Thinking Like the Test Makers

The perfect GRE question is one that seems very straightforward. One of the answer choices screams out to you, “Pick me, I make perfect sense.” You choose this answer, and a feeling of relief washes over you. Blithely, you continue on, totally oblivious to the fact that you walked straight into a trap.

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Questions on the GRE are rarely that easy. The test makers spend a long time choosing the distractors (which is test-speak for wrong answer) so that if you are not careful, you will get the question wrong. One obvious solution is to be more mindful, and spend fifteen seconds thinking over the alluring answer choice. Part of this process should include rereading the question. Oftentimes, there is one little word that changes everything. For example:

1. John invests x dollars in an account that provides an annual interest of 10%, compounded annually. After two years, the account has a total $1,210 dollars. How much more money did John have in the account than when he opened the account?

(A)  $200

(B)  $210

(C)  $1000

(D) $1100

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(E)  $1550

In this problem, many of us are tempted to solve for x, after which we rush to the “right” answer—only to get the problem wrong. See, the question is not asking for x, which equals 1,000. The question is asking for how much more money did John have in the account than when he opened the account (the answer is $210, or 1,210 – 1,000). Notice that $1,000 is a possible answer choice. That’s because the test writers know that many people will reinterpret the question as what is x. In a sense, many such questions are more about being careful than about raw mathematical ability.

Of course facility with numbers helps. If you burrow down and spend a minute or two solving for the x, you are more likely to forget the original question. Regardless of whether you have a whirlwind of a mathematical mind and solve for x in two seconds, or you take a bit long, always read the question one more time just to make sure you don’t fall into a classic GRE trap.

Not all such tricks are limited to the quantitative section. The verbal section is filled with potential pitfalls so that if you are rushing through the question, or simply not reading it accurately the first time, you will get the question wrong. Let’s take the following question

Many who talk about James Joyce and his books have a(n) __________________  relationship with his work: they can tell you about Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses, and how inscrutable either novel is, though few, if any, have actually read these works.

(A)  intimate

(B)  superficial

(C)  unstructured

(D) direct

(E)  tortuous

In the inevitable time crunch of the GRE, many of us skim really quickly. Often we don’t even read the entire sentence before our eyes dart towards the answer choices. But the answer choices are not manna from heaven; they are diabolically crafted to confuse and trap us.

Take this one-blank Text Completion. We read to the first blank and are tempted to go to the answers and plug them in to see which words “feels” right. If you only read to the first blank and put in (A) intimate, it makes sense. People who talk about a writer and his or her books have an intimate relationship with his writing.  That answer turns out to be the opposite of the correct answer. If we read the last part of the Text Completion, we can see that those who talk about Joyce’s books haven’t actually read them (so much for intimate knowledge!). The answer is actually (B) superficial.

First off, notice how (A) is the answer choice at the top, and thus one the most likely to catch your eyes. That is not to say that (A) is always wrong, or the most tempting wrong answer choice. Yet, this is one trick that the test writers use. That said, distractors, or wrong answer choices, get us regardless of where they fall.

It is interesting to note that the most difficult questions—as ranked by the number of students who answer them correctly—are questions in which (E) is the answer. That is not to say that the test writers go out of their way to make (E) questions the most difficult. The thing is many students never even get to (E) because they are distracted by the neon sign flashing next to of the answers and screaming, “Pick me!”.

A good way to avoid this on Text Completions or Sentence Equivalence questions is to think of your own word for the blank, once you’ve read the entire sentence. That way, you logically come up with a word instead of letting the wrong answers do the thinking for you.



To avoid becoming a victim of one of ETS’s many traps always remember the following:

#1 – Always read the entire question

#2 – Once you’ve solved the problem, go back and reread the question.

#3 –  In the case of Text Completions or Sentence Equivalence questions, once you’ve thought of your own word and have come up with an answer, stick that final answer into the sentence and read the sentence. Does it make sense?


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7 Responses to Thinking Like the Test Makers

  1. Abhishek June 3, 2014 at 12:50 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Shouldn’t the sentence “How much more money did John have…” be “How much more money DOES john have…” as the question stated that “after two years, the account HAS a total $1,210 dollars”.


  2. Bhavika Jain May 8, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    Hi Chris,

    For the first question,could you please let me know how did u get the value of x as 1000$,because using the formula for A = P(1+tr),i am not getting the same answer.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele May 10, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

      Hi Bhavika,

      For this question, we have to remember that we are taking compound interest — 10% of the original for the first year, then 10% of that value for the second year. So we should use the formula: A = P(1 +tr)^2. (The ‘2’ is because of the two year period). So we get 1,210 = P(1 + .10)^2 = 1.21P. Solving for P, we get 1,000. To find the answer, we just take 1,210 – 1,000 = 210. Hope that helps!

      • Bhavika Jain May 11, 2013 at 11:03 am #

        Thanks Chris, I misunderstood the question as it says ‘ simple annual interest of 10%’,hence was using the formula for simple interest.

      • RJ October 18, 2015 at 10:45 pm #

        Dear Chris,
        To be honest, I believe you’re wrong. Once you write the outcome O as O = C(1+iy), where C is the current (INITIALLY INVESTED) money, i is the simple interest rate, and y the number of years, you don’t have to take that to the exponent. In fact, that’s the main difference between simple and compound interests. To further elucidate, suppose you have 100$ in the first place. What’s gonna happen at the end of 2 years of 10% simple interest is this:
        10% = 1/10. So, each year one-tenth of the ORIGINAL (initially invested) money, is going to add up to it which is 10$ in this case. Since 2 years have passed we will have 20$ added, and ultimately an account filled up with 120$. The formula you’ve mentioned (WITHOUT THE EXPONENT 2) represents simple interest.
        Regarding compound interest, the interest percentage always builds up on the money located in the account (not the initially investment value). So in this case the 100$ example works like this:
        Initially 100$ * 1.1 (10% increase for first year) = 110$ * 1.1 (10% increase for second year) = 121$. That is the formula for compound interest is as follows:
        O = C(1+i)^y. Although you mentioned simple interest in the question, you solved it by the compound solution method. You may say I don’t find the answer choices if I use my method. I actually don’t care since it only takes a minute to look up simple and compound interest definition on the net.

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele October 21, 2015 at 1:47 pm #

          Yes, I’m totally wrong. I understand the difference between simple and compound and am not sure why I interchanged the two in this question. The original question should read “at a yearly interest rate of 10%, compounded annually”.

          • RJ October 22, 2015 at 4:31 am #

            Anyway Chris, I wanted to than you for your efficacious tips published omnipresently! Also that marvelous 995 words in the vocabulary builder app. I was contacted by one of the folks about submitting my opinion and I did. So, I think I better not elaborate them here. Regarding your tips, they were especially helpful when confronting that hugeous package of books. I mostly neglected the verbal parts, but kept the math problems on 5lb to help me out on the quantitative section. Those sample tests are really harsh on the data interpretation problems! Them seem to me quite harder than ETS favorites. I probably not go for a good shot on the verbal on Nov. 1 (my exam date) but as for the quantitative I scored a 166/170 on my first bought Manhattan test along with a 169 and 170 on the 2 ETS ones. I’m looking forward to hear from you for any advice at the vestige of my studies! Cheers

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