The Motive Behind the Locomotive


My son is six months old and most of the things that he does don’t make sense to me. Sure, I’ve come to understand that certain cries mean certain things- I’m hungry, I’m tired, my diaper is wet, etc.-but that’s only a small part of his communication. I’m not sure if there’s some kind of internal baby logic that my adult brain no longer remembers how to interpret or if his actions are just arbitrary. In any case, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to figure out what he’s thinking.


My task with my son is a lot more difficult than your task with reading comprehension, but the job is the same. When I look at my son and see him thrashing his arms with his eyes wide and a surprised expression on his face, what’s important to me as a parent isn’t what he looks like, but rather what he’s thinking and what’s causing him to feel that way. The same can be said for the reading comprehension passages that you’ll face on your test.


It really isn’t very important what an 1829 locomotive looked like, or how fast it could go, because if for some reason you are asked about those facts you can easily refer back to the passage and find the answer. What is important is why the author chose to include those details. If the author is discussing the 1829 locomotive in order to show what a breakthrough it was at the time, we can understand facts about appearance and speed as merely reinforcing this concept of a fantastic new invention. If, on the other hand, the author is discussing the 1829 locomotive in order to discuss its shortcomings, we can understand facts about appearance and speed as examples of how that locomotive fell short of what today we would consider a reasonable standard. The author’s intention is paramount. The exact same facts can have many very different meanings depending on the author’s goal.


So, practically what does this mean for you? First of all, it should change the way that you read a passage. Instead of reading to find out what the author said, you should instead be reading for why the author said what he said. Why questions test you at a deeper level, and thus are more helpful for the test maker in evaluating your skill level. That’s why they tend to be much more common.


So, maybe you are the type of person who would pick up a magazine article on the 1829 locomotive or maybe you’re not. Regardless, if you see that kind of an article on your test, remember that your goal is not to learn about the 1829 locomotive. Your goal is to figure out why the author is discussing this topic and how he’s going about doing that. If you make your first priority understanding the author’s point of view rather than simply what the author is saying, you’ll be well on your way to a higher score.


Good luck and keep practicing!

 Wet Toilet Paper


I watched a ridiculous commercial today. In it, customers sat in a salon and got their hair shampooed, but the stylists didn’t use any water. The result was a bunch of soapy messy customers. That was followed by this really ridiculous conclusion: You wouldn’t shampoo your hair without water, so why would you use toilet paper that didn’t have water in it.


I looked at my wife incredulously when I saw the ad because I couldn’t believe that the advertisers thought people would be stupid enough to look at that and nod along:

“Sure, water with shampoo makes sense, so why not water with toilet paper?”


However, the fact that this ad made it through several stages of review and made it to the air suggests to me that the advertisers do think that the public will go along with this. In order to make sure you’re not swept along, let’s take a look at the assumption present in this argument.


An argument’s general form is that there are premises—or pieces of evidence—that form the support for the final piece of an argument, the conclusion. Let’s take a look at this commercial in that form.


Shampooing with water is good + Shampooing without water is bad à Toilet paper with water is good


Now, I mentioned the two most important parts of the argument (conclusion and premises) but there is another piece that may be present. When the premises on their own do not conclusively establish the conclusion, the assumptions are the unstated pieces of evidence needed to get to the conclusion.


Some assumptions are probably safe. For instance, if I said I needed to deposit checks so I was going to the bank, it’s a good bet that I’m going to a financial institution rather than a food bank or a phone bank. However, the gap between the premises and the evidence leaves some room for doubt, and so that is an assumption we’re making. Identifying assumptions is a key skill on the GMAT, because you won’t be asked to judge how valid an assumption is, merely whether or not it is present.


In this case, the commercial makes a common form of assumption called argumentation by analogy. In order to go along with the argument presented in the commercial, we have to believe that the subject of the evidence and the subject of the conclusion are similar enough that what’s true of one will also be true of the other. Let’s take another look at the argument with that assumption added in:


Shampooing with water is good + Shampooing without water is bad + (What’s good for shampooing is also good for toilet paper) à Toilet paper with water is good


With that link added, this argument is now logically sound. However, if you don’t believe this assumption you probably won’t be convinced that buying this brand of toilet paper is the best.


Keep the idea of assumptions in mind and look out for argumentation by analogy both on the test and on TV. If you can spot those assumptions well you’ll pick up some points and avoid the tricks of advertisers.

