Use This Valuable Method to Determine Scope in Reading Comprehension on the GMAT

On test day, you will see 78 different questions designed to test how you think, how you approach a given problem, and how well you manage your time in a stressful environment. Most of these questions are unknown to you. You’ve probably spent tens of hours poring over hundreds of GMAT problems and trying to dissect questions from every possible vantage point. However, there is one question you are guaranteed to see on test day, and the question is deceptively simple. At one point, in the verbal section, you will simply be asked: “What is the primary purpose of this passage”

Reading comprehension is a category of questions on the GMAT designed to test whether you can read a long (and often pointless, bloated and sleep-inducing) passage and understand the major points covered. This exercise is designed to emulate the various reports and papers you’re likely to read throughout school and work for the next 40 years or so (or until we’re replaced by robots). The passage is presented, and then a series of 3 to 6 questions about the passage will be asked. Ideally, you understood the passage well enough to answer the questions about what you just read. If you grasp the major point the author was trying to get at, you’re likely to get the questions right.

Not every passage you read will ask you about the primary purpose of the passage (say that three times fast!) Sometimes the questions will ask about the author’s tone, the scope of the subject or the organization of the text. However, every passage can potentially ask you about the primary purpose, and at least one will ask you on test day. To avoid losing easy points on this type of relatively straight forward question, it’s important to ascertain which elements are important, and which details are superfluous.

A very good method to ensure you’re following along with the passage is to summarize each paragraph in 3-5 words after you finish reading it. This summary might not have all the details included in the paragraph, but it will succinctly recap the important element(s) of what you have just finished reading. Ideally, you don’t even have to spend time writing these words down, just forming them in your mind’s eye is enough to keep them in your memory for a few minutes. Of course, if you prefer to write this down, or if you want to expand to 6 or 7 words, that’s perfectly acceptable as well. It is important to be mindful of the time constraint, though.

Let’s look at a GMAT passage and answer a question using the organization of the passage (note: this is the same passage I used throughout 2013 for scope, tone and organization.)

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.”

The primary purpose of the passage is to _______

(A)   detail the approach that should be taken in remedying YES’s public relations problems

(B)   defend YES from the various criticisms that have been leveled against it

(C)   suggest a way to improve the program

(D)   detail several criticisms and problems of the YES program

(E)    make the case that YES, despite some difficulties, has been quite successful for some people who have taken part in the program

If you summarized each paragraph as you read through them, your summary should look something like:

1st paragraph: YES program

2nd paragraph: Problem w/ program

3rd paragraph: Another problem w/ program

4th paragraph: Successes & next steps

With a summary like this, which is all of 13 words, you follow the main point of the story and you’re less likely to get sidetracked by tempting answer choices. Let’s look through the choices and see if any of them encapsulate the main purpose of this passage.

Answer choice A indicates that the goal is to detail the approach in remedying the program’s problems. This answer choice initially makes a lot of sense, as the passage is all about the problems and how to solve them. However, the use of the word “detail” should be sufficient to recognize that this is not what the passage is really doing. The author gives their overarching suggesting of using more PR, but does not detail anything at any point. The choice of words precludes this answer from being considered further.

Answer choice B is about defending YES from criticisms, which is not even something that happens in the text. The author makes no effort to defend the program from the justified criticisms, and merely suggests a course of action moving forward. Answer choice B is thus incorrect.

Answer choice C concisely indicates that the author is suggesting a way to improve the program. This is essentially correct since the author lists a couple of issues with the program, and then outlines a very general way to improve things going forward. We should check the other answer choices, but this choice appears correct and is general enough that it will be hard to eliminate.

Answer choice D stops short at mentioning only the problems and criticisms of the program. This would be correct if the fourth paragraph did not exist, but as it is this choice is summing up the first three paragraphs and ignoring the author’s conclusion. This choice is incorrect as well.

Answer choice E stresses the successes of a few people while acknowledging the managerial incompetence at YES, so it is also a tempting answer choice. However the author mentions one or two success stories mostly for anecdotal reasons, and not to promote the status quo. The program must still be overhauled, despite a couple of feel-good stories. Again this answer choice does not adequately represent the primary purpose of the passage.

As answer choice C is the correct selection here, it is important to note that the answer does not need to recap the entire passage. Such an exercise would be inherently difficult in only a few words, but more so, it is unnecessary. Summarizing something does not necessarily require reiterating every detail, but rather understanding the underlying reason for the writing of the passage. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that concept (Inception style), and help you save time and maximize your GMAT score on test day.

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Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you weekly advice 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.