GMAT Tip of the Week: Synchronizing Twizzles in Critical Reasoning

GMAT Tip of the WeekAs the Sochi Olympics enter their final weekend, we all have our lists of things we’ll miss and not miss from this sixteen-day celebration of snow and ice. We’ll almost all miss the hashtag #sochiproblems, the cutaway shots of a scowling Vladimir Putin, the bro show of American snowboarders and TJ Oshie, and the debate over whether the skating judges conspired to give Russia the team gold and the US the ice dancing gold.

And almost none of us will miss Bob Costas’s pinkeye, aggressive interviews designed to make Bode Miller cry, prime time events that lasted well past bedtime for a school night, and the way that announcers for figure skating so critically point out potential deductions and problems even while these athletes do unconscionably amazing things on thin blades on ice.

But we can learn from those skating announcers. They’re critical because the job demands it, because the untrained eye doesn’t recognize those ever-important subtleties that take otherwise amazing performances and separate the gold from the bronze. Much like a good Critical Reasoning test-taker has to notice those subtle-but-significant flaws that make otherwise-valid arguments fail, skating judges and announcers make their money by noting those tiny flaws. That’s the way the game is played.

So your job on Critical Reasoning questions is essentially to be a figure skating announcer – you need to notice those subtle flaws. In skating, sometimes the twizzles aren’t perfectly synchronized; in Critical Reasoning, too, sometimes the premises and conclusion aren’t perfectly synchronized. As an example, try this problem:

The team of Schleicher and Sun should win the gold medal in ice dancing. After all, they were leading after the short program and they skated the long program with fewer mistakes than any other pair. Therefore, they should end up with the highest overall score.

The argument above relies on which of the following assumptions?

(A) None of the judges will allow bias to affect their scoring decisions.

(B) Schleicher and Sun also skated the short program with fewer mistakes than any other pair.

(C) Schleicher and Sun did not make any noticeable mistakes in either the short or the long program.

(D) Factors other than their number of mistakes do not affect a pair’s overall score.

(E) Schleicher and Sun’s twizzles were perfectly synchronized.

On the surface, the argument above may make a lot of sense. But look at the way that the major premise (“they skated the long program with fewer mistakes”) and the conclusion (“they should end up with the highest overall score”) are not synchronized. “Fewest mistakes” isn’t the same thing as “highest score”. If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you might bring in that knowledge that degree of difficulty plays a factor, as often does the difficulty toward the latter half of the long program. But even if you didn’t have that outside knowledge – which you won’t have on most GMAT CR questions – you should see that the premise and conclusion are not synchronized. They don’t talk about the same thing, even though it’s close. And *that* is the blueprint for most Strengthen/Weaken CR questions – when the premise and conclusion aren’t quite synchronized, when they leave a little room in between them because they’re not talking about the exact same thing, that’s where you know you can be critical. That’s where the deductions lie.

In this question, that leaves D open as a correct answer. Since “Number of mistakes” is part of – but not necessarily all of – the scoring of a pair’s routine, choice D exploits that little lack of synchronization. More important is the lesson – just as the television announcers are quick to point out unsynchronized twizzles, you should train yourself to notice those little lacks of synchronization between premise and conclusion. Often this can happen when:

  • the premise is a subset of the conclusion (like “number of mistakes” and “overall score”, or “arrests” and “crimes committed”)
  • the premise and conclusion are very similar but not quite the same thing (like “revenue” and “profit”)
  • the premise or conclusion adds a limiting word that makes it narrower than the other (for example, if the conclusion is about “manufacturing costs” but the premise is only about “overall cost”)

Remember, the question type “Critical Reasoning” has “critical” right there in the name – like figure skating announcers, then, you need to be critical as the job demands it. So steal a page from their book – if the premise and conclusion aren’t synchronized, you have to acknowledge that flaw.

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By Brian Galvin