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Inferences Questions in GRE Reading Comprehension

The GRE requires a very specific type of inference, not like the ones we typically make in our day to day. Instead of making bold claims about observed phenomenon, mingling aggregated experience with intuition, on the GRE, inferences must be based solely on the text. Let me show you what I mean. First an excerpt from Wikipedia:

The law school of Beirut (also known as the law school of Berytus and the school of Roman law at Berytus) was a center for the study of Roman law in classical antiquity located in Beirut (Latin: Berytus). It flourished under the patronage of the Roman emperors and functioned as the Roman Empire‘s preeminent center of jurisprudence until its destruction in 551.

The law schools of the Roman Empire established organized repositories of imperial constitutions and institutionalized the study and practice of jurisprudence to relieve the busy imperial courts. The archiving of imperial constitutions facilitated the task of jurists in referring to legal precedents.

Below are two inferences. But one is based solely on what the passages says. The other is based on the text and your knowledge of the world. Which of these statements is an inference acceptable on the GRE?

  1. The formation of the law school of Beirut as a repository for imperial constitutions and as a place for the study of jurisprudence allowed Roman jurists to expedite cases in the imperial courts.
  2. With the destruction of the law school of Beirut and the loss of imperial constitutions and institutionalized jurisprudence, the Roman Empire experienced a slight decline in the administration of law and justice.

Statement A has support in the passage. We are told in the Wikipedia article that the law school “relieved the busy imperial courts.” Statement A does not say anything that is too far removed from this idea. Statement B, however, moves too far away from the passage. It’s logical and reasonable that the destruction of the law school would hamper the administration of justice, but nothing in the passage says this or even hints at it. So we always want to choose an inference that stays close to what is stated in the passage.

How to Identify an Inference Question

One crucial part of your studies is learning how to identify question types. Without knowing what you are asked to do, you can’t be successful. Usually the question stem will have a word or phrase that will signal it’s an inference question, like “infer,” “imply,” or “suggests.” Expect question stems like these:

  • “This passage most likely appeared as part of . . .”
  • “The author would probably agree (or disagree) with which of the following statements?”
  • “This article most likely appeared in . . .”
  • “The author implies that the best control for unlicensed handguns would be . . .”
  • “Which of the following might the author cite as an example of free trade as it is described in the passage?”
  • “Given the author’s position on the fluoridation of the public water supply what stand would the author probably take on the issue of mandatory immunizations?”

Strategy for Inference Questions

Part of your preparation should involve learning and internalizing a strategy for each question type. By test day, these steps should be habitual and done without thought.

1. Attack the Passage

Dive in and read the passage all the way through. Stay out of the details of the passage and focus on the main ideas. Focus on understanding the connection among the paragraphs, especially their connection to the main idea of the passage. Finally, determine the author’s purpose in writing, and the author’s opinion about the topic.

2. Rephrase Question

Read the question and put it into your own words. Rephrasing the question will force you to understand what it is asking. Make note of line numbers, concepts from specific parts of the passage, and any words like “except” or “not.” These clues will be crucial to answering the question correctly.

3. Evaluate Answer Choice based on the Passage

Read through each answer choice and decide whether the passage supports the statement. Usually, the support for the correct answer will be separated—not in one sentence, but based on the information in two or three sentences.

4. Eliminate Wrong Answers

Why fret over a right answer when there are so many wrong answers in front of you. Usually in my first pass through the answer choices, I aim to eliminate three blatantly wrong answer choices. This always makes it easier to find the right answer at the end.

These steps are similar to most of the Reading Comprehension questions, except that we are not anticipating an answer choice. Since there are many inferences that you can make on a single passage, it is often hard to predict the inference in the answer choices. So, it’s best to move to evaluating the answer choices instead of anticipating an inference.

Common Wrong Answers in Inference Questions

Standardized tests are great! They allow us to prepare for what will be on the test. As part of this process, ETS also standardized the wrong answers! That means we can be prepared to eliminate answer choices even before reading the question!

Detail from the passage

For the tired and lazy, the inattentive and unfocused, ETS will always give a detail from the passage as an answer choice. If a test taker is not aware that they are answering an inference question, they easily fall into this trap because they found something directly stated in the passage. Remember, an inference is something that is not explicitly stated in the passage. So it’s always important to identify the question type to avoid this wrong answer.

