Wet Toilet Paper

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I watched a ridiculous commercial today. In it, customers sat in a salon and got their hair shampooed, but the stylists didn’t use any water. The result was a bunch of soapy messy customers. That was followed by this really ridiculous conclusion: You wouldn’t shampoo your hair without water, so why would you use toilet paper that didn’t have water in it.

 

I looked at my wife incredulously when I saw the ad because I couldn’t believe that the advertisers thought people would be stupid enough to look at that and nod along:

“Sure, water with shampoo makes sense, so why not water with toilet paper?”

 

However, the fact that this ad made it through several stages of review and made it to the air suggests to me that the advertisers do think that the public will go along with this. In order to make sure you’re not swept along, let’s take a look at the assumption present in this argument.

 

An argument’s general form is that there are premises—or pieces of evidence—that form the support for the final piece of an argument, the conclusion. Let’s take a look at this commercial in that form.

 

Shampooing with water is good + Shampooing without water is bad à Toilet paper with water is good

 

Now, I mentioned the two most important parts of the argument (conclusion and premises) but there is another piece that may be present. When the premises on their own do not conclusively establish the conclusion, the assumptions are the unstated pieces of evidence needed to get to the conclusion.

 

Some assumptions are probably safe. For instance, if I said I needed to deposit checks so I was going to the bank, it’s a good bet that I’m going to a financial institution rather than a food bank or a phone bank. However, the gap between the premises and the evidence leaves some room for doubt, and so that is an assumption we’re making. Identifying assumptions is a key skill on the GMAT, because you won’t be asked to judge how valid an assumption is, merely whether or not it is present.

 

In this case, the commercial makes a common form of assumption called argumentation by analogy. In order to go along with the argument presented in the commercial, we have to believe that the subject of the evidence and the subject of the conclusion are similar enough that what’s true of one will also be true of the other. Let’s take another look at the argument with that assumption added in:

 

Shampooing with water is good + Shampooing without water is bad + (What’s good for shampooing is also good for toilet paper) à Toilet paper with water is good

 

With that link added, this argument is now logically sound. However, if you don’t believe this assumption you probably won’t be convinced that buying this brand of toilet paper is the best.

 

Keep the idea of assumptions in mind and look out for argumentation by analogy both on the test and on TV. If you can spot those assumptions well you’ll pick up some points and avoid the tricks of advertisers.

 Tips for Success on the Reading Section

All standardized tests have reading passages and questions. Often these passages do not look like the ones that students regularly read. They tend to be a bit dense, at a higher reading level, about esoteric topics, and sometimes, they are downright boring. But this has been done for a reason. For one, this is what you can expect from the next level of academia. Obfuscation tends to be the name of the game for university professors. Two, the test makers want to really test you and see what you can do under rigorous circumstances. They pull you out of your comfort zone and see if you can perform.

To avoid the pitfalls that they hope you fall into, follow the tips below and you will be on track for success.

 

Be active—not passive

Most of the reading you do now is passive. Don’t feel bad. I do it to. Passive reading is casual and relaxing—the type of reading you do Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in hand, perusing articles in the newspaper, reading the first couple paragraphs of an article, skipping over ones that don’t appeal to your interests, maybe remembering parts of the article, not too focused on getting information out of the text. Although pleasurable, this type of reading will be your doom on the SAT or GRE.

When reading on the test, you need to attack the passage. Actively engage with the words in front of you. Read with focus and purpose. All other recommendations flow from this one; every tip below is aimed at engaging your mind and making you an active reader. So no sitting around passively—you are an attack dog devouring information.

 

Don’t get bogged down in details

Students often think they need to understand everything in the passage to answer the questions. But this ignores the fact that writers value information differently. Some of the sentences they write are of primary importance and others are of secondary or tertiary importance.

So stay out of details. Make note of where certain details are in the passage, but don’t stop to understand them all. This will be a waste of your time. Only focus on details when a question directs you to one. Ultimately, you should be looking at the big picture, determining what the whole passage is about when you first start reading.

 

Take notes

The easiest way to become an active reader is to pick up a pencil and jot down notes. This gives your reading purpose. With pencil in hand, you have something to do besides read. You are trying to extract meaning, synthesize it in your mind, and then shorten and summarize it on paper. Nothing could be better for reading comprehension.

Do not get caught up in writing long notes, though. Note taking can easily hinder your ability to be efficient on test day. So practice writing short symbolic notes: up arrows, plus and equal signs, abbreviations and single letters to represent ideas in the passage, and bullet points and numbers for passage structure.

 

Identify the main idea and author’s purpose

Not only will there be questions about the main idea and the author’s purpose on the test, making these important to identify when you first read through a passage, but also these are two crucial aspects to understanding anything that you read. Without knowing the main idea, you will not understand the examples, the connection of ideas, or the point of the passage. Without knowing the author’s purpose, you won’t be able to judge the authenticity of the information in the passage, what to do with the information presented, or to know whether or not it is trustworthy.

