Solving Inference Questions in Reading Comprehension on the GMAT

Ron Point_GMAT TipsOne of the most common things you’re going to do on the GMAT is to infer things. Inferring things is something we inherently do on a daily basis as human beings. If your friend tells you they’re preparing for a big presentation, you generally automatically infer they’re presenting to an audience and are nervous about public speaking. However, on the GMAT, inferring carries a little more baggage than in your everyday life. What if your friend is in charge of logistics for the presentation, or running the slideshow behind the presenter? Perhaps they are being presented in the debutante ball definition of the term? (niche, I know). On the GMAT, inferences have a high threshold they must always attain: the inferences must be true.

After preparing countless Critical Reasoning inference questions, this “must be true” mantra should already be indoctrinated into most GMAT test takers. However, this type of question also shows up in Reading Comprehension, offering a rare opportunity to excel at two different question types using the same concept. By the same token, it’s a concept that’s sure to show up on your test, and you shouldn’t lose easy points because you assumed something that wasn’t explicitly stated.

The approach I always use with students is to ask them: “Is this always true?” If it’s Thursday or a solar eclipse or you pass on the 1 yard line or Venus is in Scorpio… is this still true? Imagine every obscure, unlikely scenario, and make sure the answer choice still holds in that situation. (Seriously, who passes on the 1 yard line?) If this is the case for any scenario you can dream up, your inference holds. If you can imagine even one nice corner case (e.g. a prime number being even) where this doesn’t hold, then it cannot be the correct answer.

Let’s delve into this further using a Reading Comprehension passage. (note: this is the same passage I used previously for function and specific questions)

Nearly all the workers of the Lowell textile mills of Massachusetts were unmarried daughters from farm families. Some of the workers were as young as ten. Since many people in the 1820s were disturbed by the idea of working females, the company provided well-kept dormitories and boarding-houses. The meals were decent and church attendance was mandatory. Compared to other factories of the time, the Lowell mills were clean and safe, and there was even a journal, The Lowell Offering, which contained poems and other material written by the workers, and which became known beyond New England. Ironically, it was at the Lowell Mills that dissatisfaction with working conditions brought about the first organization of working women.

                The mills were highly mechanized, and were in fact considered a model of efficiency by others in the textile industry. The work was difficult, however, and the high level of standardization made it tedious. When wages were cut, the workers organized the Factory Girls Association. 15,000 women decided to “turn out”, or walk off the job. The Offering, meant as a pleasant creative outlet, gave the women a voice that could be heard by sympathetic people elsewhere in the country, and even in Europe. However, the ability of the women to demand changes was severely circumscribed by an inability to go for long without wages with which to support themselves and help support their families. The same limitation hampered the effectiveness of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA), organized in 1844.

                No specific reform can be directly attributed to the Lowell workers, but their legacy is unquestionable. The LFLRA’s founder, Sarah Bagley, became a national figure, testifying before the Massachusetts House of Representatives. When the New England Labor Reform League was formed, three of the eight board members were women. Other mill workers took note of the Lowell strikes, and were successful in getting better pay, shorter hours, and safer working conditions. Even some existing child labor laws can be traced back to efforts first set in motion by the Lowell Mill Women.

The author of the passage implies that the efforts of the women workers at the Lowell Mills ________________?

(A) Were of less direct benefit to them than to other workers.

(B) Led to the creation of child labor laws that benefited the youngest workers at the Lowell mills.

(C) Forced the New England Labor Reform League to include three women on its board.

(D) Were addressed in the poetry included in the Offering.

(E) Were initially organized by Sarah Bagley.

The question is phrased in such a way that you must complete the sentence. Looking over the sentence, the active verb is “implies”, which means that we’re dealing with an inference question. This means that the correct conclusion to this sentence must be unimpeachable with regards to the passage. We must go through all the answer choices because inference questions inherently have multiple answers that could be correct. Our advantage is that four of the answer choices will be flawed and only one unassailable choice shall remain.

Let’s begin with option A. It essentially reads: “…the efforts of the women workers at the Lowell Mills were of less direct benefit to them than to other workers”. This seems about right because the passage states that the Lowell Mills workers couldn’t go on strike for long (paragraph 2). Conversely, it is also mentioned that “other mill workers took note of the Lowell strikes, and were successful in getting better pay, shorter hours and safer working conditions”. This makes it pretty hard to argue with answer choice A, but let’s continue and see if any other answer choices seem like contenders.

Answer choice B reads “…the efforts of the women workers at the Lowell Mills led to the creation of child labor laws that benefited the youngest workers at the Lowell Mills.” This seems like it could be correct, because the passage ends with a sentence about how some child labor laws can be traced back to the efforts of these women. However, there is no indication that these laws benefitted anyone at the Lowell Mills, and in fact were likely only instituted many years later. This answer choice affords a positive outcome to the situation, but is unfortunately unsupported by the passage.

Answer choice C reads “…the efforts of the women workers at the Lowell Mills forced the New England Labor Reform League to include three women on its board.” This might be the easiest answer choice to eliminate. Three members of the Reform League were women, but it is not guaranteed that this is due entirely to the worker strife. It is likely correlated, but it is impossible to defend that it is caused by the conflict. If we’re looking for bulletproof arguments, this one is full of holes.

Answer choice D reads “…the efforts of the women workers at the Lowell Mills were addressed in the poetry included in the Offering”. This is another strong candidate. The Lowell Offering was established as a journal written by the workers that contained at least some poetry in the first paragraph. Would it then be logical that the Offering would address worker malcontent during a strike? Likely, yes, but not guaranteed. Furthermore, would worker dissatisfaction necessarily show up as poetry versus an opinionated peace or an invitation to protest? It is likely that this happened, but there is no guarantee, and therefore this type of answer is incorrect for a GMAT inference question.

Answer choice E reads “…the efforts of the women workers at the Lowell Mills were initially organized by Sarah Bagley”. This answer choice is similar to answer choice D. It is quite possibly true, as Sarah Bagley seemingly had a powerful voice at the Lowell Mills, but there is no indication that she spearheaded the movement in any way. Had this been mentioned somewhere, it would have been unsurprising given the situation. However, on its own, it’s plausible at best, speculation at worst.

Since we’ve systematically eliminated answer choices B through E, the correct answer must be answer choice A. This makes sense because answer choice A seemed completely supported by the passage. Inference questions are typically exercises in process of elimination. If four answer choices can be purged (:anarchy), the remaining answer choice must be correct. If you can accomplish this task on the GMAT, you can infer with absolute certainty that you’ll select the correct answer.

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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.