Does any official GMAT Critical Reasoning question demand outside knowledge? The frustrating answer to this question is: for the most part, no, but in a way, yes. I will explain.
It is absolutely true that if a GMAT CR question concerns, say, toxins in wood smoke, you need to know absolutely nothing about the biochemistry of wood smoke in order to answer the question. If the CR questions concerns, say, the polygraph test, you need to know absolutely nothing about how the polygraph test operates or how reliable it is in order to answer the question. Every GMAT CR question is self-contained, in that one needs no outside knowledge about that particular subject matter in order to answer the question. That is 100% true.
Real world situation
Unfortunately, GMAT students who hear that true statement make the unfortunate incorrect generalization: all outside knowledge is irrelevant to the Critical Reasoning. This is a profound misunderstanding.
Think about why the GMAT has Critical Reasoning in the first place. The GMAT wants to know if student can understand arguments precisely because managers in the business world have to understand all sorts of arguments all the time. Fundamentally, any sales pitch is an argument. Any business may have to hear and analyze arguments from its suppliers, its customers, its advertisers, its partners and affiliates, its investors, its insurance company, etc. etc. All of these would be real-world arguments, and an intelligent manager is very good at hearing these arguments and discerning: should I believe this argument or not? what are they assuming? what information would allow me to evaluate whether they are correct? etc. In other words, all the GMAT CR skills are skills that an actual manager might have to apply in analyzing real world arguments.
Toward this end, many of the GMAT CR arguments have a “real world” feel to them. Even if the actual company or location is fictional (such as “Parland”), the interests and motivations of the people described in the argument are very much like those of folks in analogous situation in the real world. Having a sense of what would be realistic or not realistic in the analogous real world situations can be very helpful in figuring out GMAT CR.
Real world knowledge
Of course, one cannot become an expert in every conceivable situation and sector, but that’s not necessary. In order to gain an edge, one simply has to have a general sense of the interest and motivations of people in real world situation, especially in the business world. For example, what are real world reasons that a company would or would not choose a particular supplier? What are real world reasons that customers would buy or not buy a particular product? How is it different for different products? What motivates politicians, scientists, union members, marketers, home owners, policemen, criminals, etc.? What are the factors that can make a business succeed or fail? What makes some business only mildly successful and other similar businesses wildly successful?
In addition to helping you on the GMAT CR, presumably being conversant in such issues well before you go to business school is very much in your interest. Imagine if one of these real-world issues arises during your interview for business school: if you can do no more than guess in the dark, you will not look particularly impressive at that moment, but if you can converse intelligently and cite real world examples from your reading, you will stand out well above your peers. Think about when you are done with your MBA and searching for a job. Suppose you are interviewing at Company X. If you know very little about what Company X does, then you will not be a very impressive candidate. If you make yourself expert in what Company X does, you will be a considerably more credible candidate. If you make yourself an expert not only in Company X but all its competitors, all its suppliers, etc., then you may well be a standout candidate. Knowledge is power, and knowledge of the sector of the business world you intend to enter gives extraordinary leverage in that world.
How do you get all this real world knowledge? By reading. Read the Financial Times. Read the Bloomburg Businessweek. Read the Economist magazine. If you are planning to get an MBA and spend your entire career in the business world, you already should be getting as familiar as possible with it! Why on earth would you be spending all this energy on the GMAT to gain access to the business world if you don’t understand that world at all? Obviously, the more you can learn about the world to which you plan to devote your entire life, the better!
All this reading will build your Reading Comprehension skills, and if you look at the grammar of individual sentences, it will help your Sentence Correction skills. If you read all these sources regularly, you will build intuition for the push and pull of real world forces, and this intuition will serve you extremely well on GMAT CR. In fact, all of those sources will be full of real world arguments: sometimes the authors or editors make an argument of their own, but often objective articles present real world business people making arguments of various kinds. When you find these arguments, practice all the standard GMAT CR analyses on them: what would strengthen or weaken them? what is the assumption? what can we infer? what further information would allow you to evaluate the conclusion? If one person presents an argument, and another person responds, what does that response do to the first person’s argument? If you become skilled at analyzing real world arguments, then GMAT CR arguments will seem like child’s play to you.
As a “head start” into all this real world reading, I have prepared a few articles about basic real world issues that could help you in thinking about a variety of GMAT CR questions.
Those blogs are introductions to topics. Through further reading, you could go much deeper with any one of them.
While you don’t need to be an expert in anything to answer GMAT CR, you do need to have a well-honed sense of how the real world works — especially a keen sense of the modern business world. If you have had experiences reading the WSJ, Bloomberg, or the Economist, or your have found other sources that have deepened your real world knowledge, please let us know in the comments sections below!