How to Deal with Difficult Short RC Passages on the GMAT

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Just because a passage is short, doesn’t mean it’s easy! Some of the hardest passages on the GRE and the GMAT are short, so let’s not underestimate them on Test Day!

Let’s look at a tough short passage:

Tocqueville, apparently, was wrong. Jacksonian America was not a fluid, egalitarian society where individual wealth and poverty were ephemeral conditions. At least so argues E. Pessen in his iconoclastic study of the very rich in the United States between 1825 and 1850. Pessen does present a quantity of examples, together with some refreshingly intelligible statistics, to establish the existence of an inordinately wealthy class. Though active in commerce or the professions, most of the wealthy were not self-made but had inherited family fortunes. In no sense mercurial, these great fortunes survived the financial panics that destroyed lesser ones. Indeed, in several cities, the wealthiest one percent constantly increased its share until by 1850 it owned half of the community’s wealth. Although these observations are true, Pessen overestimates their importance by concluding from them that the undoubted progress toward inequality in the late eighteenth century continued in the Jacksonian period and that the United States was a class-ridden. plutocratic society even before industrialization.


To start, let’s take some notes on this passage, identifying the Topic, Scope, Author’s POV, and overall Purpose.

The first sentence of any passage will almost always lay out the topic:

Tocqueville, apparently, was wrong.

So, it seems like our topic is going to be “Tocqueville,” but then the 2nd sentence elaborates on what the author is really going to focus on:

Jacksonian America was not a fluid, egalitarian society where individual wealth and poverty were ephemeral conditions.

Oh, okay, so it’s not just “Tocqueville,” and in fact we would not want to choose that as our topic.

Pro-Tip: The topic of the passage is NOT something that is only mentioned once! Look for nouns that repeat throughout the passage!

Topic: Jacksonian America

The 3rd sentence of the passage lays out the scope. Scope = what the author chooses to focus on regarding the topic. We understand he wants to discuss “Jacksonian America,” but in what context?

At least so argues E. Pessen in his iconoclastic study of the very rich in the United States between 1825 and 1850.

Scope: Pessen’s argument

From just the first three sentences we understand that this passage is about a specific time in American history, and it is about one specific scholar’s argument about that time period. This is not an uncommon topic/scope relationship.

It reminds me of this passage: https://gmatclub.com/forum/jon-clark-s- … 88689.html
And this passage: https://gmatclub.com/forum/in-its-1903- … 91506.html

Next, we want to ignore the petty details and look for keywords that reveal the author’s point of view. Not Pessen’s POV, but our author’s!

Notice the language: “refreshingly”, “overestimates”

Though the author does praise Pessen a little bit at the beginning, he ends with a big criticism.

Author’s POV: mostly (-) about Pessen

Finally, consider whether this is an informational or persuasive passage. What is the author’s purpose? To simply provide facts, or to express emotion? Since we can tell he isn’t totally buying Pessen’s argument, this is more of a persuasive passage with a negative tone.

Purpose: to persuade (-)

Putting our notes together, we have:

Topic: Jacksonian America
Scope: Pessen’s argument
Author’s POV: mostly (-) about Pessen
Purpose: to persuade (-)

Doing most of the hard work up front makes the questions a LOT easier. For example, the look how this question is easy since we noticed the word “refreshingly” being associated with the statistics:

The author’s attitude toward Pessen’s presentation of statistics can be best described as

(A) disapproving
(B) shocked
(C) suspicious
(D) amused
(E) laudatory

Even though the author was overall negative about Pessen, when it came to the statistics, that was the one aspect that our author praised, so “laudatory” is the best word. The answer here is (E).

Let’s look at another problem:

Which of the following best states the author’s main point?

(A) Pessen’s study has overturned the previously established view of the social and economic structure of early nineteenth-century America.

(B) Tocqueville’s analysis of the United States in the Jacksonian era remains the definitive account of this period.

(C) Pessen’s study is valuable primarily because it shows the continuity of the social system in the United States throughout the nineteenth century.

(D) The social patterns and political power of the extremely wealthy in the United States between 1825 and 1850 are well documented.

(E) Pessen challenges a view of the social and economic system in the United States from 1825 to 1850, but he draws conclusions that are incorrect.


For this Main Idea question, we can quickly eliminate (B) and (D). (B) focuses entirely on Tocqueville, which for reasons already discussed, is not the topic of the ENTIRE passage. (D) doesn’t offer a point of view, or mention Pessen.

Between (A), (C), and (E), (A) and (C) are openly praising Pessen, which doesn’t fit with the final sentences that made it clear our author was not on board with Pessen’s conclusion. Therefore, the correct answer is (E).

Remember, that for most RC questions, you don’t need to understand every sentence in the passage, but you will have to have a strong graps of what the author is focusing on and how he feels about what is being discussed!