Breaking Down a GMATPrep RC Specific Detail Problem
This week, we’re going to tackle a harder GMATPrep® reading comprehension question from the Specific Detail category
Let’s start with the problem. I’m going to give you the relevant paragraph from the passage first and then the text of the problem. Give yourself 1 minute to read through the paragraph (this is your initial read-through before you start answering questions). Make sure to read the passage first, since that’s what you would do on the real test – you wouldn’t ordinarily know that you need to answer just one question.
One more note before we begin. This question is not the hardest specific detail question out there, both because it just isn’t and because I can only quote the one relevant paragraph, both of which make answering the question a bit easier. The fact that it’s not super-hard, though, isn’t relevant. We’re just using it as an illustration to learn how to handle Specific Detail questions in general.
*Some historians contend that conditions in the United States during the Second World War gave rise to a dynamic wartime alliance between trade unions and the African American community, an alliance that advanced the cause of civil rights. They conclude that the postwar demise of this vital alliance constituted a lost opportunity for the civil rights movement that followed the war. Other scholars, however, have portrayed organized labor as defending all along the relatively privileged position of White workers relative to African American workers. Clearly, these two perspectives are not easily reconcilable, but the historical reality is not reducible to one or the other.
Note: this is the first of two paragraphs in the entire passage; we cannot reproduce the entire passage for copyright reasons. Also, the question below is made a bit easier by the absence of the other paragraph; you can’t fall into a couple of the trap answers if you’ve never read the trap text!
Now, give yourself about 1.5 minutes to answer this question (closer to 1 minute if you are aiming for a 700+ score).
*According to the passage, the historians mentioned in the first highlighted portion of text and the scholars mentioned in the second highlighted portion disagree about the
[There’s a highlighted portion! I didn’t show you this above because, on the real test, you won’t see the highlighted text till the question pops up. The first highlighted portion consists of the first two words of the paragraph, “some historians.” The second highlighted portion consists of the two words “other scholars,” which begin the third sentence of the paragraph.]
(A) contribution made by organized labor to the war effort during the Second World War
(B) issues that union members considered most important during the Second World War
(C) relationship between unions and African Americans during the Second World War
(D) effect of the Second World War on the influence of unions in the workplace
(E) extent to which African Americans benefited from social and political changes following the Second World War
Okay, now that you’ve got an answer, we’re going to go back to the paragraph and forget about the question for a moment. What should you have gotten out of that paragraph on the initial read-through, before you knew what the question would be? What might your notes have looked like?
Reading the Passage and Taking Notes
First, if you haven’t already, you may want to take a look at this article: How to Read a Reading Comprehension Passage
The first sentence begins “some historians contend” something. So now I know that some people “contend” one thing and later somewhere the passage is either going to say that other people have a different view or this author has a different view –somebody has a different view or the passage wouldn’t say that “some historians contend” something.
What do they contend? Let’s see… certain conditions during WWII à an alliance (a good thing) between unions and African Americans, and this alliance helped civil rights. The second sentence of the paragraph follows on from this claim: these same historians conclude that the “postwar demise” (ie, the alliance stopped after the war) then represented a setback for civil rights.
WWII Union + AA alliance = good for civ rght; post WWII no alliance = bad
The third sentence begins “other scholars, however…” Bingo! Here comes the opposing opinion. Hmm. “Organized labor” defended “White workers relative to African American workers.” I guess “organized labor” = those unions from the first two sentences. So other people think the unions did NOT have an alliance with African American workers and help civil rights.
The final sentence summarizes the situation and takes a middle-of-the-road stance: these are two very different positions and it’s probably not the case that one group is entirely right.
So my notes might look something like this:
H: WWII Union + AA alliance = good for civ rght; post WWII end alliance = bad
OS: unions helped Ws not AAs
Answering the Question
Now, on to the question. The question begins “according to the passage,” so I know this is a specific detail question. On these questions, I should expect to have to go back to the passage in order to answer the question, but I should also be able to use my notes to know where to look. This one also gave me highlighted text, so I knew which paragraph to use. If it didn’t, I would have to use my passage notes to decide (quickly!) which paragraph is most likely to contain what I need.
