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Ace GMAT’s verbal portion

The verbal section of GMAT needs to be tackled with alacrity. Rohit Mazumdar tells you how best to prepare for it

education Updated: Jul 07, 2010 10:20 IST

Critical reasoning questions test your skills in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of arguments. This is something you do all the time, without necessarily realising it. When you’re buying a mobile, do you accept the salesperson’s claim that this is the mobile for you, or do you examine the argument for potential weaknesses? If a friend approaches you with an idea about a new venture direction, do you accept it readily, or do you consider the potential benefits and pitfalls of the idea?

Certainly, in both cases you take the critical approach. You evaluate arguments every day of your life. Now, you must apply those same critical reasoning (CR) skills to the very specific format tested in the GMAT. All you are required to do is develop a conscious formulation towards these questions and improve and hone your decision making skills.

You make use of such skills while reading newspapers or watching movies. When you think that the movie is pushing the limit of the reason or the news sounds less reasonable than the movie that was pushing the limit, you are using your CR skills to produce these conclusions. Besides the verbal part on the GMAT, you will also need good argumentative skills to craft the essays since the need of one of them is to construct an argument, and the other is to evaluate one.

As a rule, GMAT CR questions will ask you to manipulate the argument to weaken/strengthen it, find the conclusion, assumption, explanation, do an inference or supplement a statement, etc. Whatever it is that you have to do, you will need two things to succeed: know the basic structure of arguments and clearly understand the argument. In general, about 80 per cent of GMAT arguments consist of evidence (usually in two steps), a conclusion (the main point of an argument) and an assumption (the bridge between the evidence and conclusion). The majority of the arguments you encounter on the test will be two-step ones:
Evidence1 + Evidence2 = Conclusion.
Critical reasoning question stems deconstructed
Directions: Analyse the situation on which each question is based, and then select the answer choice that is the most appropriate response to the question.

No specialised knowledge of any particular field is required for answering the questions and no knowledge of the terminologies and conventions of formal logic are presupposed.

To perform well on Critical Reasoning questions, you need to properly identify the question category and apply the appropriate strategy based on your analysis. You identify question types by the question stem, not the stimulus that precedes or follows it.

Because it is crucial for you to properly identify the question category on critical reasoning questions, you should read the question stem before reading the stimulus.
The strengthening pattern
The question types
. “Which of the following, if true, would most strengthen the conclusion drawn in the passage?”
. “Which of the following, if true, most strongly supports the claim above about the company’s profit?”
. “Which of the following is an assumption that supports drawing the conclusion above from the reason given for that conclusion?”

The methodology
. Be deliberate in explaining that one finds trigger words in the question stem, not the stimulus. Mention that the word ‘support’ depending on context may indicate an inference question.
. Explain how the solution to a strengthen question always supplies a missing premise and always provides new relevant information.
. Be sure to note that we can apply the Assumption Negation Technique to evaluate answers to strengthen questions. Also note that the answers to a strengthen question need not prove the validity of the author’s argument, but must only add further support.

Each of these answers addresses potential flaws in the argument—the same flaws that a weaken-the- argument question would try to exploit. Remember, most of these arguments could go either way, and you need to be careful to make sure that the answer you choose points in the desired direction. As with weaken-the-argument questions, strengthen-the-argument questions almost always have at least one answer that deals with the correct subject matter, but in a way that is actually the opposite of what the question asks for.

Don’t be foxed
Note that the correct answer to a strengthening question does not necessarily have to prove that the argument is correct. An answer that eliminates a single potential flaw in the argument could be the correct answer, as long as it is the best among the available answer choices.

A sample question
At one time, European and Japanese companies tried to imitate their American rivals. Today, American appliance manufacturers import European scientists to lead their research staffs; American automakers design cars that mimic the styling of German, Italian, and French imports; and American electronics firms boast in their advertising of “Japanese-style” devotion to quality and reliability. In the world of high technology, America has lost the battle for international prestige.
Each of the following statements, if true, would help to support the claim above EXCEPT:
(A) An American camera company claims in its promotional literature to produce cameras “as fine as the best Swiss imports.”
(B) An American maker of stereo components designs its products to resemble those of a popular Japanese firm.
(C) An American manufacturer of video games uses a brand name chosen because it sounds like a Japanese word.
(D) An American maker of televisions studies German-made televisions in order to adopt German manufacturing techniques.
(E) An American maker of frozen foods advertises its dinners as “Real European-style entrees prepared by fine French and Italian chefs.”