Distorting the passage

I sometimes think of these trap answers as half right and all wrong because ETS takes information contained in the passage and twists and distorts it enough to make the answer wrong. Usually this involves twisting the connection of ideas in the passage or misattributing an idea to the wrong person. Students get stuck with these because they see the part that is correct and then come up with reasons or situations in which the answer might be true. Anytime you find yourself trying hard to justify an answer choice, it is most likely going to be wrong.

Extreme Language

“Always,” “any,” “all,” “never,” “none,”—these words should set off an alarm in your head. The GRE passages are complex and subtle, not extreme and one-sided. The passages are well-reasoned and contain qualifying statements. As such, a passage will rarely support extreme, broad over-generalizations that contain these words.

Unrelated, Unsupported, or New

ETS loves a little sleight of hand. They try to slip in a new concept into the answer choice, something related but unsupported by the passage. The most obvious example is when they mention actual values when the passage only mentions ratios or percentages.  Do not be fooled! Be on the lookout for concepts not addressed in the passage.


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8 Responses to Inferences Questions in GRE Reading Comprehension

  1. Prakhar July 15, 2015 at 10:06 pm #

    Hi Kevin,

    Great blog indeed !!
    I have a doubt regarding the second point of how to identify inference question. For the author would agree with which of the statement type questions, if I have two answer choices, one that can easily be inferred from passage/inferred but not obvious and the other one which is directly stated in passage, which one to go with as the word “infer” is not directly given in the question. The author would obviously agree with what he has stated in the passage
    Thanks in Advance 🙂

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin Rocci July 16, 2015 at 9:08 am #

      Hi Prakhar,

      Great question! It’s hard to give a good answer without actually seeing a question. I don’t want to make a generalization based on a hypothetical situation. But, if you are dealing with a question that asks, “Which statements would the author most likely agree with?” and they provide you a statement from the argument, then that would be the best answer. The only issue is that I don’t think you will see a question like this. They will not just directly state something already stated in this type of question. I guess this shows us that there are sub-types of inference questions. We have the general inference questions, and then inference questions that are about what the author would agree with. Ultimately, when handling inference questions, be wary of any answer choice that is a repeat of something in the passage since an inference is something unstated.

      I hope that this helps!

      Happy Studying!

  2. Aditya November 14, 2014 at 11:43 am #

    Hi Kevin,

    I must say one of the most useful articles I have read on the Magoosh GRE blog.

    Great insight on the ways ETS tries to trick the test takers and the part on ‘standardized’ wrong answer choices is something really helpful for test takers struggling with the verbal section. All such articles made accessible to every GRE aspirant by Magoosh, I think this truly corroborates the values people at Magoosh are driven by.

    Thanks again 🙂

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin November 14, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

      Hi Aditya,

      That is high praise! Thank you for your kind words. It’s great to know that our resources are helping students dominate the test! Best of luck and happy studying! 😀

  3. Debbie February 28, 2014 at 7:08 am #

    In 2. Rephrase Question on line 3, there is a typo – “andy” should be “any” .
    Thanks for the information.

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin March 4, 2014 at 11:47 am #

      Thanks Debbie! I made the change! 🙂

  4. Ayush February 25, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

    This looks like a god sent article for me. First, it does show the importance of identifying an inference vs. a detail question.
    However, I have been solving GRE type inference questions from a variety of sources now. I started with the same initial assumption that, the correct answer choice is one that is, say a safe inference based on what is directly stated in the passage. But this does not seem to hold across all the sources of GRE preparation.
    Sometimes I see questions in mainly Kaplan that can give you say 4 blatantly wrong answers as choices ( which makes the job easy) and the last one “correct answer” as a vague inference from the passage, which to me also does not seem correct.Worst is when two close answers are both not directly and safely inferred.
    But from this article, I get some sense of direction again for my strategy.

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin February 26, 2014 at 9:39 am #

      Hi Ayush, I am so happy to hear that you found this article useful. I hope that it helps you to calibrate your strategies for the GRE. One small note: this strategy is intended, and only useful, when dealing with quality questions. Unfortunately, all test prep companies, and their questions, were not created equal. Some are better than others, which you seem to have realized. I’d encourage you to ditch the low quality materials because they will not help you when you face the actual GRE. We always recommend working with materials published by ETS, and we find that Manhattan does a good job of creating high-quality materials and practice problems. 🙂

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