Reading Comprehension: the Devil’s in the Details

How confident are you at dealing with confusing RC details?

To start, set a timer for 4 minutes. Read the passage, take notes, and  then attack the question below the passage. When the timer dings, move on to the rest of the blog below! Good luck!


The fact that superior service can generate a competitive advantage for a company does not mean that every attempt at improving service will create such an advantage. Investments in service, like those in production and distribution, must be balanced against other types of investments on the basis of direct, tangible benefits such as cost reduction and increased revenues. If a company is already effectively on a par with its competitors because it provides service that avoids a damaging reputation and keeps customers from leaving at an unacceptable rate, then investment in higher service levels may be wasted, since service is a deciding factor for customers only in extreme situations.

This truth was not apparent to managers of one regional bank, which failed to improve its competitive position despite its investment in reducing the time a customer had to wait for a teller. The bank managers did not recognize the level of customer inertia in the consumer banking industry that arises from the inconvenience of switching banks. Nor did they analyze their service improvement to determine whether it would attract new customers by producing a new standard of service that would excite customers or by proving difficult for competitors to copy. The only merit of the improvement was that it could easily be described to customers.


According to the passage, investments in service are comparable to investments in production and distribution in terms of the

(A) tangibility of the benefits that they tend to confer
(B) increased revenues that they ultimately produce
(C) basis on which they need to be weighed
(D) insufficient analysis that managers devote to them
(E) degree of competitive advantage that they are likely to provide


In order to get RC questions correct in general, we need to understand what the question-type is, and what kind of expectation that sets up for the correct answer.

Here, the phrase “according to the passage” tells us this is a Detail question. Detail questions are essentially “research” questions. They ask what the passage literally says about a specific detail. We are NOT meant to draw any kind of Inference (that’s for “Inference” questions, duh). 🙂

Our job in a Detail question is to them research everything the passage says about the specific detail and then write those details down in shorthand on our scratch pad. We then go through the answer choices, reading all 5, and quickly eliminating the three “worst” choices.

Finally, after narrowing down our selection to two, we choose the one that is the closest to the specific language in the passage, without misrepresenting the author’s tone. (We’re always on the lookout for “extreme” language in answer choices in RC, since most RC passages have relatively moderate tones.)

Let’s apply our strategy to this question!

DETAIL question (choose the literal answer!)

Rephrase: How are Service invests and Prod/Dist invests similar?

Let’s look at what the passage says about “investments in service” and “investments in production and distribution”:

– Service can give advantage, but could be a waste
– Must be balanced re: costs/rev benefits like prod/dist

Prediction: Both investments need to be balanced w/other invests re: $$$

Let’s look at the answer choices:

A) uses some keywords, maybe
B) nope…author isn’t saying they both make equal $$
C) yup, strongly matches our prediction
D) managers not mentioned
E) nothing specifically about “degrees” of advantage, just that they both need to be balanced

Our best two answer choices are (A) and (C). Now that we have it down to two, we ask ourselves, since this is a DETAIL question, which choice best restates the exact wording from the passage, while answering the specific question posed?

The answer is (C). The author’s point was that BOTH types of investments must be balanced against other investments to make sure the $$$ is all good. That is how they were similar.

Nice try, GMAT!

The “GMAT trickery” of (A) is something we commonly see in tempting wrong-answer RC Detail questions: it re-uses exact words from the passage, but does not answer the specific question posed.

The passage said, “must be balanced…on the basis of direct, tangible benefits.”

This choice says the two investments are similar because of the “tangibility of the benefits that they tend to confer.” Notice the repeated language.

The question asked how the two investments are SIMILAR. They are similar because they must be balanced on the BASIS on tangible benefits, not that the tangible benefits of the investments are themselves similar. Maybe the two types of investments have totally different benefits. We don’t know.

Students tend to miss RC questions when they:

  1. do not understand the question-type,
  2. do not clarify the specific question being asked by “dumbing it down” in their own words, and…
  3. move through the answer choices too quickly, going from “5 to 1” rather than “5 to 2.”

“5 to 1” = danger of falling in love with the 1st decent answer choice you read
“5 to 2” = a higher likelihood the correct answer will be in your Top Two, and then you can analyze from there

How to Get Similar Questions Right
-Know that “according to the passage” = Detail questions
-Know that tempting wrong answers in Detail questions may “steal” from the passage, then distort it
-Rephrase the Question in your own words! These question-stems are not always clear!
-Re-read the relevant parts of the passage and WRITE DOWN a prediction in your own words. Never, ever rely on memory for Detail questions!