The methods to the question
Before students begin the problem, explain that they should get into the habit of scanning the question stem first, then read the stimulus and then read the question stem (again, but carefully). After students have gone through the problem ask one of them:
. How did the question stem signal the type of question?
. Before you answer the question, what was the conclusion?
. How did you answer the question?

The weakening pattern
The question types
. “Which of the following most seriously weakens the argument?”
. “Which of the following, if true, most undermines Danville Winery’s response?”

The methodology
Note that the correct answer to a weaken question:
. Provide an additional premise that undermines the author’s conclusion.
. One need not disprove the author’s argument but only cast doubt about its validity.
. Urge students to reflect on what is wrong or lacking in the author’s argument before reading the answer choices.

A sample question
To entice customers away from competitors, Red Label supermarkets have begun offering discounts on home appliances to customers who spend $50 or more on any shopping trip to Red Label. Red Label executives claim that the discount programme has been a huge success, since cash register receipts of $50 or more are up thirty per cent since the beginning of the programme.

Which of the following, if true, most seriously weakens the claim of the Red Label executives?
(A) Most people who switched to Red Label after the programme began to spend more than $50 each time they shop at Red Label.
(B) Most people whose average grocery bill is less than $50 would not be persuaded to spend more by any discount programme.
(C) Most people who received discounts on home appliances through Red Label’s programme will shop at Red Label after the programme ends.
(D) Since the beginning of the discount programme, most of the people who spend $50 or more at Red Label are people who have never before shopped there and whose average grocery bill has always been higher than $50.
(E) Almost all of the people who have begun spending $50 or more at Red Label since the discount programme began are longtime customers who have increased the average amount of their shopping bills by making fewer trips.

The methods to thequestion
Option E is the correct choice.
Each of these answers thrashes at the assumptions holding up the conclusion, thereby weakening the argument. The thinking here is similar to the kind of thinking you use every day when you evaluate arguments: you look for flaws in the argument, and you consider ways in which the plan might not work exactly as promised. When answering these questions, be careful not to pick an answer that actually strengthens the argument. These answers are tempting because they often deal with the same themes as answers that weaken the argument, but they use slightly different wording that produces the opposite effect.

The inference pattern
The question types
. “Which of the following can be correctly inferred from the statements above?”
. “Sharon’s argument is structured to lead to which of the following as a conclusion?”
. “Which of the following must be true on the basis of the statements in the advertisement above?”

The methodology
Inference questions ask you to make a logical inference based on the information presented in the passage. The phrasing of these questions can vary widely, but the basic pattern behind them is the same: if the statements in the passage are true, what else has to be true? Assumption questions are actually a specific kind of inference question that asks: if the argument is valid, you can infer that which of the following assumptions must be true in order to logically connect the premise and the conclusion? The same type of critical thinking is used for both assumption and inference questions, but the nature of the inference is slightly different. You must remember to avoid making assumptions in inference questions; the correct answer choice is always the one which must be true (based only on the stimulus).

A sample question
Sales taxes tend to be regressive, affecting poor people more severely than wealthy people. When all purchases of consumer goods are taxed at a fixed percentage of the purchase price, poor people pay a larger proportion of their income in sales taxes than wealthy people do.
Can it be correctly inferred on the basis of the statements above that which of the following is true?
(A) Poor people constitute a larger proportion of the taxpaying population than wealthy people do.
(B) Poor people spend a larger proportion of their income on consumer goods than wealthy people do.
(C) Wealthy people, on an average, pay a larger amount of sales taxes than poor people.
(D) The total amount spent by all poor people on purchases of consumer goods exceeds the total amount spent by all wealthy people on consumer goods.
(E) The average purchase price of consumer goods bought by wealthy people is higher than that of consumer goods bought by poor people.

The correct answer is B

The method to the questions
The key to answering these questions correctly is to keep your logic very tight. The writer of the argument can make unsupported assumptions, but you cannot.

The correct answer will be a small logical hop, not a leap, from the statements in the passage. Many test takers are surprised by how reserved the correct answers for inference questions usually are, because they expect the correct answer to be a bolder statement.

