Strategies and Advice on GMAT Preparation - Part 6: Reading Comprehension | ApplyMBA Blog | Apply MBA

Strategies and Advice on GMAT Preparation - Part 6: Reading Comprehension | ApplyMBA Blog

GMAT Exam Strategy Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension type questions require you to use the given text in the passage and your reading skills to answer the three to five question that appear, one at a time, on the screen. The goal of this question type is to see how well you can understand a lot of new and difficult information presented in a prose format. The passage themselves are taken from some academic journals in the fields of business, the sciences and the humanities/social sciences. However, you do not require any specialized knowledge of these subjects to do well – all the information needed to answer the question correctly is in the passage itself. Here is an especially difficult example:

Professor Kenneth M. Stampp, in the final chapters of his thorough, comprehensively study of slavery, The Peculiar Institution, convincingly explodes the myth of the “benign” plantation slave holder and argues that the greatest reason for the stubborn survival of slavery deep into the 19th century was its profitability rather than the slaver holders’ supposed paternal commitment to their slaves. To buttress his case, Stampp attacks two of the strongest arguments made by slave holders and their apologists. The first, the high debt levels carried by many of the great plantation owners, is claimed by those favorable to the plantation owners as proof of the financial burden shouldered by slave holders committed to caring for often unproductive slaves. But in Stampp’s careful analysis of plantation account books, this high level of debt is shown to be more a sign of plantation owners’ supreme confidence in their future sales and the wisdom of capital investment in clearing new lands than a symptom of inherent unprofitability. Indeed, with no shareholders to please, the slave owners were free to make the most of their businesses by taking advantage of the sizeable credit their success afforded them.

The second argument involves the substantial numbers of slaves supported on Virginia tobacco plantations long after these lands, exhausted by tobacco’s demands on soil fertility, ceased to yield sizeable harvests. Slave holders and their apologists pointed to this phenomenon as evidence of the Virginia planters’ concern for, and commitment to, their slave communities. Why else would a planter keep so many slaves on low-yielding land? But Stampp shows these same planters, far from being paternal, were encouraging the population growth of their slave communities so as to have a sizeable stock of slaves to sell in the South’s internal slave trade. After the final closing of Charleston as a slave port in the early years of the 19th century, the burgeoning demand for slaves in the developing cotton belt had to be satisfied internally. The Virginia planters with their expanding surplus of slaves were ideally situated to make the most of the internal trade in their “product”. And so they did, reaping rich gains by separating families and breaking apart tight-knit slave communities.

Time management is an enormous challenge in Reading Comprehension. To have enough time for the questions and not sacrifice time somewhere else in the Verbal Section, you should have the capacity to get the gist of the passage in just a few minutes. This may appear to be crazy compared with the amount of detail in a passage like the one above, but it is really a much more productive, effective strategy than attempting to swallow all the facts in the passage. The reason for this leads to our first hint:

Hint: In the GMAT Reading Comprehension, THINK GLOBAL .

The objective of Reading Comprehension is to see whether you understand, and particularly why, authors build up their argument in the given passage. Thus, what an author says is much less important than what an author does. Moreover, what one line of a passage does is much less important than what a paragraph, or the whole passage, achieves. You should focus on structure here, rather than content. In addition to it, following a passage structure is very important in Reading Comprehension. Let us take a look at a classic THINK GLOBAL question:

The author’s primary purpose in this passage is to:

Assert that slaveholders often lost money through financial mismanagement.
Defend the actions of the Virginia planters in the face of the loss of fertility of their tobacco lands.
Critique a point of view in favour of the slaveholders by supporting a scholarly work.
Question the financial benefits of slavery.
Demonstrate the wisdom of carrying sizeable debt loads when that debt in invested in capital improvements.

If we have to find the “primary purpose” of the entire question, where should we look? Check at the beginning of the passage:

Professor Kenneth M. Stampp, in the final chapters of his thorough, comprehensively study of slavery, The Peculiar Institution, convincingly explodes the myth of the “benign” plantation slave holder and argues that the greatest reason for the stubborn survival of slavery deep into the 19th century was its profitability rather than the slaver holders’ supposed paternal commitment to their slaves. To buttress his case, Stampp attacks two of the strongest arguments made by slave holders and their apologists.

Let us go through the writer’s question again. Who is the author talking about? Someone called “Professor Kenneth M. Stampp”. According to the author, What does Prof. Stampp do? He writes a book that “convincingly explodes the myth” that slavery wasn’t so bad. How does Stampp explode the myth? As indicated by the author, “Stampp attacks two of the strongest argument made by slave holders…” Does the author like Stampp’s book? Yes. The author calls it “thorough comprehensive study.” Now put this in simple terms:

The author of the passage praises Stampp’s book, saying it disproves the “myth” of the “benigh” slave holder”. We have just answered the main question above. Take a look at the answer choices again and pick the one that best matches our assessment above. Also, ask yourself, “What does each answer choice discuss?”

The author’s primary purpose in this passage is to:

a.Assert that slaveholders often lost money through financial mismanagement.

b.Defend the actions of the Virginia planters in the face of the loss of fertility of their tobacco lands.

