How to Interpret GMAT Critical Reasoning Questions

Ron Point_GMAT TipsInterpreting what is being asked on a question is arguably the most important skill required in order to perform well on the GMAT. After all, since the topics are taken from high school level material, and the test is designed to be difficult for college graduates, the difficulty must often come from more than just the material. In fact, it is very common on the GMAT to find that you got “the right answer to the wrong question.” This phrase is so well-known that it merits quotation marks (and eventually perhaps its own reality show).

What does this expression really mean? (Rhetorical question) It means that you followed the logic and executed the calculations properly, but you inputted the wrong parameters. As an example, a problem could ask you to solve a problem about the price of a dozen eggs, but along the way, you have to calculate the price of a single egg. If you’re going too fast and you notice that there’s an answer choice that matches your result, you might be tempted to pick it without executing the final calculation of multiplying the unit price by twelve. While this expression is often used for math problems, the same concept can also be applied to the verbal section of the exam.

The question category that most often exploits erroneous interpretations of a question is Critical Reasoning. In particular, the method of reasoning subcategory appropriately named “Mimic the Reasoning”. These types of questions are reminiscent of SAT questions (or LSAT questions for some) and hinge on properly interpreting what is actually stated in the problem.

Let’s look at an example to highlight this issue:

Nick: The best way to write a good detective story is to work backward from the crime. The writer should first decide what the crime is and who the perpetrator is, and then come up with the circumstances and clues based on those decisions.

Which one of the following illustrates a principle most similar to that illustrated by the passage?

A) When planning a trip, some people first decide where they want to go and then plan accordingly, but, for most of us, much financial planning must be done before we can choose where we are going.
B) In planting a vegetable garden, you should prepare the soil first, and then decide what kind of vegetables to plant.
C) Good architects do not extemporaneously construct their plans in the course of an afternoon; an architectural design cannot be divorced from the method of constructing the building.
D) In solving mathematical problems, the best method is to try out as many strategies as possible in the time allotted. This is particularly effective if the number of possible strategies is fairly small.
E) To make a great tennis shot, you should visualize where you want the shot to go. Then you can determine the position you need to be in to execute the shot properly.

This type of question is asking us to mimic, or copy, the line of reasoning even though the topic may be totally different. The issue is thus to interpret the passage, paraphrase the main ideas in our own words, and then determine which answer choice is analogous to our summary. Theoretically, there could be thousands of correct answers to a question like this, but the GMAT will provide us with four examples to knock out and one correct interpretation (though sometimes it feels like a needle in a haystack).

Let’s look at the original sentence again and try to interpret Nick’s point. The first sentence is: The best way to write a good detective story is to work backward from the crime. This means that, wherever we want to go, we should recognize that we should start at the end and work our way backwards. This is a similar principle as solving a maze (or reading “Of Mice and Men”). The second sentence is: The writer should first decide what the crime is and who the perpetrator is, and then come up with the circumstances and clues based on those decisions. This means that, once we know the ending, we can layer the text with hints so that the ending makes sense to the audience. Astute readers may even guess the ending based on the clues (R+L = J), and will feel rewarded for their keen observations.

Summarizing this idea, the author wants us to start at the end and work our way backwards so that we end up exactly where we want. The next step is to apply this logic to each answer choice in turn:

For answer choice A, when planning a trip, some people first decide where they want to go and then plan accordingly, but, for most of us, much financial planning must be done before we can choose where we are going, the first part about choosing a destination is perfect. However, the second part goes off the rails by introducing a previously unheralded concept: limitations. The author was not initially worried about limitations, financial or otherwise, so answer choice A is half right, which is not enough on this test. We can eliminate A.

Answer choice B, in planting a vegetable garden, you should prepare the soil first, and then decide what kind of vegetables to plant. While this is good general advice, it has nothing to do with our premise. Starting with the soil is the very definition of starting at the beginning. A more correct (plant-based) answer choice would state that we want to start with which plants we want in the garden and then work backwards to find the right soil. This is incorrect, so answer choice B is out.

Answer choice C, good architects do not extemporaneously construct their plans in the course of an afternoon; an architectural design cannot be divorced from the method of constructing the building, changes the timeline (much like Terminator Genysis). We must consider both issues simultaneously, which is not what the original passage postulated. We can eliminate answer choice C.

Answer choice D is: in solving mathematical problems, the best method is to try out as many strategies as possible in the time allotted. This is particularly effective if the number of possible strategies is fairly small. This is not only incorrect, but particularly bad advice for aspiring GMAT students. In fact, the author is describing backsolving, because we are starting at the answer and working our way backwards. We are not proposing “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks”. Answer D is out.

This leaves answer choice E, to make a great tennis shot, you should visualize where you want the shot to go. Then you can determine the position you need to be in to execute the shot properly. Not only must it be the correct answer given that we’ve eliminated the other four selections, but also it perfectly recreates the logic of planning backwards from the end. Answer choice E is the correct selection.

For method of reasoning questions, and on the GMAT in general, it’s very important to be able to interpret wording. If you cannot paraphrase the statements presented, then you won’t be able to easily eliminate incorrect answer choices. Part of acing the GMAT is not giving away easy points on questions that you actually know how to solve. If you read carefully and paraphrase concepts as they come up, you’ll be interpreting a high score on test day.

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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.