Best Strategies for Tough GMAT RC Passages

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Today I want to look at a fantastically devilish RC question sent to me by one of my students yesterday (shout out, Vito!). It’s from the Official Guide Advanced book published last year.

If you don’t know about it, this book contains 8 really challenging passages that are worth going over in microscopic detail if you’re looking to build your RC skills up. The passages can be found on GMATClub (for free!). Just click the link above and copy/paste the beginning of each passage into Google to find the problem on GMATClub.

I want to look at the passage first. Don’t read it yet. Just skim your eyes over it as you scroll down…

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀Is there a massive black hole at the center of our
⠀⠀⠀ galaxy, the Milky Way? The evidence is inconclusive.
(5)  Just as the Sun’s mass can be determined, given
⠀⠀⠀ knowledge of other variables, by the velocity at
⠀⠀⠀ which its planets orbit, the mass at the center of the
⠀⠀⠀ Milky Way can be revealed by the velocities of stars
⠀⠀⠀ and gas orbiting the galactic center. This dynamical
(10)  evidence, based on recently confirmed assumptions
⠀⠀⠀ about the stars’ velocities, argues for an extremely
⠀⠀⠀ compact object with a mass two to three million
⠀⠀⠀ times the mass of our Sun. Although according to
⠀⠀⠀ current theory this makes the mass at the center
(15)  of the galaxy too dense to be anything but a black
⠀⠀⠀ hole, the relative lack of energy radiating from the
⠀⠀⠀ galactic center presents a serious problem. A black
⠀⠀⠀ hole’s gravity attracts surrounding matter, which
⠀⠀⠀ swirls around the black hole, emitting some energy
(20)  as it is engulfed. Scientists believe that the amount of
⠀⠀⠀ energy that escapes the black hole should be about
⠀⠀⠀ 10 percent of the matter’s rest energy (the energy
⠀⠀⠀ equivalent of its mass according to the equation
⠀⠀⠀ E=mc^2). But when the energy coming from the
(25)  galactic center is compared to widely held predictions
⠀⠀⠀ based on how much matter should be falling into a
⠀⠀⠀ theoretical central black hole, there is a discrepancy
⠀⠀⠀ by a factor of a few thousand.

Why is this passage hard?

  • It’s about Science. Many students will think, “ugh, I don’t know anything about Science!” Remember, you don’t have to know anything about the topic to get all the questions correct!

  • It’s all one long wall of text. It’s not very nice of them not to give us paragraphs, so we will have to subdivide the passage ourselves into manageable chunks as we read it. Look for transition words that seem like natural breaks.

Before we proceed, you might want to look at my Reddit post on Mastering RC Main Idea Questions to understand my theory on the three types of RC passages:

  • Informational

  • Informational + some opinion

  • Persuasive

Our categorization of the passage depends on how many keywords are present that indicate the author’s emotion/opinion.

Now let’s go through the passage.

I’m going to bold and italicize any such keywords:

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀Is there a massive black hole at the center of our
⠀⠀⠀ galaxy, the Milky Way? The evidence is inconclusive.
(5)  Just as the Sun’s mass can be determined, given
⠀⠀⠀ knowledge of other variables, by the velocity at
⠀⠀⠀ which its planets orbit, the mass at the center of the
⠀⠀⠀ Milky Way can be revealed by the velocities of stars
⠀⠀⠀ and gas orbiting the galactic center. This dynamical
(10)  evidence, based on recently confirmed assumptions
⠀⠀⠀ about the stars’ velocities, argues for an extremely
⠀⠀⠀ compact object with a mass two to three million
⠀⠀⠀ times the mass of our Sun. Although according to
⠀⠀⠀ current theory this makes the mass at the center
(15)  of the galaxy too dense to be anything but a black
⠀⠀⠀ hole, the relative lack of energy radiating from the
⠀⠀⠀ galactic center presents a serious problem. A black
⠀⠀⠀ hole’s gravity attracts surrounding matter, which
⠀⠀⠀ swirls around the black hole, emitting some energy
(20)  as it is engulfed. Scientists believe that the amount of
⠀⠀⠀ energy that escapes the black hole should be about
⠀⠀⠀ 10 percent of the matter’s rest energy (the energy
⠀⠀⠀ equivalent of its mass according to the equation
⠀⠀⠀ E=mc^2). But when the energy coming from the
(25)  galactic center is compared to widely held predictions
⠀⠀⠀ based on how much matter should be falling into a
⠀⠀⠀ theoretical central black hole, there is a discrepancy
⠀⠀⠀ by a factor of a few thousand.