 Tips for Success on the Reading Section

All standardized tests have reading passages and questions. Often these passages do not look like the ones that students regularly read. They tend to be a bit dense, at a higher reading level, about esoteric topics, and sometimes, they are downright boring. But this has been done for a reason. For one, this is what you can expect from the next level of academia. Obfuscation tends to be the name of the game for university professors. Two, the test makers want to really test you and see what you can do under rigorous circumstances. They pull you out of your comfort zone and see if you can perform.

To avoid the pitfalls that they hope you fall into, follow the tips below and you will be on track for success.


Be active—not passive

Most of the reading you do now is passive. Don’t feel bad. I do it to. Passive reading is casual and relaxing—the type of reading you do Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in hand, perusing articles in the newspaper, reading the first couple paragraphs of an article, skipping over ones that don’t appeal to your interests, maybe remembering parts of the article, not too focused on getting information out of the text. Although pleasurable, this type of reading will be your doom on the SAT or GRE.

When reading on the test, you need to attack the passage. Actively engage with the words in front of you. Read with focus and purpose. All other recommendations flow from this one; every tip below is aimed at engaging your mind and making you an active reader. So no sitting around passively—you are an attack dog devouring information.


Don’t get bogged down in details

Students often think they need to understand everything in the passage to answer the questions. But this ignores the fact that writers value information differently. Some of the sentences they write are of primary importance and others are of secondary or tertiary importance.

So stay out of details. Make note of where certain details are in the passage, but don’t stop to understand them all. This will be a waste of your time. Only focus on details when a question directs you to one. Ultimately, you should be looking at the big picture, determining what the whole passage is about when you first start reading.


Take notes

The easiest way to become an active reader is to pick up a pencil and jot down notes. This gives your reading purpose. With pencil in hand, you have something to do besides read. You are trying to extract meaning, synthesize it in your mind, and then shorten and summarize it on paper. Nothing could be better for reading comprehension.

Do not get caught up in writing long notes, though. Note taking can easily hinder your ability to be efficient on test day. So practice writing short symbolic notes: up arrows, plus and equal signs, abbreviations and single letters to represent ideas in the passage, and bullet points and numbers for passage structure.


Identify the main idea and author’s purpose

Not only will there be questions about the main idea and the author’s purpose on the test, making these important to identify when you first read through a passage, but also these are two crucial aspects to understanding anything that you read. Without knowing the main idea, you will not understand the examples, the connection of ideas, or the point of the passage. Without knowing the author’s purpose, you won’t be able to judge the authenticity of the information in the passage, what to do with the information presented, or to know whether or not it is trustworthy.

Take notes on the main idea and author’s purpose. For the author’s purpose, try to determine if she is trying to persuade you of something or merely describing or informing you about something. This is usually all that you need for answering questions about the author’s purpose.


Understand the structure

The structure tells you about the connection of ideas. You will understand the flow of the passage, know when an example is presented to support a point or a counterpoint. You won’t know where the passage is going without paying attention to the structure. The structure holds the passage together and tells you how one paragraph relates to another paragraph. Crucially, knowing the structure of the passage will allow you to navigate the passage quickly when answering a question.

Determine the purpose of each paragraph. Pay attention to structure words. And the structure will reveal itself to you.


 Informed Decisions


Supreme Court decisions have dominated the headlines this week, meaning that your social media has likely been dominated by discussion of those decisions. As I read through my own social media I’ve been staggered by the volume of ignorance being shared. When the Supreme Court takes on a case it usually means that it involves an issue so difficult and so complex that at least two lower courts haven’t been able to satisfactorily and conclusively figure it out. And yet, the vast majority of posts I see praising or panning a decision seem to be from people that have read a news headline, not even the whole article and definitely not the opinion itself.


I have to resist calling this some sort of an indictment on this generation, because I think the temptation to form opinions in the absence of complete information is more a pervasive human fault than a more recent development. It’s easy to jump to a conclusion based on insufficient evidence or to be led to poor conclusions when we don’t think for ourselves.


Let’s relate this concept to the math section of your test. Take the following example:


The variable x is a non-odd number between 0 and 4 (exclusive). What is the value of x?


The snap answer to this question is 2. It’s even (non-odd) and in that range, so it must be correct. But, answering 2 ignores the fact that you were asked for a “number” not an integer. So, 1.5, 2.38 and 14/9 are all equally good answers. Take that a step further and you’ll realize we don’t even need to choose a rational number, so choices like pi or e or the square root of 2 are all acceptable as well.


I’ll confine the lesson here to test-taking and allow you to consider the wider implications on your own. When faced with a problem to solve, make sure you’re weighing all of the relevant information carefully before jumping to a conclusion, because grabbing any answer that works without appreciating the nuances can lead you to ignore other possibilities that just might lead you to the correct answer.