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GMAT Tip: Don’t Apply Your Outside Knowledge

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The way that we tackle the GMAT Critical Reasoning section (or, you know, most of the GMAT) requires we have the unique mindset of pretending we are totally clueless, but also a keen expert who can find the gap in assumptions made by a critical reading prompt.

What do we mean by clueless? Let’s start with one of our favorite Critical Reasoning questions:

Numerous ancient Mayan cities have been discovered in the Yucatan peninsula in recent decades. The ruins lack any evidence of destruction by invading forces, internal revolts, or disease, and appear simply to have been abandoned. Some archaeologists have theorized that the cities were abandoned due to a severe drought known to have occurred in the region between 800 and 1000 AD.

Which of the following, if true, most strongly supports the archaeologists’ theory?

(A) Ample archaeological evidence of Mayan peasant revolts and city-state warfare exists, but such events could never result in the permanent abandonment of cities.

(B) No monumental inscriptions created after 900 AD have been found in these cities, but inscriptions dating before that time have been found in abundance.

(C) Studies of Yucatan lake sediment cores provide conclusive evidence that a prolonged drought occurred in the region from 800 to 1000 AD.

(D) Climatic studies have documented cycles of intermittent drought in the Yucatan peninsula dating from the present to at least 7,000 years ago.

(E) The Mayan city Uxmal was continuously inhabited from 500 to 1550 AD.

The prompt of this Critical Reasoning question is historical in nature and, it is quite possible you know all about the abandonment of Mayan cities in the pre-Colombian era and what caused the abandonment of these cities. But… the GMAT is not trying to teach you a history lesson. Promise.

What we need to tackle this problem effectively is not focus on the subject of the essay or even the information provided, but simply on how we are going to find the hole in the argument. The key to being successful on the Critical Reasoning section is understanding that we tackle these questions and choices in the same way, every single time, regardless of the topic being written about. Make sure to ask yourself – what information do we know? Is this a strength, weaken, inference, or method of reasoning question? How is the argument structured? What hints do I have from this prompt?

For this particular question, we hopefully have recognized they are asking whether or not the drought has occurred. Anytime we see numbers, it should be a big hint – here, we need to figure out whether the Mayans left around the time that the drought occurred, between 800 and 1000 AD – because we cannot prove for certain with the information provided that the Mayan did indeed disappear during this drought and because of said drought.

Test takers that bring in outside knowledge tend to go with (C) because they feel that the information provided in the prompt already is not sufficient to prove that, indeed, said drought happened. The reality is that answer choice (B) gives us the information we are looking for, sharing with us secondary evidence that indeed, the Mayans must have been gone around this time and, therefore, the drought was the culprit for their disappearance.

Looking at the information as a skeptic who knows nothing about Mayan history is key to the success for questions such as this one. When tackling Critical Reasoning questions, try to stick to a concrete plan and methodology. Don’t let the GMAT distract you!

The above GMAT Tip 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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