Mastering GMAT’s Verbal Section


In this fourth installment of “GMAT Unlocked,” I’ll share a number of tips to help you maximize your score on the verbal section of the GMAT. I’ll discuss some broad study strategies as well as some of the finer points of the Sentence Correction, Reading Comprehension, and Critical Reasoning questions that make up the verbal section. By the end of this article, you should have a better understanding of the distinct challenges that the verbal section presents. Furthermore, you will be armed with specific strategies for tackling those challenges during both prep and testing.

As with all articles in this series, I want one key point to resonate: you can master the verbal section of the GMAT. You can earn a competitive GMAT score. It’ll just take some time, hard work, and the right strategy.

Let’s get started.

Don’t Underestimate the Difficulty of the Verbal Section of the GMAT

Many native speakers of English incorrectly assume that the verbal section of the GMAT will be easy because they have been speaking, reading, and writing English all of their lives. But a great number of them soon discover that they lack the precise grammatical knowledge of standard American English that is tested in Sentence Correction questions, or that they cannot approach Reading Comprehension passages the same way they approach their everyday reading material, or that they have not developed the specific reasoning skills demanded by Critical Reasoning problems.

Let your peers make this faulty assumption. You, instead, will begin your GMAT prep armed with the understanding that the verbal section of the GMAT is challenging, even if you’ve been reading, writing, and speaking English your entire life. You realize that the verbal section tests a particular set of skills that must be learned and practiced, and you’ll work hard to hone these skills.

Don’t Overemphasize Quant at the Expense of Verbal

There is no question about it: many top schools such as Wharton, Booth, Columbia and Sloan are unapologetically quant-driven, and many students have a harder time with the quant section of the GMAT than they do with the verbal section. So it’s no surprise that some students – even those who understand that GMAT verbal is challenging – make the mistake of overemphasizing quant study at the expense of verbal prep, leading to an impressive quant score but a lower than ideal verbal score. You won’t make this mistake.

Evidence suggests that your verbal score is a greater contributor to your overall GMAT score than is your quant score. Yes, it’s very important to work hard on quant and to earn a solid quant score, but it’s also very important to devote time to verbal if you are going to come close to the 737 GMAT average at Stanford GSB. Assuming that you need work on both quant and verbal, a solid strategy is to divide your time evenly, studying quant for an hour and then studying verbal for an hour. This alternating 50/50 approach will allow you to benefit from the principle of spaced repetition, and it will help you prevent the burnout that can occur from over-studying one topic.

Study the Highest Value Material

For most students, study time is at a premium. Thus, it’s important to be strategic with how you study. One way to be strategic is to focus first on the concepts, skills, techniques, and question types that will pay the highest dividends.

Think back to quant. Just as you would not want to spend an inordinate amount of time studying probability questions at the expense of more fundamental quant topics, you also would not want to work on the more obscure areas of verbal if you haven’t mastered the basics. For example, I’ve seen students scouring the Internet in search of massive idiom lists. Some of these same students consistently have trouble with the basics of English grammar, such as parallel structures and logical comparisons, two large areas of Sentence Correction. Is it important to know idioms for Sentence Correction? Yes, it is. Should you burn the midnight oil studying every obscure idiom you can find at the expense of mastering the basic rules that Sentence Correction questions test? What do you think? When it comes to Sentence Correction, strive to master the major topics, such as parallelism, subject-verb agreement, and modification.

Similarly, when you study for Critical Reasoning, begin by mastering the question types that you’ll see most frequently: weaken the argument, strengthen the argument, and assumptions, for example. Don’t over invest your precious study time attempting to master uncommon Critical Reasoning question types at the expense of the questions you’re most likely to see.

Your time is valuable, so you should spend it wisely by learning the material that will provide the greatest return on your investment. Let your peers pontificate on the most esoteric (and not very likely to be seen) material and question types.

Practice with the Rules and Concepts

Many students learn new rules and concepts during a GMAT study session but miss a good opportunity to really ingrain what they’ve learned because they fail to integrate their new knowledge into their lives outside of GMAT prep. However, there are ample opportunities to reinforce your new knowledge and skills. Consider this: every day you write emails, texts, reports, and social media content. Use the rules you’ve learned during your Sentence Correction study to write pieces that are clear, concise, and grammatically correct. Keep a concise, actionable list of high value notes and make it a point to integrate as many of those rules into your writing as you can. For example:

Incorrect: I don’t know if John is coming to the meeting.

Correct: I don’t know whether John is coming to the meeting.

Incorrect: Like I said, I love pizza.

Correct: As I said, I love pizza.

Incorrect: Neither Sara nor her brother are going to the beach.

Correct: Neither Sara nor her brother is going to the beach.

When you consistently practice with new skills, they quickly become part of your toolkit. Your goal is to turn your new skills into second nature. Practice makes perfect.