GRE Verbal is Not a Rorschach Test

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - GRE Verbal is Not a Rorschach Test by Tom Anderson

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GRE Verbal is Not a Rorschach Test

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - GRE Verbal is Not a Rorschach Test by Tom Anderson

What do you see in the image above? A butterfly? A twisty rollercoaster? Your mother’s disapproval?

Rorschach tests are pretty cool. Just by looking at an image and associating it with whatever comes to mind, psychologists can uncover all kinds of revealing things about their subjects’ psyches.

When you look at the image above, maybe you immediately see beauty. Maybe there is anxiety bubbling up out of the corners of the ink. Or maybe you encountered some deep, dark Freudian truth about yourself. The answers on such tests reveal much more about you than they do about the original material.  

Now answer this GRE Verbal question: What word best fits in the blank below?

The employees lamented that their manager was so ______ that any meeting he led was bound to take twice as long as necessary.

A) Verbose
B) Young
C) Melancholic
D) Charismatic
E) Ambitious

Hmmm… this manager could be all kinds of things, right? There is some sort of rationale that might make any of these answers work. Think through any one of them and I’m sure you could come up with a creative story to make it work.

The possibilities are nearly endless if we treat this GRE Verbal sentence like a Rorschach test. But the GRE Verbal section is not a Rorschach test. If you treat it like one, your score will suffer. In fact, the best way to answer fill-in-the-blank questions is to think with as little creativity and subjectivity as possible.

The best read of the sentence above is, of course, that the manager is talkative. If he talks a lot, then the meetings take a long time.  

Boring. And boring is a good thing on the GRE.

Think Through it the Wrong Way and Listen to What Happens

Let’s try a little thought experiment. If we are aiming to be as creative and subjective as possible, we could make all kinds of words work in Text Completion questions. Humor me a moment on the sentence we looked at earlier.  Listen to my internal monologue as I try to justify the wrong answers:

The employees lamented that their manager was so ______ that any meeting he led was bound to take twice as long as necessary.

I had a young manager once. This person had not yet accumulated enough experience on the job to to run meetings effectively. He often ran over the planned times for staff meetings. Or maybe this manager is ambitious. I also had an ambitious manager once who had some really sprawling and time-consuming plans to reorganize the whole company structure. That meant long agendas that ran over time limits. Or…maybe this manager is charismatic. Charismatic people tend to get carried away in their own speaking and friendly interactions and that could cause a meeting to carry on.

All of these fill-ins are interesting, creative, and absolutely downright wrong. They reveal much more about me and my past experiences than they do about the content of this GRE Verbal sentence. Creativity and subjectivity will decimate your GRE Verbal score. If you ever catch yourself taking more than a few words to justify an answer, it is almost certainly wrong.

Think about why this is: If there was room for subjectivity on GRE Verbal, everyone would end up with different answers; it wouldn’t be a standardized test. ETS writes these sentences so that there is only one correct answer. Treat them that way.

Storytelling and How to Catch It

Okay, maybe we can agree that it’s a standardized test and there should be only one right answer. That may sound easy in principle, but it can be a whole other matter to do this in practice. How do you catch yourself being creative? If you listen carefully to your inner monologue, I think you’ll find that the wrong GRE Verbal answers require “storytelling;” to make a wrong answer work, you need to justify it with a long explanation like I was doing above. If an answer is truly correct, it should require very little justification—no more than a few words or a sentence. Let’s fill in another blank to illustrate:

Political advertising may well be the most (i)_______ kind of advertising: political candidates are usually quite (ii) dissimilar, yet their campaign advertisements often hide important differences behind smoke screens of smiles and empty slogans.

Two of the choices for that blank are “deceptive” and “effective.” Which requires less justification?

Think through each word and the reasoning required to make work. Here are my own thoughts for each answer choice:

“Political advertising seems to be intended to whitewash flawed personalities and checkered pasts. Candidates don’t want their electorate fixating upon their less-than-pristine behavior as young adults. They also don’t want folks thinking about all the questionable votes they cast. The purpose of political advertising is to cover these things up, so it is really, very effective.”

“They are hiding differences and using tactics like ‘smoke screens.’ That sounds deceptive.”

The rationale for “effective” is interesting, creative, and subjective. It is also definitely, 100% wrong. I read the sentence like a Rorschach test, revealing much more about my own opinion of politics than whatever meaning lies in the sentence.

The rationale for “deceptive” is simple, boring, and objective. It is therefore correct.  

Be Boring

I feel kind of bad saying this, but if you’ve got creativity inside you, you’re going to need to stamp it out, stifle it, and otherwise expunge it from your system. Instead, you must be as boring as possible in order to find success on GRE Verbal. Think inside the box.  

Here is one more GRE Verbal sentence that tends to invite all sorts of creative thinking. Do your best to answer the question by reading meaning out of the sentence, rather than reading your ideas down onto the page:

Human nature and long distances have made exceeding the speed limit a (i)_______ in the state, so legislators surprised no one when, acceding to public demand, they (ii)_______ increased penalties for speeding.

Blank (i) Blank (ii)
controversial habit endorsed
cherished tradition considered
disquieting ritual rejected


It’s so easy to let your own opinions about speeding seep into this sentence. Surely it’s “controversial”—it’s against the law, after all! Or if not that, it’s certainly at least “disquieting.” People may do it frequently, but it’s such a troubling habit: it could cause accidents, injuries, or worse.

But ask yourself: Is there anything in the sentence describing accidents, injuries, or other negative aspects of speeding? All they tell you is that “human nature and long distances” are doing something to the practice of exceeding the speed limit. Long distances would make you want to get places fast, so speeding must be a “cherished tradition.” The legislators gave in to what the people wanted, so they must have “rejected” penalties for speeding. Simple. Boring. And correct.

I’m fully aware that this read of the sentence may not be the one you saw first. But if you reflect deeply about it, you may find you were treating the sentence subjectively—like a Rorschach test. Being boring takes practice. And if your creativity is screaming for an outlet amidst all this talk of “inside-the-box” thinking, there’s hope: channel it into your flashcards. ?


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tom-andersonTom Anderson is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. He has a B.A. in English and a master’s degree in education. Tom has long possessed an understanding of the power of standardized tests in propelling one’s education and career, and he hopes he can help his students see through the intimidating veneer of the GRE. Check out Tom’s upcoming GRE courses here.

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