Do not expect a bold answer. The correct answer will usually be a very moderate statement, and it will be the only one that has to be true if the statements in the passage are true.

One method for evaluating answer choices for this type of question is to ask, what if the opposite of this answer were true? A correct answer will always make sense within the context of the passage, whereas the opposite of the statement generally will not. If a statement and its opposite both make equally good sense in the context of a sentence, then it’s probably not the correct inference. Practice this technique with the inferences given earlier to see how it works; in every case, the opposite statement runs contrary to the sense of the passage.

The method of reasoning pattern
The question types
. “In the consumer advocate’s argument, the two portions in boldface play which of the following roles?”
. “Which of the following most accurately describes the essayist’s method of defending the definition against the objection?”

The methodology
Students should focus on the reasoning (or style) of the argument, not its substance (the evidence). Explain how method of reasoning questions are uncommon in GMAT and usually appear only if a student is performing well.

Most questions of this type include a premise or series of premises followed by a conclusion, although it is also fairly common for the conclusion to lead off the passage.

An argument does not rest only on its stated premises, but also on the unstated assumptions that help support the conclusion. These unstated assumptions are the subject matter of most ‘critical reasoning’ questions.

A sample question
Advertiser: The revenue that newspapers and magazines earn by publishing advertisements allows publishers to keep the prices per copy of their publications much lower than would otherwise be possible. Therefore, consumers benefit economically from advertising.

Consumer: But who pays for the advertising that pays for low-priced newspapers and magazines? We consumers do, because advertisers pass along advertising costs to us through the higher prices they charge for their products.

Which of the following best describes how the consumer counters the advertiser’s argument?
(A) By alleging something that, if true, would weaken the plausibility of the advertiser’s conclusion.
(B) By questioning the truth of the purportedly factual statement on which the advertiser’s conclusion is based.
(C) By offering an interpretation of the advertiser’s opening statement that, if accurate, shows that there is an implicit contradiction in it.
(D) By pointing out that the advertiser’s point of view is biased.
(E) By arguing that the advertiser too narrowly restricts the discussion to the effects of advertising that are economic.

The correct option is A: The key word is ‘alleging’ as it ‘weakens’ as the question stem asks for ‘counters’.

Mimic the reasoning pattern
The question types
. “The pattern of reasoning above most closely parallels that in which of the following?”
. “The argument is most parallel, in its logical structure, to which one of the following?”

The methodology
Explain how the correct answer must precisely match the logical structure of the stimulus, e.g.:
1) Mimic logic patterns of the stimulus, not subject matter.
2) If the stimulus contains flawed logic, the correct answer will be flawed in the same way.
3) If logic in the stimulus is not flawed, the correct answer will not have a logical flaw.
4) If the stimulus uses logical opposites, the correct answer will use a similar construction.
Explain how method of reasoning questions can also be very difficult but only arise if one is doing well on GMAT.

A sample question
According to Arthur Conan Doyle, “the best way to write a good detective story is to work backward from the crime. The writer should first decide what the crime is and who the perpetrator is, and then come up with the circumstances and clues based on those decisions.”
Which one of the following illustrates a principle most similar to that illustrated by the passage?
(a) When planning a trip, some people first decide where they want to go and then plan accordingly, but, for most of us, much financial planning must be done before we can choose where we are going.
(b) In planting a vegetable garden, you should prepare the soil first, and then decide what kinds of vegetables to plant.
(c) Good architects do not extemporaneously construct their plans in the course of an afternoon; an architectural design cannot be divorced from the method of constructing the building.
(d) In solving mathematical problems, the best method is to try out as many strategies as possible in the time allotted. This is particularly effective if the number of possible strategies is fairly small.
(e) To make a great tennis shot you should visualise where you want the shot to go. Then you can determine the position you need to be in to execute the shot properly.
The correct answer choice is E; it follows a similar logic and pattern to that of the question.
What you need to do with these questions is break the argument down into its atomic parts. ‘Critical reasoning’ passages often contain convoluted wording and unnecessary details that obscure the main point of the passage. You need to filter these distractions and absorb the basic argument.

The author is head-GMAT and faculty – verbal, CPLC, Mumbai