There’s not much opinion here! The author only gives us two places where he personally weighs in. I ignored the word “believe” because that is associated with the “Scientists” and not our author.

Our author says that it’s “inconclusive” as to whether there’s a black hole, and he says that there’s a “serious problem” with the theory.

Remember — you don’t have to understand all the details as you read the passage!

Things We Don’t Need to Know Right Now:

  • what a black hole is

  • what a galactic center is

  • what “velocities” means

  • what E = mc^2 means

  • what EXACTLY the theory is

  • etc.

There are SO MANY details in this passage!!

If we carefully pored over each and every sentence and tried to “teach” ourselves exactly what it was saying, it would take us 8-10 minutes to read this passage.

(I’m not going to do the entire Passage Map for this passage, by the way, but if you’re curious what my notes would look like for my RC passages in general, you can check out this blog post on GMAT RC strategy.)

Takeaway #1 — The harder the passage, the LESS you should be focusing/stressing out on the details.

Let’s say you have 4 questions per passage on average (and in fact, that’s the number associated with this passage). One of those questions is very likely to be Main Idea. The other three are probably going to be Detail and Inference (occasionally they throw in a Function question).

That means for this ENTIRE passage, there are only THREE questions for which you will need to go back to the passage and actually locate and understand a detail.

Why should we spend our time understanding every single sentence up front, when we’ll have to go back and re-read anyway later on, and there might only be 3 sentences we need to comprehend, anyway?

Now, since we know there’s three types of passages, we can see that with only TWO pieces of opinion, this is not going to be classified as a Persuasive passage.

And since there is some opinion, it can’t be purely Informational.

So we will classify this as an “Informational + some opinion” passage.

Now let’s take a look at the challenging question. Set a timer for 2 minutes and give it a shot!

The “serious problem” referred to in line 17 could be solved if which of the following were true?

A. Current assumptions about how much matter a black hole would engulf proved to be several thousand times too high.
B. Current assumptions about how much matter a black hole would engulf proved to be a few thousand times too low.
C. The object at the center of the Milky Way turned out to be far more dense than it is currently estimated to be.
D. The object at the center of the Milky Way turned out to be far more massive than it is currently estimated to be.
E. Matter being engulfed by a black hole radiated far more energy than is currently assumed.

Now let’s break it down:

Takeaway #2 — Always rephrase the question in simpler terms!

REPHRASE: What would solve the “problem”?

We have two tasks here:

  • figure out what the heck the “serious problem” is

  • figure out how to solve it

Most people will probably not try to brainstorm how to solve whatever this “serious problem” is, and I think that’s the key here. We need to answer the question posed on our own first before looking at the answer choices!

What makes this question easier is the fact that we already noticed the phrase “serious problem” as we read the passage, because it was one of the few places the author had an opinion!

Takeaway #3 — There will almost always be an Inference question asking about the Author’s Opinion.

They were nice enough to give us the line number for this question, but we didn’t need it!

“Although according to current theory this makes the mass at the center of the galaxy too dense to be anything but a black hole, the relative lack of energy radiating from the galactic center presents a serious problem*. A black hole’s gravity attracts surrounding matter…”*

Another place where a mistake could be made, strategically, is in stopping here and not continuing to scan down for anything else that describes the “problem.” There’s a bit more towards the end of the passage that elaborates:

“But when the energy coming from the galactic center is compared to widely held predictions based on how much matter should be falling into a theoretical central black hole, there is a discrepancy by a factor of a few thousand.”