The question mentions the two opposing groups (and gives me highlighted text to find them easily – yay!) and asks me what the disagreement is. I’ve got a pretty good summary in my notes so far because I noticed two key words: “contend” and “however.” If I had missed those words, I’d know now (from the question) to go back to look at the passage and figure out what the disagreement was among the two groups.
So, the H’s thought the unions did some stuff for the good of AAs, and the OS’s thought the unions did not really help the AAs. (Note how I’m still abbreviating – I’m thinking this through myself, so I don’t have to spell everything out with the full words!)
Once I’ve got that pretty straight in my head (and I can point to the specific words in the passage that provide my proof), I test my understanding against the answers. I may not be able to disprove all of the answers – I’ve really only been looking for what will prove the right answer, not necessarily what will disprove a wrong answer. So I may not be able to eliminate the four wrong answers immediately on a specific detail question, but if I can find a match for the right answer, then that’s okay. (This is different from, say, a main idea question. I should understand the main idea well enough that I can actually disprove each wrong answer. On specific detail questions, though, you may or may not disprove all four wrong answers.)
Answer A mentions “organized labor” (or the unions) but mentions nothing about African Americans. The major disagreement was about how the unions did or didn’t help African Americans; this choice is about the “contributions” of the unions to the war. Nothing in that paragraph discussed what contributions to the war effort were made – it only discussed how the unions may have felt about African Americans.
Answer B has the same problem – it mentions unions but nothing about African Americans. It might be tempting to say that unions considered this issue significant, but the debate is going on among historians today, not among union members during World War II (which is what this choice discusses). More specifically, we don’t know what union members considered the “most important” issues during the war; the paragraph just discusses one particular issue (whether unions helped African Americans during WWII) from the perspective of some historians.
Answer C looks pretty good. It mentions both unions and African Americans. And, yes, the dispute between the two groups is about how the unions treated African Americans – one says the unions treated them well and the other says the unions didn’t. (If you’re completely confident, select C and move on. If not, check D and E.)
Answer D once again mentions unions but nothing about African Americans. It also “flips around” the issue – we’re talking about what the unions did during and after World War II, not how the Second World War affected unions. Finally, this one might be more tempting if you read the second paragraph of the passage, which delves into some aspects of how the unions affected the workplace.
Answer E is tempting (and possibly more so if you could have read the second paragraph of the passage). The “extent to which African Americans benefited” could be referring to whether the unions did or did not help them during the war. Ah… and there’s the problem. Not only does this choice not mention the unions (instead, it mentions “social and political changes”), it is also talking about the period “following” WWII. Our first group of historians claims that the unions were helping African Americans during WWII, but that the alliance broke down following the war. The debate between the two groups of historians centers around what happened during the war; they both agree that, after the war, African Americans were not particularly helped by the unions.
The correct answer is C.
Key Takeaways for Solving Specific Detail RC Problems:
(1) Know how to recognize this type. Specific Detail questions will often contain language such as “according to the passage” or similar. These questions will not contain the words “infer,” “imply,” or “suggest”; those words are reserved for Inference questions. (Click here for an article on RC Inference questions)
(2) Know what to do with Specific Detail questions. Your first task is to know where to look; sometimes they help by giving you highlighted text, but more often, you have to find the text yourself. That’s where your notes come in handy: use them to know where to look in the original passage. Find the proof in the passage first. Then, check your answer choices against it.
(3) Know what you’re not trying to do as well. On Specific Detail questions, you may not have enough information from the “proof” sentence to prove every wrong answer wrong. Usually, you can both pick the right answer and eliminate a couple of wrong answers using the proof sentence. Sometimes, in order to actively eliminate some wrong answers, you’d have to look at other information elsewhere in the passage. This isn’t necessary if you actually have found an answer for which you do have proof!
* GMATPrep® questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.