How to NOT NOT Handle EXCEPT Questions on the GMAT

To set up this article, please try the following test:

For the next 10 seconds, do NOT think about a bear wearing a dress while riding a unicycle into a pool filled with Superbowl rings.

How did you do? If you passed that test, the next test should be easy.

As quickly as possible, name 2 people who are NOT former U.S. Presidents.

This last question should be painfully easy since almost every person in the world meets the condition of not being a former U.S. President. However, when confronted with this question, many of us are momentarily taken aback, because the vast majority of our schooling has taught us to look for answers to questions, and EXCEPT questions ask us to find something that is not the answer to a question. For this reason, many people are prone to making silly mistakes answering relatively easy EXCEPT questions.

Consider the following:

Each of the following people is a former U.S. President EXCEPT

(A)  Abraham Lincoln

(B)  George Washington

(C)  Bugs Bunny

(D)  Jimmy Carter

(E)  George Bush

This question is similar to the unicycle-riding-bear test. Once we’ve read the question, we immediately begin thinking of former U.S. Presidents. So, when we examine answer choice (A), we see that it matches what we were already thinking about and, as a result, we may instinctively select (A) by mistake.

To avoid this potential pitfall, it’s useful to take EXCEPT questions and reword them as positive, proactive directives. For example, we can take the above question and reword it as “If the person is a former U.S. President, eliminate it.”

Once we have a positive directive, the likelihood of making a silly mistake is significantly reduced. At this point, we’ll check the answer choices.

(A)  Abraham Lincoln is a former U.S. President – eliminate A.

(B)  George Washington is a former U.S. President – eliminate B.

After checking all of the answer choices, we’ll find that we’re unable to eliminate answer choice (C), so this must be the correct answer.

Turning EXCEPT questions into positive, proactive directives

Let’s try a few.

Take, “The author implies that all of the following statements about animal husbandry are true EXCEPT” and reword it as “If the implied statement is true, eliminate it.

Take, “The passage mentions each of the following as an appropriate kind of action EXCEPT” and reword it as, “If mentioned as an appropriate action, eliminate it.

Special Note

When it comes to Critical Reasoning EXCEPT questions, a common mistake is to take a Weaken the Argument question and reword it as a Strengthen the Argument question (and vice versa).

For example, the question stem, “Each of the following, if true, weakens the spokesperson’s conclusion EXCEPT” is not directing us to find an answer choice that strengthens the conclusion. The question stem is directing us to find an answer choice that does not weaken the conclusion. There’s a big difference, so be careful.

We can reword this question stem, “If it weakens the argument, then eliminate it.

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