How to Eliminate Bad Answer Choices in GMAT Reading Comprehension Questions

One of the main principles of GMAT Verbal, and particularly GMAT Reading Comprehension, is that you’re not actually looking for the RIGHT answer, but rather the CORRECT answer.

GMAT Reading Comprehension Ferrari
In a perfect world, all Reading Comprehension passages would have pictures of Ferraris, Bugattis, and Lamborghinis. Alas.

What do I mean by that?

Simple: the “right” answer is what they taught you to find at University. That’s the clever answer that means something. 

What the GMAT wants is the answer that’s NOT WRONG. In fact, it’s only correct by virtue of the fact that it is unimpeachable.

Usually, answers that are unimpeachable are also quite boring, so the part of us that’s interested in shiny objects or looking smart gets really thrown by this type of thinking.

Put another way, it means a mindset shift: the correct answers are a bit crap, so the only way to be certain you have selected the least offensive one is to get rid of the bad ones.

The best way around it, however, is to remember that we aren’t actually looking for the correct answer–we are trying to eliminate the incorrect answers. 

The Bucket System for GMAT Reading Comprehension

First, I’ll take you through my Bucket System –perhaps not foolproof (don’t be that fool, please)–but a good generalized system to help you figure out what a truly impeachable answer is so that you can eliminate it quickly and effectively.

Next, I’ll take you through my Kill It With Fire System–this is controversial enough that it got me like 50% dislikes on a YouTube video about it. That’s not because it’s wrong–it’s not–but because people really luuuuurrve misusing Absolute statements.

And, apparently, they also get really butthurt about the fact that the GMAT loves punishing people for using Absolutes. Oops!

The Individual Buckets

In this system, all answer choices match one of three patterns. 

It’s either Out of Scope, a logical Leap, or Opposite. Let’s go through these in order.

  1. Out of Scope: this might seem like a slightly technical term, but all it means, in reality, is that the answer choice is talking about shit that is different from whatever the main idea of the passage is. In other words, if your passage is talking about a particular type of mangrove tree in a particular swamp in Florida, then don’t choose an answer that involves mangrove trees growing in Maine. Or Orange trees in Ojai. You get the picture.
  2. Leap: this means that there is too much assumption going on. The GMAT can tolerate a certain amount of assumption, as we all must do in our daily lives. Yes: we all assume things. For example, I assume you read English and you assume I know what I’m talking about, but that’s probably a fairly reasonable assumption by GMAT standards. 

What I’m really talking about is situations where you read the answer and say “Well, if I look at it this way…” Look, it’s fairly simple: if you have to say “if I look at it that way,” then you know that’s not the correct answer. The correct answer needs to click into place with torturing it to fit. Do some passages. Look at the correct answers. Are you assuming anything unreasonable to get there? I didn’t think so.  

  1. Opposite: I’m going to assume that this one is fairly self-explanatory. It’s in-scope but pointing the wrong direction. That said, Opposite answers can be some of the most pernicious wrong answers, because it’s really difficult to tell which way the argument is facing. 

Look at it like this: the GMAT specializes in figuratively (NOT literally) spinning you around by the shoulders about ten times and then giving you a nice shove on the back once it lets go go. 

In other words, there is no good way to tell whether you’re coming or going with some of these arguments unless you follow the line of reasoning exceptionally closely. This means going back to the text and reading it with a fine-toothed comb if you suspect an Opposite answer.

The Advantage of the Bucket System

One of the main problems with GMAT Reading Comprehension–or GMAT Verbal in general, really–is that it loves to make you second-guess yourself. 

The reason that I like to make little notes to myself on difficult questions–just mark OOS, LEAP, or OPP–is so that I understand why I rejected this answer in the first place.

That said, I am not forever going to discount an answer just because I put it in one of the buckets. Of course, as Verbal gets more difficult, certain answers that would have been considered incorrect at a lower level might actually turn out to be the “least worst” answer among the five choices.

The Bucket System is simply a good rule of thumb, giving us a decent way to put the bad answers to the side so that we can get on with life and hopefully more easily select an answer that is obviously correct.

If there isn’t an obviously correct one, of course, then revise your buckets.

Notice–and Question–Absolute Statements in GMAT Reading Comprehension… aka the “Kill It With Fire System”

It’s really normal for us to speak in absolutes: “He always drives her crazy,” or “These people are never open when they say they are.”

Notice the “always” and “never?” Add to that “all,” “only,” or any other word that either uniquely singles something out (“X is the only method to Y”) or makes a blanket statement that may be a reasonable conjecture in the aggregate but not absolutely true if you go to Australia (“All swans are white.”).

Talking like this is logically lazy and, in fact, wrong. The GMAT will crucify you for it.

Now I’m not suggesting you adjust your speech because then you’ll talk like a politician who’s trying too hard to please–and who wants that?

What would be useful, however, is to listen for absolute statements in other people’s speech. Notice how often it happens and how absurd it is if you take it literally (NOT figuratively). Notice that GMAT Reading Comprehension does take things literally–it essentially processes language like a computer, so Garbage In, Garbage Out. 

