|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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
In that final paragraph, look at how the slam
on the brake words emphatically signal the author's point:
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
Video courtesy of Manhattan GMAT
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