MCAT Verbal : Formulating useful questions

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for MCAT Verbal

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Formulating Useful Questions

Adapted from "A Scrap of Curious History" in What is Man? And Other Essays by Mark Twain (1906)

At half past two in the morning the dead silence of the village was broken by a crashing explosion, and the town patrol saw the preacher's house spring in a wreck of whirling fragments into the sky. The preacher was killed. The town was paralyzed and with reason. To struggle against a visible enemy is a thing worth while, and there is a plenty of men who stand always ready to undertake it; but to struggle against an invisible one—an invisible one who sneaks in and does his awful work in the dark and leaves no trace—that is another matter. That is a thing to make the bravest tremble and hold back.

The cowed populace were afraid to go to the funeral. The man who was to have had a packed church to hear him expose and denounce the common enemy had but a handful to see him buried. The coroner's jury had brought in a verdict of "death by the visitation of God," for no witness came forward; if any existed they prudently kept out of the way. Nobody seemed sorry. Nobody wanted to see the terrible secret society provoked into the commission of further outrages. Everybody wanted the tragedy hushed up, ignored, forgotten, if possible.

And so there was a bitter surprise and an unwelcome one when Will Joyce, the itinerant blacksmith, came out and proclaimed himself the assassin! Plainly he was not minded to be robbed of his glory. He made his proclamation, and stuck to it. Stuck to it, and insisted upon a trial. Here was an ominous thing; here was a new and peculiarly formidable terror, for a motive was revealed here which society could not hope to deal with successfully—vanity, thirst for notoriety. If men were going to kill for notoriety's sake, and to win the glory of newspaper renown, a big trial, and a showy execution, what possible invention of man could discourage or deter them? The town was in a sort of panic; it did not know what to do.

However, the grand jury had to take hold of the matter—it had no choice. It brought in a true bill, and presently the case went to the county court. The trial was a fine sensation. The prisoner was the principal witness for the prosecution. He gave a full account of the assassination; he described even the minutest particulars: how he deposited his keg of powder and laid his train—from the house to such-and-such a spot; how George Ronalds and Henry Hart came along just then, smoking, and he borrowed Hart's cigar and fired the train with it, shouting, "Down with all slave-tyrants!" and how Hart and Ronalds made no effort to capture him, but ran away, and had never come forward to testify yet.

But they had to testify now, and they did—and pitiful it was to see how reluctant they were, and how scared. The crowded house listened to Joyce's fearful tale with a profound and breathless interest, and in a deep hush which was not broken till he broke it himself, in concluding, with a roaring repetition of his "Death to all slave-tyrants!"—which came so unexpectedly and so startlingly that it made everyone present catch his breath and gasp.

The trial was put in the paper, with biography and large portrait, with other slanderous and insane pictures, and the edition sold beyond imagination.

The execution of Joyce was a fine and picturesque thing. It drew a vast crowd. Good places in trees and seats on rail fences sold for half a dollar apiece; lemonade and gingerbread-stands had great prosperity. Joyce recited a furious and fantastic and denunciatory speech on the scaffold which had imposing passages of school-boy eloquence in it, and gave him a reputation on the spot as an orator, and his name, later, in the society's records, of the "Martyr Orator." He went to his death breathing slaughter and charging his society to "avenge his murder." If he knew anything of human nature he knew that to plenty of young fellows present in that great crowd he was a grand hero—and enviably situated.

He was hanged. It was a mistake. Within a month from his death the society which he had honored had twenty new members, some of them earnest, determined men. They did not court distinction in the same way, but they celebrated his martyrdom. The crime which had been obscure and despised had become lofty and glorified.

Such things were happening all over the country. Wild-brained martyrdom was succeeded by uprising and organization. Then, in natural order, followed riot, insurrection, and the wrack and restitutions of war. It was bound to come, and it would naturally come in that way. It has been the manner of reform since the beginning of the world.

