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GRE Text Completion Strategy: Working Backwards

A good TC (text completion) strategy that most test prep outfits promote is reading the sentence and then trying to figure out which simple words goes in the blank, before trying to match that word with one found in the answer choices.

While this might work on one-sentence Text Completions, sometimes the longer questions are engineered in such a way that the surrounding context to the first blank—and sometimes even the second blank—is not enough to help you to figure out what type of word fits. The only way to “solve” those two blanks is to read the entire paragraph and to “solve” the third blank first. By working backwards, i.e., doing the third blank first, you will have a much better idea of what words fit in the first two blanks.

To illustrate the above, here is a sentence bare of any stylistic pyrotechnics and convoluted syntax.

“He was very ____ at the class’s____ : even after he had encouraged them to study and do well, holding extra office hours to which nobody showed up, the class _____ the test.”

(A) pleased
(B) amused
(C) upset

(D) laziness
(E) antics
(F) diligence

(G) aced
(H) failed
(I) assessed

You will never ever see a question like this on the GRE, since the test is all about stylistic pyrotechnics and convoluted syntax. The point is that you really can’t determine what goes in the two blanks unless you read what comes after: “even after he encourage them to study and do well”…which suggests that they didn’t do well, that they failed the test. By correctly choosing (H) for the last blank, you can readily choose (C) and (D) for the first and second blank.

The danger is to stop reading before the end of the sentence and to start plugging in answer choices. Doing so will bias your reading of the rest of paragraph; you are likely to choose answer choices that conform with your distorted interpretation of the paragraph.

Of course, it is not as likely that you would do any of this with such a straightforward question. That’s why the GRE adds lots of context—context that is subtle and wordy. When you are facing down an actual TC question it is easy to get lost in the thicket of words and to jump to conclusions based on the answer choices provided, not based on your understanding of the entire text.

This is much more likely to happen when the test writers have intentionally made the first two blanks unsolvable—or at least very difficult to solve—unless you’ve figured out the third blank first. So, with that cautionary advice, see how you do on this much more difficult question.

The government agency tasked with the costly clean up of toxic chemicals in the wake of the oil spill claim its efforts to remove any detectable amount of hydrocarbons have been (i) _______, an assertion lent credibility by the apparent recent (ii) ________ of native plant species some believed might never be rehabilitated. Independent consumer protection groups, typically wary of such federally issued pronouncements, suspect that the agency might have (iii) _____ the findings concerning the native plant species, since government funding for disaster relief has nearly run its course.

(A) thwarted
(B) unchallenged
(C) successful

(D) depletion
(E) regrowth
(F) poisoning

(G) published
(H) fabricated
(I) covered up



In the very last sentence, we learn that the government doesn’t have much money left (“disaster relief has nearly run its course”). We also learn that groups that are “wary” or suspicious” of the government agency. Therefore, the agency is likely to make up or fabricate claims about the plant species: if the plants species are re-growing, then the cleanup was successful and the government doesn’t have to pay any more money. On the other hand, the government agency wouldn’t want to “cover up” the news that the plants were re-growing, since that outcome would show that their work was successful.

Now the first two blanks fall into place. The answer to the second blank is (E) regrowth and the first blank is (C) successful.

By trying to figure out the first two blanks first, you run into an issue with the first blank. Really speaking, it could be any of the three answers. Indeed, (B) unchallenged works pretty well, since if their efforts were unchallenged, they could do a good job and the plant species would likely regrow. We learn later in the paragraph, however, that consumer protection groups have challenged their efforts. Also, the key is not that the agency’s efforts went unchallenged, which could but doesn’t necessarily lead to success, but that these efforts were successful.

Plugging in (A) gets you into all sorts of trouble from an interpretation standpoint. It makes it seem as though the consumer protection groups are actively trying to get in the way of the cleanup efforts.

The second blank isn’t much easier, unless you read the entire sentence, since any of the three could pair up with one of the answer choices from the first blank and still create a logical meaning. It is in dealing with the third blank, or working backwards, that you can to deal with the first two blanks a lot more confidently.

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