Are GRE Verbal Questions Subjective?

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Are GRE Verbal Questions Subjective? by Chelsey Cooley

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A lot of people think that GRE Verbal questions can have more than one right answer. The GRE itself doesn’t do anything to dispel this myth, since Verbal questions often include wording like which of the following is best supported? or with which statement would the author most likely agree?. These questions make it sound as if you’re supposed to read five pretty good answers and pick the best one, even if the other ones are okay, too. However, this mindset will hurt you on test day.

To understand why, suppose that you’re trying to write a Text Completion problem. To be good enough for the GRE, the problem has to help you tell the difference between stronger test-takers and weaker test-takers. People with strong vocabulary, reading, and reasoning skills should get the problem right; everyone else should get it wrong.

If you just took any sentence and removed a random word, the problem you created might look like this one:

For eons, _______ was considered not only polite, but virtuous.

probity
parsimoniousness
prodigality
punctuality
panache

Since there are no context clues, everyone would be equally likely to get this one right. Your problem would be testing how lucky the test-takers were, not the strength of their Verbal skills. So, what happens if we add some context?

For eons, ________ was considered not only polite, but virtuous; now, it is often perceived as unfashionable, and is typically not expected of guests.

probity
parsimoniousness
prodigality
punctuality
panache

Even though it includes more clues, this problem is just as bad, and could never appear on the GRE. You might suspect that the clues in the sentence point you towards punctuality, which refers to being on time: unfashionable calls to mind the saying “fashionably late,” and many people don’t expect their guests to be on time! However, this problem still isn’t testing vocabulary, reading, and reasoning. It’s testing your knowledge of sayings and your knowledge of human behavior. You couldn’t find the right answer using only vocabulary, reading, and the information in the sentence. That’s why you’d never see this one on the test.

It’s tough to write a problem that only uses vocabulary, reading, and reasoning skills. Here’s how the test writers do it: they put the answer somewhere in the problem itself.  Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s very well hidden and takes a lot of thinking to piece together. But if it wasn’t in there, then they’d really be testing your world knowledge, not your understanding of the sentence or the passage!

For eons, ______ was considered not only polite, but virtuous; now, fashionable behavior lauds laxity and tardiness and arriving at a function an hour late is considered appropriate.

probity
parsimoniousness
prodigality
punctuality
panache

To get this one right, you only need two things: how to read the sentence correctly and how to define the tough vocabulary words. Those aren’t trivial skills – but, critically, they’re the skills that the GRE cares about. You can prove that punctuality is correct, by using only the definitions of words and the information in the sentence.

Not every official GRE problem is perfect, but the problems are tested extensively before they’re counted towards your score. Every official GRE Verbal problem you see will include all the information you need to find the right answer, right there in the text. Because of this, there will only be one right answer: it’s the only one that you can prove correct by using only the information you’re given.

How do you use this knowledge to get more Verbal questions right?

First, keep it in mind when you study. If you get down to two answer choices, but pick the wrong one, don’t tell yourself that you picked a ‘good, but not as good’ answer. That’s a cop-out! Consider whether you actually proved the answer you picked, and whether you really used only the clues in the problem – is it possible that you introduced some outside ideas into your reasoning, or that you picked something that seemed reasonable, but wasn’t actually supported by the text? Work hard to explain to yourself why right answers are right and wrong answers are wrong – that sort of review will help you on test day.

Second, keep it in mind on test day. Unless you’re guessing (which is fine), only pick an answer if you can find the specific proof for it. Don’t just pick something that’s good enough, or that seems right! If you can’t find any proof, make a guess and move on from the question, or look harder at the other answer choices you may have dismissed. If you convince yourself that every GRE Verbal problem has an objective right answer – just like every Quant problem – you’re already halfway to finding it. ?


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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 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

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