GMAT Critical Reasoning is NOT the Real World

It’s not like I really want to have to make a distinction such as this, but it bears repeating. GMAT Critical Reasoning questions are unique situations unto themselves and have no legitimate bearing on the Real World, nor vice-versa.

gmat critical reasoning -- chess
It’s all a game!

Honestly, it would be much more convenient if everything were nice and orderly the way these Critical Reasoning questions are. Quite honestly, there are too many competing and confounding factors in the Real World for us to reasonably account for. 

In other words, if we want to address anything “logically” in the Real World, we have to reductively limit the factors that we consider until–in many cases–we limit ourselves out of considering factors that might actually be legitimate contributors or confounders–e.g., “Increase profit over sustainability”; “vegans live longer because self-righteousness is healthy”–I could go on for days, but this conversation is largely irrelevant to the purpose.

Rather, we need to consider how the GMAT sets its goalposts and make sure that we are keeping ourselves within the lines. The key thing to remember before we get started is that the boundaries of the argument are ALWAYS defined by the Conclusion.

Beyond that, it might be useful to outline a few distinctions between Critical Reasoning and the Real World, and this goes back to the Bucket System that we have probably already discussed for Reading Comprehension.

Review of the Bucket System

If you’re not familiar with the Bucket System, you can find more information here.

Identifying these species of wrong answers works perfectly well for Critical Reasoning as well.

In our case here…

Out of Scope answers: these are the answers that might actually be true, but they aren’t actually related properly to the Conclusion of the argument. 

LEAP answers: these are the answers that might be true, well, if I squint really hard and look at it sideways. Remember, if you’re applying effort to make it fit, it’s not the right answer.

Opposite answers: yeah, they say exactly what you don’t want. Nice work. The problem is that the GMAT is incredibly good at using double (and sometimes even triple!) negations to make it very unclear what direction this argument actually is pointing. Opposites often require more time than other types of questions to crack–don’t get ahead of yourself here.

GMAT Critical Reasoning vs. the Real World

One of the great things about the Real World is that it’s subtle and complicated and there are a lot of competing interests. No one really knows what’s going on because they lack information.

(Except Big Tech. They actually do have the information and that’s why they have all the power. You think Data is the new gold? Try Information Asymmetry.)

One of the great things about GMAT is that it’s really not subtle and, frankly, not that complicated. You’re given a small system that is built very tightly, like a well-made watch. Things fit into place or they don’t. 

The easiest thing to do is to read the Conclusion very carefully. If an answer choice doesn’t relate properly to the boundaries of the Conclusion, you can feel free to ignore it.

If an answer choice assumes that a competing interest is involved (NOTE: one that doesn’t affect the validity of the conclusion), then this is a LEAP. 

Now, that said, it’s a lot less likely that we’re going to experience real Opposites in the Real World–usually things don’t turn out totally opposite to what we’ve expected all along unless we are severely, systematically deluding ourselves (cf. all of 2016). That said, with information siloing and tribalism, that unfortunate effect is happening more and more.

How can such fuckery be stopped? In the real world, the answer is almost always having more CORRECT information. 

However, as it becomes clearer that powerful interests on every side have an interest in providing misleading information designed to manipulate their own tribes, it’s quite honestly no wonder that we’re going collectively insane.

The Benefits of Living in GMAT-World

In GMAT, your goal is to take the information that you’re given and organize it properly. 

There is a limited amount of information. You have Facts, a generally unstated Assumption (unless it’s asking you to identify the assumption, yes?), and a Conclusion. 

The good thing here is that the Conclusion gives a really clear idea of what the argument is actually about.

The Facts could lead us in a number of different directions, but the Conclusion itself defines the argument. 

The key point here, however, is to remember that the Conclusion might give us the boundaries of what we are looking for, but it is not necessarily true.

Avoid Counterfactual Answers

You’d think it would be obvious enough, but this mistake is quite easily made.

