GMAT Tip: Patience is a Virtue on Sentence Correction Questions

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

The GMAT is a timed test, so you’re naturally in a hurry throughout. And while you know that haste makes waste on the quantitative section—where silly errors and skipped steps can leave you with an answer that doesn’t match any answer choices—you probably make an allowance for working quickly on sentence correction questions. After all, if you can quickly eliminate an answer choice, that’s one less item you have to worry about—and a good bit less reading you have to do overall. Right?

Not so fast, my friend.

One of the most common mistakes examinees make on sentence correction problems is to attack the “false decision point” first, eliminating a correct answer because it just sounds or feels wrong. Consider an example, which appears courtesy of the Official Guide for GMAT Review:

The Emperor Augustus, it appears, commissioned an idealized sculptured portrait, the features of which are so unrealistic as to constitute what one scholar calls an “artificial face.”

(A) so unrealistic as to constitute
(B) so unrealistic they constituted
(C) so unrealistic that they have constituted
(D) unrealistic enough so that they constitute
(E) unrealistic enough so as to constitute

Although choice A is correct (more on that in a second), most test-takers eliminate it, and from that group most eliminate it quite quickly. Why? Largely because:

(1) A is the first answer choice, so they feel they have to make a decision on it quickly.
(2) “So unrealistic as to…” doesn’t sound as good as “so unrealistic that” (in choice C), and since that’s the first major difference between A, B, and C—that third word—it seems like a decision that needs to be dealt with quickly.

A much more binary decision point exists. The last words of the answer choices (“constitute” vs. “constituted”) is a present vs. past tense issue, a decision that the GMAT commonly tests. Logically, it has to be present: These features haven’t changed and the scholar still considers them in play, so they still constitute that “artificial face.”  Past-tense is illogical, so B and C should be eliminated, and then—based on sentence structure—D and E should be eliminated. Most users select C.

The big takeaways from this question all relate to the strategy, “think like the test-maker.” The GMAT makes this question hard by front-loading the decisions you’re least qualified to make and “hiding” the truly-actionable decision (present vs. past tense) toward the end of the underlined portion. This is a common technique. GMAT test-makers know that the test’s “weaknesses” are the error types that you can and should practice repeatedly, among them modifiers, verbs, and pronouns. But its strength is that it can pick the order in which the potential errors are displayed to you, in terms of both “top to bottom” (choice A through E) and “left to right.” Astute test-takers recognize this, and exercise patience in waiting for the decision they feel most qualified to make.

Do not feel the need to decide on choice A or on the first few words of the underlined portion. You can play to your strengths and the GMAT’s weaknesses by being patient and looking for the decisions you make best, not just those that are presented to you first. On sentence correction problems, it pays to be patient.

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