What Does the GMAT Mean by the Word “Inference”?

Suppose you were taking a GMAT class with me. One day you’re sitting in the room waiting for class to begin. Torrential rain is pouring down outside. I enter the classroom and I’m soaked from head to foot.

What would you infer from that? If you’re like most people you would probably infer that I got caught in the rain, that I forgot my umbrella, that I left my raincoat in the car, or something similar. This would be a natural inference to make in regular life. But if that scenario appeared on the GMAT and the test asked, “Which of the following can properly be inferred from the information above?” then those same inferences would be wrong answers.

“This word you keep using. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

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The reason is that GMAT inferences work a little differently than “regular” inferences do. Students often miss these questions because they confuse the typical ways that the word “inference” is used with the more precise way the GMAT uses it. In other words, when the GMAT uses the terms “inference” and “infer,” it isn’t necessarily using these words the way you may think. Let’s return to the example. Why aren’t “my teacher got caught in the rain” and “my teacher forgot his umbrella” valid inferences on the GMAT? Because you don’t have any direct evidence of that. You don’t know that I got caught in the rain. Maybe I was down the hall, in the bathroom, with all the faucets running, splashing water all over myself, because … well, let’s not worry about why. It’s not important.

The key is that all you know for certain is that sometime before I walked into that classroom, I became covered in water. That’s how GMAT inferences work. A GMAT inference is not based on what is likely to be true, on what is typically true, on what is usually true in real life, or anything like that. A GMAT inference is based on what is known to be true, based solely on the information in the argument. This means that you have to stay rigorously within the scope of the argument when you look for an answer choice. You have to be restrained and conservative in the inferences you draw. The most common reason people miss inference questions on the GMAT is that they try to push the information further than it can really take you.

Let’s look at another example:

Suppose you find out that your neighbor’s dog died last night. What can you infer from this? In real life you would probably infer that your neighbor is sad, and that the dog was old or sick. But as you probably now realize, none of these inferences will pass muster on the GMAT because they are not known to be true. We don’t know that the dog was sick or old. It could have been poisoned, hit by a car, crushed by a meteorite, or mauled by a tiger that had recently escaped from a nearby zoo.* We don’t know that your neighbor is sad either. Perhaps he never liked that dog and is glad it’s gone. Perhaps he is the reason the dog is dead — Spot peed on the floor one too many times and your neighbor slipped poison into the water dish. On the GMAT you must always focus on what you can directly support. Pay no mind to what is usually true under similar circumstances.

Stating the Obvious

One other way that people are sometimes confused is thinking that an answer choice that hews too close to the original argument can’t be considered an inference. Say you have an argument that says, “Five Western countries have strong intellectual property laws that protect patents, copyrights, and trademarks.” The question asks, “Which of the following can most logically be inferred from the information above?” Now suppose you see an answer choice that says, “Some countries in the West have strong copyright protections.” You might be tempted to think, “That’s not really an inference. They basically said that. It’s almost a repetition from the text, not something that I had to infer.” However, on the GMAT that would absolutely count as a valid inference. The only important question is whether you know that the information is true. How you know it’s true is irrelevant.

When you know what the GMAT means when it uses the terms “infer” and “inference,” and how that differs from the usual understanding of these words, you’re in a good position to rock the inference questions.

*No real dogs were harmed in the construction of this example.

Attempt a few questions.

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