How to Make Educated Guesses on Verbal

Stacey Koprince —  October 19, 2010 — Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, we talked about how to make educated guesses on quant (you can click here for that article). This article covers educated guessing in verbal.

What is Educated Guessing?

(This section of the article is identical to the Quant educated guessing article.) Generally speaking, there are two kinds of guessing: random and educated. A random guess is one in which you really don’t have any good idea how to choose among all five answer choices. An educated guess is simply one in which you have used good reasoning to eliminate a wrong answer or answers before you make a random guess from among the remaining choices.

It is often the case that we can figure out some likely wrong answers even when we have no idea how to find the right answer. When we narrow our options in this way, we give ourselves a better chance of guessing correctly when we finally do guess. In order to narrow our options effectively, though, we actually have to have studied this in advance; this is not something that you just know how to do.

Everyone will have to guess at some point on the GMAT; there’s no way around that. The test will give you things that you can’t do. (Most people have to guess on between 4 and 7 questions in each section.)

When Should I Make an Educated Guess?

On verbal, we use a different process to answer the answers than we do on quant. We are actually making an educated guess right from the beginning of each verbal problem.

Our first pass through the five answers is used to determine which answers are definitely wrong and can be crossed out immediately (and ignored from now on). We do not attempt to determine which answers are correct on this first pass; we only cross off the ones we know are definitely wrong (and this is already educated guessing, because we are eliminating answers!). It is rare not to be able to eliminate any answers on the first pass, though this can happen occasionally. If you aren’t able to eliminate a single answer on your first pass, you will need to consider making a random guess on this question and moving on.

On our second pass, we take a more careful look at any remaining answer choices. If we get stuck, we may need to use more sophisticated means to continue to narrow down our answers through the use of educated guessing.

Techniques

There are many different techniques that we can use to make educated guesses. For the most part, the techniques will be specific to a problem type (Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, or Reading Comprehension) or even to a sub-type (for example, Draw a Conclusion on CR). I’ll discuss some of the most common below, but you should consider this just a starting point. As you study from now on, ask yourself: how can I eliminate wrong answers on this question? How do the test writers make wrong answers tempting on certain types of verbal problems? (Tip: it’s often easier to figure this out on questions you answered correctly; learn how to do it on questions you understand, then apply the technique to harder problems of the same type.)

Note: what we discuss in this section still involves making guesses based on certain common traps; it is not the case that these guesses will always result in correctly eliminating wrong answers. These tactics should be used only when needed; they should not be your first line of attack.

Sentence Correction: Play the Odds on Certain Splits

There are certain pairs of differences, or splits, in the answer choices that more often resolve one way than the other (more often “ not always). If you know what these are and you have to make a guess, then you can play the odds by guessing the variation that is more often correct. For instance, in a split between like and such as, the phrase such as is more likely to appear in the correct answer. (This is because people often make the mistake of using like when they actually should use such as, so the trap is to think that like is okay to use in place of such as.) In a split between rather than and instead of, rather than is more likely to appear in the correct answer.

When you’re studying and see a split that you’ve seen before, ask yourself: does this tend to go one way more than the other? If so, why? (There should be a good reason, like the reason I described above for “like” versus “such as.”)

Critical Reasoning: Know the Common Traps

In Critical Reasoning, the common traps tend to be specific to the problem sub-types. The four major types (according to ManhattanGMAT!) are: Find the Assumption, Draw a Conclusion, Strengthen the Conclusion, and Weaken the Conclusion.

On Find the Assumption, Strengthen, or Weaken types, the right answer needs to be connected to the conclusion in some way. Wrong answers are sometimes not tied to the conclusion at all. If you’re debating between two choices and one is tougher to connect to the conclusion, don’t guess that one.

On Draw a Conclusion, wrong answers will often go too far “ they will go beyond the scope of what we can reasonably conclude from the given information. If you are debating between two choices and have to guess, choose the one that doesn’t go as far from the premises given in the argument.

Reading Comprehension: Know the Common Traps

In Reading Comprehension, again, the common traps tend to be specific to the problem sub-types. On General (main idea) type questions, the wrong answers will often be either too specific or too broad; if you have to guess, pick a middle of the road type answer. Extreme words are often included in wrong answers.

On Inference questions, wrong answers will often go too far (much like wrong answers on CR Draw a Conclusion questions). Choose an answer that doesn’t stray as far from the text of the passage. Wrong answers may be what we call plausible in the real world but not addressed by the passage. If you read something and think, Hey, that’s probably true! but realize you think that because of your own knowledge of the world, not something you read in the passage don’t guess that one.

On Specific questions (both inference and look-up) beware of the mix-up trap. If the answer choice includes language directly from the passage, but that language is found in two or more separate paragraphs in the passage, then the answer is more likely to be a trap.

Your Turn!

It’s up to you now to keep studying and find more of these. Talk to your friends. Ask your instructors. STUDY the problems you’re doing from this point of view: how do the test writers get someone to choose this wrong answer? How do the test writers get someone to eliminate this right answer?

Also, I’d like to invite some enterprising Beat the GMAT member to start a new thread in the Verbal forum. Title it Educated Guessing or something similar. Link to this article and include whatever other strategies you’ve devised. Include a sample problem and your written-out reasoning of the educated guessing process for that problem. Then ask others to start listing other strategies, along with specific problem examples and written reasoning.

Stacey Koprince

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Stacey Koprince is an Instructor and Trainer as well as the Director of Online Community for Manhattan Prep. She's also a management consultant who specializes in corporate strategy. She has been teaching various standardized tests for more than fifteen years and her entire teaching philosophy can be summed up in five words: teaching students how to think.

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