GMAT Tip of the Week: Paying Attention to Specifics in Critical Reasoning

On sunny spring Fridays when the Veritas Prep curriculum development team begins talking about weekend plans, it’s not uncommon to hear a conversation like:

Brian: I’m going to try to get a lot of running in this weekend.

Chris: Yeah, I’m going to make sure to do some trail running.

And what’s the major difference? Recognizing it can help you master Critical Reasoning on the GMAT; what did Chris not have to say, but add anyway?

TRAIL running.

Both are talking about running, but Chris took that extra second to put “trail” in there, making for a much more specific statement. He didn’t have to say “trail” but by doing so he created a conclusion, so to speak, that’s easier to weaken. If a news bulletin were to be released saying something like “Because of wildfires, all hiking and running trails will be closed to the public this weekend” or “With a risk of flooding due to excessive rain, residents are strongly urged to stay off all hiking and running trails”, Chris’s specific plans are in serious jeopardy, whereas Brian’s more general plans are still much more likely to happen (even if it means the dreaded treadmill…).

Why is this important for the GMAT? Because those one-word (or phrase) specifics can make all the difference in the world when you’re trying to strengthen, weaken, or draw a conclusion. Consider an example:

With increased demand for natural resources from developing nations, the price of steel is dramatically increasing for manufacturers of durable goods. As these resources become ever more expensive and as developing nations are able to pay less in employee wages, American manufacturers’ only hope to compete is to significantly decrease their labor costs.

Which of the following would cast the most doubt upon the conclusion above?

Now, as you consider this argument, one word should stand out. What one word did the author not have to say but say anyway in regard to the only hope for American manufacturers to compete? Not costs in general; LABOR costs. That one word will make all the difference – without it, the argument is a whole lot harder to criticize. But with it, note that there are all kinds of costs that can be cut: distribution costs, machinery costs, plant maintenance costs, packaging costs… By adding that word “labor” to costs, the conclusion became unnecessarily specific, and you should be ready to pounce on that. ANY other type of cost that could be cut is not a weapon in your arsenal to show that the conclusion isn’t necessarily true, as there is now an alternative way to compete by reducing *that* other cost even if labor stays constant. The specificity of the conclusion leaves it all the more vulnerable, and provides you with a clue as to what the right answer will likely have.

Often, the correct answer to a Weaken CR question is an “alternative explanation” – a different way for the facts in the argument to be true without the conclusion also being true. The more specific the conclusion, the more alternative explanations are available. So seek out that specificity and look for the single word or phrase in a conclusion that dramatically limits its scope.