Idioms, Myths and More: News from the GMAC


by Stacey Koprince, Manhattan GMAT Instructor

GMAC LogoI just got back from the biennial GMAC Test Prep Summit. (Quick: what does biennial mean? Just in case you see the word in a question!) We discussed a number of very interesting things. Don’t worry “ I won’t totally geek out on you “ but some of what we discussed will be useful for you even if you don’t make your career in test prep. 🙂

In this article, we’re going to discuss information from the conference that is relevant to everyone taking the test right now (or soon). Most of the key bits were gleaned from the presentations of Dr. Lawrence M. Rudner, Chief Psychometrician of GMAC. All quotes and statistics throughout this article are courtesy of Larry. Keep an eye out for a future article in which we’ll dive a bit more deeply into the Next Generation GMAT, which will launch in June of 2012. (Oh “ and biennial means every 2 years.)

 The myths are still myths

The earlier questions are not worth more. Accuracy is not more important than timing. We knew that already. Larry specifically made a point of reiterating these messages and asking for our help in disseminating the information “ it really bothers him that the myths are still floating around out there, and it bothers me, too. This misinformation can cause students to receive lower scores than they might have otherwise. The whole point of my job as a teacher is to help people get better scores “ so I definitely don’t want to see anyone fall short of a goal because he believed a myth that we could have dispelled.

Also, I know you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating:

There is a severe penalty for not completing the GMAT test.

“ Larry Rudner

For those who may not have seen the data before, Larry again showed us real data showing how a 70th percentile test taker would drop if she left the last five questions blank. Assuming that she was at the 70th percentile when she ran out of time, that student would end up with a 55th percentile score “ a 15-percentile-point drop! (Note: the magnitude of the drop can change depending upon the scoring level. As a general rule, the higher the score, the more of a drop if you leave questions blank or have a string of wrong answers at the end.)

Sentence Correction is more and more about meaning rather than grammar

We’ve already been speculating about this and other Sentence Correction changes on the forums, and Larry confirmed this one. GMAC has asked ACT (the people who write the actual test questions for GMAC) to emphasize meaning more on SC questions. There are an increasing number of questions in which two or more answer choices are grammatically correct and the key distinction rests upon maintaining the meaning from the question stem. If you’re concentrating solely on the grammar and haven’t learned how to incorporate meaning into your assessment, you’re going to find the real GMAT harder.

If you’d like to see some examples of what I’m talking about, crack open your Official Guide Verbal Supplement 2nd Edition and take a look at question 37. Answer choices B and E are both grammatically correct, but only one maintains the original meaning of the question stem. Which one? (I think this is a great study question for multiple reasons, actually “ more on that in a minute.)

While there are several superficial differences between the two answers, the major difference is in the placement of the phrase last year. Last year is a modifier that tells us when a specific action or event occurred. What happened last year?

According to the original sentence, the earthquake occurred last year. Do both answer choices B and E maintain that meaning? Nope. Only B does. E says that the buildings had been constructed last year. How do we know that?

some had been constructed

The stuff in brackets is all modifiers. The word some is the subject and the verb is had been constructed. Of the buildings modifies some. that were destroyed modifies buildings and in the earthquake modifies destroyed or damaged. In other words, the subject some has a bunch of modifiers following it, but the modifier last year precedes the subject. Last year has to modify some kind of an action or event. The subject some isn’t an event or action, so last year can’t modify that. The next core part of the sentence is had been constructed, which is an action, so last year modifies that action. Note that, in the original sentence, the modifier last year appears as part of the prepositional phrase in the earthquake last year “ that is, in the original sentence, last year is part of the nested modifiers for the subject, while in answer E, last year has been sort of pulled up to the level of the core sentence. And, voila, the meaning has been changed.

The other reason I really love this problem: it also illustrates a case of when we should change the original meaning of the sentence. Most of the time, we’re going to be maintaining the original meaning but sometimes there’s something illogical about that meaning. In question 37, the problem says that some buildings were destroyed and heavily damaged but that doesn’t actually make sense! A building is either destroyed or heavily damaged, but it can’t be both simultaneously because these are two different states on the same continuum. The correct answer, B, switches that and to the more logical or. (Note that answers B and E both make this switch “ they’re both completely grammatically and logically correct, so this one really does come down to the ability to maintain the original meaning of the sentence.)

 Stop stressing about idioms

Note: a few days after this was originally published, GMAC clarified that only American-centric idioms and expressions have been stripped out of the exam. We have edited the below accordingly so as not to leave any misinformation to confuse other students in the future. (30 Sep 2011)

When we asked Larry about the relative importance of idioms on the SC section, he said basically zero! They’ve asked ACT to phase these kinds of idioms out completely and, ideally, there already aren’t any more questions that hinge on knowledge of American-centric idioms. (Though he doesn’t guarantee that, yet “ there may still be some.) There are still many regular idioms that apply across all variations of the English language, however, and those idioms are still fair game.

