Preparing for Critical Reasoning on the GMAT

Critical Reasoning questions appear on the GMAT in the Verbal section — one of many GMAT question types. They are similar to Reading Comprehension questions, but Critical Reasoning questions have one main difference: they’re based on shorter passages. A Critical Reasoning passage usually contains one paragraph and only involves one question, typically asking about argument construction, argument evaluation, or formulating and evaluating a plan of action.

Let’s look at how you should approach a Critical Reasoning question and prepare for this area of the Verbal section on the GMAT…

1. Review the passage

Get all the information that you can from the one or two paragraphs. Figure out what’s going on. Understand the situation. Note if anything strikes you as significant or odd.

For instance, here is a Critical Reasoning passage from the Critical Reasoning section of The Official Guide for GMAT Review 2016:

Homeowners aged 40 to 50 are more likely to purchase ice cream and are more likely to purchase it in large amounts than are members of any other demographic group. The popular belief that teenagers eat more ice cream than adults must, therefore, be false.

This passage is about people who purchase ice cream, and there are conclusions drawn about people who consume ice cream. You could make a brief note on your sheet about the end result this passage is implying and what points it offers for you to assess its conclusion.

2. Identify the argument

The argument usually includes the words “therefore,” “so,”  “must,”  “should,” “clearly,” “will be,” or “would be.” The argument is a sentence that suggests something will happen either because of something else or in spite of something else. Determine how the argument relates to the rest of the passage, and think about assumptions that the argument might be based on.

Looking at the previous passage about ice cream, the argument is, “The popular belief that teenagers eat more ice cream than adults must, therefore, be false.” An assumption that the author of the passage makes is that eating ice cream is directly correlated with purchasing ice cream, or that the people who purchase ice cream are the people who are eating that ice cream.

3. Review the question

Understand what the question is asking, and determine how it relates to the passage. Often, you will be asked to find an answer choice that either supports or undermines an argument. Or, the question may ask, “The two boldfaced portions play which of the following roles?” Another common Critical Reasoning question is, “Which of the following most logically completes the passage?” Additionally, the question could ask about the assumptions on which the argument is based.

The question that followed the ice cream passage is, “The argument is flawed primarily because the author ...” For this type of question, answer it in your own words first, and then look at the answer choices to see what option correlates with your conclusion.

4. Determine the answer that fits best

The answer is on the page or on the screen; you simply need to decide which of the answer choices is the best one. Use process of elimination. Read the answer choices one at a time. Decide whether you like a choice or not. If you like it, keep it. If you don’t like it, then cross it out. If you get down to two choices and you’re unsure, repeat steps one through three and see if you can shed more light on the scenario.

Here are the answer choices for the practice passage:

A) fails to distinguish between purchasing and consuming

B) does not supply information about homeowner in age groups other than 40 to 50

C) depends on popular belief rather than on documented research findings

D) does not specify the precise amount of ice cream purchased by any demographic group

E) discusses ice cream rather than more nutritious and healthful foods

For this Critical Reasoning question, the best answer is A. The author “fails to distinguish between purchasing and consuming.”

Learning and applying these skills as you prepare for the GMAT can make studying for the Verbal section much easier, and it can help you avoid common GMAT mistakes. Performing each step methodically can help you increase your understanding of each Critical Reasoning question and lead you to the best answer choice. It may take some time at first, because you have to pay close attention to each part of the passage, as well as the question and the answer choices, but it is possible — consider online tutoring to work with an expert who can help clarify these concepts for you. Once you practice these steps and become familiar with the process, you are likely to see your Critical Reasoning performance improve!