GRE Text Completion Questions: Text Completion Basic Strategy, pt 1

The current GRE moves away from the previous version’s direct emphasis on vocabulary by requiring more of a contextual understanding of a piece of text.  This is true for the both the  text completion and sentence equivalence tasks.  Vocabulary knowledge is still important, but low-frequency words may appear, well, with less frequency in favor of requiring the test-taker to make distinctions based on context. ETS feels that this more accurately models the kind of cognitive ability that is used in graduate school.

The 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.