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GMAT Parallelism - How to Make Your Lists and Comparisons Parallel

GMAT ParallelismIt’s important to make sure that whenever you compare two things, those things are similar enough to make a comparison appropriate.  For example, if you and a friend are both preparing for the GMAT, but your friend has the luxury of studying full-time while you have a job and a family competing for your attention, it’s not appropriate to compare your score improvements with those of your friend.  Doing so would be an example of what is idiomatically called “comparing apples to oranges.”

The same thing is true on GMAT Sentence Correction questions.  When items are being compared, they must be “apples to apples,” or parallel.  For instance, take a look at the following example of a comparison:

Unlike most business students at her school, who attended classes full time, Carla’s schedule was so full that she could only attend part-time.

The sentence as written compares “most business students” to “Carla’s schedule.”  Schedules are things, and business students are people; this is an apples-to-oranges comparison.  In order to correct it, we should put the items being compared into parallel form, like this:

Unlike most business students at her school, who attended classes full time, Carla was so busy that she could only attend part-time.


It’s not just items being compared that need to be parallel, though; items in a list must also be in parallel forms, and you’re actually more likely to see this kind of parallelism tested on the GMAT.  Here’s an example:

An urban neighborhood is significantly different from a suburban one, because people living in the suburbs usually have more space, travel by car instead of by public transportation, and did most of their shopping in malls or shopping centers.

The list in this sentence describes ways that life in the suburbs differs from life in the city.  The first task is to check to make sure that the listed items are in similar forms.  Each of the phrases in the list begins with a verb: “have,” “travel,” and “did.”  But remember, just being in the same form isn’t enough; we need to make sure that the verbs are all in the same tense, as long as that doesn’t make the sentence confusing.

People in the suburbs probably shop in malls in the present, and therefore putting “did” in the present tense will improve parallelism without making the sentence confusing.  A revision sentence will look like this:

An urban neighborhood is significantly different from a suburban one, because people living in the suburbs usually have more space, travel by car instead of by public transportation, and do most of their shopping in malls or shopping centers.

That one little change, from “did” to “do,” is the difference between getting a question right and getting it wrong.  So as a test-taker, how do you ensure that parallelism isn’t a problem for you on the GMAT?

1. Look for lists or comparisons.  Often, longer sentences contain lists of phrases, so that can be a clue, but just try to get into the habit of looking for comparisons and lists in every sentence correction question.

2. Put items in similar forms: verbs are listed with verbs, nouns with nouns, etc.

3. Make sure that numbers and tenses match up, as well as any other issues that impact parallelism. Whenever you see a comparison or a list in a sentence correction question, remember to take an inventory of what is being compared or listed.  Watch out for consistent verb tenses, double-check for parallel construction of singular and plural forms, and confirm that there are no other grammatical issues that interfere with parallel structure.

[For instance, in the paragraph above, you might notice the pairing of “a comparison” and “a list,” as well as the consistent tenses and forms of “watch out,” “double-check,” and “confirm,” all as examples of parallelism.]

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