To synthesize: “Serious problem” is the lack of energy in the galactic center (and there’s a discrepancy with predictions)

So, what would solve this problem?

Either the “widely held predictions” are wrong and it’s a black hole even though it falls short by a few thousand, or perhaps the measurement itself is inaccurate and there’s more energy than they thought?

PREDICTION: Measurement of Milky Way wrong or No Discrepancy.

Takeaway #4 — Always WRITE DOWN an answer in your own words before reading the answer choices!!!

Back to the answer choices:

A — this matches the 2nd part of our prediction  (shows no discrepancy, the low energy isn’t really “low” after all!)
B — this is opposite of A so it’s wrong
C — Density has nothing to do with our prediction
D — Mass has nothing to do with out prediction
E — Similar to A

A and E are clearly the final two, and this is where most people will give up under the weight of the science mumbo-jumbo.

The difference is that (A) is really doing the job we need here — the job of FIXING this “problem” — it’s more specific to the situation at hand.

Just because (E) is true, it doesn’t indicate that this would be a black hole necessarily. It’s just giving a trusim about “matter.” Just because when MATTER is engulfed it radiates more energy in general doesn’t help fix our discrepancy, because what if it’s just not a black hole in this case? Then (E) wouldn’t even apply at all. Whereas (A) is saying we’re getting something wrong about black holes! Not just matter.

Takeaway #5 — Prove to yourself why the 2nd best answer is 2nd best!

Notice we didn’t just pick (A) because it came first. We took our time, recognized that this was going to be a deathmatch between (A) and (E) and then we kept at it until we understood the difference between the Correct Answer and the 2nd Best Choice.

But, Vivian, won’t this take me more than 2 minutes???

A few thoughts on RC and timing:

  • Get “good” before you get “fast.” — I don’t care if it takes you 30 minutes per passage in the beginning. Work hard on your strategy. Spend time breaking down passages. Spend time rephrasing question-stems. Spend time breaking down answer choices.

  • Go through all the RC Official Guide passages at least twice. Make sure you understand all the pitfalls associated with the passage, question-stems, and answer choices. Don’t just “do them” and check a box. Absorb them! For help on how to do this, check out my post on How to Review Official Guide RC Questions a Second (or Third!) Time

  • When your RC accuracy is 90% untimed, you can start to time yourself. Otherwise, you haven’t earned it, and your strategy still isn’t good enough. Consider booking a few sessions with a tutor if you need to walk through RC with someone who knows what they’re doing.

  • You can skip a hard RC question on the Exam. It’s not a big deal! 🙂 If you see a question like the one above and you know it might take you 3+ minutes, you can 100% “opt out” of the question, and in most cases it will probably be the smartest decision you could make! There is no rule that says you have to answer all the questions just because you read the passage. I promise no one will know if you only attempt 3/4, and you’ll feel good that you skipped one you knew you wouldn’t get right. So, as you do those RC OG passages, imagine you’re seeing them on Test Day. What questions just wouldn’t be worth your time? 🙂

Finally, I just want to say, DON’T GIVE UP. You are not stupid.

Passages are hard. Questions are hard. The GMAT is hard!

Keep at it. This is a teachable skill and a learnable skill! 🙂

How to Review Official Guide RC Questions a Second (or Third!) Time

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If RC is an area of the GMAT with which you struggle, I would suggest going through the official guide and seeing what else can be gleaned from these questions, even if you have “done” them before.

This allows us to identify what the GMAC is teaching us to look for on the actual GMAT, and can really help you raise the bar on your abilities.

So, for example, let’s take the “terrestrial snakes” passage from the OG: https://gmatclub.com/forum/in-terrestrial-environments-gravity-places-special-demands-137034.html

And we’ll specifically look at this challenging Main Idea question:

In the passage,the author is primarily concerned with doing which of the following?

