Idioms irrelevant for GMAT?

Idioms Not Important GMATThe fact that the GMAT does not require explicit knowledge of idioms is nothing new. Sheer memorization of idiomatic rules is not rewarded on the GMAT test.

If you’ve browsed the GMAT forums and blogs recently, you may have encountered quite a bit of handwringing about the “Next-Generation GMAT” (a legitimate change) and the major changes to Sentence Correction (which are much ado about nothing).  Recently, the Graduate Management Admissions Council held a series of test-preparation industry summits around the world, and the New York event stirred up some internet fervor with the industry’s interpretation of comments made by Dr. Lawrence Rudner of GMAC.  Dr. Rudner mentioned that the GMAT Sentence Correction format does not emphasize or require knowledge of idiomatic rules, and that many questions do feature multiple grammatically-correct answers, but only one grammatically-and-logically correct answer.

These comments have prompted quite a few threads and tangents that have startled and scared some GMAT studiers; from an attendee at the event in question, here’s what you need to know:

•  The fact that the GMAT does not require explicit knowledge of idioms is nothing new; Dr. Rudner has mentioned that this evolution has been in place since 2006 at the latest.

Dr. Rudner’s comments were not an official announcement; they came as added color on a slide talking about the validity of the GMAT to what it seeks to test.  As he has reiterated for years, the GMAT is not a test of knowledge but rather a test of analytical ability and higher-order thinking.  That the GMAT is not a grammar test should not be in question; the logical element to Sentence Correction is part of what provides the GMAT a “Verbal Reasoning” section (his slide underlined the word “Reasoning” in the phrases “Quantitative Reasoning“ and “Verbal Reasoning”), and the fact that sheer memorization of idiomatic rules is not rewarded on the test allows it to remain a global test of reasoning and business-school preparedness. 

• For added color, Dr. Rudner even mentioned that he had personally entertained the idea of pushing for the elimination of Sentence Correction as a question type, feeling that it might skew the test toward favoritism of those with strong English language skills (and against those for whom English is a second or recent language) and that it might not maintain its validity in a reasoning test.  The authors of such questions proved to him otherwise, showing him the aforementioned “two grammatically-correct answers but only one truly-correct answer” questions.  In truth, even though much of the worry on this “new sentence correction trend” subject has been coming from international students, specifically, Dr. Rudner’s point in mentioning Sentence Correction was to demonstrate that the test is fair for examinees of all backgrounds and doesn’t punish international students for lack of familiarity with English parlance.  (Cue Alanis: isn’t it ironic?)

• Dr. Rudner also mentioned that many of the GMAT’s study products, including the Official Guide for GMAT Review series, employ retired questions that might not make the GMAT’s cut for inclusion on an official test today.  Those questions are indicative of question formats and general content coverage, but may not produce the results and validity that GMAT demands from each test item.  Idiomatic-based Sentence Correction questions are likely high on that list of questions that were once useful differentiators of students based on ability level, but have outlived that usefulness.  (For an explanation of GMAT score validity and a projection of why Idioms likely cannot produce such validity, please see:  http://www.veritasprep.com/blog/2011/09/gmat-tip-of-the-week-think-like-the-testmaker/)

In summary:  Sentence Correction remains a question format that rewards logic and decision-making and does not emphasize or require specific knowledge of idiomatic rules.

Now, how does that affect your study?  Independent of Dr. Rudner’s statements, we offer the following suggestions:

1) Know that idiomatic decisions are often a trap.  “Idiomatic” essentially means “that’s just the way it is” (or “because I said so” for those who grew up with bossy parents), and that’s not a valid enough explanation to produce a well-written question.  But the authors of the GMAT also know this: you’re predisposed to learning “obscure” information.  On most tests you’ve taken in your life to date, the “harder” questions dealt with more-obscure details, so your natural inclination as a studier is to cram whatever inaccessible information you think will give you an edge.  But the GMAT is a reasoning test; those who succeed in business school or  business tend to do so because they can employ consistent frameworks to unique situations.  And those who fail often do so because they find themselves pulled in too many directions, or they’re baited into making inefficient decisions by focusing on details they cannot control.  The GMAT gives you that rope to hang yourself with idioms – you simply cannot learn enough idioms to become great at them, but you can become expert with the major, more logical error categories (do the subject/verb, subject/pronoun agree numerically?  Do the verbs in the sentence set up a logical timeline?  Can the modifier logically describe the noun adjacent to it?).  And doing so demonstrates superior problem solving and decision making ability.  Idioms will exists on many well-written GMAT questions; they’re just much more often the trap than they are the key to the question.

2)  When in doubt on a Sentence Correction question, and whenever you make decisions in SC practice, ask yourself “does this make sense?”.  By far, the grammatical rules tested on the GMAT have a logical root; they’re much less “the Queen’s English” and much more “the people’s English”.  Verb tenses are wrong because the events could not logically happen in that order; comparisons are wrong because the two items compared could never be on equal footing as they’re not the same; modifiers are wrong because they could not describe what they seek to describe.  Consider these examples:

As a reader of this article, I hope that you will leave any questions in the comments field. 
This is an illogical modifier, because although “I” might read this article (you’d hope I at least proofread it), the introductory modifying phrase really needs to logically modify “you”, not “I”.  Grammatically this isn’t wrong, per se. But logically it’s an incorrect modifier.

I found out that I was not able to race tomorrow. 
This is illogical, as “was” in the past-tense doesn’t provide a logical modifier with the future “tomorrow’

Mac’s weight is significantly heavier this season than he was last season.

Again, this is illogical.   We can compare Mac this year to Mac last year; or we can compare his weight this year to his  weight last hear.  But the weight is a number and he is a person – they’re not a direct comparison.

A large component of success on the GMAT becomes knowing how to spend your time and energy, and with Sentence Correction a logical emphasis goes a long way. 

3) Remember that there are many correct idioms; just because you haven’t seen it or would prefer another phrasing does not make it incorrect.  That’s the “trap” value of idioms: just because you like the expression “it was so X that Y..” does not mean, for example, that “it was so X as to Y” is incorrect (it’s not).  And that’s where the GMAT has an advantage – if something is illogical, it’s demonstrably wrong. But if it’s simply not preferred or not commonly used, it may still be correct.  Regardless of how adept you are with most idioms, the GMAT always has the potential to include in a correct answer one that you haven’t seen.   So make idiomatic decisions your last decision point – force yourself to see the common/logical errors first.  

There are, indeed, changes to the GMAT that you should monitor.  The new Integrated Reasoning section will debut in June of 2012, featuring an entirely new question format and some new strategies for success.  But the Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning sections remain essentially the same, only with the normal evolution as the authors of the test find new ways to make the same topics look unique enough to be difficult.  Don’t believe the hype about “changes to Sentence Correction”.  That’s just illogical. 

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