Reading Comprehension I: Introduction II: The Challenge III: The Five Steps 1. Passage Classification 2. Breaking Down Each Passage 3. See the Organization 3a. Short Essays 3b. Long Essays 4. Find the Big Idea 5. Diagnose Author's Purpose IV: Question Types V: Tips VI: Sample Essays
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III-4. Find the Big Idea

Wouldn't it be easier if the essay you were reading had a title? If it did, you would have a good idea from the start what the main point of the essay was. The writers of the GMAT purposefully exclude the title so that it is up to you to decipher the essay and its "Big Idea."

Most of the GMAT questions, particularly higher skill-level questions, aren't about details; they concern the main idea (aka the Big Idea). The tone, scope, and implications of the main idea usually hold the key to answering more than half the questions on a given passage. The main idea is the Rosetta Stone of a passage, helping us decipher the passage and discern its structure. Accordingly, we must focus our strategy on finding the author's point of view and main idea.

In nearly all GMAT passages, the author will be making an argument of some form. Don't expect the main point of a passage to be "World War I was fought from 1914 to 1918.” Instead, it's more likely to be "World War I was extended by Britain's needless and poorly executed intervention" (that is, a specific, detailed argument instead of a general, unbiased presentation of facts).

An author can't just make a statement like the one above without substantial support. This means that the argument must contain the elements of persuasion:

1. Evidence
2. Refutation of possible rebuttals
3. Subsidiary points

For most essays, the test writers will put up clear signposts and make the Big Idea pretty obvious – so long as you know what to look for.

A. The first and last sentences of the first paragraph and the first and last sentences of the final paragraph are good places to pay special attention to, as they often introduce or summarize the main points.

Here is a first paragraph of an essay:

One of the most persistently troubling aspects of national domestic policy is the development and use of water resources. Because the technology of water management involves similar construction skills, whether the task is the building of an ocean jetty for protection of shipping or the construction of a river dam for flood control and irrigation, the issues of water policy have mingled problems of navigation and agriculture. A further inherent complexity of water policy is the frequent conflict between flood control and irrigation and between requirements for abundance and those for scarcity of water. Both problems exist in America, often in the same river basins; one is most typically the problem of the lower part of the basin and the other the problem of the upper part.

Let's look at the first sentence: One of the most persistently troubling aspects of national domestic policy is the development and use of water resources. Now this is a topic sentence if ever there was one. Troubling may be less colorful than the kind of language you use when you stub your toe, but in the context of water management, it is pretty hot stuff. We know, from the start, that there is a serious problem with water management and that the author is going to explain what it is.

Here is the final paragraph of the essay:

Nevertheless, the most startling fact about the history of water projects in the United States is the degree to which their shortcomings have been associated with administrative failures. Again and again these shortcomings have proved to be the consequences of inadequate study of water flow, of soil, of factors other than construction technology, and of faulty organization. In 1959, the Senate Select Committee on National Water Resources found that twenty different national commissions or committees charged with examining these problems and seeking solutions had emphasized with remarkable consistency the need for coordination among agencies dealing with water.

Now this closes in very specifically on the author's opinion – the failure of government agencies to deal effectively with water management. The first paragraph introduces the general idea and this paragraph really focuses on what is to blame – the government's lack of administrative coordination.

 Look at the Questions for the Big Idea If, as we have said, many Macro questions revolve around the Big Idea, then isn't it possible to get clues about the main idea from sample Macro questions from the essay? If all else fails, look at the first question: it very possibly could give you a clue about what the GMAT considers important about the essay. In addition, looking for clues in the first few questions will help tighten your understanding of the essay itself.

B. Slam on the brakes language is another signpost. These are tone signals that should compel you to slow down your reading pace and start reading very closely. There is a good chance the author is about to reveal a central point and his true feelings about the issue. Slam on the brakes language is so crucial, so telling, that it's almost like a lie detector test when the pen starts jittering.

 Here are some common slam on the nrakes words: amazing successful impressive remarkable greatness inadequate invalid unfortunately inefficient leadership competition startling surprising

In that final paragraph, look at how the slam on the brake words emphatically signal the author's point:

Nevertheless, the most startling fact about the history of water projects in the United States is the degree to which their shortcomings have been associated with administrative failures. Again and again these shortcomings have proved to be the consequences of inadequate study of water flow, of soil, of factors other than construction technology, and of faulty organization. In 1959, the Senate Select Committee on National Water Resources found that twenty different national commissions or committees charged with examining these problems and seeking solutions had emphasized with remarkable consistency the need for coordination among agencies dealing with water.

By focusing in on these triggers, we can see how central the author considers the government's failings to be to the problem of water management. This gives us access to the Big Idea.

C. Polish Up the Big Idea
Ok, you've finished reading the essay, you think you know the Big Idea, and you have an idea about structure. Take a moment to review everything and double check that you have the Big Idea narrowed down. Write a sentence-long summary of the Big Idea on your white board.