GMAT Tip: Don't Rush to Judgment

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

GMAT examinees are in a hurry. The timed nature of the GMAT means that even if you’re on or ahead of schedule, you’re probably conscious of the clock and trying to answer quickly.

By now, hopefully you’ve begun to learn the importance of avoiding “careless” or “silly” calculation mistakes that often arise when you’re rushing, but there’s an additional haste-related trap that’s a little more subtle but every bit as common: Students often make decisions about answer choice A far too quickly.

You can see it clearly when looking at a student’s workbooks and viewing the way they handle the process of elimination. Almost always, the most emphatic cross-outs—the boldest pen strokes, the longest cross-out lines—are on choices A and B. The cross-outs get a little smaller and lighter as students get a little more timid by choices D and E. In the beginning, an answer choice that isn’t perfect is enthusiastically crossed out; by the later answer choices, students have realized that they’re going to have to live with one of these answers.

Here’s the catch: The authors of GMAT questions know this, and it makes it easy for them to “hide” a correct-but-not-obvious answer at the first or second spot. There, they can bank on quite a few test-takers eliminating the right answer and never returning to it.

The same thing works in reverse in other cases. If answer choice A looks pretty similar to what you were hoping for, it’s easy to select it and save the time it takes to read the other answer choices. But there’s a danger in that, too. Plenty of trap answers are “almost definitely” true but don’t hold up to a higher standard of scrutiny. Consider the example:

For integers a, b, and c, if ab = bc, which of the following must also be true?

(A) a = c

(B) a2b = bc2

(C) a/c = 1

(D) abc > bc

(E) a + b + c = 0

To many, answer choice A seems obviously true. Just divide both sides by b and you get a = c.  But wait. Doesn’t answer choice C essentially say the same thing? In choice C, if you multiply both sides by c, you get exactly the same thing: a = c.  How can both be right?

They can’t. The catch with either of them is that you can’t divide both sides by b unless you know that b doesn’t equal 0. Algebraically, you’d have to turn the original information into what looks like a quadratic:

ab = bc

ab – bc = 0

b(a – c) = 0

So either b = 0 or a  = c

When you’re working quickly, it can be easy to miss this algebraic step or to consider the possibility that b could be 0. Here’s where the GMAT offers you a hand; it’s not as much a “gotcha!” test, as many would think, in that it will often put clues in the answer choices to help jog your memory—if you look for them. Here, the fact that choices A and C are the same would save the day for you (and help you find correct answer B) if you had the presence of mind to keep reading answer choices, even though A seems so tempting. But many students (most, in fact) are apt to make a final decision on choice A without reading further.

What’s the lesson?

Unless you know for certain that choice A is 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong, it pays to read a few more answer choices to put it in context. Particularly with Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension questions, a correct choice A will often not look like what the typical user would have predicted; many will eliminate it as a result. Similarly— as with the above example—many questions are set up so that choice A looks exactly like what you expect to see, but it has a subtle-but-fatal flaw you wouldn’t likely pick up unless you see a second tempting choice.

In either case, don’t rush to judgment on just one answer choice unless you absolutely know you’re correct. Answer choices on the GMAT are often traps, but they’re often assets. The astute test-taker will take care to see the whole array of options before making an irreversible commitment on the first choice.

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