Sentence Correction Strategy

Sentence Correction is one of the three main categories of question on the verbal section of the GMAT. Many test takers struggle with Sentence Correction questions because of the deep understanding of English grammar that the questions require. At the same time, this also makes the questions easier to study for. If you understand English grammar and practice applying that grammar to questions, then you can there are no limits to how well you can do on the Sentence Correction section of the GMAT.

For this reason, Sentence Correction is (usually) the most important part of the Verbal section to study for. Other Verbal questions often have some subjectivity (e.g. “Which of the following statements better summarizes…”). At the very least, Verbal questions usually require analysis of a passage and/or the question. Sentence Correction questions are more clear cut. There are five sentences. Under the rules of English grammar, one will be correct, and the other four will be incorrect.

To start, your mentality is important. I recommend approaching Sentence Correction questions with the same mentality that you approach the Quantitative section of the GMAT. Approach the question analytically, without getting lost in the meaning of the sentences. In fact, I recommend that you step back from the meaning of the sentences entirely and focus solely on the grammar. Once you have decided on an answer, perform a sanity check to make sure it preserves the meaning of the original sentence. Otherwise, the meaning of the sentence does not matter. The grammar of the sentence does matter. Remember that.

When I was preparing for the GMAT, I developed a systematic approach to Sentence Correction questions. Once I started using this method, I noticed that I quickly began to improve. Not only did I immediately start moving through questions faster, but I also improved more rapidly than before. The more methodical you make your approach to questions, the more you can focus on the questions themselves. This makes it easier to focus and prevents you from making unnecessary mistakes; that alone should improve your score by a few points. Imagine that you’re a computer–how do computers approach problems? They systematically go through an algorithm to solve the problem one step at a time. If the algorithm is good, then the computer solves the problem quickly and correctly.

The analogy I always like to use to question approach is to workout form. Imagine that you know an avid runner. Now, imagine that runner uses horrible form: they flail their arms about wildly and waddle their legs as they run. This runner can train five days a week and eventually get quite good, but they will not improve as quickly as someone with proper form. Moreover, they will never be as fast as they would be with proper form. Now imagine you taught this runner to run with proper form. Perhaps they thought they had reached their potential and could not improve any further. Suddenly they find that they’re improving faster than ever. Now they can reach their true potential. When you do questions without the right approach, you are running with your arms flailing about wildly.

Here’s my approach to Sentence Correction questions:

  1. Start out by writing down A B C D E on your scratch paper. Make sure it is relatively small and at the top of the page, since you will need to use the scratch paper for other questions too. That’s all you need to write for now.
  2. Now, read through the five sentences. Focus on the grammatical differences and similarities between them. Perhaps two of them have a particular verb in the Future Tense and the other three have that same verb in the Present Tense. Either the Present Tense or the Future Tense is correct–they cannot both be right–so if you can figure out which is wrong, you can immediately eliminate those questions.
  3. Once you’ve gotten a feel for the sentences, you can start eliminating answers. You will do this by looking at the grammatical differences between questions and deciding which variation is correct. You can then eliminate all answers without that variation. Maybe those sentences have multiple errors. Who cares? If they have one grammatical error they are just as wrong as if they have ten grammatical errors. The eventual answer will have no errors. For this reason, start by only eliminating answers that you are completely confident are wrong. Usually you can eliminate at least two answers this way. When I say eliminate, I mean literally cross them out. Don’t trust yourself to keep track of everything in your head. This way is much more surefire and barely takes a second.
  4. If you are lucky, you will only have one answer that isn’t crossed out. If you are unlucky you will probably have two or three. Still 50% is much better odds than 20%. At this point, move on to grammatical rules that you are less confident in.
  5. Once you’ve exhausted grammatical differences, look for improper idiom use. I recommend waiting to look at idioms until after you’ve tried finding grammatical differences, because, oftentimes, idioms that are used in spoken English are incorrect in proper, written English. If this also fails, your last resort should be to say the remaining sentences and decide which one sounds correct. If you are a native English speaker, you are conditioned to identify proper grammar. You might not be able to put your finger on why a sentence is right or wrong, but something about it will just sound “off” or not.
  6. As a final sanity check, make sure that your answer has the same meaning as the original sentence and that it makes sense. If it fails this check, you probably made a mistake when you were looking at grammatical differences. Go back, find where you went wrong, and correct the error.

I know that those steps involved a lot of writing, but this entire process should take you under one minute per question. As you get better at spotting grammatical errors, you will be able to do many Sentence Correction questions in under 30 seconds.

The best way to do questions more efficiently is to use this method or some variation that suits your needs better and practice, practice, practice. Sentence Correction rewards those who practice. I strongly recommend (RECOMMENDATION) for practice questions.