Which of these questions is not central to this passage?

Possible Answers:

How are changes in society instituted?

Did Will Joyce commit his crimes alone?

Is it better to martyr criminals or imprison them?

Why were the townsfolk so afraid after the death of the preacher?

What motivates a man to commit a crime?

Correct answer:

Did Will Joyce commit his crimes alone?


Of these five answer choices, only the one that reads “Did Will Joyce commit his crimes alone?” is not central to the passage. Although the author does address the fact that Will Joyce had accomplices, this is not really central or relevant to any of the author’s chief arguments. The question “What motivates a man to commit a crime?” is addressed by the author when he discusses how Will Joyce committed his crime to gain notoriety for himself and his cause. The question “Is it better to martyr criminals or imprison them?” is discussed when the author mentions how the authorities made a mistake, from the author's perspective, when they executed Joyce. The question “How are changes in society instituted?” is the primary topic discussed in the concluding paragraphs. Finally, the question “Why were the townsfolk so afraid after the death of the preacher?” is significant to the author’s argument in the opening paragraphs.

Example Question #2 : Formulating Useful Questions

Adapted from "Hallam" in Volume 1 of Critical and Historical Essays by Thomas Babbington Macaulay (1828)

History, at least in its state of ideal perfection, is a compound of poetry and philosophy. It impresses general truths on the mind by a vivid representation of particular characters and incidents. But, in fact, the two hostile elements of which it consists have never been known to form a perfect amalgamation, and at length, in our own time, they have been completely and professedly separated. The problem seems only to be getting worse. Good histories, in the proper sense of the word, we have not. But we have good historical romances, and good historical essays. The imagination and the reason, if we may use a legal metaphor, have made partition of a province of literature of which they were formerly seized per my et per tout, and now they hold their respective portions in severalty, instead of holding the whole in common.

To make the past present, to bring the distant near, to place us in the society of a great man or on the eminence which overlooks the field of a mighty battle, to invest with the reality of human flesh and blood beings whom we are too much inclined to consider as personified qualities in an allegory, to call up our ancestors before us with all their peculiarities of language, manners, and garb, to show us over their houses, to seat us at their tables, to rummage their old-fashioned wardrobes, to explain the uses of their ponderous furniture, these parts of the duty which properly belongs to the historian have been appropriated by the historical novelist. On the other hand, to extract the philosophy of history, to direct on judgment of events and men, to trace the connection of cause and effects, and to draw from the occurrences of former time general lessons of moral and political wisdom has become the business of a distinct class of writers.

Of the two kinds of composition into which history has been thus divided, the one may be compared to a map, the other to a painted landscape. The picture, though it places the country before us, does not enable us to ascertain with accuracy the dimensions, the distances, and the angles. The map is not a work of imitative art. It presents no scene to the imagination, but it gives us exact information as to the bearings of the various points, and is a more useful companion to the traveller or the general than the painted landscape could be, though it were the grandest that ever Rosa peopled with outlaws, or the sweetest over which Claude ever poured the mellow effulgence of a setting sun.

It is remarkable that the practice of separating the two ingredients of which history is composed has become prevalent on the Continent as well as in this country. Italy has already produced a historical novel, of high merit and of still higher promise. In France, the practice has been carried to a length somewhat whimsical. M. Sismondi publishes a grave and stately history of the Merovingian kings, very valuable, and a little tedious. He then sends forth as a companion to it a novel, in which he attempts to give a lively representation of characters and manners. This course, as it seems to us, has all the disadvantages of a division of labour, and none of its advantages.

Which of these questions is most relevant to this passage?

Possible Answers:

How should history be recorded in its most perfect state? 

What is the reason behind the spread of historical fracturing to the continent? 

How can we fix the division within the historical discipline?

Does historical fiction suffer from a lack of facts, evidence, and analysis? 

What is the difference between a map and a painted landscape in terms of utility and function? 

