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!

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How to Move your GMAT Verbal Score 40+ Points…In 2 Weeks!

Have you already gone through the Verbal questions in GMAC’s Official Guide, reviewed the MGMAT Sentence Correction book, and covered the Powerscore CR book? Feeling a GMAT Verbal plateau and not sure what to do next? Here’s some solid tips to move your GMAT Verbal score an extra 40 points in just under 2 weeks!

Beef up the grammar skills. You can ignore most of the challenging vocabulary on sentence corrections as long as you identify what part of speech each word is, and how it functions within the sentence. To do this, you’ll need to spend some time with a solid English grammar review book. I recommend pairing a heavy-duty review book, like the Oxford Guide or those published by McGraw-Hill or Longman, with a “fun” book like Writer’s Express or English Grammar for Dummies.

Read and listen to high-quality English publications. My recommendations include The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or any scholarly journal that you find interesting. Listen to NPR or audio books of English-language classics. Set a regular schedule for your reading and stick to it. Even twenty minutes a day will help you conquer Reading Comprehension.

Seek out Advanced CR for harder vocab words. Once you’ve practiced identifying the conclusion, evidence, and assumptions and are confident with the Critical Reasoning question types on the GMAT, consider buying an LSAT practice guide like the LSAT LR Bible. The LSAT has significantly more challenging CR questions and the format is the same as those found on the GMAT. Don’t neglect your GMAT practice, but if you can master the LSAT CR, then the GMAT questions will start to feel easier.

Go more slowly with Word Problems. Practice translating these questions from English keywords to Math equations. Be patient at first – these questions may be especially frustrating vocab-wise. Luckily, the common phrases such as “less than,” “is the same as,” and “product of” are easily memorized.

CRITICAL REASONING TIPS

Identify the Conclusion, Evidence & Assumption(s). This should be your first step for all of the Critical Reasoning question types. The conclusion and the evidence will be explicitly stated in the passage, while the assumptions will require you to sit and consider the author’s point of view. What needs to be true in order for the conclusion to be correct based on the given evidence?

Find the purpose of each sentence. Sometimes CR questions will ask what the function is of a part of the argument. You may see questions that ask “which role” a sentence plays. Try to place it into one category: conclusion ,or evidence? If the sentence was removed from the paragraph, what would be lacking?

Know the overall flow. Arguments have a tendency to follow one of two shapes: a triangle or an inverted triangle. Does the author start by making a specific conclusion and then provide more general evidence, or does he begin with observations and then get to a thesis? Use variables to describe the structure. “Y leads to X which leads to Z” is different from “Y turns into Z unless Y is prevented.” Be on the lookout for “If X, then Y” relationship.

Paraphrase the argument. Dumb down the complexity of the argument as you read, as if you were explaining it to a child. You may want to write down a few short notes to help you. The idea is to ignore the petty details and see through to the author’s main point and to the evidence he provides to support his point.

Choose a verb. Questions about argument structure often ask about the “methods” an author uses. You already know the flow of the overall argument, now give it an overall purpose and label as an infinitive verb. Common verbs:

to explain
to dismiss
to theorize
to strengthen
to demonstrate
to revise
to assert
to suggest
to interpret
to reconcile
to challenge
to predict

Look for transitions. Transition words and phrases are like signposts pointing your way through the logic of the argument. They tell you what is coming next. “Specifically…” means a more detailed example will follow. “Thus,” means a summation is to be expected. “While this may be true…” is a phrase that shows a concession is about to be made. Keep a study sheet of transition words and divide them into categories: Examples, Adding, Contrasting, Emphasis, Resulting In, etc. It’s an ongoing process to familiarize yourself with these, but a worthwhile one.

Determine what is missing for Complete the Passage Questions. What does the blank represent? Often it will be either a restatement of the conclusion, or another supporting piece of evidence, but it could also be an action advocating by the author, or an example of the author’s argument applied to the real world.

Make a prediction (and write it down)! This is the most important strategy for CR. You’ve got to trust that you understand the argument enough to know what should be the correct answer. Don’t worry about making it perfect – just get something down on paper! If you think of your prediction but don’t write it down, you risk forgetting it or twisting it to fit the answer choices.

Eliminate out-of-scope answers. While the correct answer may not perfectly match your prediction, the simple fact that you took the time to think critically while you came up with a prediction will help you understand the author’s focus and the flow of his argument. Eliminate answer choices that would NOT follow the gist of the paragraph. Especially look for those that are outside the scope of the author’s focus, a favorite CR wrong answer type!

Try the Negation Technique. An assumption is something that needs to be true and is required in order for the Evidence to lead to the Conclusion. If we negate the answer choices then the correct choice will weaken the argument the most. This is an excellent strategy to try for Assumption questions.

Questions? Feel free to reach out at gmatrockstar[at]gmail.com! I look forward to helping you on your GMAT journey!