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.

GRE Testmakers - image by Magoosh

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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  • Chris Lele

    Chris Lele is the Principal Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. Chris graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology and has 20 years of experience in the test prep industry. He's been quoted as a subject expert in many publications, including US News, GMAC, and Business Because. In his time at Magoosh, Chris has taught countless students how to tackle the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT (CARS), and LSAT exams with confidence. Some of his students have even gone on to get near-perfect scores. You can find Chris on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!