GMAT strategy is not universal; what works for one individual learner’s style and background can make no sense at all for another’s. I’ve been working with GMAT students since the civilized world failed to collapse at the end of 2000, and I’ve found that while every student is different, there are some general principles (aside from “study for the test”) that apply to large numbers of people. This is the first of a three-part series; first is Verbal strategy, then Quantitative, then the all-important Study Plan (I’ll give you a three-month one, but you can adapt it to your actual time frame). If you’re not sure of a given technique, try it during some untimed practice!
GMAT Verbal Strategy
Use the official guide. Perhaps this seems obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The Official Guide to the test — now in its 12th edition — is your best source of information on what CAN appear on the test because it’s written by the makers of the test. They chose those particular questions for a reason, and while the book cannot take into account question wordings and styles that have appeared since its publication, the questions provide invaluable insight into what you need to know to succeed. This is especially critical for Sentence Correction questions, because they test style and concision, which are less rule-driven than grammar is.
Eliminate. It is worth your while to jot down a few simple rows of ABCDE — ABCDE for any questions that require you to use a process of elimination. If you are the type of person who can keep everything in your head, it’s not as important; if not, take advantage of the situation and write things down! Elimination is especially useful in Sentence Correction, because noticing a single error may allow you to eliminate three answer choices with that same error. You don’t even have to read the rest of those answers when you already know they’re wrong.
Paraphrase. Some of the sentences are quite long by design; this allows them many ways to introduce errors, especially subject-verb and noun-pronoun agreement. By paraphrasing, you are less likely to fall into the traps.
Predict when possible. Whenever possible, predict what the issues might be; for example, when you see the pronoun “it”, you can predict a mismatch between a pronoun and its referent. Your predictions will not always be correct, but that’s not the point! Prediction takes almost no time, but boosts identification of both correct answers and wrong answer choices.
“Sounds wrong” vs “is wrong.” To whatever extent you are able, learn the grammatical reasons why things are wrong (for example, modifying an adjective with another adjective is wrong) ”“ the more you find yourself tricked by things that “sounded right”, the more important that is. There are many instances where the correct answer “sounds wrong,” and it’s important that you be able to tell whether a given answer violates any grammatical rules you’re aware of.
On the other hand, your GMAT study experience may show you that your “inner ear” for grammar is reliably correct; if this is the case, watch for the times it fails you, learn the grammar for those things, and direct more of your attention elsewhere.
Concision and correctitude. The GMAT is strongly biased against extra words, even when they are grammatically correct (as with “whether” vs. “whether or not”), and you can use that to your advantage. The most concise answer is often the right one; if you find yourself unable to decide between two (or more answer choices), the most concise one is a better basis than many others. Know, though, that there are many places in the Official Guide where the longest answer is the correct one!
Answer splits. Answers are often divisible into groups of two or three. For example, a question might have three answer choices with the word “between”, while the other two have “among” in that position. Use these answer splits to your advantage; if you determine that “between” is used incorrectly for the given sentence, eliminate all answer choices with that word and focus only on those with “among.” The common answer divisions are 3-2 or 2-2-1.
Paraphrase. Summarizing the argument as clearly and concisely as possible allows you to more easily spot wrong answer choices outside the scope of the argument — and answer choices outside the scope are the most common source of wrong answers.
Recognize common wrong answer types. Wrong answers outside the scope of the argument are common, especially ones dealing with time or money when neither one is part of the argument — these answers are meant to attract your business-focused mind! Also expect wrong answer choices to strengthen on weaken questions (or vice versa) and to rely on outside knowledge you may possess on a given topic.
Read the passage very carefully first. It is absolutely worth your time to read the passage with your full attention; because you don’t know how many questions you will get or what they’ll ask (beyond the first one), the better your comprehension, the more quickly you’ll be able to answer the questions. If you skim, you can end up spending twice as much time (or more!) reading the passage, because you will find yourself skimming the whole thing and reading some sections carefully for every question, not just for the first one.
The exception is if you find that RC is very challenging for you. Some students have seen huge improvements after committing to reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph and then going back and reading the whole thing carefully.
Consider notation. There isn’t time for lengthy note-taking, but if you find yourself losing focus or having trouble comprehending tough passages, consider taking brief notes at the end of each paragraph. This prevents you from going too far when you’re not focused, and also forces you to do the all-important paraphrasing of what you’ve just read.
These are just general tips; every one of them could be a post on its own, but I wanted to give you an overview. In the next installment, we’ll cover a similar overview of Quantitative strategy!