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GMAT Tips from Veritas Prep

Five Ways to Find the Primary Purpose in Reading Comprehension

Five Ways to Find the Primary Purpose in Reading Comprehension

Photograph by Ocean/Corbis

This tip for improving your GMAT score was provided by David Newland at Veritas Prep.

Most reading comprehension passages have one thing in common: They feature a question that asks you about the primary purpose of the passage. The GMAT has different ways of wording these questions, but each of these questions asks you to choose the answer choice that best indicates the primary purpose of the passage, and each of these questions can be approached with the following technique:

Begin by reading the passage correctly. Answering a universal question—a question that is based on the entire passage—depends on reading the passage at the proper level. The Veritas Prep STOP technique teaches test takers to read at the appropriate level. You should not get lost in the details of names and dates and difficult vocabulary, but it is also not appropriate to “skim” a GMAT reading comprehension passage. What you should do is to read for the main idea of each paragraph and the Scope, Tone, Organization, and Purpose (STOP) of the passage.

You may find that it is helpful to stop at the end of each paragraph and sum up the main idea of that paragraph in a few words. If you cannot state the main idea of the paragraph, you will want to reread the paragraph before moving on. It is important that you not push forward if you do not understand what you are reading. It is not each detail that matters, but understanding the essentials of the passage. When you have finished reading the passage, review each element of S-T-O-P.

Now you are ready for the questions. Remember that, unlike specific detail questions, primary purpose questions are best approached with process of elimination. When you encounter a question that asks you what “the passage is primarily concerned with” use the following five ways (in this order) to eliminate the incorrect answers as you work to identify the primary purpose.

Verb (tone). One trait of primary purpose questions that can be very helpful is that the answer choices usually begin with a verb such as “describe,” “defend,” or “criticize.” These verbs need to match the tone of the passage; if not, the answer choice can be eliminated. For example, a passage that is merely descriptive in nature and not opinionated is very likely to “criticize” or “support.”

Scope. The answer choice must match the scope of the passage. An answer that is focused on one detail of the passage is not the correct answer to a primary purpose question, even if it accurately identifies one of the themes of the passage. Likewise, an answer that is too broad in scope cannot be the correct answer, either. So watch for overly ambitious answers as well.

“Must be true.” The heart of a strong approach to reading comprehension is to realize that nearly every question type you will face shares an essential characteristic of critical reasoning inference questions. The correct answer must be true, based on what is written in the passage. An answer cannot be the main idea (or the function or the inference) if it is not true.

Return to the Last Paragraph. If you have more than one answer left at this point, you can return to the text for guidance. The last paragraph is the best place to go for this. An author is most likely to reveal opinion in the final paragraph, and this is where any broader conclusions are made, too.

“Why did the author take the time to write?” Finally, when you are left with two answer choices that appear to be of the right tone and scope—each “must be true” and is not eliminated by anything in the text—ask yourself, “Why did the author take the time to write this?” Test your remaining answer choices and see which is more likely to have inspired the author to write. The answer to this question is the author’s primary purpose.

This technique, combined with the focus you should bring to all GMAT questions, will serve your primary purpose of earning a higher GMAT score.

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