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GMAT Tips – How to Tackle "Why" Questions in Reading Comprehension

Today’s GMAT tip comes from test prep firm ManhattanGMAT. In this article, they provide some helpful tips on how to answer “why” questions on the Reading Comprehension section of the GMAT.  Read on to see what they have to say!

Most Reading Comprehension questions are “what” questions. What is the primary purpose? Which of the following does the author claim when discussing…? It can be inferred that the author would most likely agree with which of the following…?

Every now and then, though, we run up against a “why” question and, as we will see in this article, we have to be ready for this different focus or we’re likely to fall into a trap. The answer to the question “What are you studying?” might be “The GMAT.” If you asked me “Why are you studying?” and I simply said “The GMAT,” you’d look at me funny – that’s not an appropriate answer for the question that you asked. By the same token, on the GMAT, when we get one of the rare “why” questions, we have to make sure we’re giving the right kind of answer.

Below is an excerpt from a GMATPrep Reading Comp passage, followed by a question. The full passage consists of three paragraphs; the excerpt below consists of two sentences of background information from the first paragraph and the complete third paragraph (that’s enough to answer the question). Here’s the passage excerpt first:

“The second argument supposes that the government will tend to finance its deficits by increasing the money supply with insufficient regard for whether there is enough room for economic growth to enable such an increase to occur without causing inflation. It is then argued that financiers will expect the deficit to cause inflation and will raise interest rates, anticipating that because of inflation the money they lend will be worth less when paid back.”

“The second argument is also problematic. Financing the deficit by increasing the money supply should cause inflation only when there is not enough room for economic growth. Currently, there is no reason to expect deficits to cause inflation. However, since many financiers believe that deficits ordinarily create inflation, then admittedly they will be inclined to raise interest rates to offset mistakenly anticipated inflation. This effect, however, is due to ignorance, not to the deficit itself, and could be lessened by educating financiers on this issue.”

And here’s our question:

“The author uses the term “admittedly” (see underlined text) in order to indicate that

“(A) the second argument has some truth to it, though not for the reasons usually supposed

“(B) the author has not been successful in attempting to point out inadequacies in the two arguments

“(C) the thesis that large deficits directly cause interest rates to rise has strong support after all.

“(D) financiers should admit that they were wrong in thinking that large deficits will cause higher inflation rates

“(E) financiers generally do not think that the author’s criticisms of the second argument are worthy of consideration”

Although I didn’t give you the full passage, I’ll show you my notes for the full passage. The notes in [brackets] are for the parts that I did NOT quote above.

P1: [CW = ­ bdgt def à ­ int rate. Two args given: (1) govt borrows $… ](2) …

[P2: 1st arg bad + reasons]

P3: 2nd arg bad too

(Note: the abbreviation CW stands for “Conventional Wisdom.” This passage actually uses that term, but I use this abbreviation any time a passage says something like “a lot of people believe a certain thing is true, but…” even if the passage doesn’t specifically use the term “conventional wisdom.”)

In “regular” language, this is what my notes mean:

P1: Conventional wisdom says that an increase in the budget deficit causes an increase in interest rates. People give two arguments to support this: (1) when the government borrows money (see passage for rest), and (2) (see passage for the 2nd reason).

P2: The author disagrees with the first argument (mentioned above) and gives reasons for why.

P3: The author also disagrees with the second argument (mentioned above) and gives reasons for why.

Notice how much I didn’t write. For the first paragraph, I started to write down a description of the first argument, and then it got complicated, so I stopped reading and put in a dot-dot-dot to indicate that more detail is in the passage. The second argument is also complicated, so again, I just used a dot-dot-dot. If I get a question about either argument, I know there’s additional info in paragraph one and I’ll look at that info then.

Similarly, with paragraphs 2 and 3, I just got the main point down, which was that the author doesn’t think these arguments are very good. Why? I don’t know (yet)! If I get a question about that, I know where to look and what to read. I’m not going to try to figure out all that detail unless and until I get a question about some specific piece of info.

