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    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-3b. The Five Steps- Long Essays (Advanced / Intermediate)
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Longer passages (sometimes greater than 85 lines) present two additional challenges:

1. They simply take more time to read.
They become much harder to map intuitively.

The most efficient way to read long passages is to read closely for the main idea but skim through the details. The amount you skim will depend on you, but you will hurt yourself by treating each word as vitally important. (The same principle could apply to short passages, but because they are much shorter it is just easier to read each word closely and avoid thinking about the importance of every word or sentence.)

Read the paragraphs strategically.

  • Read the first paragraph the most closely (usually every word), unless it is a backgrounder (an introductory paragraph that introduces background information with little description of the author's point of view). If it is a backgrounder, then the second paragraph takes primary importance. Backgrounders are one way the GMAT writers make the passages longer.
  • Read the last paragraph with second-highest priority.
  • Skim most of the content of all other paragraphs.

Spend more time understanding the function of the first paragraph (or second if the first is a backgrounder) and the last paragraph.

In skimming secondary paragraphs, you should focus entirely on understanding tone, main idea, and relation to the preceding paragraph. This system keeps you focused on getting the important secondary content without wasting time on details. However, remember to look for "slam on the brakes language." In fact, look for any conspicuous language (this will be explained on the next page).

For example, a science passage might have the format:
P1: Background
P2: Main idea: stem cell therapy faces many problems
P3: Problems in stem cell research
P4: More problems in stem cell research
P5: Conclusion about future

Here is a sample of a long passage, broken down by paragraph:

Paragraph One

Nearly twenty years ago, biochemists found that a separable constituent of the cell deoxyribonucleic (or DNA) appeared to guide the cell's protein-synthesizing machinery. The internal structure of DNA seemed to represent a set of coded instructions that dictated the pattern of protein-synthesis. Experiments indicated that in the presence of appropriate enzymes each DNA molecule could form a replica, a new DNA molecule, containing the specific guiding message present in the original. This idea, when added to what was already known about the cellular mechanisms of heredity (especially the knowledge that DNA is localized in chromosomes) appeared to establish a molecular basis for inheritance.

  What's going on?

The first paragraph here is actually mostly fluff. This is scientific background that prepares the reader for the drama ahead. Don't get intimidated. Skim over it without getting into a panic if you don't understand all the jargon.


Paragraph Two

Proponents of the theory that DNA was a "self-duplicating" molecule, containing a code that by itself determined biological inheritance, introduced the term "central dogma" into scientific literature in order to describe the principles that were supposed to explain DNA's governing role. The dogma originally involved an admittedly unproven assumption that whereas nucleic acids can guide the synthesis in other nucleic acids and of proteins, the reverse effect is impossible, that is, proteins cannot guide the synthesis of nucleic acids. But actual experimental observations deny the second and crucial part of this assumption. Other test-tube experiments show that agents besides DNA have a guiding influence. The kind of protein made may depend on the specific organism from which the necessary enzyme is obtained. It also depends on the test tube's temperature, the degree of acidity, and the amount of metallic salts present.

  What's going on?

When you see "dogma" or some other powerful term, bells should go off. Read S L O W L Y because you are getting to the good part. You have just found the raison d'être of the passage: our author is challenging a "dogma!"

What is the author using? "Actual experimental observations." Like Galileo using the movements of the planets to rail against the established orthodoxy of his time, our author seeks to use his experimental observation to challenge the "dogma." That's part of the controversy here: a conflict between dogma and actual experimental evidence. Do you want to bet that a few of the questions hinge on this paragraph and that simple theme?

Paragraph Three

The central dogma banishes from consideration the interactions among the numerous molecular processes that have been discovered in cells or in their extracted fluids. In the living cell, molecular processes — the synthesis of nucleic acids and proteins or the oxidation of food substance — are not separate but interact in exceedingly complex ways. No matter how many ingredients the biochemists' test tubes may contain, the mixtures are nonliving; but these same ingredients, organized by the subtle structure of the cell, constitute a system, which is alive.

  What's going on?

Brace yourself.... our molecular biologist is about to let loose: "the central dogma banishes from consideration." Wow! That is strong language. We just know that he is going to follow up that line with his main point: "the interactions among the numerous molecular processes that have been discovered in cells or in their extracted fluids" and voila! There it is.

So we know this is the old "simple vs. complex" conflict. In the prior paragraph it was "dogma vs. experimental evidence." In this paragraph, it is "simple" dogma versus more "complex" understanding of interactions of molecular processes and all kinds of extremely complicated things that go on in a cell.


Paragraph Four

Consider an example from another field. At ordinary temperatures, electricity flows only so long as a driving force from a battery or generator is imposed on the circuit. At temperatures near absolute zero, metals exhibit superconductivity, a unique property that causes an electric current to flow for months after the voltage is cut off. Although independent electrons exist in a metal at ordinary temperatures, at very low temperatures they interact with the metal's atomic structure in such a way as to lose their individual identities and form a coordinated, collective system which gives rise to superconductivity.

  What's going on?

What does electricity have to do with DNA? The last sentence says "lose their individual identities and form a coordinated, collective system." What could be the "coordinated, collective system?" Aha! The author is drawing an analogy to complex and coordinated cell function. Basically, the purpose of this rambling, extended analogy is just to make sure that you, the reader, really, really, gets it — we are dealing with COMPLEX systems with all sorts of coordinated things going on. Simple concept of cells = bad "dogma." Complex coordinated systems in cells = good.


Paragraph Five

Such discoveries of modern physics show that the unique properties of a complex system are not necessarily explicable solely by the properties that can be observed in its isolated parts. We can expect to find a similar situation in the complex chemical system of the living cells.

  What's going on?

Just in case you didn't get the superconductivity analogy, the author hammers his point for the third paragraph in a row... just one last time for good measure. Clearly the writer has got this thing for "complex chemical systems" in cells. So you can expect many of the questions to turn on this issue.

Now here is a simple road map of the passage:

P1: DNA is the molecular basis of inheritance.

P2: DNA is not the only game in town. The reality is more complex.

P3: Cells are unbelievably complex and their parts all work together.

P4: In case you don't get the idea of complexity, here is another example: metals are complicated and the parts work together.

P5: Okay, one more time: cells are complex, highly coordinated systems.

3a. Short Essays

4. Find the Big Idea