Breaking Down the Verbal Section on the GMAT


Breaking Down the GMAT Verbal Section

The Verbal Section on the GMAT requires you to read and resolve 41 questions in 75 minutes. There are three types of question you will see, each focused on testing a different skill than the others: Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, and Reading Comprehension. Of the 41 questions you will face on test day, approximately 13 will be Sentence Correction, 11 will be Critical Reasoning, and 17 will be Reading Comprehension.

Sentence Correction

Sentence Correction questions test you almost exclusively on English grammar. You will be given a sentence, all or some of which is underlined, and then asked to find a version of that underlined text without grammatical errors. What this means is that four of the five answer choices have some sort of grammatical inaccuracy. Answer choice A in sentence correction is always the same as the text in the question; answer choices B through E will always present variations on the text. Remember that the sentence is correct as it is written about 20% of the time.

While there are innumerable grammatical laws in the  English language, the GMAT verbal section tends to test the same grammatical errors on every exam. The rules of the following components of English grammar are tested with higher frequency on the GMAT verbal: subject-verb agreement, modifying phrases, verb tense, parallel structure, and English idiom. Anyone taking the test will want to familiarize themselves with the grammatical rules most frequently tested on the exam.

One final note on GMAT Sentence Correction: incorrect answers do not always contain grammatical errors. On some occasions, answers are incorrect because they are wordier or more cumbersome than another grammatically correct answer. Other answers can be ruled out because they change the meaning. When you are down to two answer choices on the GMAT and you’re unsure which is right, go with the shorter, more direct choice.

Critical Reasoning

For the most part, Critical Reasoning assesses how the premises of an argument relate to the conclusion of the argument. A critical reasoning question will always present a short block of text - around 3 to 10 lines - followed by a question along the lines of “Which of the following would strengthen the claim made in the argument above?” or “If the claims above are true, which of the following must also be true?”

The most important strategy tip for the Critical Reasoning section is to always read the question first, not the prompt and not the answers. You’re reading that short bit of text in between the large block at the top and the answer choices.

Why read the question first? The question gives you a task: strengthen, identify, weaken, resolve, infer, find. When you approach the prompt with knowledge of the task, you gain two advantages. First, you know what you are looking for. If you need to identify the conclusion, you know what your job is. Second, it usually speeds up the process. Typically if you read the prompt first then the question, you will find you need to read the prompt a second time.

Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension on the GMAT tests your ability to quickly read passages of varying lengths and answer questions about the main idea, the author, the structure, and the details. You may have seen a very similar format on standardized tests in the past. The topics of the reading passages on the GMAT verbal include social science, natural science, and - of course - business.

One approach to improving your GMAT reading comprehension is simply to read more in your daily life. Try reading literature that challenges you more than the GMAT passages will; by comparison, reading on the GMAT will seem easy. Reading difficult literature also improves your retention and speed. This is a long term solution though, so if you plan on taking the GMAT next week, this is unlikely to help.

In Practice

Knowing the types of questions you will be facing on the exam can help you prepare for test day. You may find that you struggle with only one or two of these types of questions, which allows you to alter your prep accordingly.

The skills tested in this section are skills that you have been tested on most of your life if you are a native English speaker. English classes often focus on your grammar, your ability to infer or “read between the lines”, and your comprehension. These are also skills that are highly valuable in the world of business.

This section may be more difficult for those who speak English as a second (or third) language. Non-native English speakers find the idioms particularly difficult. Don’t just expect that you will be successful on this section because you are a native speaker, though. Make sure that you practice these skills in your GMAT prep.


Zack Baldwin is a GMAT expert and senior tutor at Next Step Test Prep.

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