So much weight does RC have on the CAT, so many are the difficulties faced by test-takers and so frequent are the queries that I receive about RC, that I thought that it will be best to devote a series of posts to cracking Reading Comprehension.
Passage to questions or Questions to Passage or…
Now the big question has always been whether to read the passage first and then go the questions or read the questions first and then go to the passage.
The problem with reading the entire passage first is that it is a great strategy for those who are exceptionally good and comfortable with reading long texts.
What does being exceptionally good and comfortable mean?
- The ability to read through the whole passage without losing concentration and the thread of the passage
- The ability to answer the primary purpose, the central idea or other summary questions (questions that test your understanding of the passage as a whole) without going back to the passage
- The ability to remember the exact part of the passage to go back to find the answer to a specific question
With most Indian test-takers the first ability itself is suspect. While they might start with the best of intentions, by the time they reach of the middle of the passage they
- start losing interest
- start sneaking a peek at the questions
- somehow manage to reach the end or
- start going back and forth between the questions and the passage
The problem with looking at the questions first is that we are then not doing RC but Match The Following. So that is something that I would rule out straightaway.
Paragraph to questions approach
What I would recommend to most test-takers is a third way that addresses the problems of the first two.
- Read one paragraph, check if there is any question related to it. If there is then solve it immediately — this will increase your accuracy on specific questions since you will have just read the specific part of the passage.
- If there is no question related to it then go-ahead to the next paragraph and repeat the exercise.
- Solve all Summary Questions at the end
- If the paragraphs are short in length, say 4 lines or fewer, you can read two at a time and then go to the questions
While I have been advocating this approach I am still getting queries around both the approach and RC accuracy in general.
The best way to answer this and other queries is to take RCs from a recent CAT and solve them using the paragraph to questions approach.
Passage 1: Creativity & Cities
Creativity is at once our most precious resource and our most inexhaustible one. As anyone who has ever spent any time with children knows, every single human being is born creative; every human being is innately endowed with the ability to combine and recombine data, perceptions, materials and ideas, and devise new ways of thinking and doing. What fosters creativity? More than anything else: the presence of other creative people. The big myth is that creativity is the province of great individual geniuses. In fact, creativity is a social process. Our biggest creative breakthroughs come when people learn from, compete with, and collaborate with other people.
Cities are the true fonts of creativity. With their diverse populations, dense social networks, and public spaces where people can meet spontaneously and serendipitously, they spark and catalyze new ideas. With their infrastructure for finance, organization and trade, they allow those ideas to be swiftly actualized.
As for what staunches creativity, that’s easy, if ironic. It’s the very institutions that we build to manage, exploit and perpetuate the fruits of creativity — our big bureaucracies, and sad to say, too many of our schools. Creativity is disruptive; schools and organizations are regimented, standardized and stultifying.
The education expert Sir Ken Robinson points to a 1968 study reporting on a group of 1,600 children who were tested over time for their ability to think in out-of-the-box ways. When the children were between 3 and 5 years old, 98 percent achieved positive scores. When they were 8 to 10, only 32 percent passed the same test, and only 10 percent at 13 to 15. When 280,000 25-year-olds took the test, just 2 percent passed. By the time we are adults, our creativity has been wrung out of us.
I once asked the great urbanist Jane Jacobs what makes some places more creative than others. She said, essentially, that the question was an easy one. All cities, she said, were filled with creative people; that’s our default state as people. But some cities had more than their shares of leaders, people and institutions that blocked out that creativity. She called them “squelchers.”
Creativity (or the lack of it) follows the same general contours of the great socio-economic divide – our rising inequality – that plagues us. According to my own estimates, roughly a third of us across the United States, and perhaps as much as half of us in our most creative cities – are able to do work which engages our creative faculties to some extent, whether as artists, musicians, writers, techies, innovators, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, journalists or educators – those of us who work with our minds. That leaves a group that I term “the other 66 per cent,” who toil in low-wage rote and rotten jobs — if they have jobs at all — in which their creativity is subjugated, ignored or wasted.