That’s really good news, and I applaud GMAC for making this change. The only good reason to test American idioms is when you are specifically trying to test someone’s advanced English-language skills “ for a translation or editing job for the American market, for example. Business is international and business schools care about your ability to communicate and make yourself understood, not whether you have 100% perfect American-based grammar.

More To Come

We’re still parsing through a lot of the data that we received at the Summit; for instance, we’d like to know whether the currently released materials (OG12, etc.) have already been stripped of American-centric language. If so, we can confidently study anything we see in those sources, knowing that we’re not wasting time. As we have more for you, we will definitely share! And, as mentioned at the beginning of the article, we’ll have another article soon with details about the Next Generation GMAT.

Rudner, Lawrence M. (2011). GMAT Psychometrics. Materials presented at the 2011 GMAC Test Preparation Summit, New York, NY. 15 Sept 2011.

* The text excerpted above from The Official Guide for GMAT Verbal Review 2nd Edition is copyright GMAC (the Graduate Management Admissions Council). The short excerpts are quoted under fair-use statutes for scholarly or journalistic work; use of these excerpts does not imply endorsement of this article by GMAC.

Update: Please see more in our most recent blog post here.

  1. Egor March 14, 2013 at 4:58 pm

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  2. Stacey Koprince November 14, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    One question: why are you assuming that the time marker can’t be in the modifier? 🙂

    I completely agree that if you strip out the modifiers, you wouldn’t say, “last year, some buildings had been constructed.”

    You could also, by the way, change the verb to “were constructed” – that’d be fine too. Whenever it’s *possible* to use the past perfect, we’re not necessarily *required* to use it; as with most grammar rules, there are shades of grey. And E might sound better to you if it uses “were constructed.” I could go either way on that.

    I like B for the same reason you do – destroyed last year and constructed before last year is very clear, and that also matches my original understanding of the sentence. When answer E moves “last year” around, now I know the construction happened last year but I have no idea when the earthquake happened. It’s possible to write a correct sentence that simply does not give me that info – but the original sentence did make it clear, so I don’t want to choose an answer that makes things less clear.

    That’s what I mean when I say that E is technically okay but still wrong – because while the technical details are okay (not great, just okay), the meaning is messed up. (And, as a general rule, they don’t typically change the meaning of the original sentence as long as that original meaning was completely logical and unambiguous. If it was illogical or ambiguous, though, then they won’t hesitate to change the correct answer such that it is now logical and unambiguous.)

    Either way, the takeaway is: you got to the correct answer and you used good reasoning. That’s all that matters. 🙂

  3. Voodoo Child November 12, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Hello Stacey,
    I have a question on your analysis about the OG problem, in which you discussed “last year” issue. (It’s from OG Verbal Review). I couldn’t follow your analysis about E. You are saying that E is grammatically correct. I am not sure why. Here’s my reasoning:

    (Assuming that we get rid of all modifiers)
    Last year “,”(added comma for clarity) some buildings had been constructed in violation of XYZ.

    However, how can we use a past perfect with “last year”? There is no past event with which I can link the past perfect verb. Isn’t it? I am assuming that the past tense verb in the restrictive modifier is not the one. Even if it’s – this sentence (=E) is garbage (not grammatically correct because the tenses are not correct). Here’s my reasoning: “It’s saying some buildings were destroyed …. (doesn’t say when)–issue #1;” “last year the buildings had been constructed …” (Issue #2 – If the buildings had been constructed last year, then when did they get destroyed …I am completely clueless)

    I liked B because it clearly indicates the tense — “destroyed last year” and “constructed before last year” — makes sense.

    Please correct me if I am wrong. I am a bit confused.

    Can you please help me? 🙁

    Voodoo Child

  4. GMAT Sentence Correction Discussions – Page 949 – – The Everything of MBA in India and Abroad, CAT 2011, GMAT, XAT, MAT September 27, 2011 at 1:57 am

    […] based on 'meaning' of the sentence should be given due diligence now on, specially because of this new release at GMAC summit held […]

  5. Stacey Koprince September 23, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Hi, all

    We (and all of the test prep companies, I’m sure) will be incorporating a higher proportion of meaning-based questions, yes, but raunak, it’s probably not going to be in the next 15 days. It takes quite a lot of time to write and test new questions.

    There are actually a TON of questions that touch on meaning somehow – I’ve been going through OG for the last couple of days and finding a lot more examples than I thought I would. It’s true that, for a lot of these, you can also eliminate based on something that’s more “purely” grammar, so when you’re studying, you just have to make a point of paying attention to the meaning aspects as well – because it sounds like now, on the real test, they won’t necessarily always give us a grammar “fallback” and we really will have to decide on meaning.

    I’m going to have a list for you guys soon of a bunch of OG questions that hinge on meaning (at least partially – a lot of them are just one or two answer choices).

  6. raunak September 23, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Hi Stacey ,
    Thanks for the update. I do understand the importance of meaning in a SC question ,but with very few practice question isnt it gonna be a problem for students? Can you recommend any additional resource/material. Is Manhattan coming with additional booklet/study guide with emphasis on meaning based SCs?

    please do reply soon , i have my gmat in next 15 days .

