GMAT Tip: Looking for Clues Where You'd Least Expect Them

GMAT Tip: Looking for Clues Where You'd Least Expect Them
On sentence correction questions, the GMAT often hides clues far from the underlined portion that needs to be fixed (Photograph by Laurent Hamels/Corbis)
Photograph by Laurent Hamels/Corbis

This tip on improving your GMAT score was provided by Brian Galvin at Veritas Prep.

Of the many things that can make the GMAT’s verbal section difficult, two stand out. The verbal section comes last, at a point when your brain is fried and starts taking shortcuts. Even worse: The test makers know which shortcuts you like to take and use that knowledge against you.

How do the test makers blend these two degrees of difficulty? In sentence correction questions, one of their preferred methods is to rely on the theme that “The Whole Sentence Matters.” The authors of these questions know that, particularly as you get deeper and deeper into the test, you’ll read fewer and fewer words. You’ll scan for what you deem to be important—usually the underlined portion you need to correct and a few words on either side of it—and glossing over or completely ignoring the rest. So the further that the author can “hide” an all-important word or phrase away from the underlined portion, the less likely that you’ll ever notice it.

Consider this example:

During World War II the Department of Defense was the nation’s largest employer, directly employing over 16 million soldiers who served in combat and thousands more support staffers who served the war effort domestically, and which indirectly supported several million additional jobs through its extensive use of the manufacturing and transportation industries.

(A) During World War II the Department of Defense was the nation’s largest employer, directly employing

(B) The Department of Defense was the nation’s largest employer during World War II, which directly employed

(C) During World War II the Department of Defense was the nation’s largest employer and employed

(D) The nation’s largest employer during World War II was the Department of Defense, directly employing

(E) During World War II the nation’s largest employer was the Department of Defense, which directly employed

Many students can quickly eliminate answer choice B (the relative modifier “which” cannot logically modify “World War II,” the adjacent noun, because the war itself didn’t employ the soldiers, the DoD. did). But then they’re stuck. Functionally the other answer choices seem similar. Where’s the justification for choosing any one answer over another?

That justification appears about 35 words into the sentence and very far from the end of the underline—check out the words “and which” following the comma. That structurally demands a first, parallel phrase to connect via “and.” The only answer choice that connects is E: The largest employer was the DoD, which directly employed … and which indirectly supported.

What makes this problem hard? It’s the fact that many test takers never read as far as that fixed, controlling “and which indirectly supported …” phrase. Because it appears so far from the underlined portion—and therefore so far from the decision you’re trying to make—it seems completely extraneous, just extra language to wear your mind down even more. But two clues about the sample question should encourage you to read the whole sentence:

1. There isn’t an obvious decision point between answers A, C, D, and E if you read only half the sentence. The GMAT always gives you a clue if you look hard enough for it, so if you haven’t found it in the first half of the sentence, you should keep reading.

2. More than half the words in the sentence aren’t underlined and all those words come at the end. It would be strange for the author of this question to write 30 extra words at the end that no one would likely read … unless it were somehow important or at least helpful to some students who could mine it for a clue. Just the vast number of seemingly irrelevant words should stand out as noteworthy and therefore worthy of consideration.

On many questions, ignoring prepositional phrases and other modifying descriptions can certainly help you save time and focus on the immediate task at hand. But in other cases, such as the question above, the GMAT will take that tendency you’ve developed and use it to hide the crux of the question where it knows you’re probably not going to look. When you can’t find an immediate decision point and there is a critical mass of not-underlined text far from the underline, that’s a good place to put your attention to scan for a clue. The whole sentence matters, and those who expand their view will often find that all-important key to unlocking the problem.

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