Take notes on the main idea and author’s purpose. For the author’s purpose, try to determine if she is trying to persuade you of something or merely describing or informing you about something. This is usually all that you need for answering questions about the author’s purpose.

 

Understand the structure

The structure tells you about the connection of ideas. You will understand the flow of the passage, know when an example is presented to support a point or a counterpoint. You won’t know where the passage is going without paying attention to the structure. The structure holds the passage together and tells you how one paragraph relates to another paragraph. Crucially, knowing the structure of the passage will allow you to navigate the passage quickly when answering a question.

Determine the purpose of each paragraph. Pay attention to structure words. And the structure will reveal itself to you.

 

 Informed Decisions

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Supreme Court decisions have dominated the headlines this week, meaning that your social media has likely been dominated by discussion of those decisions. As I read through my own social media I’ve been staggered by the volume of ignorance being shared. When the Supreme Court takes on a case it usually means that it involves an issue so difficult and so complex that at least two lower courts haven’t been able to satisfactorily and conclusively figure it out. And yet, the vast majority of posts I see praising or panning a decision seem to be from people that have read a news headline, not even the whole article and definitely not the opinion itself.

 

I have to resist calling this some sort of an indictment on this generation, because I think the temptation to form opinions in the absence of complete information is more a pervasive human fault than a more recent development. It’s easy to jump to a conclusion based on insufficient evidence or to be led to poor conclusions when we don’t think for ourselves.

 

Let’s relate this concept to the math section of your test. Take the following example:

 

The variable x is a non-odd number between 0 and 4 (exclusive). What is the value of x?

 

The snap answer to this question is 2. It’s even (non-odd) and in that range, so it must be correct. But, answering 2 ignores the fact that you were asked for a “number” not an integer. So, 1.5, 2.38 and 14/9 are all equally good answers. Take that a step further and you’ll realize we don’t even need to choose a rational number, so choices like pi or e or the square root of 2 are all acceptable as well.

 

I’ll confine the lesson here to test-taking and allow you to consider the wider implications on your own. When faced with a problem to solve, make sure you’re weighing all of the relevant information carefully before jumping to a conclusion, because grabbing any answer that works without appreciating the nuances can lead you to ignore other possibilities that just might lead you to the correct answer.

 @adamrab720: #GRE Vocabulary does pay off

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@adamrab702, this is a great piece of news that really needs to be shared with more people studying for the GRE. And other tests for that matter.

So often students complain about the words on the GRE and SAT: “They are useless outside of the tests.” Many grumble, “They are only important to a small group of ‘nerdy’ people.” “The words are strange,” they say. “I’ll never use them again,” or “I never see these words.”

But these students miss the point.

For one, by taking these tests, students desire a higher level of learning and understanding. Receiving a masters degree is a big deal—students become the masters of a subject. Stop and think about that—a master. And I think that part of this advancement in learning and knowledge is also an advancement in consciousness, an advancement in perception. And one very important way to do this is by learning new words.

A rich vocabulary is like having a more precise ruler for measuring length. It’s an optical sensor that reveals all the wave lengths of light, not just the narrow band of color that human eyes perceive. With a breadth of words to use at different times, the subtleties of life, of human experience, of relationships shine brightly on our minds. What once was “interesting” becomes something more precise: “absorbing, engrossing, fascinating, riveting, gripping, compelling, compulsive, captivating, engaging, enthralling, attractive, amusing, entertaining, stimulating, thought-provoking, diverting, intriguing.” So when students complain about words being too esoteric and only for a small group of people, they forget that getting a master’s degree is about joining that elite club.

Lastly, students don’t see these words because they don’t know them. Humans are really good at ignoring things that don’t fit into our beliefs and perceptions of the world. Most likely, these students have seen these words, but have ignored them, glazed past them, and blocked them from their consciousness. Unless a student is dedicated to looking up words they do not know when reading, they won’t remember these words. They are actually non-existent. And let’s back up, if students aren’t dedicated to challenging themselves by reading outside of their comfort zone and above their reading level, then they won’t be learning anything new.

The greatest moment as a teacher is to have a student carp about the vocabulary words, and then later in the semester they come to class with a grin on their face, radiating because they used one of the words correctly in a situation that stumped people. My international students especially love this moment because they get to turn to a native speaker and tell them to look the word up. Or they beam accomplishment because they just read an article in The Economist and a couple of the vocabulary words popped up.

I find it hard to convince students that these words are useful, edifying, and even fun to use. They have to figure that out on their own. So, it was great to hear that you have reached that moment, @adamrab720. I hope that your story can help others to keep studying those vocabulary words, not just because they have a high frequency on the tests, but because they will get to use them in the future, get to expand their minds by knowing them, and enter into a small elite group of linguistic acrobats.