What Does The GRE Mean By Reasoning?


An explanation of "reasoning" as the GRE sees it.

Being the inveterate GRE studier that you are, you've probably noticed the names of the sections in the test. Analytical Writing Assessment. Verbal Reasoning. Quantitative Reasoning. But have you ever thought about why ETS came up with those particular names?

Like any good corporation, ETS is doing a little bit of marketing; it's in its interest to portray the GRE as a measure of "reasoning", not just regurgitation of math formulas and vocabulary definitions. Graduate programs, of course, want people who can think and analyze in addition to demonstrating they can memorize facts. ETS wants to make sure those programs understand that the GRE forces students to use those higher-order thinking skills. But from my point of view, ETS is right. The GRE DOES test your ability to think, to use logic, and to make smart test-taking decisions.

I'll illustrate with an example of a real ETS question from the Official ETS Quantitative Practice book:

Notice that the question doesn't just have you calculate side lengths of triangles and squares. It depends on your ability to think about the relationship between their areas and side lengths, either by using algebra to express the relationship or by making a logical deduction if you use numbers. Either way, this is not just formula plugging and chugging. Often, new GRE students will look for GRE formula sheets as part of their math prep, but knowing formulas is only a tiny percentage of the skills you'll need to do well in GRE math.


Using Reasoning To Make Math Problems Easier

One of the best things you can do when faced with a new math question is to think, not act. Just read the problem and don't start writing. This is important for three big reasons:

    1. You might realize something based on common sense. If a problem involves mixing two liquids that are 3 and 9 percent citric acid, respectively, the mixture of both would be 6% citric acid if equal amounts of the two liquids were mixed, since 6% is right between 3 and 9 percent. But if there were more of the 3% liquid, for instance, the percent citric acid of the mixture would be lower than 6%.


    1. You might be able to take an educated guess. If it takes you 3 minutes to solve a problem algebraically but you can be 80% sure after a minute based on logic, it's sometimes a good idea to make an educated guess, depending on your timing.


    1. You might realize the problem is a waste of your time. Perhaps you don't understand what it's asking, or you know it contains a concept you're shaky on. Now you can guess and move on without wasting any time wrestling with it. Your decisions about which questions to spend time on and which to move on from will be incredibly important for your score.

Thinking about a problem before starting it may also produce insights like "Aha! This is testing circumference!" or "This reminds me of the combination problem I did last week!". Insights like these can help you get problems started that would otherwise remain confounding or out of your reach.

Even when you're guessing on GRE math problems, using your reasoning skills can some in handy. There are very few easy GRE math problems, so answers that can be arrived at too easily are usually incorrect. For example, a choice that has one of the numbers from the question in it, or a choice that simply adds up the numbers in the question.

Try analyzing some math problems, and considering which answer choice someone would pick if he had no clue how to do the question. That choice, 9 times out of 10, will be wrong.


Reasoning In The Verbal Reasoning Sections

For verbal questions, you'll use reasoning, too. One example is how ETS justifies the right answer for certain reading comprehension questions. You've probably seen right answers that are correct because they both answer the question and paraphrase part of the passage. But you'll also see right answers that DON'T paraphrase the passage - instead, they are statements that answer the question by being unavoidably true based on the passage's content. These can be tricky since they sometimes aren't stated in the passage.

When you're practicing with verbal questions, it's a good idea to get some feedback from another human being. There are some great GRE books and video courses out there, but there's no substitute for talking through a complicated question with another person. I'd suggest finding a study buddy - perhaps you can even find someone whose strengths compliment your own. 

Like quantitative questions, you'll need to make smart decisions about which verbal questions to work on and which to just guess on. If you can't understand what a question is asking, it's most likely a waste of your time. Just move on to a question that looks easier and come back to it at the very end if you have time. Questions like these (those you can't understand) are your absolute lowest priority.

If you have to guess on a verbal question, watch out for two common traps:

    1. Text completion or sentence equivalence answers that "sound good". You need to divorce how something sounds from what it means. Right answers are supported by meaning and may or may not sound well-written to you. Wrong answers sometimes make a smooth-sounding sentence but are not supported by the meaning created by the surrounding sentence(s).


    1. Reading comprehension answers that repeat words from the passage. These answers may catch your eye by feeding you terms or phrases you remember, but this is often a trap. It's more likely that the right answer purposefully was written with words different than those in the passage.

Reasoning During GRE Essays

Another part of the GRE for which you'll need to use reasoning skills is the analytical writing assessment. Unlike a typical high-school student's essay, high-scoring GRE essays show the ability to think and analyze. For the Issue essay, the GRE purposefully selects topics that are complex, topics that usually cannot neatly fit into a box. To earn a high-score, you'll have to think about a position that respects the different angles from which the topic can be viewed.

Similarly, the GRE Argument task will test your ability to dissect and deconstruct how an argument functions. You'll have to think about things like what questions would need to be answered to clarify whether the argument is effective, and what unstated assumptions the author of the argument might be making in order to make the argument justified.

A real, live human being will be reading your essays, so make sure you respect that. Use analysis that holds up in the real world, and avoid constraining yourself artificially in order to make a rigid line of reasoning work.


The Bottom Line

When you're practicing with ETS questions, spend some time thinking about different ways to do math problems and how you might justify your verbal answers. Take your time, especially at first, thinking about how you can respond to different essay prompts. By doing so, you'll be building the reasoning skills that will make you more successful with the test. And make sure you review previously done questions in order to identify both missed reasoning opportunities and those for which you reasoned successfully.


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