(A) Explaining adaptations that enable the terrestrial snake to cope with the effects of gravitational pressure on its circulatory system

(B) Comparing the circulatory system of the sea snake with that of the terrestrial snake

(C) Explaining why the circulatory system of the terrestrial snake is different from that of the sea snake

(D) Pointing out features of the terrestrial snake’s cardiovascular system that make it superior to that of the sea snake

(E) Explaining how the sea snake is able to neutralize the effects of gravitational pressure on its circulatory system

Our breakdown might look something like:

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 8.23.58 PM

Takeaways:

  • If you’re torn between 1 topic (terrestrial) versus 2 topics (terrestrial & sea snake), you can simply count the sentences and paragraphs in which each Topic appears (for example terrestrial appears in 3 paragraphs, while sea snake appears in 1). Also there are 3 sentences that say “terrestrial snake” (5 if we include “arboreal”!), and only 2 sentences that mention the phrase “sea snake”.

  • For informational passages, notice if one of the answer choice includes a keyword that is slightly more extreme than the other choices. The word “superior” should automatically knock out (D).

  • Don’t be afraid to look for a thesis. Sometimes the last sentence of the first paragraph will spell it all out: “That many terrestrial snakes in similar spatial orientations do not experience this kind of circulatory failure suggests that certain adaptations enable them to regulate blood pressure more effectively in those orientations.”

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!

How to Tackle RC Passages that Feel Both Informational and Persuasive

Remember that there are three types of GRE and GMAT passages: Informational (I), Informational with Opinion (I+), or Persuasive (P).

Informational with Opinion (I+) passages tend to confuse a lot of students. These passages are mostly informational (but not 100%!) The author gives a lot of facts about the topic, but he does give us a little bit of opinion! They are sort of the “middle ground” between passages that are very boring and passages that are all “fired up.”

This can be a challenge to recognize! Maybe an author says a theory is “overlooked,” or describes a group of politicians as “noble-hearted, yet ineffective.” Perhaps the entire passage is informational until the very last sentence, and the author then suggests that something is a “shame,” or “requires more public attention.” We know it’s not quite Persuasive, but it’s not completely bereft of emotion. That’s how you know it is I+!

Let’s look at an example of this type of passage. I highlighted some interesting keywords for us to notice:

Passage

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which measures the dollar value of finished goods and services produced by an economy during a given period, serves as the chief indicator of the economic well-being of the United States. The GDP assumes that the economic significance of goods and services lies solely in their price, and that these goods and services add to the national well-being, not because of any intrinsic value they may possess, but simply because they were produced and bought. Additionally, only those goods and services involved in monetary transactions are included in the GDP. Thus, the GDP ignores the economic utility of such things as a clean environment and cohesive families and communities. It is therefore not merely coincidental, since national policies in capitalist and non-capitalist countries alike are dependent on indicators such as the GDP, that both the environment and the social structure have been eroded in recent decades. Not only does the GDP mask this erosion, it can actually portray it as an economic gain: an oil spill off a coastal region “adds” to the GDP because it generates commercial activity. In short, the nation’s central measure of economic well-being works like a calculating machine that adds but cannot subtract.

Analysis

There’s at least three places in which the author gives a clear opinion, although I suppose “mask” is not particularly opinionated. Since this passage has an opinion, but doesn’t contain 3 super-strong sentences of opinion, we would probably want to error on the side of caution and classify it as “Informational +”. That means the Main Idea should be opinionated, but not be TOO extreme. We need a good “middle ground” answer choice. Our Test-Day notes might look like this:

POV: GDP 🙁
P: I+ (to give info + opinion)

Let’s look at the “Main Idea” question. This is a wordy one, so let’s scan through them, and examine the verbs first:

Question

The primary purpose of the passage is to:

(A) identify ways in which the GDP could be modified so that it would serve as a more accurate indicator of the economic well-being of the United States

(B) suggest that the GDP, in spite of certain shortcomings, is still the most reliable indicator of the economic well-being of the United States

(C) examine crucial shortcomings of the GDP as an indicator of the economic well-being of the United States

