Think “Better,” Not “Best,” on Sentence Correction

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This tip for improving your GMAT score was provided by David Newland at Veritas Prep.

One of the big mistakes that students make on sentence correction is looking for the “best” answer. These test-takers will read through the answer choices looking for the one that they would have written or that they think “sounds great” in all respects. In short, they will compare the five answer choices to each other, looking for the “best” of the five.

The problem with this approach is that the test writers know this is a natural tendency, and they do not want to reward its use. The test-makers want you to use a logical approach to sentence correction, and they set traps for students who simply go through all five answers looking for the best one. At Veritas Prep we have identified these traps as “hiding the right answer” and “selling the wrong answer.”

You make yourself vulnerable to falling into these traps when you do either of two things:

1) Try to evaluate the entire answer choice—or even the entire sentence—at one time

2) Compare all five answer choices in search of the “best” one.

A “Better” Approach
A much more effective approach is to make a series of small decisions. Rather than trying to take in the entire answer choice, make your decision by focusing on the smallest number of words that you can. Often you can focus on a single word.

And instead of taking on all five answer choices and looking for the best one, just compare two different options for a word or phrase. Ask the question, “Which of these two options is better?” Then ask this question repeatedly until only one answer choice remains.

If you have ever gotten glasses or contact lenses, you are familiar with this procedure. The optometrist does not lay a bunch of lenses in front of you and ask you to pick the best prescription for you. That would be absurd.

Instead you are asked, “Which lens makes the letters clearer, No. 1 or No. 2?”And then, “Which is better, No. 3 or No. 4?” And so on. By making a series of choices as to which of two options is better, you end up with the best prescription for your eyes. This is the essence of sentence correction. If you are making more than one choice at a time, you are attempting to do too much. Answer choices may vary in several respects, but you should focus on only one of those differences at a time.

When you have multiple “decision points” (differences in answer choices), it can be difficult to decide which of these decisions to make first. It is important to use the decision point first because you will be using it to make the initial elimination of answer choices.

When you have multiple decision points, follow three rules:

1) Use decision points that have a concrete right answer and a concrete wrong answer. Examples of great decision points to use are:
• singular vs. plural verb, noun, or pronoun
• verb tense (past vs. present vs. future)
• different placements of a modifier
• parallel elements in a pair or list

2) Decisions to avoid making (unless no other differences remain) are those that are based merely on style or preference. Test-takers overestimate their ability to recognize answers that are incorrect, as opposed to just unusual. The GMAT is known for crafting sentences that that sound “wrong” but are grammatically and logically correct: “hiding the right answer” behind a structure that is valid but that you’d probably never think to use yourself.

3) Use decision points that you are quickly comfortable with. If you have more than one good decision point, choose the one that you feel surer of. Don’t let common reading technique—“left to right, top to bottom”—force you into a primary decision that you don’t feel great about. Be choosy and do first what you know you can do well.

In the second half of this article we will apply the technique of making small decisions to a GMAT sentence correction problem. In the meantime, begin looking for the small, clear differences between answers, allowing you to choose the better option and making your sentence correction technique more logical and efficient.
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