GMAT Critical Reasoning (Beginner's Guide)

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Note: Today's article is the second in a series I'm running throughout January and February called "The Beginner's Guide to the GMAT." Here's part one.

The Verbal section of the GMAT consists of 41 questions that you must complete in 75 minutes. Those 41 items are divided more or less evenly between three types of questions: Critical Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, and Sentence Correction.

Critical Reasoning (CR) and Reading Comprehension (RC) are closely related, and are probably familiar to you if you've taken other standardized tests such as the SAT or GRE. Each one tests your ability to understand a passage consisting of unfamiliar material.

Anatomy of GMAT Critical Reasoning

Each CR question consists of three parts:

  • A brief, paragraph-long passage;
  • A question;
  • Five answer choices.

Here's a sample passage (or "stimulus," as some refer to it):

The prairie vole, a small North American grassland rodent, breeds year-round, and a group of voles living together consists primarily of an extended family, often including two or more litters. Voles commonly live in large groups from late autumn through winter; from spring through early autumn, however, most voles live in far smaller groups. The seasonal variation in group size can probably be explained by a seasonal variation in mortality among young voles.

Remember I used the word "unfamiliar" before to refer to the content? I wasn't kidding around. On all three types of Verbal questions, the makers of the GMAT are including more and more technical topics, often science-related, that you are unlikely to have much exposure to.

While the passage is the first thing you'll see on a CR question, that doesn't mean you should read it first. Consider the passage you just read: Do you have any idea what you should do with it? What you were reading for?

Instead, start with the question. The question related to the passage above is as follows:

Which of the following, if true, provides the strongest support for the explanation offered?

If you knew that, you'd be able to focus your reading efforts that much more. So every time you see a CR question, start with the question, then read the passage.

Types of GMAT CR Questions

Almost all Critical Reasoning questions are somehow related to the construction of arguments. In the item above, you're looking for evidence to support a conclusion. That isn't a common question type, though it does come up occasionally.

Here are some more common types of questions in CR:

  • Which of the following, if true, would most strongly support the consultants' proposal?
  • Which of the following, if true, most seriously weakens the argument in the advertisement?
  • Which of the following is an assumption on which this argument depends?
  • If the statements above are true, which of the following is most strongly supported by them?

Almost all of these types of questions demand that you identify the assumption--the unstated evidence--underlying the argument. There's no hard and fast rule governing how you'll identify the assumption, but it's always necessary in order for the conclusion to be true.

As you practice GMAT Critical Reasoning questions, you'll see plenty of variations on those question types. Some even explicitly test your awareness of evidence, assumptions, and conclusion, though such questions are rare. When you are confronted with an unfamiliar type of question, remember that the skills tested aren't new. Such items will always hinge on these same concepts.

Further Reading

One-third of my book, Total GMAT Verbal, is devoted to Critical Reasoning, including chapters on common argument patterns and wrong answer choices, dozens of practice questions, and one chapter on each type of CR question. On the site, I've made available several other articles on CR-related topics. Here is a list. I've also written a pertinent article on the entire Verbal section: Managing Your Time on the GMAT Verbal Section.



About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

Total GMAT Verbal

The comprehensive guide to the GMAT Verbal section. Recognize, dissect, and master every question type you'll face on the test. Everything you need, all in one place, including 100+ realistic practice questions.
Click to read more.