(D) argue that the growth of the United States economy in recent decades has diminished the effectiveness of the GDP as an indicator of the nation’s economic well-being

(E) discuss how the GDP came to be used as the primary indicator of the economic well-being of the United States

 

Verbs-only:

(A) identify… (B) suggest… (C) examine… (D) argue… (E) discuss…

 

——

We want a “middle-of-the-road” verb — something that isn’t too Persuasive, but isn’t 100% dry and Informational. Notice how in this group of verbs, (D) is by far the strongest. Does it make sense for the strongest verb to be correct, when we know this isn’t a full-blown Persuasive passage? Nope! So we can eliminate (D).

Of the four that are left, (E) is the most casual and Informational. To “discuss” something is pretty innocuous and un-opinionated, so unless the second-half says something such as, “to discuss why the GDP isn’t that great,” we can tell this isn’t going to be the correct answer.

The only verbs in the running for a “middle-of-the-road” answer choice, a choice that has some opinion, but not too much opinion, are (A), (B), and (C). Let’s look at them in full context again. Notice how even the answer choices reveal specific tones and points of view:

(A) identify ways in which the GDP could be modified so that it would serve as a more accurate indicator of the economic well-being of the United States

(B) suggest that the GDP, in spite of certain shortcomings, is still the most reliable indicator of the economic well-being of the United States

(C) examine crucial shortcomings of the GDP as an indicator of the economic well-being of the United States

——

Notice how (B) is very positive towards the GDP, whereas (A) and (C) are more negative. Again, since the correct answer and the “second-best” are often very close together, this is a good indicator that the correct answer lies between (A) and (C). Also, it helps we identified the keywords and know the author has some reservations about the GDP.

Let’s look at our “Final Two”:

(A) identify ways in which the GDP could be modified so that it would serve as a more accurate indicator of the economic well-being of the United States

(C) examine crucial shortcomings of the GDP as an indicator of the economic well-being of the United States

This is purely a choice in regards to Tone. Does the author think we can “fix” the GDP so it is more accurate, or is the GDP inherently problematic?

Let’s look one more time at those opinionated sections above!

They are all negative about the GDP!

The author isn’t implying that the GDP is beneficial, so (A) incorrectly assumes the GDP is at least somewhat accurate, and that the main criticism is that it needs to be MORE accurate. This choice is very tricky, and implies the author gives some praise to the GDP as a measuring tool of economic well-being. No such praise is in the passage. Like many passages, the tone is negative and fairly critical throughout.

The correct answer is (C) because it best fits the tone of the ENTIRE passage. (A) contains a tone of praise that is not present in the passage. This passage is a little tricky, but you can see that if you wanted to pick (A), you would need to identify a sentence in which the author says something good about the GDP. But where is that in the passage? Nowhere!

Conquer Even the Trickiest GMAT Main Idea Question

Sometimes a GMAT Primary Purpose or Main Idea question can be especially difficult. The passage may not be obviously informational or obviously persuasive, so how can we figure out the author’s point in writing it?

To start, let’s refresh the best 5-Step method for killing GMAT RC:

Proper RC Strategy

Step 1 – Read the Passage —> Do a Passage Map!

Step 2 – Rephrase the Question

Step 3 – Write Down a Prediction (Go Back to the Passage!)

Step 4 – Eliminate 3 Choices (Use “+”, “-“”, and “?” Symbols)

Step 5 – Carefully Compare the “Final Two”

Questions to Ask:

– Does the Wrong Answer Use Unnecessary Extreme Language?

– Is the Wrong Answer Outside the Scope of the Passage?

– Is the Wrong Answer Not Specifically Answering THIS Question?

– Can I Rephrase the Wrong Answer to Make It More Understandably Incorrect?

