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There is a very simple rule that I try hard to instill in all of my students. It will serve you well on all parts of the verbal section. It will help you in that most dire of text completion conundrums — the two words that both seem to make the sentence make sense. It will help you in sentence equivalence, when there are two oh-so-tempting pairs of answers, and you just can’t seem to judge between them. And most importantly, it will help you in reading comprehension, particularly in identifying the traps the test makers have so diabolically hidden for you. My verbal golden rule:
It amazes me the lengths we go to as test takers to help the test makers trick us. Seriously, the work we put in on test day convincing ourselves that wrong answers are right, and talking ourselves out of points, is simply amazing; it’s the reason the test makers can keep using the same tricks year after year. They have no need to be inventive: we do the hard work for them! This is particularly true for my more naturally creative students. Writing your application essays? Compiling your portfolio? Going on an interview? By all means, fan that brilliant creative spark into a roaring inferno of innovation! But on test day? NO STORIES.
So, how do we stop aiding and abetting the test makers? Well, let’s talk about how this rule helps us stay out of traps. Not all of them, mind you, but some of the most tempting and troublesome.
Out of scope
Enemy number one, and one of the most common trap answer types, is an answer choice that diverges drastically from what the passage was actually about. These trip students up most often when they are faced with a passage they don’t entirely understand. In the moment, the fear and confusion set in, your mind recoils from the horror of the unknown, and in a mad fit of test-taking self-destruction, you latch on to the only answer that seems as confusing as the passage itself. You have to learn to resist that panic. If your passage was about systems of economic control in feudal Japan, don’t trust an answer choice about modern Tokyo. I know, I know. You can find a million ways to justify it, you could probably write me a brilliant and thoroughly researched essay linking the two. But on test day? We only have what’s in the passage. If you’re telling yourself a long, elaborate story about how the two are connected, STOP. The answer is wrong. NO STORIES.
These overly-generalized answer choices are another GRE favorite, the standardized testing equivalent of having one bad samosa and swearing off Indian food forever. The test-makers are going to give you a passage all about the Hawaiian Islands and then, BAM, throw an answer choice at you that references all the islands everywhere in the entire world. Your brain turns against you, making connections that weren’t in the passage, and you find yourself thinking, “well, since it was true of these islands, maybe it really IS true of all of them? I’ll bet if I try hard enough, I can find a reason this works!” Whose side are you even on here? Stop helping the test makers by justifying answers. NO STORIES. If the passage was about the Hawaiian Islands, guess what the answer should be about? That’s right: The Hawaiian Islands. If an answer choice starts to bring in new ideas or information not yet discussed, get rid of it; it’s wrong.
This may be the most extreme example of the three, as in order to sell yourself on these traps, you have to tell yourself a story so convincing that you talk yourself into an answer that is exactly opposite of what you were looking for in the first place. Now, commonly students will pick a reversal because they misread the sentence, and carelessly skipped over a vital “but” or “however”. Sometimes though, it’s a case of that clever, clever brain of yours concocting a story so elaborate that you can actually make the weakest answer choice the strongest, like the Sophists of ancient Greece. For the last time, seriously, NO STORIES.
So, how do we overcome this natural inclination that exists in all of our brains to turn against us?
Restrict yourself to the information in the passage
Right answer choices will be supported not by some clever trick of our own minds, but by some text on the page or screen. This seems simple enough, but is really quite difficult, and you can’t simply will yourself into a new way of thinking. So practice it! If you’re working from the book, highlight or underline exactly how you know your answer was correct. If you’re working electronically, practice putting your finger on the actual text that tells you your answer is the correct one. Now, I am not saying this is necessarily something you should be doing on test day (in fact, some test centers have weird rules about touching the screen, so be wary!). But practice this when you’re doing problem sets, and teach your brain how to approach these reading comprehension problems in a very focused way. The test-makers won’t thank you for it, but your scores will. 📝
Want to test this out? Go try these problems from Chapter 5 of the 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems:
- Question 4: So many tempting stories to tell yourself here! Stay strong, stick to the passage!
- Questions 12-14: I’ll confess, I got 14 wrong when I first looked at it. Rule out the wrong answers first – work from wrong to right.
- Questions 40-42: 40 is a softball. 41 has some great traps though. I’m even more interested in whether or not you can identify them than if you get the right answer.
Ryan Hopson is a Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor based in Philadelphia, PA. For over a decade, Ryan has been working with students at all levels, from teaching science to kindergartners, SAT prep to high schoolers, and ESL to international graduate students. Now, he imparts to his students the knowledge and strategies that helped him achieve his 167Q/170V GRE score. In addition to his teaching career, Ryan majored in psychology at Johns Hopkins University, and currently works as a data analyst in the neuropsychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania. When he’s not teaching or looking at brains, Ryan is also an avid Philly sports fan, theater-goer, bicycle commuter, food truck connoisseur, board game competitor, and collector of unusual hobbies.