By Chris Ryan, Director of Instructor and Product
Last time we talked
about strategies for the math-challenged.
But what if you have the opposite
Maybe you can solve
equations just fine; it’s this “fuzzy language stuff” that gets you down. Maybe your teachers never gave you a good
solid foundation in grammar.
Maybe English isn’t
your first language, in which case I sincerely admire you.
Or maybe you’re not
so bad at English, but you want to do great on the verbal because you’re
actually really worried about the math – and you want to get all the points you
Whatever the cause
is, you are concerned about the verbal side of the exam.
Fear not! Here are five strategies to guide you.
a) Break down
Grammar isn’t fuzzy
at all. Grammar is the set of rules for
putting words into sentences. In fact,
grammar is very much like a puzzle; sentence parts fit together precisely. Master the fitting rules, and Sentence
Correction becomes practically mechanical.
grammar can be a little tricky, because no central authority holds sway over
the language. So you have to study how
the GMAT makes certain controversial calls, particularly if you’re a native
speaker. For instance, consider the
following two sentences:
I play sports like
lacrosse and soccer.
I play sports such
as lacrosse and soccer.
In its “Manual of
Style and Usage,” the New York Times says that you should prefer #1. And to my ear, #1 sounds great. But all you care about is the GMAT –
and the GMAT says that like means similar to, but such as means for example. So go with the GMAT’s call, and go with #2.
Likewise, study how
the GMAT specifically applies stylistic principles, such as clarity and
concision. In the wider world, these
concepts may be sprawling. But on the
exam, concision always means something very specific; for instance, you should
say indicates rather than is indicative of.
Use the Official
Guides and the GMAT Prep practice exams as your primary source material for
Sentence Correction problems. And to master
the rules of GMAT grammar and style, get our Sentence Correction Guide.
b) Rewrite Sentence
Correction sentences to retrain your ear.
Even though I’m a
native speaker of English, my ear can be wrong.
Even with my command of the grammar rules, I can sometimes get Sentence
Correction practice problems wrong just like the next person. What do I do to improve?
Any time I get an
SC problem wrong, I apply a great technique to hone my ear and my grasp of
subtle rules. What I do is burn the correct
sentence into my mind. All it takes
is one patient minute of review, during which I rewrite the sentence in a
notebook with the correct answer inserted.
As I do so, I analyze the rules that make this version of the sentence
correct, in comparison with the wrong answer choices. Finally, I say the sentence aloud.
Store the sentence
in your head using two different senses – sight and hearing. Force yourself to produce it two different
ways – on paper and aloud. Then you’ll
always have it somewhere inside you, and you’ll remember the associated rules
that much better.
This technique is
especially helpful for idiom mastery. By
the way, don’t go off and study huge lists of idioms that you find on the
Internet or in non-GMAT-specific books.
You need to grasp and recall the idioms that appear on the real GMAT, in
sentences as they appear on the GMAT. So
reviewing a GMAT-specific list is useful.
Making such a list is even more useful.
And writing out corrected Official Guide or GMAT Prep sentences that
contain those idioms? That’s super-useful.
c) On Reading Comp
and Critical Reasoning, practice taking stripped-down notes.
More than Sentence
Correction, these two verbal types force you to imagine. In Critical Reasoning and Reading
Comprehension, you have to imagine a situation, a controversy, a set of objects
and actors and events in the real world.
First paragraph of a sample RC passage: In
the mid-nineteenth century, one of the most expensive metals, pound for pound, was
aluminum. Emperor Napoleon III is said
to have served his most eminent guests on plates of aluminum, reserving golden
plates for less-favored visitors. The
reason for aluminum’s high cost was not its scarcity; in fact, aluminum is the
most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust.
Rather, aluminum was very difficult to extract from any of its ores and
in fact was not isolated as a chemical element until 1825. Not until 1886 did two 23-year-old chemists,
Charles Hall and Paul Héroult, independently discover an electrolytic process
that required only relatively common materials and electricity (even if in
large quantities) to produce aluminum.
If, on the test,
you just let your eyes run over that paragraph, you would be sunk. If you never awakened any corresponding thoughts
or images – if you never imagined the aluminum and all the rest – you
wouldn’t be able to answer questions correctly.
How do you force
yourself to imagine? By writing a little
Don’t copy down the
whole paragraph, word for word. You
don’t have time, and you’ll get lost in details. Remember, you don’t have to answer the
questions using only these notes!
Rather, try to
capture the gist – and the gist ONLY!
Rephrase to simplify. And make sure
it’s all connected.
1800’s: Alum – super-$.
Why so expensive?
b/c hard to isolate
1886: 2 guys found easier way
After you’ve created
notes like these, you understand the basic point of the paragraph – because
you’ll have imagined the important parts. Practice such a note-taking technique, and
no crazy topic or convoluted argument can really throw you.
d) On Reading Comp, do extra
passages on topics you dislike – and pretend to be interested.
You might not like
history. Or chemistry. Or the history of chemistry. In that case, the paragraph above might have
made you gag.
Get over it!
you feel for the subject, whatever self-pity you experience for having drawn
the “aluminum” passage – laugh it off.
And then get into the subject.
Pretend that you care.
Wow, I had no idea that aluminum was once
super-expensive! That’s strange!
Wonder why it was so expensive? Was it scarce? No.
Oh, I see – it was hard to get out of the ore.
Go ahead and be
geeky. No one is listening to your
thoughts. Everything can be
interesting. If you stop telling
yourself that you don’t like a certain subject, you might just taste it for the
first time – and discover that you actually don’t mind it so much. Then it’s so much easier to learn.
Guess what – you
have to temporarily learn something about four subjects (on four
passages). And it’s almost impossible to
learn something that you hate. So give
this liking thing a try – and practice it on extra passages. By doing so, at least you won’t be afraid any
more of the topics you dislike.
To a lesser degree,
the same thing holds true for Critical Reasoning. If certain argument situations or topics
annoy you, bore you, depress you – well, pretend you care. Get into the situation. And do extra problems.
e) On both Critical
Reasoning and Reading Comp, review by finding the proof.
On these two
question types, four of the answer choices are lies. Only one is the truth. (The exception is “except” questions, of
course.) This observation may seem
obvious, but it points to a review tactic you should always take advantage of:
analyze how the truth was there all along.
This does NOT mean
you should always try to predict the answer from the question stem. In some
cases, you can “fill in the blank” before looking at the answer choices. For instance, if you’re asked to Find the
Assumption on a Critical Reasoning question, and the argument has a logic gap,
you may be able to articulate the missing puzzle piece ahead of time. Likewise, for a Specific Detail question on
Reading Comp, you should go find the truth in the passage and boil it down to
fighting weight before looking at the answer choices.
In other cases, you
should definitely NOT try to predict the answer. For instance, on general Reading Comp
questions, you should generally dive right in and try to eliminate the
lies. The right answer may be expressed
at a level of abstraction that you didn’t anticipate.
However, the right
answer must always be right. It must be
true. So, as you review the question,
study the heck out of how it matches up to the passage or the argument.
Likewise, study how
the “close-but-not-right” answers are false.
Don’t content yourself with fuzzy understanding.
The Verbal section
of the GMAT is no walk in the park.
Coming last in the sequence, it hits you when you’re most tired and
least focused. But prepare using the
strategies above, and you’ll find yourself looking forward to the Verbal