First, let’s re-format the passage so we can see how the author organizes it:

The fields of antebellum (pre-Civil War) political history and women’s history use separate sources and focus on separate issues. Political historians, examining sources such as voting records, newspapers, and politicians’ writings, focus on the emergence in the 1840’s of a new “American political nation,” and since women were neither voters nor politicians, they receive little discussion. Women’s historians, meanwhile, have shown little interest in the subject of party politics, instead drawing on personal papers, legal records such as wills, and records of female associations to illuminate women’s domestic lives, their moral reform activities, and the emergence of the woman’s rights movement.

However, most historians have underestimated the extent and significance of women’s political allegiance in the antebellum period. For example, in the presidential election campaigns of the 1840’s, the Virginia Whig party strove to win the allegiance of Virginia’s women by inviting them to rallies and speeches. According to Whig propaganda, women who turned out at the party’s rallies gathered information that enabled them to mold party-loyal families, reminded men of moral values that transcended party loyalty, and conferred moral standing on the party. Virginia Democrats, in response, began to make similar appeals to women as well. By the mid-1850’s the inclusion of women in the rituals of party politics had become commonplace and the ideology that justified such inclusion had been assimilated by the Democrats.

We’ve got two paragraphs, so I’d break them down on our scratch pad as below. I highlighted the keywords from the passage that stuck out to me and upon which I based my inferences.

STEP 1 – Passage Map

Topic: history fields
Scope: how they differ
1: to describe how sources/foci of fields differ
2: to exemplify how 1 field underestimates the other
Author’s POV: political historians (-); women’s history (+)
Purpose: to explain how 2 fields differ, and why that’s not (+)

Now we’re in a great position to try a question!

The primary purpose of the passage as a whole is to

STEP 2 – Rephrase: What’s the purpose?
STEP 3 – Prediction: to explain how 2 fields differ, and why that’s not (+)

A. examine the tactics of antebellum political parties with regard to women
B. trace the effect of politics on the emergence of the woman’s rights movement
C. point out a deficiency in the study of a particular historical period
D. discuss the ideologies of opposing antebellum political parties
E. contrast the methodologies in two differing fields of historical inquiry

STEP 4 – First pass:

A. (-) too specific to paragraph 2
B. (?) a little too specific to paragraph 2, but poss. long-shot
C. (+) potentially too negative in tone, but maybe
D. (-) the passage’s topic is not political parties
E. (+) a great fit for the first paragraph, but potentially leaves out paragraph 2

STEP 5 – Second pass:

The “final two” are C and E, since those are the only two options with a (+) mark. So let’s carefully examine the subtle differences between them.

C. point out a deficiency in the study of a particular historical period
E. contrast the methodologies in two differing fields of historical inquiry

Let’s rephrase each one:

C. show (-) in antebellum study
E. contrast HOW 2 fields studied

What it comes down to is whether we believe the ultimate purpose of this passage is INFORMATIONAL or PERSUASIVE. It’s tough, because the first paragraph is largely informational, and then the second paragraph is largely persuasive (it’s rare to see a passage so “split” like this, and this is not an actual GMAC passage, so we can have some healthy suspicion regarding its quality).

Which one should we choose, C or E? This is a MAIN IDEA question, and the correct answer must be the most broad choice that does not step outside the scope of the passage. Since the last half of the passage is persuasive, we could argue that the first paragraph only serves to drive us towards the author’s strong opinion. If we choose (E) here, we are not addressing the final paragraph at all. (E) is really more like the function of the first paragraph only. (C) best matches the overall passage and does an excellent job of matching the author’s point of view.

The answer must be (C).

Takeaway: If a passage seems “split” between informational/persuasive, look closely at the language of the concluding paragraph. Is the author trying to end with a decisive opinion? If so, it’s really a persuasive passage with some informational exposition. What really sold me on C is the strong opinion given in the first sentence of the second paragraph. The author really lays down a thesis, and then provides a detailed example to back himself up. He’s obviously passionate.

Remember to analyze the “final two” answer choices throughly. You can always rephrase them, consider the scope of each one, the specificity of the question-type, and look for extreme/qualifying language. Don’t just read and re-read answer choices as they are presented to you. Think critically!