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Are you struggling with Reading Comprehension Inference problems? Here are my best quick GRE tips for this tricky problem type.
1. Know the golden rule.
Inference problems look diverse, but they actually all follow one rule. The right answer to every inference problem is a fact you can prove, using only what’s written in the passage.
Here’s a quick example:
Government restrictions have severely limited the amount of stem cell research conducted by companies in the United States. Because of these restrictions, many scientists specializing in stem cell research have signed long-term contracts to work for foreign companies.
Which of the following can most properly be inferred from the information above?
(A) In the near future, U.S. companies will no longer be at the forefront of stem cell research.
(B) At least some foreign companies have fewer limits on conducting stem cell research than U.S. companies do.
Both of the answers make perfect sense. However, you can only prove one of them. (B) is the right answer. The passage says that scientists have moved to foreign companies because of the restrictions in the U.S.—if that’s the case, the restrictions must not apply to those companies.
(A) is wrong, not because it’s untrue, but because you can’t prove it for certain with only the information you have.
2. Think of counterexamples.
How do you know that you can’t prove (A)? Think of a counterexample. A counterexample is a “what if” scenario in which the answer choice wouldn’t be true.
Is it possible that U.S. companies will be at the forefront of stem cell research in the near future? It’s unlikely, but it is possible. For instance, the government might lift the restrictions tomorrow, and the scientists might break their contracts and return to the United States.
If you can think of a counterexample, then you know you’re looking at a wrong answer. It shouldn’t be possible to come up with a counterexample to the right answer—not without going against what the passage says.
3. Know the wrong answer types.
If you can’t prove an answer choice, then it’s wrong. And some things are extremely hard, if not impossible, to prove.
Value judgments: If an answer choice says something like better, worse, smart, risky, ethical, successful, etc., you should question it. It’s easy to prove dry, factual statements. It’s much harder to prove subjective statements, like “cats are better than dogs.”
Predicting the future: It’s almost impossible to prove statements about the future! Things can always change tomorrow, after all.
Generalizations: If the passage talks about one eccentric author, the right answer won’t say “most authors are eccentric.”
Strong language: If you see language like every, always, never, or cannot in an answer choice, it’s going to be hard to prove. Don’t cross off these answer choices right away, but be wary of them.
No data: These are easy to cross off! If the passage doesn’t tell you anything about a topic, then you can’t pick an answer that discusses that topic. For instance, if the passage discusses an author’s personal life, you can’t choose an answer that describes her writing.
4. Boring is beautiful.
The right answer won’t tell you anything interesting, new, or radical: after all, you have to be able to prove it for certain.
Right answers often contain ‘softening’ or ‘wishy-washy’ language. Take another look at the problem we did earlier. The right answer opens with the words ‘at least some.’ This makes it a very weak statement. It really only says that there are at least one or two foreign companies with fewer limits on stem cell research. That’s not very tough to prove.
5. Small statements are fine!
The right answer might be based on only one or two sentences from the passage. It doesn’t have to cover the general idea of the passage—that’s only necessary if you’re doing a main idea question.
6. When in doubt, treat inference problems like detail questions.
If you treat inference problems exactly the same way that you treat specific detail questions, you’ll do fine. That’s really what they are, after all! They might look trickier—and they sometimes are—but the rules are the same. Find the support for an answer in the passage, and if you can’t find it quickly, make an educated guess and keep rolling! 📝
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Chelsey Cooley 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.