Don’t allow statements that are logical nonsense to be your correct answer, unless it is stated unequivocally in the passage that something is absolutely true across the board or that something is unique. 

Both of these are harder to prove than it might seem, so if this is the case, it is likely totally obvious. Stop scratching your head–if scenario is not clearly absolute, then the absolute answer choice is wrong.

Kill. It. With. Fire.

Challenge Every Answer Choice

…because it might just be bullshit. In fact, there’s an 80% chance that it is. No one said that just because it’s what’s written there, it must be accurate.

Bearing that in mind, let’s step back from the Absolute problem for just a moment, but we’ll rejoin that track soon.

The easiest way to determine whether any answer choice, essentially, is worth its salt is to challenge it. In short, turn every statement into a question: is that really the case?

Let’s take a look at some real GMAT Reading Comprehension answer choices and do this trick:

e) Treaties establishing reservations would have to mention water rights explicitly in order to reserve water for a particular purpose. 

If I’m going to challenge this answer choice, I’ll ask a few questions and refer back to the passage for the answers: 

>What sort of reservations?

>Does the mention of water rights actually have to be explicit?

>What is the particular purpose? Are we at least given an example of a particular purpose?

This can be particularly useful for Primary Purpose questions, where things do tend to be mentioned somewhat vaguely. We need to be able to directly identify each thing that is mentioned:

a) Suggest an alternative to an outdated research method.

Here are some questions:

>What is the alternative?

>What is the method?

>How do we know that this method is outdated?

This is an especially powerful method to determine the validity of an absolute statement. Take this answer choice, for instance:

c) Arizona v. California represents the sole example of an exception to the criteria as they were set forth in the Winters doctrine.

Let’s ask, then:

>Is this the sole example of an exception? Could there be other examples? (Note that “represents an exception” might well work.

Let’s look at another:

  1. …are found only in areas that were once covered by land ice.

Let’s ask:

>Is this the only place that they are found, or is just an example of a place that’s mentioned in the passage?

Note that this isn’t to say that an absolute answer is never the case, but rather to make the point that absolute answers are hard to justify.

Given that, it is important to make sure that if you choose an absolute that it is justified as clearly as possible. Let’s look at an absolute that actually is correct:

c) There would be no legal basis for the water rights of the Rio Grande pueblos. 

Let’s ask:

>No basis? None at all? Is there another circumstance where we might have these rights?

Well, as it turns out, if you check the passage you then see that it discusses the three things that must be true in order to grant water rights. In the situation proposed by the question, we do not have all of these three things. 

Therefore, since those things are NOT ALL TRUE, it is valid to say that there would be “no legal basis.”

It’s an absolute statement, but we can fairly easily prove it true. 

As a note, this can be applied to comparisons as well: if your answer choice suggests “more than” or “less than,” you can apply the same rule–it will be obvious that this relative difference exists. 

Filter the Answer Choices Through the Scope

Now this might be fairly obvious, so bear with me and I’ll keep it short.

The Scope of the passage is a bit of a technical term. It’s really the boundaries of what the passage is discussing, so it’s not as broad as Topic. It’s essentially the boundaries implied by the thesis, or main idea, of the passage.

A fairly simple–although not 100% accurate–way to look at it would be to say that the Scope and the Primary Purpose are the same thing. I disagree that they are, since Scope is about boundaries and Primary Purpose essentially describes why the author chose to write the passage. 

That said, the Primary Purpose must fit within the Scope of the passage, and anyt Primary Purpose answer choice that is either too narrow (discussing less than what the entire passage discusses), or too broad (discusses things irrelevant to the passage) will of course be incorrect.

However, you can always drill down with other types of questions to see whether they match the scope. In fact, in many cases, it is simple scope issues–if you’re reading the answer choices literally enough–that reject a huge number of incorrect answers.

As a note on that “literally” thing–I’ll spare you the lecture about misusing that word–remember that you are reading these things trying to see whether they fit perfectly just the way they are! 

That does not mean adjusting or giving the benefit of the doubt to a questionable statement. Take the answer choices at absolute face value, and if they seem wrong or absurd, that is, for the love of dog, an excellent indication that these statements are not the correct answers.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples: 

d) Reservations other than American Indian reservations could not be created with reserved water rights. 

Let’s assume the passage is specifically talking about the water rights of American Indian reservations (because, well, it is). Then, clearly, “reservations other than American Indian reservations” would be a bit off-topic.

The trick here is to take the answer choice and filter it back through the Scope. If the passage is talking about the water rights of American Indian reservations, it follows that something talking about other reservations would be too broad in Scope. 


First, remember that eliminating incorrect answers is at least as important (if not more so) than selecting correct answers. After all, if you get rid of the bad ones, you’re left with–wait for it–the correct answer! Yay!

Remember: The Bucket System, confirm Absolutes, and Filter Through Scope. 

There are numerous schools of thought about how to do this, many of which involve far more trainspotting. That’s not my style, so I’m hoping to give you a nice, flexible tool for your kit.

Caveat emptor: this bag of techniques is simply one GMAT tutor’s opinion. 

Feel free to disagree, but don’t whine to me when you get the question wrong. Enjoy the tool, and speak soon.