Of all the different questions that students work on as they prep for the GRE Verbal, none seem to routinely cause as much trepidation as the Text Completion. If you’ve taught the GRE as much as I have, then you know the particular sigh of fear and pre-emptive defeat that students give when they turn to page to see a sentence riddled with long underscores.
But why do GRE text completion questions seem to cause so much more anxiety than the rest of the GRE Verbal questions?
Part of the reason, I think, is that Text Completion questions wear their difficulty right on their sleeves—you can see, up front, that some are missing just one piece of information, but several of them contain two or even three blanks that you need to fill in. But beyond that, the Reading Comp questions test you on skills that you have—more or less—been practicing in your daily life for over two decades. Text Completion questions, on the other hand, require you to do things with texts and with language that you almost never have to do as an adult. In essence, they require you to take a conscious, methodical approach to doing something—reading—that you are used to being able to do in a way that is so intuitive it’s almost mindless.
Think about it. Most sentences you read in your daily life are relatively easy to understand, and contain all the information you need. You don’t tend to examine sentences like they are crime scenes, scanning first for things like subjects and verbs, before building a hodgepodge understanding of what the sentence seems to want to say.
But this is exactly what you have to do with Text Completion questions.
If you’re a math person, this should actually be good news. The sentences in these questions—like all good sentences—should function with the logic and precision of mathematical equations.
Let’s look at a simple Single Completion problem, to see how this works.
His musical tastes are certainly ____ ; he has recordings ranging from classical piano performances to rock concerts, jazz and even Chinese opera.
The most glaring formal element of this sentence, to me, is the semicolon. If you’re rusty on why and how semicolons are used, you’ll definitely want to brush up on them before the GRE, where you’ll see as many semicolons as you saw in all of grad school. Here, as in most cases, the semicolon is used in an area where you could otherwise use a period. It separates two independent clauses that could stand on their own as complete sentences but where the writer wants to indicate a closer relationship between them.
Oftentimes these semicolons function like equals signs do in mathematical equations—the two sides of the semicolon may not be expressed in the same terms, but they ultimately contain equivalent information.
How does that help us solve problem? Let’s look closer.
We can see that the blank comes in the first clause. Why, then, do we even have the second clause?
We can see from the answer choices (tip: never be afraid to look at the answer choices for clues about what kind of answer to expect) that the missing word is an adjective. And, looking at the first clause, it’s obvious that the adjective describes “his” musical tastes—whoever “he” is.
But, recognizing that, how should we describe his musical tastes?
Here we can see the logic of the question at work. Without the semicolon and that second clause, we would have no way of completing this sentence. The first clause contains no information at all about his musical tastes. All that information is to be found by piecing together clues and information from the second clause—the clause after the semicolon.
Many of the Text Completion questions on the GRE function this way. The part of the sentence that contains the blank simply tells us what kind of information fills the blank (e.g. an adjective describing someone’s musical taste). But the information about what word or phrase is actually correct exists elsewhere.
So now that we know we need to figure out which word best describes “his” musical taste, let’s look for clues. We see that he has “recordings ranging from classical piano performances to rock concerts, jazz and even Chinese opera.”
This is no longer just a verbal/vocabulary question. It’s also sort of a reading comprehension question. We might note that those recordings are all of vastly different genres of music. The clause seems to exist to tell us that there is great variety in his music collection.
Therefore, we are going to look for the answer choice that describes the musical taste of someone who has a wide variety of musical interests. Assuming we know what all the words mean (which is its own battle), it’s obvious that the correct answer here is B., eclectic (which is defined as, “deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources”).
To summarize, you can use the sentence itself—as well as the answer choices—to determine what kind of information the sentence is missing. That is, what kind of word or phrase is missing, and what is that word or phrase doing with the rest of the sentence. From there, it’s up to you go digging elsewhere in the passage to find clues that tell you what word or phrase works best. Here, we first determine that we need an adjective describing someone’s musical taste. From there, we ask ourselves what kind of musical taste he has. Then, we look for the answer to that question in the sentence and, finding it, select the word that best fits.
About the Author
Steve is a graduate of Northwestern University, scored in the 99th percentile on the LSAT, and has been tutoring LSAT students for many years.