In 1946, a fascinating study about chess masters revealed that, for the most part, they had unexceptional working memories. This finding flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which held that chess masters must have had photographic memories to absorb thousands and thousands of scenarios they’d encountered throughout their years of training. Instead of relying on superior recall, it turns out that they were simply better than most at recognizing patterns.
Similarly, for all the dizzying content the GMAT requires you to internalize, the exam, more than anything else, is about pattern recognition. There are two ways we can improve at pattern recognition. The first, and most obvious, is that by doing many practice questions, our brains, like those of the aforementioned chess masters, will subconsciously absorb recurring patterns.
The second is to learn to recognize certain signposts and triggers that indicate what’s being tested. In Sentence Correction, for example, there are certain classic trigger words for parallel construction, such as “both,” “either/or,” and “not only/but also.” As soon as we see one of these constructions, we can immediately zero in on this part of the sentence and evaluate whether the items that follow the signpost are parallel to one another. If a phrase begins with “both in x,” for example, I know I want to see the parallel construction, “and in y,” in that same sentence. All of the other grammatical, stylistic, and logical considerations can temporarily be put aside. Once I’ve resolved this issue, if I’m left with more than one answer choice, I’ll look for other differences, but I’ll likely have narrowed my possibilities so much that the problem will be much less taxing than it would have been otherwise.
Take this Official Guide* problem, for example:
Many of the earliest known images of Hindu deities in India date from the time of the Kushan empire, fashioned either from the spotted sandstone of Mathura or Gandharan grey schist.
A) Empire, fashioned either from the spotted sandstone of Mathura or
B) Empire, fashioned from either the spotted sandstone of Mathura or from
C) Empire, either fashioned from the spotted sandstone of Mathura or
D) Empire and either fashioned from the spotted sandstone of Mathura or from
E) Empire and were fashioned either from the spotted sandstone of Mathura or from
The moment I see that “either” I’m focusing on this part of the sentence. Now watch how quickly I can eliminate incorrect options:
A) “either from spotted sandstone of Mathura or grey schist.” I want “either from x” or “from” I don’t have a second “from” here. A is out.
B) “either the spotted sandstone of Mathura or from grey schist.” See what they did here. Parallel construction begins when we see the parallel marker “either.” Now there is no “from” before the first item, but we do have it before the second one. “either x or from y” is not parallel. B is out.
C) “either fashioned from the spotted sandstone of Mathura or gray schist” Now we’re back to the original error of having “from x or y” rather than the desired “from x or from y.” C is out.
D) “either fashioned from the spotted sandstone of Mathura or from grey” A little better. We’d prefer “either fashioned from x or fashioned from y,” but at least we have the preposition “from” in front of both items. But now read that full first clause, “Many of the earliest known images of Hindu deities in India date from the time of the Kushan Empire and either fashioned from the spotted sandstone…” Well, that doesn’t make any sense. We’d want to say that the images date from the time of the Kushan Empire and were fashioned from the spotted sandstone. Without the verb “were,” the sentence is incoherent. Eliminiate D.
E) “either from the spotted sandstone of Mathura or from grey schist.” Now we see it. “either from x or from y.” We have our parallel construction. E is correct.
Let’s try another example*:
Thelonious Monk, who was a jazz pianist and composer, produced a body of work both rooted in the stride-piano tradition of Willie (The Lion) Smith and Duke Ellington, yet in many ways he stood apart from the mainstream jazz repertory.
A) Thelonious Monk, who was a jazz pianist and composer, produced a body of work both rooted
B) Thelonious Monk, the jazz pianist and composer, produced a body of work that was rooted both
C) Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, who produced a body of work rooted
D) Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk produced a body of work that was rooted
E) Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk produced a body of work rooted both
Again, we see one of the parallel trigger words. In this case, “both.” So the first thing I’ll do is examine the items that follow the parallel marker, “both rooted in the stride piano tradition.” If I begin a phrase with “rooted in x” I’ll want to follow that with “in y.” Notice that not only does the original sentence fail to do this, but the portion of the sentence we wish to change isn’t even underlined! Because we cannot produce a parallel construction here, we’ll need to eliminate the parallel marker “both” altogether. That means A, B, and E are all out. Now let’s evaluate C and D.
C) the clause, “who produced a body of work…” is set off by commas and functions as a modifier of Thelonious Monk. This means that the clause is incidental to the meaning of the sentence. But if we read the sentence without the modifier, we get, “Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, yet in many ways he stood apart from the mainstream jazz repertory.” Well, that doesn’t make any sense. “Yet” should connect two full clauses, but in this case, it connects the noun phrase, “Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk” to the full clause, “in many ways he stood apart from the mainstream jazz repertory.” This is incoherent. Eliminate C.
That leaves us with D, which is our answer. Recognizing the pattern and focusing on parallel construction allowed us to ignore the rest of what was a fairly complex sentence.
Takeaways: The GMAT is less a test of memorization than it is an exercise in pattern recognition. There’s no getting around having to see many examples of questions to prime our brains to recognize these patterns on test day, but there are certain structural clues that provide insight into what a particular question is testing. If we internalize those structural clues, suddenly the patterns we’re tasked with recognizing become far more conspicuous.
*Official Guide questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council.