Okay, so the question asks us about a specific word, and that word is highlighted in the passage. (On the real test, we’ll see a yellow-highlighted box around the word.) Also note the words “in order to indicate that” in the question stem. In plain language, the question is asking: why does the author use the term “admittedly?” The test-writers won’t often use the word “why” in the question, but if you see the language “the author <does something> in order to…,” then you probably have a “why” question. Re-word the question for yourself: is it WHAT does the author say or WHY does the author say this?

The word “admittedly” is in the third paragraph, so I know they’re asking me something about the second of the two arguments, and paragraph 3 is where the author explains why he thinks that the second argument is not so great. So I probably need to have an idea of what the second argument is in the first place, and then I need to understand why the author doesn’t think it’s so great. Finally, I’ll try to figure out why the author used the specific word “admittedly.”

The relevant part of the first paragraph says something about the government doing something “with insufficient regard for whether” that something could happen “without causing inflation.” So the government does something without first figuring out whether it’s likely to cause inflation. Then, the “financiers” will expect inflation to follow and so they will raise interest rates to offset the effects of that inflation. (Again, note that I’m just getting the general idea; I’m not too worried about all of that weird detail!)

The third paragraph starts by saying that inflation will be caused only under certain circumstances, and there’s no reason to expect inflation to occur right now. “However,” the author says, financiers believe that deficits create inflation. Why did the author put that word “believe” in italics?

If deficits definitely do create inflation, then the author would have said something like “financiers know that deficits create inflation.” The emphasized word “believe” indicates that the financiers believe something that might not actually be true (and in the previous sentence, the author actually said that “there is no reason” that the deficits will cause inflation!).

If these financiers believe something that isn’t actually true, “then admittedly they will raise interest rates.” Okay, so the author is “admitting” that the financiers do raise interest rates, as the first paragraph said… but they’re doing so because they believe something that’s not true. They’re not doing so because the deficit actually did cause inflation, but because they (mistakenly) think that the deficit will cause inflation.

Let’s see if we can find an answer choice that goes along with that idea.

Answer A says two things. First, “the second argument has some truth to it.” Yes, that fits. The second argument said that the financiers raise interest rates and the author agrees that they do so. Second, the financiers do this “not for the reasons usually supposed.” That sounds okay – the author says that the financiers raise rates not because inflation occurs (as the first paragraph says), but because they think inflation will occur. So let’s leave A in.

Answer B says that the author has failed in his task – he wasn’t successful in pointing out inadequacies in the argument. Wait a second! The author himself is the one who wrote that sentence and he says in that same sentence that the financiers are doing something mistakenly. Plus, the next sentence summarizes his point: the financiers are taking action “due to ignorance” and not because there is inflation, as the first paragraph claims. Eliminate B.

Answer C says that deficits do create inflation. That’s the opposite of what the author says. He says that the financiers “mistakenly” think this and that “there is no reason to expect deficits to cause inflation.” Eliminate C.

Answer D does go along with the author’s general thesis: the financiers are making a mistake. This one’s a trap though! Notice that answer D includes the word “admit” (which matches our key word, “admittedly”). If we don’t know the word “admittedly,” we might guess that it simply means “admit” and we’ll then make the leap to think “Oh, the author wants them to admit they’re wrong.”

By the way, the word “admittedly” actually means “to recognize or concede that something is true.” Okay, so we can eliminate choice D.

Answer E says that the financiers don’t think the author is right. Hmm. That sounds like it could be reasonable, but does the argument actually tell us what the financiers think? It does tell us what they think about the general idea that deficits cause inflation, but it never talks about their reaction to the author’s thesis that deficits don’t actually cause inflation. Eliminate E.

The correct answer is A.

Key Takeaways for RC “Why” Questions:

 (1) Recognize when you have a “why” question (as opposed to the more common “what” question). One common clue is the words “in order to.” When you rephrase the question in normal language, are you asking “What is the author / passage discussing?” or “Why is the author discussing this thing?

(2) Once you know you have a “why” question, think about the information you have in “why” terms. Why did the author use this word or example, or why did the author introduce this idea? Get this as clear as you can in your head before you start eliminating answer choices.

(3) Watch out for traps! Some answers will do the opposite of what you want. Some answers will address the wrong thing – addressing the wrong aspect of the issue, or answering a “what” question instead of a “why” question. Some answers will go too far and talk about something that wasn’t actually addressed in the passage.

* GMATPrep question courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.

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