GMAT Tip: The Process of Elimination

Photograph by Adam Haglund/Maskot

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

“I can usually get it down to two answers, but I don’t do much better than 50 percent after that.”

Does that sound like you? Whether it has been on your GMAT preparation or dates back to your experience studying for the SAT or the LSAT, this phenomenon tends to be a common frustration for almost any standardized test-taker. So what to do when you’re down to two?

Typically, when you’re using a process of elimination, it’s on verbal questions, so let’s focus our discussion on those by outlining the average Critical Reasoning problem. Those questions generally have this setup:

• A stimulus of four to five sentences

• A question stem

• Five answer choices

So let’s say you’ve narrowed the answer choices down to two. By that point you’ve read five sentences of pertinent information (the question itself), then an additional five sentences of answer choices, each one sentence long. So by the time you’ve narrowed your answer choices down to two, nearly half of what you’ve read is now irrelevant; it’s wrong-answer choices that no longer have any bearing on the question. But think of what that information has done—it has polluted your mind with information that’s at least in the same vein as the question but doesn’t have any direct impact on your next decision.

In other words, one of the main reasons people struggle when they’re down to two answer choices is that by the time they’ve gotten there, their mind has lost its focus on the task at hand. One could argue that this point is when it’s most important to have direct focus. By definition, the first three choices you eliminated are usually the easiest to eliminate. The last decision is going to be the hardest, but it’s the one people make with the least direct focus on the question itself.

So how do you combat this problem?

Recognize that by the time you’re down to two, you’ve done most of the heavy lifting and you’re almost there, so spending an extra 10 seconds refreshing the question almost as a brand new one (“OK, my job is to strengthen the argument that X cannot have caused Y”) is arguably the best investment of time you can make. So pause once you’ve gotten down to two and repeat the question to yourself, then attack those final two answer choices. This will help you:

• Avoid the problem of mental fatigue and loss-of-focus;

• Employ a new strategy to face that last decision (often the three choices you eliminated are wrong for the same reason, but the final decision is different).

• Invest time proportionately to its likelihood of success. Eliminating one choice (of five) takes your likelihood from 20 percent to 25 percent; the second takes you from 25 percent to 33 percent. The third takes you from 33 percent to 50 percent. But the last one takes you from 50 percent to 100 percent—that’s the greatest possible jump you can make, but by that time many students are in a rush because they’ve spent a lot of time already. That extra 10 seconds you spend to double your likelihood of success is the best time investment you’ll make all day.

So when you’ve eliminated three answer choices, don’t rush that final decision. Instead, take 10 seconds to refresh your mind on the question and start on it with a fresh perspective. In other words, when you’re down to two, treat the question as brand new.

Brian Galvin has studied the GMAT full time since 2006 as the director of academic programs for Veritas Prep. He received a masters in education from the University of Michigan and is the proud owner of a 99th percentile GMAT score.

For more GMAT advice from Veritas Prep watch “When You’re Down to Two Answers, What Should You Do Next?”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.