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Some people really like history-based Reading Comprehension passages—and others find them pretty boring. Either way, you’ll probably have at least one historical passage, so let’s talk about how to tackle these.
Let’s start with this: If you get a topic that you think is boring, pretend you’re reading for a friend who actually likes this topic. In fact, I go into the test already having certain friends in mind who I know like topics that I really don’t like. So I think of them when I get one of those passages—and that helps me pay more attention so that I can “tell” my friend about this passage I know they’ll like.
Next, the passage I’ve selected for you comes from the free questions that come with the GMATPrep® software. It’s got 5 questions, not just 3 or 4 as the real test will, so I’m not going to give them all to you at once. We’ll do the passage and one question today and then talk about the other questions in subsequent installments.
And let’s talk about timing. In general, give yourself approximately 2 to 3 minutes to read (on the shorter end if you’re a faster reader and/or like the topic; on the longer end if you’re a slower reader and/or hate this topic).
Give yourself about 1 to 2 minutes depending on how detailed the question is. In this case, the first question I’m giving you is a pretty general question, so I’d say to aim for just 1 minute. Total, then, give yourself about 3 to 4 minutes to read the passage and answer the first question.
“Two recent publications offer different assessments of the career of the famous British nurse Florence Nightingale. A book by Anne Summers seeks to debunk the idealizations and present a reality at odds with Nightingale’s heroic reputation. According to Summers, Nightingale’s importance during the Crimean War has been exaggerated: not until near the war’s end did she become supervisor of the female nurses. Additionally, Summers writes that the contribution of the nurses to the relief of the wounded was at best marginal. The prevailing problems of military medicine were caused by army organizational practices, and the addition of a few nurses to the medical staff could be no more than symbolic. Nightingale’s place in the national pantheon, Summers asserts, is largely due to the propagandistic efforts of contemporary newspaper reporters.
“By contrast, the editors of the new volume of Nightingale’s letters view Nightingale as a person who significantly influenced not only her own age but also subsequent generations. They highlight her ongoing efforts to reform sanitary conditions after the war. For example, when she learned that peacetime living conditions in British barracks were so horrible that the death rate of enlisted men far exceeded that of neighboring civilian populations, she succeeded in persuading the government to establish a Royal Commission on the Health of the Army. She used sums raised through public contributions to found a nurse’s training hospital in London. Even in administrative matters, the editors assert, her practical intelligence was formidable: as recently as 1947 the British Army’s medical services were still using the cost-accounting system she devised in the 1860s.
“I believe that the evidence of her letters supports continued respect for Nightingale’s brilliance and creativity. When counseling a village schoolmaster to encourage children to use their faculties of observation, she sounds like a modern educator. Her insistence on classifying the problems of the needy in order to devise appropriate treatments is similar to the approach of modern social workers. In sum, although Nightingale may not have achieved all of her goals during the Crimean War, her breadth of vision and ability to realize ambitious projects have earned her an eminent place among the ranks of social pioneers.”
“In the last paragraph, the author is primarily concerned with
“(A) summarizing the arguments about Nightingale presented in the first two paragraphs
“(B) refuting the view of Nightingale’s career presented in the preceding paragraph
“(C) analyzing the weaknesses of the evidence presented elsewhere in the passage
“(D) citing evidence to support a view of Nightingale’s career
“(E) correcting a factual error occurring in one of the works under review”
What did you think? What does your Passage Map look like? What’s the basic story (or Simple Story) here?
This is my Map:
What’s the story? Summers thinks FN wasn’t so great and provides reasons why. The “editors” (whoever they are) disagree—they think FN had a great impact both in her time and in future times. And the author agrees with the second opinion: FN had a big impact both in her own time and later (though, the author acknowledges, Summers may have a small point and maybe some of FN’s achievements were exaggerated).
The passage told me up front that these two publications have different points of view, so I numbered them as I went. That helps me to keep them clear/separate from each other. (By the way, the (ex) stuff I have up there is my little shorthand for “the passage gives some examples here to support this point.”)
Interestingly, the author gives her own opinion very clearly—even using “I” in the passage. That doesn’t often happen on the GMAT. She agrees with #2 overall, though she acknowledges that #1 may have some valid points.
At this point, I hadn’t seen any of the questions yet, but I was still guessing that at least one of the questions was going to get at the difference of opinion between Summers and the “editors.” I also suspected that some trap answers were going to try to get me to mix up what each one thinks or mix up which one the author agrees with. So I made sure that I had very clear notes on that information.
Okay, let’s tackle that question. What kind of question is it?
This is a somewhat less common question type but it falls under the category of main idea or primary purpose. Instead of asking for the primary purpose of the entire passage, though, it asks for just the primary purpose of the final paragraph.
So what is the primary purpose of that paragraph? Why did the author include it?
That’s where she gave her opinion. She generally agreed with #2 (even giving some additional examples to support this view), though she acknowledged that #1 may have a point. So the correct answer should go along with this idea—she agreed with the side presented in the second paragraph.
Let’s check the answers.
“(A) summarizing the arguments about Nightingale presented in the first two paragraphs”
This choice is very neutral, but paragraph 3 is not neutral. She doesn’t just summarize some stuff—she definitely agrees with the second view and even provides new examples to support that view. (I would guess that this one is a trap answer for someone who thinks that this is a regular Primary Purpose question—the passage overall is about these two different arguments, but the third paragraph does not just summarize them.)
“(B) refuting the view of Nightingale’s career presented in the preceding paragraph”
Whoops, wrong paragraph. The “preceding” paragraph is the second one, but she agrees with the second paragraph. You could say she refutes the view presented in the first paragraph—but not the second one.
“(C) analyzing the weaknesses of the evidence presented elsewhere in the passage”
She doesn’t dive into the other evidence presented earlier. Rather, she provides new evidence to support one of the points of view.
“(D) citing evidence to support a view of Nightingale’s career”
Yes! This is it. She does cite new evidence and she does support one particular view (the one presented in the second paragraph).
“(E) correcting a factual error occurring in one of the works under review”
She doesn’t say that any of the earlier info is wrong. Rather, she provides additional evidence to further support the view that Nightingale did actually have a significant, positive impact on the world. This one isn’t it either.
The correct answer is (D).
Key Takeaways for Reading Comprehension
(1) Map the passage. Make sure to delineate each paragraph and represent the main message (but not all of the details) in your map. Pay particular attention to any contrasts or changes of direction (sometimes called twists) in the passage.
(2) As you make your Map, articulate the Simple Story to yourself—and keep it very big picture. What will you tell your friend afterwards? You wouldn’t get into all of the specific details; you’d mostly just tell her the main ideas/simple story.
(3) Main Idea questions might sometimes ask you about just one paragraph instead of the entire passage. When this happens, make sure you focus in on just that one paragraph.
Ready for more? Let’s move on to Part 2. 📝
* GMATPrep® questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.
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