Mastering GMAT’s Verbal Section

When it Comes to Sentence Correction, Don’t Rely on Your Ear

A common strategy among GMAT students is to attack Sentence Correction questions using their “ear.” In other words, students pick answers that “sound right.” I see English majors using such a strategy all the time because they’re overconfident in their written English skills. Such a strategy, even for native speakers of English – or even English majors – may have limited – even disastrous – results.

Sometimes, our ears will mislead us because we’re so used to hearing and seeing improper grammatical structures that it becomes difficult to “unhear” the flaws.

For example, are any of these three sentences correctly written?

His speech inspired the people that he met.
His speech inspired the people who he met.
His speech inspired the people whom he met.

We are more likely to hear or say the first two sentences, but only the third one is acceptable on the GMAT.

Often, written English will use structures that either do not or rarely occur in spoken English. While a sentence with a complex subject is usually avoided in spoken English, it may be perfectly acceptable in written English:

That the Mayans repeatedly attempted to widen their hegemony is easily demonstrated.

Our alternative in speech might involve an expletive “it”:

It is easily demonstrated that the Mayans repeatedly attempted to widen their hegemony.

Both sentences would be acceptable on the GMAT even though very few of us would create the first one in conversation.

In some cases, however, written English has conventions that have nothing to do with speech. No one can hear the effects of punctuation because commas, periods, colons, and semicolons are not pronounced. No one can hear the differences among the following:

Correct: I went to the store; I was getting apples.

Correct: I went to the store. I was getting apples.

Incorrect: I went to the store, I was getting apples.

The third sentence is an example of an error known as the comma splice. It is incorrect to connect two independent clauses with only a comma. It is considered a major error in writing; however, you’d be surprised how often I receive emails with exactly this structure.

Here are few more examples in which your ear may hinder you more than help:

Incorrect: He consumed less food and calories in August than in July.

In speech, many speakers will use “less” both in measuring and in counting. In standard written English, a strict distinction is maintained between “less” and “fewer.” Only “fewer” is used when counting multiple things, or nouns that are plurals. We may speak of “less” food, but we would need to write about “fewer” calories.

Corrected: He consumed less food and fewer calories in August than in July.

Incorrect: Spending most of his life on a secluded island, stories of the sea and of adventure were common in the books of Hemingway.

Who spent most of his life on an island? It certainly was not “stories.” Thus, we have a modifier issue. The introductory modifier “spending most of his life on a secluded island” must correctly modify the noun that directly follows it in the sentence.

Corrected: Spending most of his life on a secluded island, Hemingway commonly wrote stories of the sea and of adventure.

Let your competition use their ears to solve Sentence Correction questions while you spend the time mastering the rules. You’ll be far ahead of your peers come test day.

Take Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

When solving verbal questions, students have a tendency to look for the most obscure, esoteric flaws they can find. Avoid this approach. Instead, be a sleuth.

Sherlock Holmes once said: “Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

In other words, given a set of possible outcomes, once you eliminate the ones that are incorrect, the one that remains–however unlikely it may seem–must be the correct answer.

Adopting such a mindset is important on Sentence Correction questions because the correct answers may not always look or sound correct, particularly if you’re not comfortable working with standard American English or the specialized vocabularies of topics such as science, law, or economics. In many cases, a sentence will use language in ways that differ from the ways most students habitually use language. Thus, if you focus on looking for the right answer, you may have a hard time finding it because even the right answer will seem wrong. A better strategy is to find one clear, objective reason as to why each of the wrong answers is wrong. That is, eliminate the answers that cannot be correct based upon the principles of sound grammar, logic, and meaning. Then, the answer remaining must be correct, regardless of whether it sounds correct to you.

Just as with Sentence Correction questions, sometimes on tough Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension questions, the correct answer doesn’t always seem correct. So when you’re confronted with a tough Critical Reasoning or Reading Comprehension question, a solid strategy is to immediately cross off the answers that you know to be wrong. There are patterns that arise in the common trap answer. Get to know these common answer traps, such as answers that are exactly opposite and answers that are way out of scope.

Remember, on the GMAT, simplicity is king. You’ll always have the opportunity to make matters more complex, but your goal is to simplify things. Let your peers fumble around on tough verbal questions without deploying smart test-taking strategy while you carefully narrow down the field of plausible answers, significantly improving your probability of correctly answering even the most difficult of questions.

Get it in Writing and Make a Movie Script

In the last installment of “GMAT Unlocked,” we learned about working memory and how it helps us process and manipulate information. We also learned how to enlist more of our brains to enhance our working memory, so that we could perform better on tests such as the GMAT. When you read Critical Reasoning arguments or Reading Comprehension passages, take short but careful notes on what you’re reading. Doing so will allow you to engage more of your brain and help alleviate some of the load placed on your working memory.

As you take notes, pretend that you’re watching a movie unfold. Visualize what is happening. Who are the characters? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What is the point and/or goal of their actions? What is the main point of the movie? What is the message? The more engaged you become in the reading, the more you’ll retain, and the better you’ll understand the passage.

While your competition is passively letting Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension passages wash over them, you’ll actively be confronting them head on– and scoring more points.