Not signed up yet? Sign up now
Already a member? Sign in now
Remember your password? Sign in now
The key to performing well on the passages is not the particular reading technique you use (so long as it’s not speed reading). Rather the key is to become completely familiar with the question types–there are only six–so that you can anticipate the questions that might be asked as you read the passage and answer those that are asked more quickly and efficiently.
As you become familiar with the six question types, you will gain an intuitive sense for the places from which questions are likely to be drawn. Note, the order in which the questions are asked roughly corresponds to the order in which the main issues are presented in the passage. Early questions should correspond to information given early in the passage, and so on.
All authors have a point they want to make in their writing. Main idea questions test your ability to identify and understand an author’s intent. The main idea is usually stated in the last–occasionally the first–sentence of the first paragraph. If it’s not there, it will probably be the last sentence of the entire passage. Main idea questions are usually the first questions asked.
Some common main idea questions are:
1. Which one of the following best expresses the main idea of the passage?
2. The primary purpose of the passage is to . . .
3. In the passage, the author’s primary concern is to discuss . . .
Main idea questions are rarely difficult; after all the author wants to clearly communicate her ideas to you. If, however, after the first reading, you don’t have a feel for the main idea, review the first and last sentence of each paragraph; these will give you a quick overview of the passage.
Because main idea questions are relatively easy, the GMAT writers try to obscure the correct answer by surrounding it with close answer-choices (“detractors”) that either overstate or understate the author’s main point. Answer-choices that stress specifics tend to understate the main idea; choices that go beyond the scope of the passage tend to overstate the main idea.
The answer to a main idea question will summarize the author’s argument, yet be neither too specific nor too broad.
In most GMAT passages the author’s primary purpose is to persuade the reader to accept her opinion. Occasionally, it is to describe something.
The following passage and accompanying questions illustrate "Main Idea" type of questions. Read the passage slowly to get a good understanding of the issues.
There are two major systems of criminal
procedure in the modern world–the adversarial
and the inquisitorial. The former is associated
with common law tradition and the latter
with civil law tradition. Both systems were
historically preceded by the system of private
vengeance in which the victim of a crime fashioned
his own remedy and administered it privately,
either personally or through an agent.
The vengeance system was a system of self-help,
the essence of which was captured in the
slogan “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
The modern adversarial system is only one
historical step removed from the private
vengeance system and still retains some of its
characteristic features. Thus, for example,
even though the right to institute criminal action
has now been extended to all members of
society and even though the police department
has taken over the pretrial investigative functions
on behalf of the prosecution, the adversarial
system still leaves the defendant to conduct
his own pretrial investigation. The trial is
still viewed as a duel between two adversaries,
refereed by a judge who, at the beginning of
the trial has no knowledge of the investigative
background of the case. In the final analysis
the adversarial system of criminal procedure
symbolizes and regularizes the punitive
By contrast, the inquisitorial system begins
historically where the adversarial system
stopped its development. It is two historical
steps removed from the system of private
vengeance. Therefore, from the standpoint of
legal anthropology, it is historically superior to
the adversarial system. Under the inquisitorial
system the public investigator has the duty to
investigate not just on behalf of the prosecutor
but also on behalf of the defendant.
Additionally, the public prosecutor has the
duty to present to the court not only evidence
that may lead to the conviction of the defendant
but also evidence that may lead to his exoneration.
This system mandates that both
parties permit full pretrial discovery of the evidence
in their possession. Finally, in an effort
to make the trial less like a duel between two
adversaries, the inquisitorial system mandates
that the judge take an active part in the conduct
of the trial, with a role that is both directive
Fact-finding is at the heart of the inquisitorial
system. This system operates on the
philosophical premise that in a criminal case
the crucial factor is not the legal rule but the
facts of the case and that the goal of the entire
procedure is to experimentally recreate for the
court the commission of the alleged crime.
