What Makes Tough Verbal Questions Tough?

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Last week, I wrote about how GMAT Math questions become more difficult. I focused on such things as abstraction, difficult content, and the combination of disparate subject areas. On a very general level, the GMAT Verbal section is the same, but it's worth exploring the issue more specifically.

In short, GMAT Verbal difficulty boils down to two issues: content and complexity. Let's look at each one.


One of the more frustrating things about verbal content on any standardized test is that you have to read and absorb material you have virtually no interest in. To make questions more difficult, the GMAT takes that to the next level. If you've been studying for long, you know that some of the most challenging GMAT Verbal questions are based on science content–the sort of thing most potential MBA candidates never give a second thought to.

For instance, what would you rather read about: differing opinions as to the cause of the Great Depression, or differing theories as to why a rare South American bird evolved with a clipped left wing? If you chose the latter, consider yourself lucky–you're not in the majority.

Content difficulty is not limited to Reading Comprehension. While most Critical Reasoning questions follow a few basic argument structures, the topic of the question can add difficulty. Many of the toughest GMAT problems in the question pool are based on biology: genetics, disease, and drug effectiveness. Because those are more complicated subjects than invented scenarios involving Company X, those questions are often longer, as well.

Dealing With Difficult Content

Most of all, figure out a way to stay focused. The GMAT is never testing you on prior knowledge, so whatever you need to answer the question is right there on the screen. Especially in Reading Comprehension, read actively: take notes, make an outline, think about what you're reading.

Further, don't hesitate to take a breath and look away from the question. The last time I took the GMAT, I was so exhausted by the time I got to the Verbal section (I had started my test at 5:30 PM), I had to force myself to look away from the monitor, give my brain a two- or three-second break, and then return to the next question, refreshed. A little adjustment like that can give you the focus you need to get through the longest, most unfamiliar material.


There's nothing worse than reviewing a Critical Reasoning question and discovering that you got the wrong answer because you missed one tiny concept–sometimes nothing more than a single word. Especially when you are starting out, this is going to happen; it's a big part of why you need to spend so much time preparing for the test.

As GMAT Verbal questions get harder–and this applies to all three question types–the difference between the right answer and the wrong ones get smaller. It may be as little as one word, or a slight shift in scope. In Sentence Correction, two answers might be equally awkward, but one of them will have some tiny grammatical flaw that you might miss the first time through.

In Reading Comprehension, this can be the most frustrating of all. Given as much as 350-400 words, you're expected to notice these details, even when you're already trying to keep track of multiple arguments.

Dealing With Complexity

Students often ask me whether they should skim Reading Comprehension passages. No! You have more than enough time to read each passage once, carefully. The more difficult the passage, the more likely that skimming will cause you to miss an important detail, whether it's a fact that alters the meaning of the passage, or a key word that signals the distinction between two differing viewpoints.

While you should skim the passage, you can speed up your reading if you are familiar with common passage structures. (I've covered those extensively in a chapter of Total GMAT Verbal.) Once you recognize a familiar structure, you only have to read for content.

The same rule goes for Critical Reasoning–only more so. Because CR passages are shorter, you probably aren't tempted to skim them. But take that one step further: comb over those passages like your score depends on your reading every word. As they get harder, that becomes true: your GMAT score does hinge on you noticing every last detail.

I can hear some of you asking, "I'm already using all 75 minutes–how can I spend the time to read that much more carefully?" The key is to read thoroughly–once. Many test-takers see a RC passage, skim it, and then skim the passage again for each question. It's much more efficient to read the passage carefully one time than to skim through it five times.

It may take practice–both on RC and CR–to read the passage so effectively that you don't need to go back (except to confirm details). But that's what your preparation time is for–train yourself to read the passage once even if, at first, it takes you far longer than the 3-4 minutes you should be spending on each Reading Comprehension passage.

There are plenty of ways the GMAT makes Verbal questions more difficult, but if you read the questions and passages carefully and recognize the sorts of answer choices that trick you on a regular basis, you should be able to get those questions right. It's a lot like math: there are rules, but once you learn them, every question is within your grasp.



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.
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