How to Determine the Author's Scope

In writing a weekly column for Veritas Prep, I try to cover topics and subjects that will help you avoid common pitfalls on the GMAT. The exam uses certain common traps and therefore it is better to review them routinely in order to be prepared to deal with such adversity on test day. Every type of question on the exam can have pitfalls and I’d like to cover the major ones in every question type. Today, we’ll take a look at Reading Comprehension.  

In general, the Reading Comprehension question type does not lend itself easily to a blog because it usually consists of one passage for multiple questions. This limitation might dissuade students from reading an entire post for a single question, but practicing reading different passages is never a bad way to prepare for Reading Comprehension, so let’s look at a passage in the context of one particular aspect: the Scope (note: 4 out of 5 dentists recommend scope for reading comprehension).

Scope is the concept of determining what aspect of the issue the author is concerned with. The overall topic of the passage is usually pretty clear from the very first paragraph. However, the scope is a little trickier to decipher, as any subject can be viewed from myriad angles. The topic can be as broad as “US elections”, but the scope has to be narrower, based on the contents of the passage. Potential scopes can vary from “history of elections” to “how to win the election” to “Mitt Romney’s hair”. All can be valid, depending entirely on the context. Let’s look at a typical GMAT Reading Comprehension question and look for the scope (often next to the Colgate):

Young Enterprise Services (YES) is a federal program created to encourage entrepreneurship in 14-18 year olds who have already shown a clear aptitude for starting business ventures. The program, started in 2002, has provided loans, grants, and counseling – in the form of workshops and individual meetings with established entrepreneurs – to over 7,500 young people. The future of YES, however, is now in jeopardy. A number of damaging criticisms have been leveled at the program, and members of the Congressional agency that provides the funding have suggested that YES may be scaled down or even dismantled entirely.

One complaint is that the funds that YES distributes have disproportionally gone to young people from economically disadvantaged families, despite the program’s stated goal of being blind to any criteria besides merit. Though no one has claimed that any of the recipients of YES funds have been undeserving, several families have brought lawsuits claiming that their requests for funding were rejected because of the families’ relatively high levels of income. The resulting publicity was an embarrassment to the YES administrators, one of whom resigned.

 Another challenge has been the admittedly difficult task of ensuring that a young person, not his or her family, is truly the driving force behind the venture. The rules state that the business plan must be created by the youth, and that any profits in excess of $1,000 be placed in an escrow account that can only be used for education, investment in the venture, and little else, for a period that is determined by the age of the recipient. Despite this, several grants had to be returned after it was discovered that parents – or in one case, a neighbor – were misusing YES funds to promote their own business ideas. To make matters worse, the story of the returned monies was at first denied by a YES spokesperson who then had to retract the denial, leading to more bad press.

 In truth, YES has had some real success stories. A 14-year old girl in Texas used the knowledge and funding she received through the program to connect with a distributor who now carries her line of custom-designed cell phone covers. Two brothers in Alaska have developed an online travel advisory service for young people vacationing with their families. Both of these ventures are profitable, and both companies have gained a striking amount of brand recognition in a very short time. However, YES has been pitifully lax in trumpeting these encouraging stories. Local press notwithstanding, these and other successes have received little media coverage. This is a shame, but one that can be remedied. The administrators of YES should heed the advice given in one of the program’s own publications: “No business venture, whatever its appeal, will succeed for long without an active approach to public relations.”

Which of the following would most logically be the topic of the paragraph immediately following the passage?

(A)   Reasons why the YES program should be discontinued.

(B)   Young entrepreneurship programs that have been tried in other countries

(C)   A comparison of YES and federal entrepreneurship programs for adults

(D)   The roots of YES in America’s tradition of rugged individualism

(E)    What an active approach to media relations would entail in YES’s case.

Now on an actual Reading Comprehension question in the GMAT, the time you spend reading the passage can be amortized over several questions. However a quick overview of this passage probably won’t be enough to answer this or any other question that asks about specific details, so a long look is worth it here even if it’s only for one question. This question does not use the telltale “s word” (or sword as Sean Connery calls it), but it’s all about scope of the passage.

Let’s cover each paragraph’s main point quickly. The first paragraph introduces YES and alludes to forthcoming problems. The second and third each elaborate on problems that have arisen in the past, and the fourth offers a positive spin and a path to follow to right the ship. So the author seems to be concerned about the YES program, its recent problems and how to solve them. That would be a succinct way to sum up the entire passage thus far. A fifth paragraph would likely follow this path and not make a drastic change in tone or direction. Let’s go through the choices one at a time.

(A)   Reasons why the YES program should be discontinued.

This would have been an acceptable replacement to the fourth paragraph. Paragraphs 2 and 3 built up the case against YES, paragraph 4 brought in the salvation of the program (much like the Terminator franchise, but with better acting). Paragraph 5 would not undo what the conclusion has strived to achieve.

(B)   Young entrepreneurship programs that have been tried in other countries

Classic GMAT trap. Why would the passage introduce other countries now? This is out of scope.

(C)   A comparison of YES and federal entrepreneurship programs for adults

Same trap as answer choice B. The entire passage has been about 14-18 year olds, why would it contrast it against adults at the very end. Furthermore, if you recognize that this is the same trick as answer choice B, then both must be incorrect. It’s impossible that C is correct but B is not because they do the same exact thing. This alone narrows us down to a 1/3 chance right away.

(D)   The roots of YES in America’s tradition of rugged individualism

This might have made sense for paragraph 0, as a preface to the program (prequel: Rise of the YES). However it is inappropriate for the final paragraph and completely out of scope. The author is discussing the YES program, not John Wayne on a horse.

(E)    What an active approach to media relations would entail in YES’s case.

Process of elimination indicates this should be the correct answer. In this case it builds perfectly off the fourth paragraph, segueing seamlessly from the idea of how to solve the problem into detailing the steps to be taken.

The correct answer is (E). 

When it comes to scope on Reading Comprehension questions, the importance of determining what the author is saying is vital to getting the right answer and not overshooting the scope of the passage. Any Reading Comprehension topic can be very broad, but remember that the author has a specific agenda in writing the passage. Your job is to correctly identify the scope, keeping in mind that some will be too narrow and some will be too broad. No passage will be everything to everybody. If they attempt to be, as the old adage goes, they end up being nothing to no one.

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Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you occasional tips and tricks for success on your exam.  After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.

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