GMAT Tip of the Week: Who's on First?

GMAT prepWelcome back to Baseball Month in the GMAT Tip of the Week space, in which an intelligent discussion of baseball wouldn’t be complete without coverage of one of the most intelligent comedy sketches of all time: Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine.

The comedy of questions-that-answer-themselves — Who is, indeed, on first, and What is the name of the player on second. Don’t know? Third base. — is so cleverly planned and brilliantly executed that this routine holds up after nearly 80 years. To create it, Abbott and Costello just replaced actual player names with short placeholders — Who; What; I Don’t Know; Naturally – and kept the structural positions of the baseball diamond — First, Second, Third — in place.

Essentially, Abbott and Costello gave you a blueprint to success on the Reading Comprehension portion of the GMAT.


Much like Abbott and Costello realized about the baseball diamond, on Reading Comprehension passages it’s the positions that matter, and not the details. If you focus on key structural terms — such as first, second, and third (like the Who’s on First routine), and however, also, and therefore — you can fill in the details later when you need to. The GMAT uses the details precisely to create a messy, hard-to-follow situation (again, much like the Who’s on First routine), and rewards the test-taker who can follow the structure of the argument.

Consider any technical passage fraught with details. If you can simply come away from such a passage with an understanding in the form of these notes:

Paragraph 1: The author discusses the old theory of immunological reactions. (Antigen-Antibody theory)

Paragraph 2: The author demonstrates flaws in the old theory and how they led scientists to adopt a second theory to complement it. (Cell-Mitigated Response theory)

Paragraph 3: The author details the second theory and predicts how it will impact future research.

You’ll be able to go back to specific cases for any particular details that the questions require, and you’ll also have a good understanding of what the author is trying to do – namely describe these two immunological theories and show how problems with the first led to the formation of the second.

Questions on the GMAT will either ask for specific information – which you can always go back and find if you know where to look — or general takeaways from the passage, which have much, much more to do with the author’s intent and structure than with the content matter. In either case, if you’ve read for structural intent, you’ll be able to respond efficiently, and you won’t bog yourself down with details during your first read.

To become a better Reading Comprehension test-taker, take a cue from Abbott and Costello and hold yourself responsible for “What’s in the first paragraph, and why?” If you avoid the pitfall of getting lost in the details, you can also avoid the exasperated frustration that Costello exemplifies in this time-honored sketch.

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