Creativity itself is not in danger. Its flourishing is all around us – in science and technology, arts and culture, in our rapidly revitalizing cities. But we still have a long way to go if we want to build a truly creative society that supports and rewards the creativity of each and every one of us.
(A) enable people to meet and share new ideas
(B) expose people to different and novel ideas, because they are home to varied groups of people.
(C) provide the financial and institutional networks that enable ideas to become reality.
(D) provide access to cultural activities that promote new and creative ways of thinking.
The author uses ‘ironic’ in the third paragraph to point out that
(A) people need social contact rather than isolation to nurture their creativity
(B) institutions created to promote creativity eventually stifle it
(C) the larger the creative population in a city, the more likely it is to be stifled
(D) large bureaucracies and institutions are the inevitable outcome of successful cities
The central idea of this passage is that
(A) social interaction is necessary to nurture creativity
(B) creativity and ideas are gradually declining in all societies
(C) the creativity divide is widening in societies in line with socio-economic trends
(D) more people should work in jobs that engage their creative faculties
Jane Jacobs believed that cities that are more creative
(A) have to struggle to retain their creativity
(B) have to ‘squelch’ unproductive people and promote creative ones
(C) have leaders and institutions that do not block creativity
(D) typically do not start off as creative hubs
The 1968 study is used here to show that
(A) as they get older, children usually learn to be more creative
(B) schooling today does not encourage creative thinking in children
(C) the more children learn, the less creative they become
(D) technology today prevents children from being creative
The author’s conclusions about the most ‘creative cities’ in the US (paragraph 6) are based on his assumption that
(A) people who work with their hands are not doing creative work
(B) more than half the population works in non-creative jobs
(C) only artists, musicians, writers, and so on should be valued in a society
(D) most cities ignore or waste the creativity of low-wage workers
A quick scan through the questions shows that there is no question based on the first paragraph. So you can move to the second one without answering any question.
Do not try to remember questions, if you do so then you will again be doing method 2 — match the following instead of RC.
The first question is a specific question based on paragraph 2.
It is an EXCEPT question that is asking you to identify the reason that is NOT stated to make the claim that cities promote creativity.
This has to be the easiest RC question of all time — A, B and C are clearly stated in the passage, D is not mentioned anywhere.
In effect, you have 3 marks in the bag in under 4 minutes.
As you start reading the first sentence of the third paragraph itself you should know that there will be a question on this; the first sentence itself says — it’s ironic. It goes without saying that they will test your understanding of what ironic means. The paragraph itself explains it. You go to the questions to find the next question based on it and pocket 3 more marks.
It is again pretty direct and you should have no trouble confirming option B as the right option.
By now you should have 6 marks in 6 minutes.
If you find this question tough then I am afraid there is a fundamental comprehension problem that no amount of strategies or shortcuts can solve. It might sound harsh but you might have to really take another shot at the CAT and spend a lot of time improving your ability in reading and comprehending text written in English.
If you have taken 10 minutes to score these 6 marks from three paragraphs then reading speed is a major issue. The only way out is to practice RCs alone non-stop for a week so that you put so much stress on your reading muscle that it has to grow.
After reading this paragraph, you should again scan the questions and you will find that question 5 is related to it.
This is where you will first encounter a mild case of — I am caught between two options.
Options B and C might seem to be vying for your vote.
So how do you break this deadlock?
In the words of my colleague Sujit Sir, who is the author of a famous RC Book, and is the one who makes most of the SimCAT RC questions, the first step is to identify the superficial difference between the options.
When caught between two options,
- Phrase the difference between the two options
- See which one is relevant to the question and eliminate if possible
- If not go the specific part of the passage
- If you are still unable to break the deadlock, go the previous paragraph
Option B — Schooling smothers creativity
Option C — Learning smothers creativity
Even without going back to the paragraph you can see that C has to be wrong! Between learning and schooling, the latter is definitely the culprit.
If you go the paragraph it will be clear the Ken Robinson is an education expert and he is referring to schools.