Correct answer:

How should history be recorded in its most perfect state? 


The most relevant question to this passage is "How should history be recorded it its most perfect state?" The first line of the passage reads, "History, at least in its state of ideal perfection, is a compound of poetry and philosophy." This should have been your first clue. Also, the author primarily focuses on how history has been rendered an incomplete and imperfect discipline by its split into two components. The answer choice "What is the difference between a map and a painted landscape in terms of utility and function?" is very far from the central question of the passage, and indeed is almost nonsense. The answer choice "What is the reason behind the spread of historical fracturing to the continent?" is also very far from the correct answer because although the author does discuss his surprise at this movement, the reasons as to why are not discussed. The answer choice "Does historical fiction suffer from a lack of facts, evidence, and analysis?" is better than the two previously discussed incorrect answers, but is still very much a fringe question for this author and this essay. Finally,"How can we fix the division within the historical discipline?" might be correct if it were not for the fact that the author does not actually suggest any solutions to the problems he identifies. 

Example Question #178 : Comprehension

Adapted from “Federalist No. 29” by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1788)

That there may happen cases in which the national government may be necessitated to resort to force cannot be denied. Our own experience has corroborated the lessons taught by the examples of other nations: that emergencies of this sort will sometimes arise in all societies, however constituted; that seditions and insurrections are, unhappily, maladies as inseparable from the body politic as tumors and eruptions from the natural body; that the idea of governing at all times by the simple force of law (which we have been told is the only admissible principle of republican government) has no place but in the reveries of those political doctors whose sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction.

Should such emergencies at any time happen under the national government, there could be no remedy but force. The means to be employed must be proportioned to the extent of the mischief. If it should be a slight commotion in a small part of a state, the militia of the residue would be adequate to its suppression, and the national presumption is that they would be ready to do their duty. An insurrection, whatever may be its immediate cause, eventually endangers all government. Regard to the public peace, if not to the rights of the Union, would engage the citizens to whom the contagion had not communicated itself to oppose the insurgents, and if the general government should be found in practice conducive to the prosperity and felicity of the people, it were irrational to believe that they would be disinclined to its support.

If, on the contrary, the insurrection should pervade a whole state, or a principal part of it, the employment of a different kind of force might become unavoidable. It appears that Massachusetts found it necessary to raise troops for repressing the disorders within that state; that Pennsylvania, from the mere apprehension of commotions among a part of her citizens, has thought proper to have recourse to the same measure. Suppose the State of New York had been inclined to reestablish her lost jurisdiction over the inhabitants of Vermont; could she have hoped for success in such an enterprise from the efforts of the militia alone? Would she not have been compelled to raise and to maintain a more regular force for the execution of her design? If it must then be admitted that the necessity of recurring to a force different from the militia, in cases of this extraordinary nature, is applicable to the state governments themselves, why should the possibility that the national government might be under a like necessity in similar extremities be made an objection to its existence? Is it not surprising that men who declare an attachment to the Union in the abstract should urge as an objection to the proposed Constitution what applies with tenfold weight to the plan for which they contend and what, as far as it has any foundation in truth, is an inevitable consequence of civil society upon an enlarged scale? Who would not prefer that possibility to the unceasing agitations and frequent revolutions which are the continual scourges of petty republics?

Let us pursue this examination in another light. Suppose, in lieu of one general system, two, or three, or even four confederacies were to be formed; would not the same difficulty oppose itself to the operations of either of these confederacies? Would not each of them be exposed to the same casualties, and when these happened, be obliged to have recourse to the same expedients for upholding its authority which are objected to in a government for all the states? Would the militia, in this supposition, be more ready or more able to support the federal authority than in the case of a general union? All candid and intelligent men must, upon due consideration, acknowledge that the principle of the objection is equally applicable to either of the two cases, and that whether we have one government for all the states, or different governments for different parcels of them, or even if there should be an entire separation of the states, there might sometimes be a necessity to make use of a force constituted differently from the militia to preserve the peace of the community and to maintain the just authority of the laws against those violent invasions of them which amount to insurrections and rebellions.

