How Well Would Mark Twain Do on the GMAT?

I’ve often contemplated who would excel at the GMAT. After all, the exam is about logic, analytical skills, problem-solving abilities and time management. Surely to shine on the exam a test taker should be smart, methodical, insightful and perceptive (and blindingly handsome). Clearly, some people have done quite well on this exam, but others never got the chance because they never actually took the test. While some have been intimidated by the nature of the test, others simply were born too early to have even heard of this exam.

The GMAT was first administered in 1953, and roughly 250,000 students take this exam on a yearly basis. Every year, I see students studying for the exam, hoping that a good grade gets them accepted to the business school of their choice. However, I believe one person who would have fared well on the test died about 40 years before the first exam was even introduced. I’m referring to noted American author Mark Twain.

Mark Twain is often referred to as the father of American literature, but his off colour remarks made him something of a celebrity in the 19th Century. He was known for quotes that could be construed as inconsiderate, but often were just humorous observations on everyday minutiae (like a historical Seinfeld). As a renowned author, he undoubtedly could have excelled at the verbal section of the GMAT by noticing little details that others could overlook.

As this blog is nothing if not introspective, let’s look at a sentence correction problem about Mark Twain, and solve it in the way Twain likely would (Inception).

A letter by Mark Twain, written in the same year as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were published, reveals that Twain provided financial assistance to one of the first Black students at Yale Law School.

(A)   A letter by Mark Twain, written in the same year as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were published,

(B)   A letter by Mark Twain, written in the same year of publication as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,

(C)   A letter by Mark Twain, written in the same year that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published,

(D)   Mark Twain wrote a letter in the same year as he published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that

(E)    Mark Twain wrote a letter in the same year of publication as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that

An astute observer such as Mark Twain would first notice that there is a clear 3-2 split between answer choices that begin with “A letter by Mark Twain” and “Mark Twain wrote a letter…” It is possible that either turn of phrase could be correct, but it is more likely that we can eliminate one selection entirely because it does not flow properly with the rest of the sentence.

The original sentence (answer choice A) postulates that a letter by Mark Twain reveals that he provided financial assistance to an aspiring young law student many years ago. This phrase makes logical sense and does not have to be automatically discarded. The other options begin with “Mark Twain wrote a letter that reveals that Twain provided financial assistance…” Even without the redundancy of “that reveals that”, the timeline of this sentence does not work properly. If Mark Twain wrote a letter in the past, then the letter would have “revealed” the information, and would have needed to have been conjugated in the past. An author like Twain would eliminate answers D and E as the timeline construction does not make sense.

With only three options remaining, Twain would examine the differences between answer choices A, B and C more closely. The only real difference between answer choices A and C is the verb agreement of the publication of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Answer choice proposes that the verb be plural, while answer choice C contains the singular conjugation of the verb. While “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” sounds plural, it is actually the title of a single book and therefore must be treated as a singular noun. Answer choice A can thus be eliminated because of the agreement error.

Having narrowed the quest down to only two choices, Twain would likely contrast the two choices again and note the construction of answer choice B is faulty.  If we follow the logic: “A letter by Mark Twain, written in the same year of publication as Huck Finn…” doesn’t make any sense. Grammatically, the letter is supposed to have been written in the same year that the novel was published, yet the grammar indicates that both the letter and novel were published in the same year. This change in meaning eliminates answer choice B, and leaves only answer choice C as the correct option.

Eliminating incorrect answer choices is the name of the game in Sentence Correction, and a shrewd reader can easily differentiate between turns of phrase that are acceptable and garbled prose that doesn’t mean anything. Remember that only one answer choice can be correct, so you must eliminate incorrect answer choices by any means you have available to you. It’s fine to think of yourself as a 19th Century author and begin to decimate the given answer choices. Just because most people don’t think of themselves as Cosplayers during the GMAT (they just can’t pull off the elaborate costumes), that doesn’t mean you can’t use your imagination to your advantage. To quote Twain: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect”.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? We have GMAT prep courses starting all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

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.