GRE Sentence Equivalence: Theme Traps

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - GRE Sentence Equivalence: Theme Traps by Chelsey Cooley

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There are four reasons to miss a GRE Sentence Equivalence problem. Here are three of them:

  • You misread the sentence.
  • You didn’t know all of the vocabulary words (or remembered a word incorrectly).
  • You were short on time and the problem looked tough, so you guessed and got unlucky.

These are all things that you can address with practice. (Check out our Text Completion & Sentence Equivalence Strategy Guide for ideas!) However, we won’t be talking about them here. Instead, let’s look at a fourth reason to miss a GRE Sentence Equivalence problem:

  • You fell for a trap.

GRE Sentence Equivalence problems are designed to be fair. Whatever the right answer is, there’s always unambiguous proof for that answer in the sentence itself. So, if you read the sentence, and you know the vocabulary words, you should get the problem right 100% of the time… right?

Unfortunately, that’s not always true. GRE Sentence Equivalence problems sometimes include certain features—‘traps’—that can fool you even if you’ve basically understood the problem. In order to avoid falling for them, you have to be prepared. Know what the most common traps look like, so you can recognize and avoid them on test day.

The first type of trap we’ll look at is the theme trap. It shows up in problems like this one (from the 5lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems).

To the casual observer, the desert appears ________ place; those who look deeper, however, discover that it supports a vibrant ecosystem teeming with life.

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - GRE Sentence Equivalence: Theme Traps by Chelsey Cooley

Take a moment to try the problem before moving on.

In this problem, one pair of answer choices can be eliminated quickly, based on the structure of the sentence. The word however and the phrase those who look deeper indicate that the second half of the sentence is the opposite of the first half. Therefore, verdant and lush, which are direct matches for vibrant ecosystem teeming with life, can be eliminated.

The next elimination is tougher. Take a look at arid and dessicated. They’re a good pair; they both mean “dry.” They also look good in the context of the problem: the blank describes the desert, which is a dry place! However, this pair is a theme trap—a type of trap where the answer choices relate to the content of the sentence, but aren’t actually good answers. The person who wrote this problem wants you to pick these answers, but you shouldn’t. Why?

Look at the alternative: desolate and inhospitable. The second half of the sentence provides several clues that support this pair. The desert supports an ecosystem teeming with life. A desolate or inhospitable place is the exact opposite of one that teems with life, by definition! In contrast, there’s nothing in the sentence that directly points you to arid and dessicated. (For instance, it doesn’t mention the desert’s lack of water.) If you picked arid and dessicated, you’d be ignoring the actual clues in favor of your own knowledge about deserts. Don’t do that. Always favor the answer choices that match what’s literally written in the sentence.

Can you spot a theme trap in this problem?

While traveling to the spa’s remote location could be hectic, visitors more than made up for the stress by unwinding in a supremely _________ environment.

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - GRE Sentence Equivalence: Theme Traps by Chelsey Cooley

Before you move on, try to find two things: the right answer to the problem, and the theme trap.

In this problem, the right answer is pacific and placid. The first word, while, tells you that there will be a contrast between the first and second halves of the sentence. Both halves of the sentence contain clues. The first half includes remote location and hectic. The second half tells you that the environment more than made up for the stress. Remote location ends up being a red herring: there’s nothing in the answer choices that relates to that. However, hectic and made up for the stress are the clues that are useful in the end. Pacific and placid both literally mean calm.

Okay, did you catch the theme trap? It’s luxurious and elegant. When I think about a vacation to a spa in a remote location, these are some of the first words that pop into my head. However, that’s not good enough for GRE Sentence Equivalence! If the sentence doesn’t say that the spa was elegant, you can’t pick that as an answer. Always go where the sentence is leading you.

Now you know what a theme trap looks like. When you see two answer choices that are closely related to the topic of the sentence, you might be looking at this type of trap. For instance, deserts tend to be dry, and remote spas tend to be luxurious. Don’t fall for it! The GRE will never ask you to pick an answer choice based on what you know about deserts, spas, or anything else. Instead, let the sentence itself lead you to the right answer. 📝

Can you identify theme traps in GRE Sentence Equivalence? Comment below with an example!


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

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