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GMAT Verbal: Think Before You Write

The GMAT Verbal can be tough to crack. While GMAT Quantitative percentiles have been steadily increasing over the years (compare old GMAT Quant Percentiles from 2007 to this current Quant percentile chart), Verbal scores have mostly stagnated, with, for example, a 40 scaled score from 2007 corresponding to same percentile now (again, compare old GMAT Verbal percentiles to this current Verbal percentile chart). The increase in Quant percentiles is understandable: There are only so many ways that the test-makers can address a certain topic, and with thousands of officially published GMAT questions available, you’re liable to see many of the variations on a theme that the GMAT tests. But Verbal is a different story, especially when it comes to Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension. In contrast to the Quantitative and Sentence Correction sections, for which there are concrete rules and properties to memorize, Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning seem “fuzzier” — more open to interpretation, more subjective, less standardized. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this is a fallacy, but it’s a widespread one, and it leads to many suboptimalities in people’s approach toward these questions.

One of the most common measures students adopt to combat the perceived ambiguity of these questions to take notes while reading. Some books will tell them to write down the premise and conclusion of a CR question, so they’ll do so. Other books will tell them to write down the main point of each RC paragraph, so they’ll dutifully write down what they think the key facts are, assuming that they’re positioning themselves to quickly answer whatever question the test-makers throw at them. Unfortunately, these strategies, while well-intentioned, can often be counterproductive. This past summer, several verbal students came to me in a panic over their inconsistent Verbal scores, and in all of these situations, we identified that the prevailing issue was that they were so rigid in executing the strategies they’d learned in their prep classes that they’d stopped processing the information. Instead of internalizing the logic of a Critical Reasoning argument, they simply wrote down the premise and conclusion, assuming that as as long as they had the conclusion on paper, they were set on the questions. Or when reading a passage, they would write down each paragraph’s main point, forgetting to understand the relationship among the different elements of the passage and, consequently, overlooking the passage’s overall structure. In my experience, this kind of mindless note-taking is a crutch: writing information down “seems” to be an active process, and, the logic goes, surely, this kind of activity will lend itself to increased performance on the test. Unfortunately, the GMAT doesn’t reward doing work for the sake of doing it. It rewards efficient information-processing and flexible, creative thinking, all of which are impeded by the kind of rigid, formulaic note-taking that test-takers so often practice.

Now, this isn’t to say that you should never write things down in Verbal or that note-taking might not be suitable for some people. In fact, one of my most memorable students took notes on almost every CR question, but (and this is a key point), he did so because it aided his comprehension — he had focusing issues, and he knew that taking notes would force him to identify the key elements of the argument. The significant issue is that we identified a concrete benefit that note-taking had for him and strategically deployed it as an instrument to aiding comprehension. The problem is that note-taking cannot be used as a substitute for comprehension. So if you’re like the students I’m referring to, and have noticed inconsistencies in your Verbal performance, it might be time to put the pen down, process the information, and give yourself a chance to be nimble with your mind, not your pen.

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