Last week, a student asked me to write an article on finding “The Point” in a reading comprehension passage – specifically, what is The Point and how do we find it? I thought it was a great idea; a lot of people struggle with this.
Note: this article doesn’t address how to answer reading comprehension questions; it focuses on the initial read-through in order to understand the main point of the passage. If you do that well, though, then that should help you answer any kind of question.
This article will expand upon the paragraph that discusses The Point in this article on How To Read an RC Passage. We’re going to discuss a particular passage from The Official Guide for GMAT Review, 12th Edition, but I cannot reprint the full text of the passage here, so you may want to get your book first in order to follow along.
What is “The Point”?
Here’s an excerpt from the article I linked to above:
Every passage has a topic and what I call The Point. The topic is what you would probably expect: the basic topic under discussion in the passage. The Point is the main reason the author is writing this specific passage (you can also think of The Point as the thesis statement). For instance, a passage topic might be the curious decline of bees in recent years (entire hives have been dying, losing the ability to find their way back to the hive, and so on). The Point might be that, out of three possible causes (all mentioned in the passage), a certain pesticide is the most likely cause (according to the author).
So, when I read a passage, I need to make sure I understand the author’s main Point, or purpose for writing the passage. You can also think of the Point as the one thing that the author wants to make sure you get out of the passage: not just that bees are mysteriously dying off, but why – some pesticide. If you ran into the author in the elevator, and he or she asked you to provide a 1-sentence summary, in your own words, of why the author wrote the passage, could you do so?
Most of the time, The Point can be found in one discrete sentence somewhere in the passage, though sometimes we have to combine two sentences to get the full Point. Most often, The Point can be found in the first few or last few sentences of the entire passage, but it is possible for The Point to show up anywhere.
There are a few common ways in which The Point often shows up. You do not need to attempt to classify The Point when taking the test or doing practice questions; the below descriptions are just to help you to recognize The Point when you see it.
(1) Resolution: there’s some kind of problem or issue; the author describes the problem and offers some kind of resolution or solution. The author might also provide several possible resolutions (and, if so, the author may or may not indicate which one the author prefers)
(2) Answer: there’s some kind of question – something which people don’t know or about which they’re unsure – and the author describes the question at hand and provides some kind of answer; the author might also provide several possible answers (and, if so, the author may or may not indicate which one answer the author prefers)
(1) and (2) are very similar. Examples of these in OG12 (The Official Guide for GMAT Review 12th Edition) are the “Predator-prey dynamics” passage and the “Economic development strategy” passage.
(3) New Idea: there’s an old way of looking at things – an old theory, an old idea, and old principle – and a new theory or idea; the author presents the old idea as context, describes the new idea, and contrasts the old with the new.
Examples of this type in OG12 are the “Archaeology as a profession” passage and the “Beta vs. VHS” passage.
(4) Reason: there’s some particular observation made or data gathered or phenomenon observed; the author explains this information and offers a reason why this thing is the way that it is or happened the way that it happened. Often, the author mentions an existing, widely-accepted reason and says either that the existing reason is not quite comprehensive enough or that some new reason would better explain the observation or phenomenon.
Examples of this type in OG12 are the “Florentine textile industry” passage and the “Temporary employment” passage.
How Do I Find The Point?
The Point can occur at any position in the passage. Approximately 80% of the time in short passages, The Point is found in the first two sentences or the last two sentences of the entire passage. On long passages, The Point is found in the first two paragraphs approximately 70% of the time. Further, when The Point is found in the middle or towards the end of the passage, the first paragraph often contains “foreshadowing” of The Point: information that gave clues to or more strongly represents The Point before it is stated later in the passage.
In the “Predator-prey dynamics” passage, for example, the first two sentences introduce the overall topic for the passage. The final sentence of the first paragraph provides an issue or question: there is a surprising result in the data. After reading that paragraph, we now know the general topic but we don’t yet know why the author is writing this passage.
The first sentence of the second paragraph offers significant foreshadowing:
“In considering possible explanations for this finding…”
Stop right there! Okay, now I know that at least part of this next paragraph is going to talk about possible explanations for this surprising data mentioned in the first paragraph. At this point, I have a pretty good idea (because I’ve examined the structure of lots of passages) that one of two things is going to happen:
(1) The author mentions multiple possible explanations but does not indicate which explanation the people in the passage or the author finds most plausible. In this case, the point is usually: there are multiple possible explanations for phenomenon X but we don’t know which one is best.
(2) The author mentions multiple possible explanations and indicates which one the people in the passage or the author prefers. In this case, the point is usually: there are multiple possible explanations for phenomenon X and we think this one is the best one.
So, now, I’m going to look for that as I continue to read. The second sentence in the second paragraph tells me one explanation that the researchers “rejected.” The third sentence tells me another explanation that they “ruled out.” The fourth sentence begins:
“The explanation they consider most plausible…”
Bingo! Now I know why author wrote this passage: to tell me that there were three possible explanations for some phenomenon and here’s the one explanation that researchers “consider most plausible.”
(1) Understand what The Point is: the single primary reason why the author bothered to spend a bunch of time writing this passage
(2) Read actively; think critically about the purpose behind different pieces of information in the passage and look for language that foreshadows what might be coming next.
(3) Know the kinds of structures that you might see when you read a passage so that you can recognize similar patterns and anticipate what The Point might be.
(4) When you review your work, also review The Point. Now that you’re done, do you still think you were right about The Point? If not, why not? In future, how might you get The Point right the first time?
Copyright note: the text excerpted above from The Official Guide for GMAT Review 12th Edition is copyright GMAC (the Graduate Management Admissions Council). The short excerpts are quoted under fair-use statutes for scholarly or journalistic work; use of these excerpts does not imply endorsement of this article by GMAC.