GMAT Tip of the Week: Serenity and Sentence Correction

GMAT Tip of the WeekIf you’re reading this, you’re probably hoping for a 700+ score on the GMAT.  You’re probably wishing for a 700+ score on the GMAT.  And you may well be praying for a 700+ score on the GMAT.

And if you’re praying, one prayer in particular is your best hope to maximize your GMAT Verbal performance, regardless of whether you can benefit from divine intervention.  No matter your faith or belief system, the Serenity Prayer is critical to your Sentence Correction success:


God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.​

You can view this as a prayer or simply a personal mantra.  But you’d better keep it close to heart.  On GMAT Sentence Correction problems you MUST maintain the serenity to accept that there will be sentence structures and word choices that you cannot change, and you MUST instead focus on changing those things that you can. Now let’s supply the wisdom to know the difference.


The non-underlined portion.  Particularly when studying, many GMAT students love to protest problems on the basis that the non-underlined portion “doesn’t sound right” or “is awkward and clumsy” or “I think it has an error…this question is flawed!”.  In truth, the GMAT (and reputable creators of replica study problems) intentionally uses strange structures in large part to test your ability to maintain that serenity.  You can only change what they give you the option to change, and those who can’t handle the stress of having limited control are at a distinct disadvantage.

The five answer choices.  For many GMAT problems we all would prefer to just rewrite our own sentence.  How many times have you started to write a sentence in an email or essay then realized “I’m not sure if this is grammatically correct” and then deleted and written a brand-new sentence to avoid that uncertainty?  We all do that, regularly, and so on the GMAT you have that primal desire to want to write your own sentence. But you don’t have that option.  You have to accept that you can’t write your own answer choice and that “the game” is largely about your ability to play it by the test’s rules.

The author’s intent.  GMAT students love to ask “what if?” on Sentence Correction problems, motivated in part by fear “but what if they had two right answers?” and in part by protest “I don’t like the right answer so let me suggest this other right answer (like the point above) – okay hotshot teacher what would you do now?”.  This is virtually never a productive discussion, so accept the serenity that it’s a waste of your time.  There will always be exactly one correct answer and exactly four incorrect answers.  And whether that correct answer feels wrong or strange to you, it’s correct. And whether you think you could change that wrong answer you picked through a word change here or there, that’s not what the question was about.  The GMAT spends roughly $5,000 per question in research, development, and administration costs; these problems are “scientifically” chosen to look exactly the way they look. You can’t change the problem; your job is to learn from it.


The underlined portion of the sentence.  They give you five ways to phrase that section and the only real choice you have in the matter is which of those five provides a logical meaning and is free from error.  That’s your job, so harness your “courage to change the things you can” toward making that choice effectively.

The way that you approach SC problems.  Most of us read from left to right and from top to bottom, but on Sentence Correction problems you can and should change that approach to suit your strengths. Attack major grammatical errors first, emphasizing those that you know you’re best at (for most of us those include subject-verb agreement, pronoun agreement, and verb tenses).  Defer choices that you’re not 100% certain on while you search for better ones; no one said you have to make a decision on A first, then B, then C…  You can hunt for the errors you feel most comfortable spotting, then work your way toward major differences between the remaining answer choices.

Your study mindset.  Much more on the verbal section than on the quant, students have a tendency to fight for their answer choice.  “But wait…”  “But what if…”  “But I thought…”  Which in and of itself isn’t a terrible thing; the fact that you’re heavily invested in the problem is a great sign.  But (there’s that word again) what’s most important isn’t being right in practice, it’s being right on test day.  Learning how the GMAT uses strange structures to throw you off is helpful; when you don’t like a correct answer, think about that structure or phrasing and pay attention to it when you see it in writing elsewhere.  When you fall victim to a trap, think about what tempted you with the wrong answer and how the testmaker threw you off the scent of the correct answer.  GMAT Sentence Correction rewards serenity, courage, and knowledge.  You have to have the serenity to accept that you can’t change most of what you’re reading and that you will undoubtedly find correct answers that aren’t written the way you’d write them.  You have to have the courage to deflect decisions you know you’re not good at and the patience to scan until you find decisions that you know you can make.  And you have to have the knowledge that it’s all part of the game and that those who succeed on these questions are the ones who recognize and embrace that.  You may not be able to pray your way to 700+, but the Serenity Prayer is a great start in that direction.

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By Brian Galvin