Last year, we discussed how to study individual practice problems in the article How to Analyze a Practice Problem. Someone recently asked me to demonstrate this process via an actual Critical Reasoning problem, so that’s what we’re going to do this week: discuss how to analyze and master a particular GMATPrep® CR problem.
First, set your timer for 2 minutes and try this GMATPrep® problem:
Because no employee wants to be associated with bad news in the eyes of a superior, information about serious problems at lower levels is progressively softened and distorted as it goes up each step in the management hierarchy. The chief executive is, therefore, less well informed about problems at lower levels than are his or her subordinates at those levels.
The conclusion drawn above is based on the assumption that
(A) problems should be solved at the level in the management hierarchy at which they occur
(B) employees should be rewarded for accurately reporting problems to their superiors
(C) problem-solving ability is more important at higher levels than it is at lower levels of the management hierarchy
(D) chief executives obtain information about problems at lower levels from no source other than their subordinates
(E) some employees are more concerned about truth than about the way they are perceived by their superiors”
After trying the problem, checking the answer, and reading and understanding the solution (if available), I try to answer these questions:
1. Did I know WHAT they were trying to test?
Was I able to CATEGORIZE this question by topic and subtopic? By process / technique? If I had to look something up in my books, would I know exactly where to go?
- The question is a “Find the Assumption” CR question because the word “assumption” appears in the question stem. If I don’t remember how to do “Find the Assumption” questions, I’d go look in my book right now. If I had previously studied wrong answer choice types for Assumption questions, I’d also note which wrong answer choice types (if any) I recognized in this problem.
Did I COMPREHEND the symbols, text, questions, statements, and answer choices? Can I comprehend it all now, when I have lots of time to think about it? What do I need to do to make sure that I do comprehend everything here? How am I going to remember whatever I’ve just learned for future?
- The first sentence of the argument is a premise – it’s designed to support what the author wants to claim. The second sentence is the conclusion – what the author is actually claiming. The author didn’t give any opposing information in this argument.
Did I understand the actual CONTENT (facts, knowledge) being tested?
- CR questions don’t test particular facts, but they do test my knowledge of what I’m supposed to do on this type of CR question. On “Find the Assumption” questions, I need to find the answer that the author believes to be true, and that answer must also be something that is necessary in order for the author to draw his conclusion. If the author doesn’t have to believe the answer, then that answer isn’t necessary in order for the author to draw the conclusion.
2. How well did I HANDLE what they were trying to test?
Did I choose the best APPROACH? Or is there a better way to do the problem? (There’s almost always a better way!) What is that better way? How am I going to remember this better approach the next time I see a similar problem?
- I forgot to read the question first, as I should have done – I read the argument first and only then read the question. Reading the question first allows me to categorize the argument immediately and have a better idea of what is important as I read through the argument. In some cases, reading the question first also tells me what the conclusion is (though not in this case). I need to make a note to read the question first every time and practice till it becomes a habit. Also, I don’t think I diagrammed (took notes) in the best way that I could have (see “careless mistakes” below).
Did I have the SKILLS to follow through? Or did I fall short on anything?
- I didn’t actually remember that the correct answer would have to be necessary in order for the author to draw his conclusion. Because of that, I think I fell into a trap. I should also spend a bit more time studying the characteristics of wrong answers (see below).
Did I make any careless mistakes? If so, WHY did I make each mistake? What habits could I make or break to minimize the chances of repeating that careless mistake in future?
- I didn’t immediately note that the first sentence gave a cause-and-effect scenario. That messed me up later because I didn’t note that the sequence of the argument was X –> Y –> Z, not just “a bunch of stuff leads to Z.” The word “because” at the beginning of the argument should have been my clue that even the premise was cause and effect. First, I’m going to re-write the notes the way they should have been done, then I’m going to make a list of all of the words that I can think of that signal cause-and-effect, and then I’m going to scan through some old CRs I’ve already done to try to spot cause-effect premises. (And, of course, I will keep an eye on this issue when I do future problems.)
For verbal, the following two questions can be combined:
Am I comfortable with OTHER STRATEGIES that would have worked, at least partially? How should I have made an educated guess?
Do I understand every TRAP & TRICK that the writer built into the question, including wrong answers?
- Answer A is tempting to choose because it seems like a pretty good assumption to make in the real world; Answer A is wrong, though, because how the problems “should” be solved doesn’t tell me anything about how well-informed the chief executive is about those problems.
- Answer B is tempting to choose because it sounds like a good way to resolve the problem described in the argument. Answer B is wrong, though, because we weren’t asked to resolve the problem; we were asked to articulate a belief (an assumption) of the author who is pointing out the problem.
- Answer C is tempting to choose because it sounds like a pretty good assumption to make in the real world. Answer C is wrong, though, because the ability to solve a problem still doesn’t tell me anything about how well-informed the chief executive is about those problems.
- Answer choice D is tempting to eliminate because it sounds like a pretty bad assumption to make in the real world; it’s probably not true that a CEO only gets info from subordinates. Answer D is right, though, because this is exactly the (bad!) assumption that the author makes to draw his conclusion. If CEOs really can’t get info from anyone other than their subordinates, and if those subordinates don’t want to tell them any bad news, then those CEOs are not going to be well-informed about problems.
- Answer choice E is tempting to choose because it is undoubtedly true in the real world –some people will tell their bosses the complete truth about problems. Answer choice E is wrong, though, because it weakens the argument: if some subordinates are speaking up, then the bosses aren’t less well-informed. We were asked to find an assumption, and an assumption is something the author must believe to be true in order to draw that conclusion. If the answer choice actually weakens the conclusion, then that answer can’t be a valid assumption (and now I know that’s true for all future Assumption questions!).
3. How well did I or could I RECOGNIZE what was going on?
Did I make a CONNECTION to previous experience? If so, what problem(s) did this remind me of and what, precisely, was similar? Or did I have to do it all from scratch? If so, see the next bullet.
- Yes. I recognized that this was an assumption question because I’d studied how assumption questions are typically worded. I should have recognized more though (see below).
Can I make any CONNECTIONS now, while I’m analyzing the problem? What have I done in the past that is similar to this one? How are they similar? How could that recognition have helped me to do this problem more efficiently or effectively? (This may involve looking up some past problem and making comparisons between the two!)
- I could have done better with recognizing the X à Y à Z setup more quickly so that I could have taken more clear notes. I also fell into a “sounds good in the real world” trap that caused me to pick the wrong answer, as well as a “sounds bad in the real world” trap that caused me to eliminate the right answer. In the future, I will know that how it sounds in the real world is not a good reason to pick or eliminate an answer.
HOW will I recognize similar problems in the future? What can I do now to maximize the chances that I will remember and be able to use lessons learned from this problem the next time I see a new problem that tests something similar?
- I need to do everything I already described in my notes above. I’m also going to go back and look through some old Assumption problems that I’ve already done. I’ll identify why each answer is tempting (to choose or eliminate, as appropriate) and why it’s actually right or wrong, looking to see if I can recognize the kinds of traps I identified on this problem (especially the “sounds wrong in the real world” right answer!).
And that’s it! Note that, of course, the details above are specific to each individual person – such a write-up would be different for every single one of you, depending upon your particular strengths, weaknesses, and mistakes. Hopefully, though, this gives you a better idea of the way to analyze a problem. This framework also gives you a valuable way to discuss problems with fellow online students or in study groups – this is the kind of discussion that really helps to maximize scores.
* GMATPrep® question courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.