Using GRE Essay Topics to Prepare for Reading Comprehension

GRE Reading Comprehension passages often present arguments. By argument, I don’t mean a messy quarrel. I mean an attempt to give reasons called premises in support of a (usually) novel or debatable claim called a conclusion. Analyzing arguments is a crucial skill for Reading Comp, and ETS, maker of the GRE, offers tons of free practice passages in the official pool of Argument topics for the Analytical Writing section.

Analyzing an argument means, at minimum, finding the conclusion and the premise(s). Either can be implicit—that is, hidden or unstated. On the GRE, you’ll likely need to find an implicit premise or two.

You’ll definitely have more to do than just figure out an argument’s parts. Analyzing or, better put, evaluating how well the parts fit together will also be required. How much support do the premises give to the conclusion? False premises give none, and true ones give at least some as long as they’re at least somewhat relevant to the truth of the conclusion. In any case, fact-checking premises isn’t something the GRE has you do. You’ll never have to know whether some premise is, in fact, true or not. You’ll only have to consider what sort of information could, if available, help or hurt an argument.

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To illustrate, I’ll break down one of the Analyze an Argument passages from the official pool of GRE Argument topics. Below is the first sentence of the passage along with the setup/context:

The following appeared in a health magazine published in Corpora.

“Medical experts say that only one-quarter of Corpora’s citizens meet the current standards for adequate physical fitness, even though twenty years ago, one-half of all of Corpora’s citizens met the standards as then defined …”

No argument just yet. Instead, the magazine excerpt opens with an observation about Corpora: the percentage of physically fit Corporans has fallen in the past two decades, according to medical experts. What’s the cause of this decline? I’ll bet that’s up for debate. The passage continues:

“… But these experts are mistaken when they suggest that spending too much time using computers has caused a decline in fitness. Since overall fitness levels are highest in regions of Corpora where levels of computer ownership are also highest, it is clear that using computers has not made citizens less physically fit …”

Now we have an argument. The conclusion appears twice—once between “But” and “Since” and again after “it is clear that.” The premise follows “Since,” a word often used as a premise indicator. Let’s restate the argument to make it a little clearer.

  • Premise: Overall fitness levels and computer ownership levels are highest in the same parts of Corpora.
  • Conclusion: Computer overuse did not cause the decline in physical fitness among Corpora’s citizens.

Imagine that what we’ve read is a complete Reading Comp. passage. Our analysis so far prepares us for a question about the main idea/point/conclusion. It also helps with questions about the function/purpose of various parts of the passage, such as “is a premise.” (The purpose of the very first sentence, in case you’re wondering, could be described as “cites a statistic whose explanation is being contested”).

However, we haven’t yet uncovered the argument’s implicit premises. For some Reading Comp. passages, you may be asked about the author’s unstated assumptions. We definitely need to identify them for this Argument task passage. Here are the directions that follow the magazine excerpt about Corpora:

Write a response in which you examine the stated and/or unstated assumptions of the argument. Be sure to explain how the argument depends on these assumptions and what the implications are for the argument if the assumptions prove unwarranted.

Let’s do as instructed and examine the argument’s assumptions, especially the implicit ones. I can think of at least two:

  • Unstated Premise 1: Computer overuse happens more often where there are more computer users, and there are more computer users where levels of computer ownership are highest.
  • Unstated Premise 2: If computer overuse caused the decline in physical fitness among Corpora’s citizens, then overall fitness levels and computer ownership levels are not highest in the same parts of Corpora.
  • Premise: Overall fitness levels and computer ownership levels are highest in the same parts of Corpora.
  • Conclusion: Computer overuse did not cause the decline in physical fitness among Corpora’s citizens.

Unstated premise #1 closes the gap between computer ownership in the stated premise and computer overuse in the conclusion. Unstated premise #2 proposes a way to test the medical experts’ hypothesis. Their hypothesis fails, according to the stated premise, and thus is rejected.

What if, as the essay directions ask, the argument’s assumptions are dubious? Well, then they’re not good reasons to believe the conclusion, of course! While this answer is technically correct, it also applies to the premises of any argument. So let’s try a criticism that targets just the assigned argument:

  • The stated premise seems to assert that the percentage of physically fit citizens is highest in parts of Corpora where the percentage of computer owners is also highest. Even if this assertion is true, the decline in physical fitness across Corpora still could have been caused by excessive computer use. Perhaps the regions that the author cites are mostly elderly but, relative to their age, physically fit adults who own but don’t often use computers. Moreover, perhaps the given regions also have many younger but physically unfit adults who own and overuse computers. If so, then unstated premise #2 offers an unreliable test for the medical experts’ hypothesis, and the stated premise—again, even if true—lacks relevance to the conclusion.

Again imagine that we’ve been working with a Reading Comp. passage. If we were asked to weaken the author’s argument, the correct answer could be one that echoes our description of the parts of Corpora the author is talking about. Alternatively, if we were asked to strengthen the argument, then the right response may well be one that rules out our criticism.

The passage isn’t over. Here’s the final bit:

“… Instead, as shown by this year’s unusually low expenditures on fitness-related products and services, the recent decline in the economy is most likely the cause, and fitness levels will improve when the economy does.”

The magazine excerpt ends with a second argument from the author. See whether you can identify the argument’s parts, including the implicit premise(s), and come up with a criticism or two. By doing so, you’ll be preparing for both the Analyze an Argument task and various types of Reading Comp. questions. That’s double the study mileage from a single passage that’s just one of many freely available from ETS.

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