GMAT Insider: Don’t be an Idiom!

by on February 12th, 2010

beeAs we’ve previously explained, the authors of the GMAT are much more mechanics than they are artists (though their questions are, in most cases, masterpieces) in that their job is to create a standardized test, and not a random assortment of challenging questions.  To be a successful assessment for the purpose of MBA admissions, each question needs to be unique on the surface, but almost identical to others in its underlying composition.

With this in mind, you can avoid a typical GMAT study trap that seems to ensnare most ambitious examinees.  Many look at the Sentence Correction section and fear, then attempt to memorize, the myriad idiomatic elements of the English language.  However, if you were to look at the “idiom lists” that circle around the Internet, you’d see that students hold themselves responsible for dozens if not hundreds of obscure idioms, and in doing so miss a crucial concept about the GMAT – it’s a standardized test!  The authors of the test need to include two missions in their composition of new questions:

  • Each question needs to be fairly interchangeable with others of its conceptual makeup and its difficulty level – that is, if you were to answer a question correctly, you should theoretically be able to answer each of its counterpart questions correctly.
  • The test should reward the types of thinking that business schools value – problem solving, logic, the ability to recognize something familiar in an unfamiliar situation, etc.

With these requirements in mind, it is unlikely that you’ll face too many (if any) Sentence Correction questions that solely test obscure idioms.  Much more likely, you’ll see idioms featured in questions that:

  • Use multiple forms of an idiom in the answer choices to obscure a more-common error
  • Use an idiomatic difference that comes along with a more-common error type (such as comparison language – “as many as” in a question that tests parallelism in comparisons)
  • Use idioms that can be determined using your logical reasoning skills, and don’t require you to have memorized the idiom

Let’s explore one of these types with an example, derived from an official GMAC question:

In comparison with the honeybee, the yellow jacket can sting repeatedly…

In contrast to the honeybee’s, the yellow jacket can sting repeatedly…

Unlike that of the honeybee, the yellow jacket can sting repeatedly…

Unlike the honeybee, the yellow jacket can sting repeatedly…

On the surface, it seems as though this question is explicitly testing the idioms “unlike” vs. “in comparison with” vs. “in contrast to”, but upon closer inspection, the major flaw with two of these phrases is one of an incorrect modifier.  Because the non-underlined portion begins after the modifier with “the yellow jacket”, the modifying phrase needs to modify the insect, and not its sting.  The two middle choices both modify the sting, and are incorrect.

Between “In comparison with the honeybee” and “Unlike the honeybee”, the choice may seem now to be idiomatic, and many could argue (as does the official solution) that it is.  However, when looking at this statement logically, “in comparison with the honeybee” seems to suggest that the yellow jacket’s sting takes place “in comparison” with the honeybee, but not necessarily independent from that.    Try it with another subject to see it in a more egregious fashion:  “In comparison with his mother, Olympic champion Usain Bolt runs the 100 meters in less than 10 seconds”, makes it sound like Bolt only runs that fast when he is being compared with his mother.  In fact, he routinely runs that quickly.  “Unlike his mother, Bolt runs…” correctly denotes that he runs at a different speed from his mother.

While Bolt may run quickly and yellow jackets may sting repeatedly in a vacuum, the GMAT requires that your performance be “in (direct) comparison” with those of others.  It does so by making its questions standardized – and if you can embrace that fact when you study and when you take the exam, your results should hold up well, in comparison.


  • Thanks so much for this. I'm really looking forward to learning a lot more this weekend at the Veritas verbal class.

  • Thanks for the article Brin,
    I hope I am not being dumb here but can you please tell us which of the 4 idioms above are correct and which are wrong. To me, it was not clear on reading your explanation.

  • could you please explain how to use "unlike that of ..."
    is it an idiom? and is it the right idiom?

    Thank you so much

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