If it is still not clear then go to the previous paragraph, the last sentence screams the answer out loud.
9 marks in 8 minutes.
There is a question on this as well — question 4 — and as mildly indirect as a question can get. The answer is Option C.
If you are keeping count 12 marks in 10 minutes.
The last question is based on this. It is an assumption question that is pretty direct
The author says — in most of our cities 1/3, and in some 1/2, of our people work in creative jobs or jobs of the mind, while the other 2/3 have no jobs or do rotten jobs.
The assumption is captured by only by option A. 15 marks in 13 minutes.
At the end of the exercise, you are left with one unanswered summary question.
This is one of those typical CAT RC questions on which the options frustrate me since I do find any of them to be precisely correct. So the best option on CAT RC questions — reject don’t select. Your heart won’t leap and dance when you see the correct option, you have to reject and be happy with whatever is left.
The central idea of this passage is that
A) social interaction is necessary to nurture creativity
B) creativity and ideas are gradually declining in all societies
C) the creativity divide is widening in societies in line with socio-economic trends
D) more people should work in jobs that engage their creative faculties
If we go by rejection then
- A can be kept
- B can be rejected since the last paragraph categorically says that creativity is flourishing
- C can be rejected since the passage only says that creative divide follows the socio-economic divide it does not say that the divide has increased
- D can be kept
Now we again boil down to two options and this is a summary question.
You can defend and not score instead of getting out
Should you always mark an answer for every RC question you encounter after you read a passage?
The summary question above is a poorly made one since neither option exactly captures the central idea.
Now if I look at my time spent so far, I have 15 marks in about 13 minutes, which is great from an MPM or Marks Per Minute perspective.
So do I need to break my head and waste my time over this silly question?
Nope, I will be better off moving on without collecting a negative.
Test-takers refuse to consider letting a question go an option. If they have spent so much time reading they think they might as well mark.
The odds of getting it right when stuck between two options are still 50 percent provided you haven’t eliminated the correct option!
So do yourself a favor — defend and not score instead of getting out.
Just to close things on this passage, between A and D I would choose A since it covers a larger portion of the passage and the author is not directly making a claim that more people should be doing creative jobs. The author only says that more people can be in creative jobs.
In the first version of this post, I only wrote this much about the last question of this passage.
But then I started a receiving a few queries that made it clear to me that for many test-takers weak VA scores have a basic problem with a few fundamentals.
They do not clearly look at what the question is asking but only look at the content that question refers to.
What do I mean by this?
The last question is an assumption question.
What is an assumption?
Something which is not stated but is central to drawing a conclusion.
Unlike the real world in which anything that is stated but not proven is not an assumption, on aptitude tests, it is an incorrect premise.
Which is why an assumption is also called the missing premise.
Premise 1 + Missing Premise (Assumption) = Conclusion
The paragraph is asking you to identify the behind the conclusion drawn in paragraph 6.
So before you go to the options go back and paraphrase the conclusion — Creativity divide mirrors the socio-economic divide.
Premises 1 — Cities that are more creative have 1/2 of the population doing work of the mind. Cities that are less creative have 1/3 doing work of the mind.
Premise 2 — The rest of the population is doing rotten jobs or is unemployed.
The conclusion has the term — creativity. The two premises have the terms work of the mind and rotten work.
So the missing premise has to connect creativity and work of the mind or rotten work. Only the first option does that.
So as a process when it comes to assumption questions please follow this process. Otherwise, you will always end up caught between the option that is relevant to the content but is not the answer and the actual assumption.
The reason I favour this approach is that as a question-setter (I have made a few RCs for this year’s SimCATs as well) I know that to make 6 questions I have to mine each and every paragraph for questions.
You can maybe have a 3-question passage with no question from a particular passage. But a 6-question passage will have 3 questions from three separate paragraphs.
I know that one passage isn’t enough to prove my point. So I will take up all the passages from the slot that this passage appeared in and analyze them through this lens. Hope by the end of this series of posts your RC woes will have reduced considerably.