If you’re actively trying to PROVE the Conclusion rather than disprove it or find the weakness within it, there’s a real risk of picking an answer that negates or contradicts one of the Facts.

This is a really, really bad idea.

Remember that Facts are absolutely core to the argument. We can’t mess with them; we cannot change the Fact. The Facts must be taken as always true and immutable.

Sure, there might be an answer that makes the conclusion true if we change or ignore one of the Facts. However, by changing the Facts, we have a different argument.

Changing the argument to get the conclusion you want is essentially saying something along these lines: 

I don’t like that my pen falls when I drop it because of the Law of Gravity. Let me redefine the world such that the Law of Gravity no longer applies; therefore my pen simply floats when I drop it.

Don’t be that person. Note what the facts are. Be conscious of when one of the arguments rewrites them. 

Avoid Real-World Knowledge

We’ve all seen situations where maybe we have some outside knowledge about the scenario being discussed.

Take, for example, the following Official argument: 

Last year all refuse collected by Shelbyville city services was incinerated. This incineration generated a large quantity of residual ash. In order to reduce the amount of residual ash Shelbyville generates this year to half of last year’s total, the city has revamped its collection program. This year city services will separate for recycling enough refuse to reduce the number of truckloads of refuse to be incinerated to half of last year’s number.

Now let’s say that you have a Master’s degree in Sanitation Engineering. It might be perfectly clear that there’s no legitimate way that we can keep the amount of ash the same or greater while reducing the number of truckloads by half.

Given your amazing knowledge of the subject, you know that it is absolutely impossible that the trash could be compacted any further than it already has been. You know that making the trucks even ten percent larger would make them violate city codes so that doubling their size is an impossibility. Etc., etc.

Look: it doesn’t matter to the argument what you know. It is vital to consider the argument unto itself, not as a function of other knowledge that may or may not be helpful in the long run. 

The problem here will still be that halving the number of truckloads is not necessarily equivalent to reducing the amount of ash. 

Respect the boundaries of the argument for what they are–as noted in the Conclusion–and stick within those, whatever vagaries within the situation your expert opinion might kick up.    

Just Because It’s True Doesn’t Make It Correct

Related to this, I mean an answer choice could easily say something like “all cats have four legs.” That might well be true, but if the question is about dogs or parrots, this true statement wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

In fact, it would be… wait for it… Out of Scope. 

There are plenty of things that might be true–particularly things that might be true in the real world–that simply don’t match the boundaries of the argument as set forth in the Conclusion.

Take a look at this Official example:

Springfield Fire Commissioner: The vast majority of false fire alarms are prank calls made anonymously from fire alarm boxes on street corners. Since virtually everyone has access to a private telephone, these alarm boxes have outlived their usefulness. Therefore, we propose to remove the boxes. Removing the boxes will reduce the number of prank calls without hampering people’s ability to report a fire.

Now let’s say we’re trying to Strengthen this argument. 

One of the answer choices might be this: 

Responding to false alarms significantly reduces the fire department’s capacity for responding
to fires.

At which point, I note that–hot damn!–that might just be true (in reality). But then I look at the Conclusion…

To paraphrase, if we remove the boxes, we will reduce the number of prank calls while people can still report fires.                        

What does this answer choice have to do with eliminating the phone boxes? If you answered “nothing,” you get a cookie. Yeah, this isn’t the answer. The answer would look more like this: 

The fire department traces all alarm calls made from private telephones and records where they came from.

Now you’ll notice that this specifically addresses anonymity, which is the key problem with the boxes in the first place. This gives us a reason that removing the boxes might be a good idea: it would reduce the possibility of anonymity for the prank callers.

Here’s the takeaway:

Read the Conclusion again. Then read it again once more. 

Does this answer choice match what is being discussed in the Conclusion, even if it might be true in reality? 


Yeah, see that’s not the answer. Whew. Glad we got that one cleared up.

Is it Reasonable Within the Boundaries of the Argument?

