How Jeopardy Helped Me Prepare for the GMAT:

by on April 12th, 2018

study_testI’m a huge fan of the long-running game show Jeopardy. And if you watch enough Jeopardy, you start to notice patterns. Every game has 61 brand-new clues, but the underlying content knowledge doesn’t change much from episode to episode or year to year. The same greatest hits—state and world capitals, U.S. presidents, explorers, Shakespeare, and a bunch of other stuff—are tested over and over again.

Some facts are tested so often that Jeopardy fans have an appropriately nerdy term for spotting them: “Pavlov,” named after the 19th-century Russian physiologist. (If your 9th-grade science knowledge is a bit rusty, Ivan Pavlov trained dogs to associate a ringing bell with food, eventually causing them to instinctively salivate at the sound of a ringing bell even without food.)

On Jeopardy, a Pavlov is a key word or phrase that is so strongly associated with a famous person or event that it basically gives away what the clue is really asking for, enabling the contestant to quickly buzz in with the correct response. For example, “theory of evolution,” “1831 voyage to the Galapagos Islands,” and “On the Origin of Species” are all Jeopardy Pavlovs for Charles Darwin—some combination of those words comes up in virtually every clue about him.

So when Alex Trebek says, “Irving Stone’s 1980 historical novel The Origin focuses on this scientist and his 1831 voyage,” and some retired librarian from Skokie, Illinois, rings in with “Who is Darwin?” a casual viewer might mistakenly think that the librarian must have read that book, when all the librarian really knew is that any time you see “origin,” “scientist,” and “1831 voyage” in the same clue on Jeopardy, the answer is Charles Darwin.

Now, what does any of this have to do with the GMAT? Well, the GMAT is full of its own Pavlovs. Like Jeopardy questions, GMAT questions are drawn from a base of content knowledge—prime numbers, exponents, subject-verb agreement, pronouns, etc.—that stays largely consistent from year to year. And just like the Jeopardy writers, GMAT writers love to camouflage what concepts they’re really testing behind dense, difficult-to-parse language. But if you do enough GMAT problems and look for patterns, you’ll start to see the same little hints pop up over and over again.

Here’s a simple example: If the GMAT tells you, “X is a non-negative integer,” what does that mean? Take a moment to think about it.


Well, first of all, X is an integer—meaning a whole number—and the opposite of negative is positive, so that means X is positive.

That sounds reasonable. But there’s another possibility: maybe X is zero. (Zero is an integer, and it is neither negative nor positive.)

So when they say “x is a non-negative integer,” what they are really telling us is that x is a whole number that is either positive or zero. But it’s easy to forget about zero, and many test takers do. That’s why every time I see the word “non-negative” on a GMAT problem, I immediately write down “+ or 0,” because I know they’re testing whether I picked up on the hint. And as long as I check the possibility of zero in the rest of the problem, I’ll almost certainly be able to get the right answer. I like to call that a GMAT Pavlov.

Another classic is “even prime.” That’s just code for “2”—the only prime number that is also even.

Here’s some more: “X is divisible by Y,” “X is a multiple of Y,” “Y is a factor of X,” “X/Y has a remainder of 0,” “X/Y = an integer,” and “X equals Y times an integer” all mean the same thing: that X has at least all of the prime factors of Y. When I see any of that language, I immediately start thinking about shared prime factors.

This approach can be applied to the Verbal section as well. When doing a Sentence Correction problem, you have to be on the lookout for many types of logic and grammar issues: subject-verb agreement, modifiers, pronouns, parallelism, idioms, etc. It’s a lot to keep track of all at once. But whenever I see the words “that of” or “those of” in a Sentence Correction problem, I immediately know that the writers are testing apples-to-apples comparisons.

For instance, which of the following sentences is better?

“The host of Jeopardy is more sarcastic than Wheel of Fortune.”

“The host of Jeopardy is more sarcastic than that of Wheel of Fortune.”

See the difference? The first one is wrong because it’s comparing the host of Jeopardy (the famously acerbic Alex Trebek) to the game show Wheel of Fortune. You can’t compare a host to a show. That’s an illogical, apples-to-oranges comparison, so it’s wrong. But in the second version, it’s comparing “the host of Jeopardy” to “that of Wheel of Fortune,” meaning the host of Wheel of Fortune, Pat Sajak. That’s host to host, so that’s apples-to-apples, and it’s correct.

“That of” and “those of” generally appear in Sentence Correction problems only when the GMAT is testing comparisons, so there’s another GMAT Pavlov.

As you continue in your GMAT studies, practice decoding the language of the questions to discover what the writers are really telling you and what they’re really asking you to do. By keeping track of the words and phrases that hint towards the underlying, greatest hits GMAT concepts, you’ll develop your vocabulary of GMAT Pavlovs and be able to solve problems much more quickly on test day.

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