On the GMAT Reading Comprehension, “inference” questions ask you to make a reasoned judgment about the passage that goes beyond the material on the page. Authors will often imply information but not state it directly; inference questions test your ability to spot the author’s implications without straying too far from the text.
We make inferences all the time during everyday conversations, but our casual inferences are often riddled with unsubstantiated leaps in logic. For example, if I told you that my lawn was wet, you might infer that it rained last night. This seems like a fair inference, but there are other logical reasons for my lawn being wet–I could have watered the lawn or perhaps a neighbor was washing his car and sprinkled my lawn. More information surrounding my original sentence might lead me to conclude that it rained last night, but from the simple statement “my lawn is wet,” I can only infer that my lawn is not dry.
The GMAT inference questions will often offer you some tempting answers that infer too much information. Beware of these choices–they are the most common pitfalls for students.
What do inference questions look like?
Before diving into an example, let’s make sure you know how to spot an inference question. Most inference questions are characterized by the words suggest, infer, or imply. They might look something like this:
What might be inferred by the final paragraph?
The author implies that the frontiersmen quickly packed because…
By revealing the results of the scientific study, the author suggests…
Example of an inference question
Let’s look at an inference question from Grockit. This passage discusses the historical and geographic origins of tea. Here is the paragraph that follows:
In 800AD, a man named Lu Yu wrote the first known book on tea cultivation and preparation. The work, called the Ch’a Ching, melded Zen Buddhist teachings with the art and craft of tea, forever linking the drink to spirituality.
Which of the following inferences may be drawn from the discussion of Lu Yu’s work?
A. Before 800AD, it was largely unknown how to cultivate tea.
B. Some people even today drink tea for reasons other than its physical benefits.
C. Drinking tea was primarily a Zen Buddhist practice until the late 700s.
D. The Ch’a Ching is one of the earliest works of Chinese origin that is concerned with agriculture.
E. Lu Yu was interested in popularizing tea in countries other than China.
All we need to answer this question is located in the short paragraph above, but the answer to this question is not explicitly stated in the paragraph – it must be inferred. From the paragraph, we know that Lu Yu wrote the first book on tea cultivation and preparation; we learn that the book combined Zen Buddhist teachings with tea cultivation, forever tying the beverage to spirituality.
Notice that many of the answer choices may seem reasonable, but ultimately they infer too much information. A, for example, wrongly infers that nobody knew how to cultivate tea before Lu Yu’s book; it’s not a fair assumption that most people did not know how to cultivate tea before Lu Yu’s book, even if it is the first recorded book on the subject.
Choices C and D, on the other hand, are simply not supported by the passage. We do not have the information to make those inferences. E very well may be true, but no such information is stated.
B, though, reasonably extrapolates an inference from the phrase “forever linking tea with spirituality.” If we know that Lu Yu’s book fostered the spiritual associations with tea that exist today, we can safely infer that people today drink tea for reasons other than physical benefits (i.e. spiritual benefits).
You may be thinking that B was obvious or simple. Sometimes, the answer to an inference question is obvious or simple. If you cannot think of a reason why an inference answer choice is incorrect, then it is most likely correct.