Critique a point of view in favour of the slaveholders by supporting a scholarly work.

d.Question the financial benefits of slavery.

e.Demonstrate the wisdom of carrying sizeable debt loads when that debt in invested in capital improvements.

Notice how the wrong choice echoes words and phrases mentioned somewhere else in the passage, yet never truly touches the author’s key point. Now let us try a second type of question:

Hint: In GMAT Reading Comprehension, ACT LOCAL.

While you cannot remember all the points in the passage, you can identify the area for detailed work whenever the question demands. This means skimming through the passage just enough to take note of the writer’s key points, references, conclusions and transitions. With the passage generally mapped out, you are now ready to “act locally” in that particular segment of the passage relevant to a question. Let’s take a look at following question:

According to the author, which of the following best explains the Virginia planters willingness to support large numbers of slave on low-yielding tobacco plantations?

Tobacco farming is highly labor intensive and so required comparatively many slaves per acre of tilled land.
The close of Charleston as a slave port cut the Virginia planters off from their established export slave markets.
The Virginia planters enjoyed separating slave families and dismantling slave communities.
The Virginia planters were concerned for their slaves’ welfare and were therefore willing to subsidize a surplus in labor.
The Virginia planters saw their slaves as a valuable commodity in high demand in the developing Cotton Belt.

Where does the author talk about the Virginia planters? In the second paragraph, reproduced below with the first reference highlighted.

The second argument involves the substantial numbers of slaves supported on Virginia tobacco plantations long after these lands, exhausted by tobacco’s demands on soil fertility, ceased to yield sizeable harvests. Slave holders and their apologists pointed to this phenomenon as evidence of the Virginia planters’ concern for, and commitment to, their slave communities. Why else would a planter keep so many slaves on low-yielding land? But Stampp shows these same planters, far from being paternal, were encouraging the population growth of their slave communities so as to have a sizeable stock of slaves to sell in the South’s internal slave trade. After the final closing of Charleston as a slave port in the early years of the 19th century, the burgeoning demand for slaves in the developing cotton belt had to be satisfied internally. The Virginia planters with their expanding surplus of slaves were ideally situated to make the most of the internal trade in their “product”. And so they did, reaping rich gains by separating families and breaking apart tight-knit slave communities.

So the question asks why Virginia planters would keep slaves even when the land couldn’t support sufficient crops. One reason is highlighted below. Is it the right one?

The second argument involves the substantial numbers of slaves supported on Virginia tobacco plantations long after these lands, exhausted by tobacco’s demands on soil fertility, ceased to yield sizeable harvests. Slave holders and their apologists pointed to this phenomenon as evidence of the Virginia planters’ concern for, and commitment to, their slave communities. Why else would a planter keep so many slaves on low-yielding land? But Stampp shows these same planters, far from being paternal, were encouraging the population growth of their slave communities so as to have a sizeable stock of slaves to sell in the South’s internal slave trade. After the final closing of Charleston as a slave port in the early years of the 19th century, the burgeoning demand for slaves in the developing cotton belt had to be satisfied internally. The Virginia planters with their expanding surplus of slaves were ideally situated to make the most of the internal trade in their “product”. And so they did, reaping rich gains by separating families and breaking apart tight-knit slave communities.

No. This is a classic GMAT trap. The question says,” According to the author…” yet whose point of view is highlighted above? The slave holders. Rather than fall for this point of view trap, work again through the passage and search for the author’s view point.

The second argument involves the substantial numbers of slaves supported on Virginia tobacco plantations long after these lands, exhausted by tobacco’s demands on soil fertility, ceased to yield sizeable harvests. Slave holders and their apologists pointed to this phenomenon as evidence of the Virginia planters’ concern for, and commitment to, their slave communities. Why else would a planter keep so many slaves on low-yielding land? But Stampp shows these same planters, far from being paternal, were encouraging the population growth of their slave communities so as to have a sizeable stock of slaves to sell in the South’s internal slave trade. After the final closing of Charleston as a slave port in the early years of the 19th century, the burgeoning demand for slaves in the developing cotton belt had to be satisfied internally. The Virginia planters with their expanding surplus of slaves were ideally situated to make the most of the internal trade in their “product”. And so they did, reaping rich gains by separating families and breaking apart tight-knit slave communities.

Now that we have got the right portion of the passage, we can find the answer choice that best matches it.

According to the author, which of the following best explains the Virginia planters willingness to support large numbers of slave on low-yielding tobacco plantations?

a.Tobacco farming is highly labor intensive and so required comparatively many slaves per acre of tilled land.

b.The close of Charleston as a slave port cut the Virginia planters off from their established export slave markets.

c.The Virginia planters enjoyed separating slave families and dismantling slave communities.

d.The Virginia planters were concerned for their slaves’ welfare and were therefore willing to subsidize a surplus in labor.

The Virginia planters saw their slaves as a valuable commodity in high demand in the developing Cotton Belt.

Verbal final note: As with quantitative section, verbal question types are mixed randomly (except for the questions of Reading Comprehension) so you should be able to move across different sections quickly form one to another. Also, given the difficult vocabulary presented throughout the section, answering all 41 questions in 75 minutes is quite a challenge.

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