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GMAT Verbal Prep: The Sherlock Holmes Approach (Part I)

By Ajay Amar, Ph.D., Sep 2 2014 05:25PM

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” says Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in The Sign of the Four.

When preparing for the verbal sections of the GMAT, take Holmes as your model. To solve your mysteries, use logic and the process of elimination to deduce the correct answers. And don’t fall for GMAT’s red herrings.

Most of the incorrect choices in the GMAT verbal section are not obvious. Quite the contrary. Each incorrect GMAT answer is carefully designed so that you will pick it if you are using faulty reasoning. In fact, if you are not using the right logic to analyze the choices, you will be apt to pick an incorrect choice, be convinced that you nailed the problem, and feel good about how the test is going, only to get a rude shock when you see your final GMAT score.

The GMAT verbal section is designed to test your powers of analysis and ability to look at an argument critically, as well as your basic knowledge of grammar and correct writing. However, GMAT verbal is not exactly straightforward.

Reading Comprehension provides a passage and asks interpretive and analytical questions. The passages are taken from a wide range of fields, including some about which you may know nothing. It turns out that the subject knowledge is irrelevant. A precise understanding of the question and the answer choices can be more important than a detailed understanding of the passage.

Critical Reasoning tests logic, and your performance depends principally on your ability to comprehend exactly what is stated and what is asked. You may not be aware, however, that it can also test application of basic math concepts such as average, inequality, and ratio.

Sentence Correction asks you to choose correct grammar and sentence structures. But grammar is only part of the story. To a significant degree, Sentence Correction also tests comprehension and logic.

Unfortunately, if you are weak in reading comprehension, don’t have the greatest writing skills, or perhaps use English as your second language, you are not going to be able to cram GMAT verbal skills in two or three weeks. For this reason, I recommend that as soon as you start considering an MBA, set aside some time and take a GMAT practice test. If you don’t test well on GMAT verbal, you have time to work on your skills and seek help, if necessary.

To start you in your GMAT preparation, the following are a few simple rules to live by. They constitute the “Austin GMAT Review Verbal Dogma.”

Understand that there is only one correct answer to each GMAT verbal question.

In a detective novel, although there are many suspects, only one person committed the crime (usually the person least expected). In the GMAT verbal sections, contrary to popular belief, GMAT does not offer “good,” “better,” and “best” choices. Each GMAT verbal questions offers one choice that is correct, and four that are fundamentally flawed.

To put it another way, GMAT verbal answers are binary: black | white, wrong | right. There are no shades of gray. Therefore, eliminating incorrect answers to pinpoint the correct answer may be your best bet to perform well in the GMAT verbal sections.

Math-phobics may find this hard to believe, but it can be more difficult to test well in the GMAT verbal section than in GMAT math. How is that possible? Elementary, my dear MBA hopeful. For GMAT math questions, you could solve each problem and arrive at the correct answer without even looking at the answer choices. In contrast, for GMAT verbal questions, you will need to read all the answer choices. You will need to understand what each choice offers, and the precise reasons that four out of five are incorrect.

As Sherlock Holmes said, “We balance probabilities and choose the most likely.” Deductive reasoning is the strategy to take when answering GMAT verbal problems.

Let me reiterate. When I say “incorrect” answer, I mean “wrong,” as opposed to “not as good as the best choice.”

You, the GMAT test-taker, must rigorously apply the rules of logic and grammar. There are no short-cuts. If a sentence sounds right to your inner ear, you cannot assume that it is right. If it sounds peculiar, but you have eliminated the other choices for breaking grammar or logic rules, then you have found the right answer.

Of course, this requires that you know and understand the rules.

If English is not your first language, you may be understandably nervous about GMAT verbal. However, we have found that if you have developed a keen interest and precision of expression in your native language, you will be able to pick up English grammar rules (and may be able to test better in GMAT verbal than a more careless native speaker).

To begin preparing for GMAT verbal, start reading.

Starting GMAT verbal preparation is simple but requires diligence: Read. Read publications that are noted for excellent writing, such as The New York Times. Read classics (try, for fun, the Sherlock Holmes series). Read every day. Read slowly and with concentration. Read to absorb the meaning of the writing. As you read, evaluate the structure of the writing, and focus on common GMAT sentence correction categories, such as subject-verb agreement, pronoun usage, and modifiers.

Paradoxically, the more that you slow down to read with attention, the faster you will start to comprehend. Quick reading comprehension will be an advantage to you when taking the GMAT.

“You know my methods. Apply them.”

If you have performed well on the GMAT verbal sections in a practice test, adhering to our Dogma combined with intelligent practice should leave you in great shape for the GMAT test.

However, if you did not test well, I recommend that you get help earlier rather than later. Most of us are like Dr. Watson. We see the answer after Sherlock Holmes has revealed it and given the explanation. Figuring out why you are having difficulty answering GMAT verbal questions correctly can be tough to diagnose yourself. With the right coaching, however, you should be able to achieve a higher GMAT score and a happy ending.

To be continued in Part II of the Sherlock Holmes Approach to GMAT Verbal...

Austin GMAT Review is the premier GMAT preparation company in Central Texas, offering structured GMAT courses and tutoring to professionals preparing to enter full-time MBA or executive MBA programs. Austin GMAT Review caters to busy professionals who don't have the time to sort through masses of generic study materials. Meeting with an experienced professor face-to-face in limited-size GMAT classes, students receive the personalized coaching that they need and strategies to excel on the GMAT.

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