What’s the lesson of this first-person narrative? Largely that if you’re struggling with Sentence Correction after months and months of study, you may be struggling precisely because you are studying too much “grammar” and not allowing yourself to think and to reason. While this may seem counterintuitive, take a look at the major error categories that the GMAT repeatedly tests:
Badly sunburned from a long day at the beach, the cold linoleum floor proved a welcome respite for Sarah.
Why is this incorrect? Because it’s illogical. Inanimate objects like floors don’t get sunburned, so this modifier is wrong. But, it’s just as much an issue of logic as it is of grammar because there does exist a world in which inanimate objects could theoretically be sunburned (think Disney/Pixar movies).
In an unexpected display of bipartisanship, Congress announced yesterday that they would pass a bill to subsidize student loans.
Here, the pronoun “they” is a plural pronoun, and there’s no logical plural noun for it to refer to.
Graduates of business schools ranked in the top ten tend to receive more than twice as many job offers than business schools ranked outside of the top 25.
The error here is that the comparison is illogical. The sentence compares “graduates of business schools” up front, but there are no “graduates…” in the second half of the sentence. The meaning is at best unclear (do these top 10 grads receive 5 job offers and 2 business schools? Or do they receive more job offers than business schools do?) and ultimately pretty illogical, since there aren’t any logical entities in the second half of the sentence to receive job offers.
Similar demonstrations can be made for subject-verb agreement and verb tense – the core of GMAT Sentence Correction comes not from “mass-memorized grammar” but from recognizing core decision points (modifiers, pronouns, comparisons, verbs) and looking at logical meaning. Yes, there is some grammar that you’ll need to know, but after you’ve studied GMAT Sentence Correction for 5-10 hours you should know more than 90% of that grammar, at which point it’s you should to spend more of your time on application and strategy than on the accumulation of more knowledge.
There’s a point at which chasing that last 5-10% of grammar that could be tested becomes futile, as you spend that time running away from the core logic/grammar combination that can be mastered in a reasonable amount of time and that the GMAT is truly concerned with testing. Those who chase obscure grammar tend to do so at the expense of mastering Sentence Correction, and tend to talk themselves out of correct answers because they’re busy applying rules that aren’t at the heart of what’s being tested.
Line up a bunch of GMAT instructors – at many institutions that means they’ve all scored in the 99th percentile – and ask them obscure grammar questions, and you’ll find that most are grammar frauds. Most will admit to being nervous the first time they taught Sentence Correction, not because they thought they’d get questions wrong but because they knew they were hoping to avoid several grammatical questions that they just couldn’t answer. But then look at the results – they earned those scores either in spite of or because of their lack of grammar acumen.
After years of compensating for being a grammar fraud, most of us come to the same conclusion – it’s more because of our grammar greenness than in spite of it that we handle Sentence Correction questions so successfully. We’re forced to think logically and not “try to remember the rule”; we need to seek out opportunities to use the knowledge and strategy that we do have mastered because we don’t trust ourselves on the subtleties of obscure grammar. By having to think strategically and return to our core competencies, we play right into the heart of what the GMAT is trying to reward.
Will, the student who exposed me as a fraud with his grammatical wizardry, credits that lesson and his abandonment of grammar flashcards and terminology with his jump from the 500s to 700 and an eventual graduation from Wharton. Many GMAT instructors remember that tipping point when they stopped feeling like frauds and realized that targeted grammar knowledge mixed with strategy and logic was the key to Sentence Correction success.
It sounds counterintuitive, but when it comes to grammar on the GMAT, less is usually more. Take it from a former fraud – admitting your grammar shortcomings and deciding to focus on sharpening your strengths is the key to success.
Brian Galvin is Director of Academic Programs at Veritas Prep, a GMAT prep and graduate school admissions consulting provider. This is his second column for Poets&Quants.com. His contrarian views appear monthly.