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Why do I have to take the GMAT? Who cares about the Pythagorean theorem? Or perfect grammar? Why do we need to know the rules of exponents? Or what the prime factors of a number tell us? Or how to read a passage about science we’ll never study?
These are common complaints one hears as an instructor for a test specifically designed to keep some people from achieving their goals.
And I get it. But one thing to remember as you prepare for the test is that all this material is, mostly, used as a tool to test other cognitive skills. That is, the formula for the area of a circle is not used to make sure you can calculate the area of a circle.
So this is the first post in a series about these “Big GMAT Skills,” those that underlie large swaths of the test.
Big GMAT Skills, #1: Reading Specifically and Objectively
To kick it off, we’re going to talk about reading specifically and objectively—a skill from which one could argue all other big GMAT skills come. To wit, if you ‘misread’ a problem or a passage on the GMAT, it won’t matter what you do next. You are—just like your love life according to the Friends theme song—D.O.A.
I’m a writer and actor, so I spend a lot of time dealing with dialogue. Dialogue is an interesting art—for starters, perfect grammar is absolutely detested, because “nobody talks like that.” But what’s most interesting about dialogue to me is how often what you’re saying isn’t really what you’re saying.
Here’s a simple little exchange from a script I read recently. In this example, a cancer patient is smoking with his friend:
She: I can’t believe you still smoke.
He: It’s not lung cancer.
This isn’t the most complicated example, but it serves my purpose. What these characters are saying is not the words they are saying. What these people are (I think) really saying is:
She: Isn’t smoking dangerous for someone as sick as you? Should we be doing this?
He: Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.
She isn’t saying—or she isn’t just saying—what her words literally mean: “It is surprising to me that you smoke,” and he isn’t literally responding, “Lung cancer is not the kind of cancer I have.” There’s meaning beneath the language.
This noticing ‘what’s being said that’s not actually said’ is an incredibly useful communication tool for humans. We take in all kinds of subjective context to understand ‘what people mean’ and what lies beneath the language. The problem is, though, we’re so good at this that sometimes we forget to just recognize what the words say.
The GMAT wants you to be able to strip yourself of subjectivity and even, in a way, context, and just recognize what do these words right in front of you really say? Specificity of thought is paramount here.
For instance, here’s how this skill might be tested on Sentence Correction. Do you find anything wrong with the following sentence?
“The problem that companies in the tech industry are facing, from the small startups to the largest corporate giants, is staying relevant in a market flooded with ever more impressive technology.”
Seems fine, right? But read it very, very specifically (and strip out some ‘fluff’):
“The problem that companies… are facing…is staying relevant.”
Still seem okay?
Be more literal. Don’t contextualize, don’t interpret the meaning, what is the meaning? Is “staying relevant” a “problem?” Because that’s what that language objectively states.
As it turns out, this sentence literally means the exact opposite of what we know it’s trying to say. And how do we know what it’s trying to say, then? Because we’re intelligent humans and we know that nobody would say ‘staying relevant’ is a ‘problem’ for a company. The problem is that these companies are struggling to stay relevant, so our brain fills that in when it’s not explicitly written. But on the GMAT, don’t do that. Read sentences for what the words say. If a computer were to read that sentence, the interpretation it would have to make is that staying relevant is a problem, because it lacks all the subjective contextualizations humans have. All it has is the logic of grammar, and that grammar tells the computer that “staying relevant = problem.”
This skill obviously shows up frequently in Reading Comp and Critical Reasoning. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked a student several times in a row, “What does that sentence say, in your own words?” And they’ll get close—they’ll ‘get the gist’—but they’ll miss a crucially important idea because they aren’t reading specifically.
For instance, a student recently was working on a CR problem. The passage states, “Demand for electricity has been increasing by 1.5 percent a year, and there simply is no more space to build additional power plants to meet future demand increases,” and one of the answers says, “Existing power plants do not have the capacity to handle all of the projected increase in demand for electricity.”
My student crossed off that answer because it ‘said the same thing’ as the passage: “We can’t get more electricity.” And perhaps that is ‘the gist’ of both sentences. But the first says there’s no space for new power plants. The second says there’s no way we can ramp up production in existing power plants. Related ideas—but not the same. Read carefully and specify what’s said. This is not to say you have to notice every nitty gritty detail in a Reading Comp passage, but you do need to be specific on what its Big Ideas are.
However, this is not just a skill for Verbal. Reading specifically is crucial for Quant questions as well. You have to be clear and specific about what value a ‘percent’ is relative to. You have to parse out the specific ‘rules’ of a weird function problem. You have to answer the specific question that was asked. Don’t choose a value for ‘x’ when the question asked for ‘y.’ Don’t choose the average when it asked for a median. Don’t do a 20% decrease of one thing when the question talks about a 20% increase of another. All of this requires a careful, accurate reading of the specific words on the screen.
Reading specifically and objectively will require something else of you: to strip yourself of bias. But we’ll save that for our next post on big GMAT skills. 📝
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Reed Arnold is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. He has a B.A. in economics, philosophy, and mathematics and an M.S. in commerce, both from the University of Virginia. He enjoys writing, acting, Chipotle burritos, and teaching the GMAT. Check out Reed’s upcoming GMAT courses here.