The Easiest Type of Reading Comprehension Question on the GMAT

Ron Point_GMAT TipsReading comprehension questions on the GMAT are primarily an exercise in time management. If you gave yourself 30 minutes to complete a single Reading Comprehension passage along with four questions, you would find the endeavour very easy. Most questions on the GMAT feature some kind of trap, trick or wording nuance that could easily lead you astray and select the wrong answer. Reading Comprehension questions, while occasionally tricky, are typically the most straightforward questions on the entire exam.

So why doesn’t everyone get a perfect score on these questions? Often, it’s simply because they are pressed for time. Reading a 300+ word passage and then answering a question about the subject matter may take a few minutes, especially if English isn’t your first language or you’re not a habitual reader (you’ve only read Game of Thrones once?). Add to that the possibility of two or three answer choices seeming plausible, and you frequently waste time re-reading the same paragraphs over and over again in the passage.

Luckily, there is one type of question in Reading Comprehension that rarely requires you to revisit the passage and search for a specific sentence. Universal questions ask about the passage as a whole, not about specific actions, passages or characters. I often define universal questions as the “Wikipedia synopsis” (or Cliff’s notes for the older generation) of the passage. The question is concerned with the overarching theme of the passage, not about a single element. As such, it should be easy to answer these questions after reading the passage only once as long as you understood what you were reading.

Let’s delve into this further using a Reading Comprehension passage (note: this is the same passage I used previously for function, specific and inference 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 primary purpose of the passage is to do which of the following?

(A) Describe the labor reforms that can be attributed to the workers at the Lowell mills
(B) Criticize the proprietors of the Lowell mills for their labor practices
(C) Suggest that the Lowell mills played a large role in the labor reform movement
(D) Describe the conditions under which the Lowell mills employees worked
(E) Analyze the business practices of early American factories

The most frequent universal question you’ll see is something along the lines of “what is the primary purpose of this passage”. In essence, it’s asking you to summarize the 300+ word passage into one sentence, and that is difficult to do if you don’t remember anything about the passage. Ideally, you retained the key elements during your initial read. If need be, you can reread the passage, noting the main point of each paragraph in about five words. The synopsis of each paragraph, especially the last one, should give you a good idea about the overall goal of the passage.

In this passage, each paragraph is talking about the labour strife at the Lowell textile mills of Massachusetts in the 1820s. The first paragraph describes the conditions at the mill and sets the stage, the second paragraph describes the worker strike and subsequent resolution, and the third paragraph discusses the legacy of these workers. The overall theme has to capture the spirit of the entire passage, which is often summarized in the final paragraph (often the author’s conclusion). Pay special attention to that paragraph in order to determine why the author wrote this text and what he or she wanted you to learn from it.

Let’s look at the answer choices in order. Answer choice A, describe the labor reforms that can be attributed to the workers at the Lowell mills, is a popular incorrect answer. The goal of the passage is to shed light on these events, and describing the labor reforms attributed to these workers seems like a good conclusion, but it is specifically refuted by the first line of the third paragraph: “No specific reform can be directly attributed to the Lowell workers…” This means that answer choice A, while tempting, is hijacking the actual conclusion of the passage, as we cannot describe things that do not exist, and is therefore incorrect.

Answer choice B, criticize the proprietors of the Lowell mills for their labor practices, seems like something the reader could agree with, but is completely out of the scope of the passage. The mill is not being scrutinized for their labor practices; rather, the efforts of certain people are being underlined. If anything, the text suggests that the conditions at this mill were better than most at the time (and still today in certain countries). Answer choice B is somewhat righteous, but ultimately wrong in this passage.

Answer choice C, suggest that the Lowell mills played a large role in the labor reform movement, is supported by what is being said in the final paragraph. The legacy of the Lowell mills is being discussed, and since other workers were inspired by the events that transpired at these mills, the Lowell mills played a significant part in the larger labor reform movement. While this answer focuses somewhat on the third paragraph, don’t forget that the final paragraph has the most sway in the majority of passages, just as the last section of a movie is usually the most important section (the denouement, in proper English). Answer choice C is correct here, as the passage is primarily discussing the legacy of these events.

Let’s continue on for completion’s sake. Answer choice D, describe the conditions under which the Lowell mills employees worked, focuses on one small portion of the first paragraph, and even then the conditions are not covered in great detail. It’s a big stretch to try and claim that this is the primary focus of the entire passage, and thus can be eliminated fairly quickly.

Answer choice E, analyze the business practices of early American factories, is an answer choice that seems to bring some larger context to the passage, but is even more out of scope than answer choice B because it’s much broader. Only one mill is being examined in the passage, and its business practices were not even the main focus of the passage, so broadening the scope to all American factories is certainly incorrect. Answer choice E can also be eliminated, leaving only answer choice C as the correct selection.

Generally, universal questions do not require a rereading of the passage as the questions are primarily concerned with the broad strokes of the passage. If you didn’t grasp the major facets of the passage when reading through it, you probably didn’t understand the passage at all. If you understand the major elements of the passage as you read through it the first time, noting the primary purpose of each paragraph as you go along, you’ll be ready for any question in the universe.

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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.