The Importance of Catching Details on the GMAT

Magnifying GlassIn our everyday lives, we all understand that attention to linguistic detail is important. When my wife tells me I need to pick up my daughter, I don’t unconsciously filter out minor elements like where my daughter is or what time I’m supposed to get her. Similarly, if you were on the phone making plans with a friend, you’d never hang up before knowing what you’d made plans to do.

Details aren’t just important – almost every conversation we have would be totally incoherent if we didn’t pay attention to them. And yet, for whatever reason, on the GMAT, we have a tendency to skim over these very same details without absorbing them. This tendency, I find, is particularly pronounced on Critical Reasoning questions. Take this question, which I reviewed with a student the other day:

Citizens of Parktown are worried by the increased frequency of serious crimes committed by local teenagers. In response the city government has instituted a series of measures designed to keep teenagers at home in the late evening. Even if the measures succeeded in keeping teenagers at home, however, they are unlikely to affect the problem that concerns citizens, since more crimes committed by local teenagers take place between 3p.m. and 6p.m. 

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

A) Similar measures adopted in other places have failed to reduce the number of teenagers on the streets in the late evening. 

B) The crimes committed by teenagers in the afternoon are mostly small thefts and inconsequential vandalism 

C) Teenagers are much less likely to commit serious crimes when they are at home than when they are not at home 

D) Any decrease in the need for police patrols in the late evening would not mean that there could be more intensive patrolling in the afternoon 

E) The schools in Parktown have introduced a number of after-school programs that will be available to teenagers until 6 p.m. on weekday afternoons.

My student broke down the argument quickly. He saw that the conclusion was that the city’s plan to keep teenagers at home in the late evening was unlikely to be successful because most teenage crimes were committed earlier in the day.

When I asked him to reiterate what the fine citizens of Parktown were concerned about, he shrugged and said ‘crime.’ Of course, this wasn’t wrong, per se, but it was incomplete. When I followed up and asked what kind of crime they were worried about, he was puzzled at first. It wasn’t until I asked him to reread the first sentence of the argument and to pay very close attention to adjectives that it clicked.

The citizens were worried about serious crime. And this makes sense. If someone told you that the neighborhood you were about to move in to had a very high crime rate, your reaction would not be the same if those crimes consisted largely of jay-walking as it would if you discovered that those crimes were more serious offenses. I then asked him to reread the sentence at the very end of the passage. This time, he got it.

While it’s true that the majority of crimes were committed between 3 and 6 pm, the argument doesn’t specify what kinds of crimes were committed during these hours. It’s this gap between the crimes that the citizens were concerned about – serious ones – and the crimes we’re given evidence about – all crimes – that is the key to this question. If the teenagers are jay-walking in the early afternoon, but engaging in far more damaging behavior in the evening, the plan to impose the curfew still makes sense, even if, technically, those jay-walking offenses constitute a majority of the crimes committed.

Now let’s go to the answer choices:

A: We’re trying to weaken the idea that the plan won’t work. If the plan didn’t work in other places, that certainly doesn’t weaken the idea that the plan won’t work in Parktown. A is out.

B: This looks good. Even though the crimes committed between 3 and 6 constitute a majority of the total crimes, these crimes are trivial. The citizens of Parktown are worried about serious crimes, which, if they’re committed at night, the curfew would help prevent. B is the correct answer.

C: This does nothing to address the core issue of the argument, which is that the plan won’t work because most crimes are committed before the curfew takes effect.

D: While decreasing the need for police patrols is a laudable objective, this isn’t relevant to the argument. Moreover, if the police patrols weren’t more available in the afternoon, when most crimes are committed, there’s certainly no reason to have more confidence that the curfew would be effective.

E: I am a fan of after-school programs, but the availability of such activities sheds little light on whether the curfew will work. After all, if teenagers are determined to commit crimes in the afternoon, the fact that they could join the Glee Club if they want to is unlikely to serve as an effective deterrent to whatever mischief they had planned.

Takeaway: Typically, when we talk about modifiers, we’re doing so in the context of Sentence Correction, but modifiers are no less important in Critical Reasoning. Information about “what kind,” “where,” and “when,” will be absolutely crucial to assessing any argument we encounter. If a modifier is present in the argument’s conclusion, but not in the argument’s premises, that is something we want to note. We make the effort to pay attention to these details when dealing with the mundane activities of our everyday lives, so let’s not neglect those same details on the GMAT.

*GMATPrep question 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.