GRE Text Completion: Tips and Strategies

GRE Text Completion questions feature a brief passage (from one to five sentences) in which one to three words have been left blank.  You are given a menu of words for each blank, and you choose the answers for all blanks concurrently in order to reconstruct a sensible and meaningful passage.  In questions with multiple blanks, you need to select the correct choice for every blank in order to get credit.
The basic strategy for this type of question is
1) Read the whole passage actively (noting signpost words and key phrases)
2) Ask “How can I make sense of this passage?”  If possible, come up with your own words that fit
3) Find the answer choice(s) that matches the sense of the passage arrived at in step two
4) Reread the passage with your answer and confirm that it works logically, grammatically and stylistically
These tasks become a little more complicated in a multiple blank question, and we’ll focus on that in another entry.
Let’s get started with a simpler one-blank ETS sample question:
“Dramatic literature often _____  the history of a culture in that it takes as its subject matter the important events that have shaped and guided the culture.”
– confounds   – repudiates   – recapitulates   – anticipates   – polarizes
We’ll use the basic strategy outlined above.  First, read the whole sentence; note the construction “in that it takes.”  This is a signpost indicating to the reader that the second part of the sentence is an explanation or restatement of the first part.  That means we want a word that would make the first part and second part equivalent or similar.  In step two we come up with our own words such as “reflects,” “reveals,” or “traces.”  Those might not appear in the answers, but this process insures that we really do have an understanding of the passage.
We turn to the answer choices in step three.  “Confounds,” “repudiates,” and “polarizes” do not fit the basic sense of the passage we’ve come up with.  So let’s focus on “recapitulates” and “anticipates.”  Both of these seem plausible, and neither are particularly obscure words.  This is an example of how the test focuses more on distinctions of context.  Does “anticipates” work?    This would require literature to anticipate the history of the culture, in a sense predicting it or happening before the events themselves–that’s an interesting hypothesis but not the one suggested by the tense of the passage, where the subject matter are the events that “have shaped” the culture.  We’re left with “recapitulates.”  Rereading the sentence with this word, we find that the first part of the sentence now indeed reflects the second part in both the connection of literature and history and their causal order.

GRE Text Completion: Signpost Words

The relative importance of individual words in the sentence to understanding its meaning varies.  One way to think about this is to consider which words or phrases you would underline, or even underline twice.  These words and phrases act as signposts that indicate both the logical direction and the essence of the sentence.  Two basic such categories are those that indicate continuation or similitude and those that indicate contrast or a change in direction.
Similitude:  because of, like, similar to, since, consequently, so, as a result, for example, and, also, in so far as, etc.
Contrast: whereas, however, unlike, even though, although, but, alternatively, nevertheless, etc.
These are by no means complete lists, and it is more important that you actively pay attention to the role of such words in creating the structure of a passage than that you memorize them.  You will already have an intuitive grasp of such clues; it is more a matter of being able to draw on them in the test situation with ambiguous stimuli.
Consider this ETS sample question:
“Since she believed him to be both candid and trustworthy, she refused to consider the possibility that his statement had been ______.”
What words would you underline here?
How about “since she believed him”  and “she refused to consider?”  “Since” is a word from our list, but notice that ‘believed” and “refused” are key words in this sentence also.  These two small segments give us enough information to induce that the second half of the sentence must be a continuing statement of her belief in him; therefore, the missing word must be something like “false” (because she refuses to think he might have been lying).
– irrelevant   – facetious   – mistaken   – critical   – insincere
“Insincere” and “facetious” and “mistaken” fit the general sense of falseness, but as we try the words and refine our grasp of the tone, we see that “insincere” most directly addresses the idea of trust indicated by her belief in him.  “Facetious” has a connonation more of unserious, while “mistaken” misses the issue of intent.

GRE Text Completion: Multiple Blanks

The good news is that in multiple blank questions, instead of five choices per blank, there are only three choices per blank.  The not-so-good news (and try on your quantitative skills here) are that you now have 27 (3*3*3) possible answer permutations on a three-blank question, only one of which is right!  That means your chances of guessing correctly are only 1 in 27, instead of 1 in 5.  Getting these questions right requires an attentive application of the skills you use on the simpler questions, plus the confidence to keep your cool when faced with a longer passage that has multiple question marks.
One of the key strategies for these questions is to find the hinge of the passage: one of the three blanks will often be the most informative to address first because it is the most strongly keyed to the main meaning of the sentence and will reveal the most about the other choices.  In order to target in on this, you’ll apply the same overall strategy that we examined earlier.  Steps one and two (getting the gist and providing  your own words) are especially important, because it’s easy to get lost in the sea of answer choices if you look at them before you understand what’s happening in the passage.  Therefore, let’s revise the second of the four steps.
2a) Ask “How can I make sense of this passage?”and identify your point of attack.
2b) Come up with your own words that fit
Let’s apply this to an ETS sample question:  “To the untutored eye the tightly forested Ardennes hills around Sedan look quite (i)______, (ii)_______ place through which to advance a modern army, even with today’s more numerous and better roads and bridges, the woods and the river Meuse form a significant (iii) _______.”
On first read, the beginning of this passage may seem ambiguous with its double blanks right next to each other.  Do not fear though, the question will always give us a feasible approach.  We know that we’re talking about geography and the capacity of an army to move in it.  Here the second piece of the passage will be easier to resolve first.   It sets up a contrast with the signpost word “even.”  “Even with today’s.. better roads..  the woods and river form a significant _______.”  Better roads would tend to make something easier to navigate, so the contrast implies we’re looking for something like “obstacle.”
The choices for blank (iii) are:
-resource   -impediment   -passage.   Neither “resource” nor “passage” are like an obstacle, so we have “impediment.”
With this clarified, we can turn with more confidence towards the beginning.  Notice that the second half of the passage elaborates the first part.  There are no indications of a change of direction (something like “To the untutored eye…,  but to the military expert the woods and river form a barrier.”)  That means that we need words that will be aligned with the sense of the area posing a challenge.
“To the untutored eye the tightly forested Ardennes hills around Sedan look quite (i)______, (ii)_______ place through which to advance a modern army…”
Blank (i) Blank (ii)
impenetrable a makeshift
inconsiderable an unpropitious
uncultivated an unremarkable
Notice that blank (ii) has two words for each selection; sometimes the blanks may even be more complex.  This can make it more challenging to come up with your own words, but if you’ve done the work of analyzing the gist, you’ll still be prepared to look at the answer choices.
In this case, we see that “impenetrable” fits the sense of challenge we’ve identified for blank (i), and “an unpropitious” is the best match for blank (ii).  Even if you don’t know what “unpropitious” means (unfavorable, poor omen), you can probably see that the other two choices are not a great fit–makeshift meaning “thrown together, temporary” and “unremarkable” reversing the sense that the Ardennes are being described as remarkable for the challenges posed.