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GMAT Tip: 3 Essential Critical Reasoning Strategies

thinking_reasoningApproximately one-third of the GMAT Verbal problems you see will be of the Critical Reasoning variety, in which you read a paragraph (or two short paragraphs representing a dialogue) of up to 125 words and then answer a question based on it. While the general instructions are relatively straightforward, there are three things you must do in order to succeed on these problems.

1. Select the only correct answer.
The official instructions for Critical Reasoning read: “For these questions, select the best of the answer choices given.” This wording can cause some real problems for examinees who interpret it very literally. Why? Because looking for “the best” answer implies that there may be more than one “good” answer. That’s dangerous in practice, because you could look at the right answer and think “I get why that’s better than mine (but mine is still good)” and therefore overlook a fatal flaw in your thinking. This is risky on test day because it leads to your spending energy ranking or otherwise comparing answer choices more subjectively when, in reality, there is only one correct answer and the other four are definitely incorrect.

Knowing that there will always be one correct and four incorrect answers leads to an effective strategy. As you become more comfortable anticipating what a correct answer needs to look like, this knowledge allows you to stop once you’ve found the correct answer and immediately stop considering the others. And if you’re employing process-of-elimination, this pushes you to be more decisive as you look for definite flaws in the wrong answers. Further, this stops you from trying to defend your incorrect answer because you still believe it’s “a right answer, just not the best answer.” When you answer incorrectly, you’ve made a definite mistake that can teach you how to better approach these problems in the future.

2. Spend more time reviewing the prompt than the answer choices.
Critical Reasoning problems can lull test-takers into a false sense of security because they look and feel a bit more comfortable than their quantitative counterparts. Examinees tend to like the process of elimination and often only scan the prompt before really focusing in when it comes time to assess the answers. In actuality, the types of Critical Reasoning problems faced by those scoring in the neighborhood of 700 require just as much work before you get to the answers as tricky algebra and geometry problems do.

When you’re dealing with problems that ask you to strengthen or weaken an argument, to find an assumption on which an argument rests, or to find a piece of information that resolves a discrepancy between two facts, the prompt will always feature a gap in logic: why don’t these facts lead to this conclusion? Your most effective strategy is to determine what that gap in logic is, and then your job is to:

“Strengthen” or “Resolve the Paradox” questions: choose the answer that fills the gap.

“Weaken” questions: choose the answer that widens or exposes the gap.

“Assumption” questions: if you cannot find an answer that fills the gap, then consider the opposite of each answer choice and see which one directly widens the gap (i.e. the “Assumption Negation Technique,” which exists because Assumption answer choices are notorious for seeming innocent until you consider what would happen if they weren’t true).

In any event, when you encounter these problems you should try to identify a gap in logic and anticipate what kind of response would answer the problem. Challenging questions feature dense and cleverly-worded answer choices, and in most cases there are more sentences in the answer choices (five) than in the prompt itself (often three or four), so it’s very easy to get lost in the answer choices if you don’t have a good grasp on the argument first.

3. Resist the urge to eliminate answer choices before you’ve read them thoroughly.
An easy tool in the Testmaker’s toolkit is a several-word preamble to the correct answer, an introduction that seems irrelevant at first glance. Particularly because examinees get in such a process-of-elimination mindset, when they see that the first few words don’t seem to deal with the prompt at all – a famous-but-dangerous Critical Reasoning phrase that you’ll see all over the GMAT forums and question banks: “out of scope” – they happily eliminate that choice having not even read half of it.

Beware! The authors of these questions know that they can trap the hasty by “hiding the right answer” behind a few words of prelude, while at the same time rewarding those who are truly thinking critically (it’s critical reasoning, after all) and exercising patience while looking for the answer that most directly attacks the gap they discovered in the prompt. As GMAT tutors can universally attest, some of the most emphatic cross-outs on practice test scratchpads accompany these cleverly-hidden correct answers, so learn from the mistakes of those before you and exercise patience with the process of elimination.

The above article comes from Veritas Prep. Since its founding in 2002, Veritas Prep has helped more than 100,000 students prepare for the GMAT and offers the most highly rated GMAT Prep course in the industry.

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