How to answer verbal questions by personalizing

Part of what the CAT is assessing is your stamina and focus, both of which will certainly be flagging by the time you’ve been in the testing facility for over three hours.

Moreover, the questions themselves aren’t exactly known for their dazzling wit and soaring narrative verve. They’re boring. Reading Comp. passages are often tedious and technical, while Critical Reasoning arguments can feel so abstract as to be ungraspable. So how do we, as test-takers, combat this?

One answer, when it comes to those abstract Critical Reasoning questions, is to personalize the argument.

If the CR question is about the impact of pesticide use on crop yields, imagine you are the farmer, and the well-being of your family is at stake. If the question is about how overtime pay will impact employee incentives,  imagine you own the business and that the consequence of my company’s compensation structure will impact not only me, but dozens of workers whose livelihood I’m responsible for. By creating these artificial stakes, you’ll find that your brain is able to lock in on the minutia of the question in a way it can’t if the question is about some airy fictional farmer, whom you know exist only in the mind of some bureaucratic question writer.

Take an official question, for example:

In the past the country of Malvernia has relied heavily on imported oil. Malvernia recently implemented a program to convert heating systems from oil to natural gas. Malvernia currently produces more natural gas each year than it uses, and oil production in Malvernian oil fields is increasing at a steady pace. If these trends in fuel production and usage continue, therefore, Malvernian reliance on foreign sources for fuel is likely to decline soon. 

Which of the following would it be most useful to establish in evaluating the argument?

(A) When, if ever, will production of oil in Malvernia outstrip production of natural gas?

(B) Is Malvernia among the countries that rely most on imported oil?

(C) What proportion of Malvernia’s total energy needs is met by hydroelectric, solar, and nuclear power?

(D) Is the amount of oil used each year in Malvernia for generating electricity and fuel for transportation increasing?

(E) Have any existing oil-burning heating systems in Malvernia already been converted to natural-gas-burning heating systems?

If you’re anything like most test-takers, your eyes glaze over a bit. You know that Malvernia is not a real country, that it’s been invented for the sake of the problem. Consequently, the details of energy consumption in this non-existent country are not going to be terribly compelling to, well, anyone. This is by design. So let’s create some artificial stakes. Let’s say you’re the President of Malvernia. The economic well-being of your country, and, therefore, the prospects of your reelection, are going to be impacted by your country’s energy policy. Now let’s break down the facts:

  • Historically, you’ve relied on oil imports.
  • A new program converts heating systems from oil to gas.
  • You produce more gas than you use.
  • Oil production is increasing.

Based on this, you’ve concluded that your reliance on foreign oil will soon decrease. The question is what do you, as President, need to know to determine whether this prediction is valid?

Let’s break down each answer choice:

(A) The question of when production of oil will outstrip production of gas isn’t really relevant. In fact, if you’re using less oil as a result of the change in heating systems, and oil production is up, it’s possible that you can reduce your dependence on foreign oil without having to produce more oil than gas. A is out.

(B) Whether you are among the most dependent countries on foreign oil doesn’t matter. You are now, and we’re trying to determine if you will be in the future. This doesn’t help. Eliminate B.

(C) Hydroelectric, solar, and nuclear power aren’t relevant for this argument. We know that you’re dependent on foreign oil now, irrespective of other energy sources. It’s increased oil production and switching to gas that will, according to the argument, reduce this dependence. C is out of scope.

(D) Let’s say your oil consumption for electricity and transportation is increasing. Suddenly, the fact that you’re switching heating systems from oil to gas might not help – if your oil needs are going up in other areas, you may remain dependent on foreign oil. But if your oil consumption in these other areas is not increasing, that would reduce your dependence on foreign oil because your heating systems are switching to gas. D looks good.

(E) This doesn’t matter at all. We know that the systems are going to switch from oil to gas, so the question of whether some systems have already made the switch sheds no light on whether you will remain dependent on foreign oil.

D is the answer. Once you have the answer to whether your oil consumption for electricity and transportation is increasing, you’ll be better able to assess whether you will remain dependent on foreign oil, and, consequently, whether your reign as supreme ruler of Malvernia will continue.

Takeaway: There is plenty of research indicating that our comprehension improves drastically when we’re reading something we care about. When we put ourselves into the position of the agents having to make decisions in these arguments, we can transform a tedious abstraction into something that has a bit of emotional resonance, which will, in turn, result in a higher CAT score.