The converse of this is sort of “would this be ridiculous or insane within the boundaries of the argument?”

That is, if the proposal of the answer choice is completely batshit even within the rarified world of the argument, then please, please don’t choose it.

If something seems nutty on the surface, it probably is. Those answers get put to the side until you’ve looked at all the others. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’ll find that one of the other answers is much better.

Then again, that one percent of the time… maybe the rest of the stuff is demonstrably wrong. Maybe this seems a little bizarre, left-field. Well, so be it–


Does GMAT Critical Reasoning Have an Unnecessarily Modern, Western Bias?

Um, well, gee, folks…’s a modern, Western exam so I’m going to go out on a limb here and say “probably.” 

Anyone who thinks this doesn’t affect how students from elsewhere in the world perceive the questions–as a note, this has nothing to do with “English is my second language”–is lying to herself and of course anyone else to whom she’s spouting that lie.

There are definitely unseen goalposts being set in many of these questions. The first step is to recognize that, and the next step is to develop a good understanding of where these goalposts might lie before you run smack into one and get a concussion.

In other words, how can we make a safe Induction by GMAT standards? What would the writers of the GMAT consider to be a reasonable, non-trivial Assumption? Something they wouldn’t flag as a problem?

Look at it this way: there are always Assumptions. We’ve discussed this before (link). Some of these Assumptions are really just about what is “reasonable” to the writers of the GMAT.

A good rule of thumb here–the one I use–is that the GMAT assumes that people involved in their Critical Reasoning questions have respectable motives as per a Clinton-era American small town. 

Then again, this is how I grew up, so maybe I have an advantage. 

But I’m sure some of you remember what it was like to be, I don’t know, five years old or whatever. Back in this era, the only person who saw the shitstorm on the horizon during this era was, evidently, Chuck Palahniuk. 

Try these crazy ideas on for size: 

  • People aren’t out for personal profit at the expense of the majority.
  • Governments exists to help the constituents, not for the personal gain of elected officials.
  • Businesses will not sell their employees up the river just to meet quarterlies.
  • Outsourcing is not necessarily always the best move.

Yeah, I know. Examples of “nice work if you can get it.”

Are these things true in reality? Sometimes, but equally sometimes they demonstrably aren’t. 

Our modern, jaundiced view might be useful in real life, but it doesn’t matter for the GMAT. The GMAT doesn’t assume that “everyone has an angle.” Rather, if there’s a justification for something, it would be based on sound business, economic, or social principles.

In other words, we can largely take for granted that the GMAT abides by such quaint-seeming Enlightenment-based principles as liberty, equality, and fraternity. Or, the way I like to look at it, if I had to make a general guess as to the lens the GMAT is using in a given situation, I sort of just imagine that Leslie Knope wrote the question. 

This eliminates many “tinfoil hat” answers, or ones where a particular group ends up bullied or being the scapegoat of a large corporation, as in this Official example. Check it: 

The fuel efficiency of the Skybus would enable Northern Air to eliminate refueling at some of its destinations, but several mechanics would lose their jobs.

Oh, the humanity! These poor mechanics. Seriously, though, mechanics are some of the few people who will still have a job even in a total Mad Max scenario. They’ll be fine–don’t worry about the mechanics.

More importantly, the fate of a handful of very unfortunate employees is not a reason, under any circumstances, that the GMAT would justify an answer as correct. It’s useful to you, of course, because if you see an answer like this you can simply ignore it because it’s crap. 


What’s the key takeaway here? 

Remember, GMAT Critical Reasoning questions are finely-tuned little machines that are self-consistent. The outside world does not, thankfully so, affect the reasoning behind them.

Focus on the Conclusion to identify the boundaries of the argument. Make sure your answer fits with these. 

Ignore anything that tries to bring the Real World into focus–even your own hyperactive little brain. 

The GMAT’s view of the world is generally positive and good-hearted, with the idea that business is a net benefit for society. Perhaps it should be. 

That’s why you’re going to business school, one would hope.