5. Determine Purpose
Identify the conflicting perspectives within the essay, and the author’s point-of-view.

Ask yourself:

  • Why is the author telling me this?
  • Why does the author select certain facts and draw certain conclusions?
  • What is the author’s agenda?

There is always some reason that the author wrote the passage. Often essays will have a policy idea or suggestion to fix a problem described. Sometimes, the author might simply want to educate people about a subject or correct a misconception. Sometimes, there will be a more political/ideological motive for the claims made.

Writers try to sound objective, but there is always something the author wants to convince you of or, at least, get you to learn from the passage.

Be careful to distinguish fact from opinion. Though they may look like facts, some statements in the essay may be false claims or unsupported opinions loaded with bias. Pay close attention to the language in order to distinguish fact from opinion. The author’s purpose for writing the essay and his or her convictions are found in these subtle statements of opinion.

Take these excerpts from a passage on water management, for example. Some of the author’s statements are fact but many are opinion.

Fact or Opinion

“In the arid parts of the land, it has recently become clear that climate varies over time, with irregular periods of serious drought followed by wet periods marked by occasional floods.”FACT: This statement is a review of recent scientific findings about climate. No opinion here. However, the author is using data regarding drought periods to back up later claims about water being mismanaged.
“One of the most persistently troubling parts of national domestic policy is the development and use of water resources.”OPINION: “The most troubling” indicates feeling, not fact. The author’s opinion is that the development of water resources is one of the most troubling parts of national domestic policy. This is not necessarily the ultimate truth. Some people may not think that the development of water resources is problematic.
“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.”FACT: The author is citing specific research conducted by a Senate committee. He or she is using these findings to back up the claim that water is mismanaged due to administrative failure. However, this statement alone contains no opinion.

In summary, every author has a purpose for writing his or her passage. The author’s purpose can be found in subtle statements of opinion. Pay close attention to language that indicates conviction.

Now that you’ve reviewed the basics of how to tackle a reading comprehension passage, we’ll move on to the question types and strategies.

Here is a sample short passage with accompanying commentary:

Read the commentary as you are reading the passage to see the underlying logic of how mapping works.

Paragraph One

(1) As in the case of so many words used by the biologist and physiologist, the word acclimatization is hard to define. (2) With an increase in knowledge and understanding, meanings of words change. (3) Originally, the term acclimatization was taken to mean only the ability of human beings or animals or plants to accustom themselves to new and strange climatic conditions, primarily altered temperature

A person or a wolf moves to a hot climate and is uncomfortable there, but after a time is better able to withstand the heat. (4) But aside from temperature, there are other aspects of climate. (5) A person or an animal may become adjusted to living at higher altitudes than those it was originally accustomed to. At very high altitudes, those which aviators may be exposed to, the low atmospheric pressure becomes a factor of primary importance. In changing to a new environment, a person may, therefore, meet new conditions of temperature or pressure, and may also have to contend with different chemical surroundings. On high mountains, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere may be relatively small; in crowded cities, a person may become exposed to relatively high concentrations of carbon dioxide or even carbon monoxide, and in various areas may be exposed to conditions in which the water content of the atmosphere is extremely high or extremely low.  (6) Thus, in the case of humans, animals, and even plants, the concept of acclimatization includes the phenomena of increased toleration of high or low temperature, of altered pressure, and of changes in the chemical environment.

What’s going on?

1) First sentences are often topic sentences. This first sentence sets up that the topic will be a discussion of the meaning of acclimatization. (2) Setting up a contrast: old definition vs. new model. (3) So acclimatization meant getting used to a hotter or colder climate. If you live in Vermont, think of moving to Florida.

(4) “But” signals contrast. That was then, this is now. Old definition vs. new, more encompassing one.
(5) We thought we had the meaning down, but there is more. Temperature isn’t the whole ball of wax. There is higher altitude, new chemicals, all kinds of exciting stuff.

(6) “Thus” is a major, major word. It means “Hey, I’m going to say something important now.” For GMAT passages, it sometimes means “Now, let me state the Big Idea,” which here is an expanded set of phenomena for a deeper understanding of acclimatization.

Paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown of the passage:

P1: Acclimatization: more than just temperature

Paragraph Two

(1) Let us define acclimatization, therefore, as the process in which an organism or a part of an organism becomes inured to an environment that is normally unsuitable to it or lethal for it. (2) By and large, acclimatization is a relatively slow process. (3) The term should not be taken to include relatively rapid adjustments such as those our sense organs are constantly making. This type of adjustment is commonly referred to by physiologists as “adaptation.” Thus, our touch sense soon becomes accustomed to the pressure of our clothes and we do not feel them; we soon fail to hear the ticking of a clock; obnoxious odors after a time fail to make much impression on us, and our eyes in strong light rapidly become insensitive.

What’s going on?

(1) A new definition… that’s important. Make sure you know the contrast between the old definition (temperature) and the new, improved one (temperature, pressure, chemicals).
(2) OK, the new definition encompasses a lot more than the old one, but there is this other issue of time.
(3) Another important contrast: fast vs. slow. Acclimatization is slow. It is what happens when you’ve been hanging out in an environment for a long while.

P2: Fast adjustment = adaptation vs. slow adjustment = acclimatization

Paragraph Three

(1) The fundamental fact about acclimatization is that all animals and plants have some capacity to adjust themselves to changes in their environment. This is one of the most remarkable characteristics of living organisms, a characteristic for which it is extremely difficult to find explanations.

What’s going on?

(1) First sentences of last paragraphs are usually important, especially when they contain a giveaway phrase like “fundamental fact.”

P3: Characteristic of all living things = Capacity for change

Question Type II — Purpose of the Passage

How to identify ‘Purpose of the Passage’ questions: Look for synonyms for purpose: objective, goal, main strategy.

  • Why did the author write the passage?
  • For which of the following reasons did the author write the passage?
  • What was the author’s primary objective?
  • The overall objective of the passage is which of the following?
  • How to tackle them: Often the answer choices will also start with verbs. Look for the one that fits.

How to tackle them: Verbs, verbs, verbs. The purpose of a passage often can be summarized by a single descriptive verb. Ask yourself: What is the passage doing? Is it arguing a point? Or praising something the author likes? Is it merely describing a person, place, or event? Often the answer choices will start with verbs: once you’ve found the verb that best describes the passage’s purpose, you’re half done: all you need to do now is look for the one that fits your own mental description. For example, if the passage is a description of a new species of bird, look for words that mean “describe”: explain, discuss, etc.

Which of the following is the author’s main purpose?

A) Present . . .
B) Argue . . .
C) Persuade . . .
D) Lament . . .
E) Praise. . .

The answer must be (A), “present,” because its meaning is the closest to “describe.” Both words suggest a measured and objective style of writing Choices (B) and (C) suggest that the author is offering a specific point of view, which isn’t true if he’s simply describing a new species. Choice (D) implies that the passage is about something sad or lost, which isn’t true either. Choice (E) could potentially make sense if the author’s description is extremely enthusiastic, but again this implies bias or a specific point of view, which we haven’t identified in the passage. Therefore (A) is by far the best answer.

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