Deciding Between the 2 Remaining Answer Choices on the GMAT

There is one feeling that hampers momentum and takes all the wind out of your sails on the GMAT. That feeling is the thrill of quickly eliminating three incorrect answer choices on a question, followed by complete uncertainty between the last two choices. This paralysis is very frustrating, because your progress is halted in dramatic fashion, and you’re left with two options that both seem to make perfect sense as the correct answer.

Students routinely report that they end up in this exact situation multiple times on test day, particularly on Critical Reasoning questions in the verbal section. Sometimes, you can predict the correct answer before perusing the answer choices, and avoid this dilemma. However, inference questions frequently ask for the best implication of the sentence, and many correct possibilities could exist. This leads to considering two answer choices as accurate, when in fact only one of them is correct.

As a simple example, a question could indicate that Ron is taller than Tom, and then ask for inferences based on this conclusion. Valid inferences that can be drawn from this situation include “Tom is shorter than Ron”, “Ron and Tom are not the same height”, and even (my personal favorite) “Ron is taller than Tom”. Indeed the exact same idea could be inferred from the conclusion because it must logically be true. More generally, multiple conclusions can all be inferred from the same statement, from the mundane to the insightful.

The one element that must always be considered is that any statement that can be inferred must be true in all situations. Oftentimes when you’re stuck selecting between two choices, one must actually be true whereas the other simply seems to be true. Our brains are trained to complete incomplete data, such as filling in missing letters in words and assuming relevant context (this is a perfet exmple). The GMAT test takers know this about human nature, so we must be careful not to fall into their clever traps and consider fringe corner situations when selecting between two tempting choices.

Let’s look at an example and see how the test makers exploit subtle differences in the answer choices:

SwiftCo recently remodeled its offices to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that certain businesses make their properties accessible to those with disabilities. Contractors built ramps where stairs had been, increased the number of handicapped parking spaces in the parking lot, lowered door knobs and cabinet handles, and installed adaptive computer equipment.

Which of the following is the most likely inference based on the statements above?

(A)   SwiftCo is now in compliance with ADA requirements.

(B)   SwiftCo has at least one employee or customer who uses a wheelchair.

(C)   Prior to the renovation, some doors and cabinets may have been out of reach for some employees.

(D)   The costs of renovation were less than what SwiftCo would have been liable for had it been sued for ADA violations.

(E)    Businesses without adaptive computer equipment are in violation of the ADA.

The situation (not the abs guy from Jersey Shore) above describes a recent remodel to the SwiftCo offices in order for them to comply with ADA regulations. The changes are described in some detail, from ramps to parking spots to door knobs. The question then asks us about which statement below is the most likely inference, which really means which of these must be true whereas the other four don’t have to be. Let’s do an initial pass to eliminate obvious filler.

Answer choice A “SwiftCo is now in compliance with ADA requirements“ seems perfect. The changes were made due to ADA standards, so A seems like a great choice. Let’s keep going.

Answer choice B “SwiftCo has at least one employee or customer who uses a wheelchair” makes some semblance of sense, because otherwise why install the ramps? However this clearly doesn’t have to be true, SwiftCo can simply be acting proactively in order to comply with standards. Answer choice B does not have to be true, and can thus be rapidly eliminated.

Answer choice C “Prior to the renovation, some doors and cabinets may have been out of reach for some employees” seems like another great choice. After all, why remodel if everything was already handy. This could easily be correct as well. Let’s keep going.

Answer choice D “The costs of renovation were less than what SwiftCo would have been liable for had it been used for ADA violations” makes a completely unsupported claim. (As Harvey Specter would say: “Objection. Conjecture”.) We can quickly eliminate this unconfirmed option as it does not have to be true.

Answer choice E “Businesses without adaptive computer equipment are in violation of the ADA” makes a similar claim to answer choice D, but at least has a little bit more logic behind it. If the company is installing adaptive equipment, it might be in order to comply with ADA regulations; however it might also be another proactive practice put in place by management of their own volition. Answer choice E doesn’t have to be true, and thus can be eliminated.

And thus we’re left with two answer choices that both seem reasonable. And yet there can be only one (so says Connor MacLeod). How do we select between answers A and C? Quite simply, we must look at every possible scenario and see if each option must still hold. This can be an arduous process, but sometimes the evaluation of discarded answer choices helps to guide our approach.

In evaluating answer choice E, the issue of whether or not these changes were exactly aligned with ADA requirements came up. It’s entirely possible that adaptive computer equipment is not required by ADA guidelines; however it’s also possible that it is required. We simply don’t have enough information to make that decision with the information given. That same logic, taken in a broader context, hints that the changes made may or may not align SwiftCo with ADA regulations. Therefore, although answer choice A could be true, it does not necessarily have to be. Perhaps ADA regulations call for other changes that weren’t effectuated for whatever reason (budget, space, zombies).

Comparing with answer choice C, some doors and cabinets may have been out of reach for some employees. The phrase does not even give 100% certainty that the handles were out of reach, it merely states that it was a possibility. If the handles were lowered, it’s likely because some people couldn’t reach them, but it could also have been a practical improvement. No matter the situation, answer choice C must therefore be true.

Often when pitting two choices against each other, students report that they couldn’t find any differences and essentially flipped a coin. (Always pick Heads!) There will always be a difference between two answer choices, and the trick is to determine in which situations the two options actually differ. One will always work, whereas the other one will have one or two corner cases in which it doesn’t hold. If you master the art of correctly separating the last two options, your coin flip becomes a much more attractive proposition. Heads I win. Tails the GMAT loses.

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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.