  7. Artur September 23, 2011 at 4:04 am

    Thanks Stacey,

    Very helpful article!!!

  8. Taran September 22, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    Hi Stacey,

    It’s always a pleasure following your posts, be it plain informational, as in this case, or a specific question based one.

    My question is also the same as asked by gmat_prep above. Has Manhattan started to focus more on meaning in their SC questions in the full length tests? I have six CATs available with me; do i expect these changes when i take them, say in a month from now? (was the use of semi-colon correct here :))

  9. Stacey Koprince September 21, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Re: the question on what to study / how soon the changes are taking effect – they have already been implementing the changes gradually over the past several years. So, yes, you can expect to see a higher proportion of “meaning” based SCs than you currently see in OG or GMATPrep (or anywhere, for that matter) and you can expect to see fewer idioms and possibly not any at all.

    E Mully – balance is exactly why they put in the time penalty. Take that to an extreme. Without a penalty, you could spend all 75 minutes on the first 5 questions, really make sure (as much as you can!) that you get them all right, and then get a great score… but then you only answered 5 questions while someone else answered them all! The test is *not* just testing you on what you can get right, but on what you can get right under significant time constraints. The timing is just as important a factor – it represents the ability to set priorities, manage time wisely, make tough decisions about how to spend your time… that is, all things that a good business person can do well.

    If you approach this test as though it’s really about getting everything right, or almost everything – then you’re not going to do as well as you could. School tests work that way. Adaptive tests are a whole different thing. I’d recommend that you read the Scoring chapter of our free e-book The GMAT Uncovered Guide (if you have an account with us, it’s already in the Extras section – just go open it up!).

  10. E Mully September 21, 2011 at 8:58 am

    The part about the test score dropping 15% if you run out of time and leave the last 5 answers blank is staggering. It is important to find balance when issuing a test. That dramatic of a difference is way to steep.

  11. domenico September 21, 2011 at 4:12 am

    Same concern ……….

  12. Ritesh September 21, 2011 at 3:30 am

    Thanks a ton for such informative insights into the future of the GMAT. The only question that comes to my mind is the time GMAC would take to incorporate these changes, or have these changes already been incorporated.

    How relevant are these changes for someone, who is scheduled to take the GMAT within the next 2 months?

  13. domenico September 20, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Ok I have my SC guide from MGMAT: I can study yet or change something ??

    Right now I’m studying to improve my SC skill……

    Thanks 🙂

  14. Stacey Koprince September 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    lol – I meant to type the more unusual word “biennial” – you know, a really hard word that would be a true test. 🙂 Sorry about that! Caitlin fixed the article.

    Also, Jeff – I didn’t say at all that word definitions aren’t important. On the contrary, I think it’s quite important to have a decent vocabulary in order to do well on a test like the GMAT, even though the GMAT doesn’t _directly_ test vocab (as the GRE does). If your vocab is poor, then that’s going to interfere with comprehension, and that’s going to have negative consequences.

  15. sudhir September 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    isnt biannual = twice a year?

  16. Jeff September 20, 2011 at 11:15 am

    If idioms and word definitions aren’t so important on the GMAT, then why do you lead off the post with a pop quiz on a word definition?

  17. Mr. Evans September 20, 2011 at 9:28 am

    *biannual means twice a year

  18. gmat_prep September 19, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    Thanks a lot for sharing information. This is great value in preparation. Unfortunately there is not much available to practice on these line.

    Can we expect the MGMAT CAT tests to reflect this anytime soon? This would be a great relief if possible.

    Thanks in advance.

  19. sudhir September 19, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Hi Stacey ,
    Thanks for the update. I do understand the importance of meaning in a SC question ,but with very few practice question isnt it gonna be a problem for students? Can you recommend any additional resource/material. Is Manhattan coming with additional booklet/study guide with emphasis on meaning based SCs?

    Thanks for your answer

  20. Stacey Koprince September 19, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Hey, Saket – the increased emphasis on meaning has already been happening, yes – you’ll still see both grammar-based and meaning-based Qs, but you’ll see a higher proportion that rely on meaning than you currently see in OG, for example.

    For the idioms bit, my best guess is that there probably still are some idioms in there (it takes time to strip them all out), but a lot are probably gone already. Larry said he “hoped” that they were all gone already but he didn’t know for sure – they’re still working on it. So definitely low priority, and maybe zero priority, on idioms (for your study).

  21. Saket Khard September 19, 2011 at 10:02 am

    I loved the article by Stacey. I am elated to know that idioms won’t hurt my scores anymore. Also, I am happy with GMAC’s decision to concentrate more on meaning (I guess they already all), but it’s always good to know this from horses mouth. 
    I have one question – I have my test scheduled on 28th of this month. Can I expect to see the changes discussed in the article by Stacey in the real exam? Eagerly waiting for the next article.

  22. azfar September 19, 2011 at 9:27 am

    thanks….it was very useful for someone like who lives outside US and cant attend the Summit…. looking for more articles like this one.