The primary purpose of the passage is to
(A) explain why the inquisitorial system is the best system of criminal justice
(B) explain how the adversarial and the inquisitorial systems of criminal justice both evolved from the system of private vengeance
(C) show how the adversarial and inquisitorial systems of criminal justice can both complement and hinder each other’s development
(D) show how the adversarial and inquisitorial systems of criminal justice are being combined into a new and better system
(E) analyze two systems of criminal justice and deduce which one is better
The answer to a main idea question will summarize the passage without going beyond it. (A) violates these criteria by overstating the scope of the passage. The comparison in the passage is between two specific systems, not between all systems. (A) would be a good answer if “best” were replaced with “better.” Beware of extreme words. (B) violates the criteria by understating the scope of the passage. Although the evolution of both the adversarial and the inquisitorial systems is discussed in the passage, it is done to show why one is superior to the other. As to (C) and (D), both can be quickly dismissed since neither is mentioned in the passage. Finally, the passage does two things: it presents two systems of criminal justice and shows why one is better than the other. (E) aptly summarizes this, so it is the best answer.
Following is a mini-passage. These exercises are interspersed among the sections of this chapter and are written to the same specifications as actual GMAT passages. Because the mini-passages are short and designed to test only one issue, they are more tractable than a full passage.
As Xenophanes recognized as long ago as the sixth century before Christ, whether or not God made man in His own image, it is certain that man makes gods in his. The gods of Greek mythology first appear in the writings of Homer and Hesiod, and, from the character and actions of these picturesque and, for the most part, friendly beings, we get some idea of the men who made them and brought them to Greece.
But ritual is more fundamental than mythology, and the study of Greek ritual during recent years has shown that, beneath the belief or skepticism with which the Olympians were regarded, lay an older magic, with traditional rites for the promotion of fertility by the celebration of the annual cycle of life and death, and the propitiation of unfriendly ghosts, gods or demons. Some such survivals were doubtless widespread, and, prolonged into classical times, probably made the substance of Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries. Against this dark and dangerous background arose Olympic mythology on the one hand and early philosophy and science on the other.
In classical times the need of a creed higher than the Olympian was felt, and Aeschylus, Sophocles and Plato finally evolved from the pleasant but crude polytheism the idea of a single, supreme and righteous Zeus. But the decay of Olympus led to a revival of old and the invasion of new magic cults among the people, while some philosophers were looking to a vision of the uniformity of nature under divine and universal law.
From Sir William Cecil Dampier, A Shorter History of Science, ©1957, Meridian Books.
The main idea of the passage is that
(A) Olympic mythology evolved from ancient rituals and gave rise to early philosophy
(B) early moves toward viewing nature as ordered by divine and universal law coincided with monotheistic impulses and the disintegration of classical mythology
(C) early philosophy followed from classical mythology
(D) the practice of science, i.e., empiricism, preceded scientific theory
Most main idea questions are rather easy. This one is not–mainly, because the passage itself is not an easy read. Recall that to find the main idea of a passage, we check the last sentence of the first paragraph; if it’s not there, we check the closing of the passage. Reviewing the last sentence of the first paragraph, we see that it hardly presents a statement, let alone the main idea. Turning to the closing line of the passage, however, we find the key to this question. The passage describes a struggle for ascendancy amongst four opposing philosophies: (magic and traditional rites) vs. (Olympic mythology) vs. (monotheism [Zeus]) vs. (early philosophy and science). The closing lines of the passage summarize this and add that Olympic mythology lost out to monotheism (Zeus), while magical cults enjoyed a revival and the germ of universal law was planted. Thus the answer is (B).
As to the other choices, (A) is false. “Olympic mythology [arose] on one hand and early philosophy and science on the other” (closing to paragraph two); thus they initially developed in parallel. (C) is also false. It makes the same type of error as (A). Finally, (D) is not mentioned in the passage.
Need Help? Ask a Tutor