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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