GMAT Verbal Scratchwork

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Scratch work is easy on the GMAT Quantitative section. You write down your work, just like you always have when completing math problems. (That isn't to say you can't improve your scratchwork, as I explain in this article.)

Most people, though, don't have a good idea of how to maximize their scratchwork on the GMAT Verbal section. I'll admit, it's not as easy, and there's not as much advantage to be gained with better scratchwork. Finding the best approach is more personal, as well.

Reading Comprehension Scratchwork

Every test-prep company has some particular method they'd like you to use to take notes through GMAT reading passages. I don't put too much stock in any of them; what matters isn't exactly how you take notes, but that you do jot something down, and that it doesn't take too much of your time.

In fact, that's worth emphasizing further. The idea isn't to force you into thinking about every passage the same way. Writing down an outline, or a few key points, is all that matters, whether you do so briefly or exhaustively.

As I wrote in this article, the main thing I think note-taking helps with is focus. Especially with passages that don't interest you at all, it's easy to zone out and lose time. If you force yourself to write something down at the conclusion of every paragraph, you're much less likely to do that.

Thus, the idea is to take notes every few sentences, focusing on general ideas and structure. In a perfect world, you'd be able to state the "primary purpose" of the passage once you've finished reading it, whether the GMAT gives you that question or not.

Critical Reasoning Scratchwork

It's much less important to jot down notes in CR questions. That's mainly because there's so much less to read--it's harder to zone out during a CR question. However, if you find that you do have trouble maintaining focus for the minute or so it should take you to read the prompt, try taking a note or two to break the task into smaller pieces.

Where scratchwork can be helpful in CR is noting causal relationships. A large number of CR questions involve some sort of causation. When they do, especially if the question is an assumption, strengthen, or weaken, that relationship will play a key part in the correct choice. I devoted a whole article to that topic here.

This doesn't have to be complicated: you might just write "changing climate --> new food-gathering techniques" or "threat of patent law reversal --> different publication method."

You can also use your scratchwork to track answer choices, which applies to all three types of Verbal questions. I'll discuss that in the next section.

Sentence Correction Scratchwork

When I take the GMAT, I do one thing before every single Verbal question. I take a second, force myself to look away from the screen (thus giving myself a much-needed, though brief, break) and jot down "A B C D E" on my scratch paper. For some questions, especially SC, that's all I write down.

Since each answer choice requires a fresh thought a sometimes a new angle on the question, you don't want to track your progress in your head. Instead, use the scratch paper to record which choices you've eliminated, and which ones are possibilities.

To do that, I mark each choice in one of three ways:

  • An "X" through the choice means "This couldn't possibly be right."
  • A "?" next to the choice means "I don't think this is right, but if nothing better comes along, it's not so awful that I couldn't select it."
  • An underline ('_') beneath the choice means "This is probably right. I'll look at the other choices, though."
It doesn't matter whether you adopt my method or not; what is important is that you are consistent, and you use an approach that allows you to keep track of the work you've already done. Unless you struggle with the english language, I'm convinced that you should be able to complete the GMAT Verbal section in much less than the allotted 75 minutes. People who don't usually spend much of their time daydreaming or re-reading passages they didn't focus on the first time.

Effective scratchwork is often the difference between struggling to get through all 41 questions and comfortably finishing the section with plenty of time to spare.



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.