions from a position of your own natural strength — as a critic. When faced with assumption questions on the GMAT, see them as opportunities to do what you do best — be critical. After all, that’s the name of the game (which will not be canceled).

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