Take Notes on Critical Reasoning Questions to Increase Your GMAT Score

writing essayImagine that you were tasked with writing questions for the GMAT. You have to produce questions that have a clear answer but will trip up a certain percentage of test-takers. How do you do that reliably? The most straightforward way I can think of is to simply inundate the test-taker with information. What elicits the loudest groans during Reading Comprehension? Long, technical passages. What is the most unpleasant thing to see in a Data Sufficiency question? Lots of complex information in the question stem.

It’s not that these questions are asking you to do hard things, but the information overload makes it hard to determine what it is that you have to do. In fact, there is a vast body of literature demonstrating that the human brain has fairly circumscribed limits when it comes to working memory. Certain questions are designed to exploit this hard-wired deficit.

So how do we combat the brain’s working memory limitations? As we learn more and more about how working memory functions, researchers have discovered effective techniques for improving it. One technique, which I mentioned in a previous post, is mindfulness meditation. Another proposed technique is the judicious use of certain kinds of brain-training games. (Note that the research on the efficacy of brain training is decidedly mixed. Some studies show a robust improvement in general fluid intelligence. Other studies conclude that the improvements participants make in the game are not transferrable to other realms. I’ll explore this in more detail in a future post.)

Though I am a proponent of practicing mindfulness – both for improving standardized test scores and for boosting our mental and physical health – and I certainly have nothing against brain-training, the best way to combat the strain that the GMAT puts on our working memory is simply to write things down. There’s no need to juggle all the dizzying elements in a complex question in your head. Break hard questions into smaller, more manageable bites.

Consider the following GMATPrep* Critical Reasoning argument.

Kernland imposes a high tariff on the export of unprocessed cashew nuts in order to ensure that the nuts are sold to domestic processing plants. If the tariff were lifted and unprocessed cashews were sold at world market prices, more farmers could profit by growing cashews. However, since all the processing plants are in urban areas, removing the tariff would seriously hamper the government’s effort to reduce urban unemployment over the next five years.

Which of the following, if true, most seriously weakens the argument?

  1. Some of the by-products of processing cashews are used for manufacturing paints and plastics
  2. Other countries in which cashews are processed subsidize their processing plants
  3. More people in Kernland are engaged in farming cashews than in processing them
  4. Buying unprocessed cashews at lower than world market prices enables cashew processors in Kernland to sell processed nuts at competitive prices
  5. A lack of profitable crops is driving an increasing number of small farmers in Kernland off their land and into the cities

When I read this and try to internalize all the information, I can actually feel the strain. It’s unpleasant. So let’s boil this way down. When there is a tariff, domestic farmers are forced to sell to domestic producers. This is bad for farmers because they don’t have access to all relevant markets, and it’s good for domestic producers, because they’re competing against fewer potential buyers. As an arrow diagram, it might look like this:

Tariff –> hurt farmers –> helps domestic producers

The argument is about removing the tariff, which would, presumably, produce the opposite result. Now the farmers benefit because they have an additional market to sell to, and the domestic producers are harmed because they have to compete with foreign producers to buy the raw cashews. Our new arrow diagram would look like this:

No Tariff –> helps farmers –> hurt domestic producers.

The argument’s conclusion is that because removing the tariff will harm the domestic producers, the end result will be rising unemployment in cities. So we can tack that on to the arrow diagram:

No Tariff –> helps farmers –> hurt domestic producers –> rising unemployment in cities

If we want to weaken this argument, we want an answer choice that shows that removing the tariff will not cause unemployment to rise in cities, but rather, that not having a tariff might be good for the urban employment rate. (And note the scope here: we’re talking about urban unemployment. Attention to language detail is always crucial in CR questions).

To the answers:

  1. Hard to see how the use of the by-products will shed much light on urban unemployment. Out of Scope.
  2. Other countries? We’re talking about urban unemployment in Kernland. Out of scope.
  3. This one is interesting. We know that removing the tariff benefits farmers. If more people are farming than processing, it stands to reason that more people benefit from the tariff’s removal. But does this tell us anything about urban unemployment? The farmers don’t live in the city. The producers do. So if those producers are hurt, urban unemployment can still go up, even if they’re outnumbered by farmers. No good.
  4. We’re told specifically that if the tariff were lifted, cashews would sell “at world market prices.” Any benefit from selling at below market prices could only be realized if there were a tariff. But we’re trying to show that removing the tariff is a good thing! This answer choice does the exact opposite.
  5. This is correct, but requires a little unpacking. Remember that the tariff hurt the farmers. So back in the tariff days, the farmers were struggling, and, according to this answer choice, were forced to flee to the cities. There’s no reason to believe that these farmers had jobs waiting for them, so this chain of events would raise urban unemployment. But, if we remove the tariff, the farmers benefit, and if farmers are doing well, they won’t have to flee to the city, which would actually reduce Exactly what we want. (Note also that we’re talking about urban employment. This is the only answer choice that even mentions cities.)

This was a tough one. The point here is that the best way to grapple with complexity is to distill information into digestible bits. Write down what you want in a single phrase or two. A full paragraph laden with terminology can be hard to work with. A simple arrow diagram, like “No tariff –> lower urban unemployment” is far more manageable. You have a scratch pad for a reason – to give your working memory a break.

* GMATPrep® questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council.

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By David Goldstein, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston. You can find more articles by him here.