The Biggest Mistakes You Can Make in the GRE Verbal Section: Text Completion Questions

GRE VERBALIf you’re studying for the GRE Verbal section, you’re probably thinking a lot in terms of vocabulary. Both the Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence question types involve selecting a word that fills in a blank – a classic vocabulary-type setup.

While you do need a healthy vocabulary to be able to succeed on the Verbal section, people that overemphasize vocabulary (who are memorizing as many obscure words and definitions as possible) tend to feel a bit underprepared when they get to the test for the amount of critical thinking and work you need to put into some of these questions.

Before you continue, check out Part 1 of this lesson here, then keep reading or check out our video explanation of this concept below:

One thing to think about with GRE Verbal questions is how much work and critical thought you’ll need. It’s not just a quick response of, “Oh! I know that meaning; I know that word!” As you’ll see with the example below, a lot of times you need to be flexible in your thinking, willing to split hairs on the meanings of words that you already know, and have that willingness to start over and take a fresh look at the problem.

Now let’s take a look at what we mean by this concept with an example question:

Because of the author’s (i)______, many readers consider his latest work (ii)______ but, in reality, as many knowledgeable critics point out, the piece (iii)______.

Blank (i)
A) eloquence
B) prejudice
C) verbosity

Blank (ii)
D) inaccessible
E) poignant
F) polarizing

Blank (iii)
G) lack coherence and lucidity
H) has no discernible conclusion
I) is the most succinct on the subject

This is a classic Text Completion problem where you have three blanks and three answer choices for each. Now let’s talk about how people tend to approach this question:

Test-takers tend to find that the first two blanks agree with each other. “Because of one thing, someone will think another thing that is related.” As such, they start to see relationships between some of the answer choices. They might say, “Because someone is so ‘eloquent’ we think that their point is ‘poignant.'” Or, they might say, “Because someone is so ‘prejudiced’ people find their work is ‘polarizing.'” Or you may even say, “Due to the ‘verbosity’ – because someone uses so many words – their work is ‘inaccessible’ and difficult to get into.”

Now, the trick (or trap) with this kind of a setup is that test-takers tend to fall in love with their favorite pairings of the first two answer choices (A/E and  B/F). Maybe this is because people tend to start with answer choice A (eloquence) and then find a nice match for it (poignant). Then they just want to wedge in one of the last answer choices. A lot of times, test-takers will answer this question with “eloquence,” “poignant,” and “no discernible conclusion” or “lacks coherence.”

Here’s where you need to think critically about this question, and where the work really comes into play. Is it the really the case that the opposite of “poignant” is “doesn’t have a discernible conclusion” – that this is the counterpoint that comes with the transition word “but” in the middle of the sentence?  What if there isn’t really a conclusion because the author’s work is open-ended? It’s up for interpretation, but it could still be poignant. This is at least a possibility you might want to think about.

This also gets into one other thing that people tend to be underprepared for: making sure that every word in the prompt matters. In writing this test, the question writers aren’t getting paid by the word. If they put in something about “knowledgeable critics,” you should be asking yourself, “Why would these critics be the ones to point this out?” If you’re at this point still thinking about the first two answer choices maybe you’re right, but you should also see this as an invitation – you have to know, particularly if there’s a third blank space, with 5-7 words in some of the answer choices, that the Testmakers put that there, not because of a vocabulary word, but because of the meaning of the sentence. You’re really looking for one combination that has a very clear, very logical meaning.

So if we focus on these knowledgeable critics, again, you should ask yourself, “Why would they need to be the ones to point something out?” What you’ll find is that the correct logic for this question is that because of the author’s “verbosity” people find the work “inaccessible” and hard to get into, but, as the “knowledgeable critics” will point out, “We know this topic inside and out. This is actually the most succinct work you’re going to find on this dense topic. It’s not the author’s fault for being verbose.” So the correct answers are options C, D, and I.

The overall lesson of this question is important: when you have multiple blanks, a lot of times this means you need to go to work. You can’t fall in love with a strategy like, “Oh, great! I went from left to right, I found an answer for Blank 1 that I like that fits with an answer from Blank 2 that I like. Now I’ll just try to take a square peg and put it in a round hole with Blank 3 so I can be done…” One of the great virtues with multiple blank text completion is that you need to have the patience to say, “This is an okay triplet or pair, but I may be able to do better,” and then to start over and really go to work.

So as you approach GRE Verbal, make sure you have a robust vocabulary to go into it, but don’t let that come at the expense of your willingness to roll up your sleeves, really think of the meaning of the entire sentence, and maybe start over and look for different combinations. Because in a lot of ways, GRE Verbal is about your willingness to work.

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By Brian Galvin.