Which of these questions is least central to this passage?

Possible Answers:

Why are the fears of some men, who are opposed to the union, illogical?

Is it better to live in fear of chaos or under government oppression?

How can we ensure the maintenance of law and order is financially manageable?

What threat do sedition and insurrection pose to the United States?

What can the experiences of the independent states teach us about the needs of the newly formed Union?

Correct answer:

How can we ensure the maintenance of law and order is financially manageable?


All of these questions play at least a small role in the author’s argument throughout this passage, apart from the question “How can we ensure the maintenance of law and order is financially manageable?” At no point does the author discuss the financial or economic realities of his proposition.

Example Question #179 : Comprehension

Adapted from What is Man? And Other Essays by Mark Twain (1906)

It is a good many years since I was in Switzerland last. In that remote time there was only one ladder railway in the country. That state of things is all changed. There isn't a mountain in Switzerland now that hasn't a ladder railroad or two up its back like suspenders; indeed, some mountains are latticed with them, and two years hence all will be. In that day the peasant of the high altitudes will have to carry a lantern when he goes visiting in the night to keep from stumbling over railroads that have been built since his last round. And also in that day, if there shall remain a high-altitude peasant whose potato-patch hasn't a railroad through it, it will make him as conspicuous as William Tell.

However, there are only two best ways to travel through Switzerland. The first best is afoot. The second best is by open two-horse carriage. One can come from Lucerne to Interlaken over the Brunig by ladder railroad in an hour or so now, but you can glide smoothly in a carriage in ten, and have two hours for luncheon at noon—for luncheon, not for rest. There is no fatigue connected with the trip. One arrives fresh in spirit and in person in the evening—no fret in his heart, no grime on his face, no grit in his hair, not a cinder in his eye. This is the right condition of mind and body, the right and due preparation for the solemn event which closed the day—stepping with metaphorically uncovered head into the presence of the most impressive mountain mass that the globe can show—the Jungfrau. The stranger's first feeling, when suddenly confronted by that towering and awful apparition wrapped in its shroud of snow, is breath-taking astonishment. It is as if heaven's gates had swung open and exposed the throne.

It is peaceful here and pleasant at Interlaken. Nothing going on—at least nothing but brilliant life-giving sunshine. This is a good atmosphere to be in, morally as well as physically. After trying the political atmosphere of the neighboring monarchies, it is healing and refreshing to breathe in air that has known no taint of slavery for six hundred years, and to come among a people whose political history is great and fine, and worthy to be taught in all schools and studied by all races and peoples. For the struggle here throughout the centuries has not been in the interest of any private family, or any church, but in the interest of the whole body of the nation, and for shelter and protection of all forms of belief. This fact is colossal. If one would realize how colossal it is, and of what dignity and majesty, let him contrast it with the purposes and objects of the Crusades, the siege of York, the War of the Roses, and other historic comedies of that sort and size.

Last week I was beating around the Lake of Four Cantons, and I saw Rutli and Altorf. Rutli is a remote little patch of a meadow, but I do not know how any piece of ground could be holier or better worth crossing oceans and continents to see, since it was there that the great trinity of Switzerland joined hands six centuries ago and swore the oath which set their enslaved and insulted country forever free; and Altorf is also honorable ground and worshipful, since it was there that William, surnamed Tell (which interpreted means "The foolish talker"—that is to say, the too-daring talker), refused to bow to Gessler's hat. Of late years the prying student of history has been delighting himself beyond measure over a wonderful find which he has made—to wit, that Tell did not shoot the apple from his son's head. To hear the students jubilate, one would suppose that the question of whether Tell shot the apple or didn't was an important matter, whereas it ranks in importance exactly with the question of whether Washington chopped down the cherry-tree or didn't. The deeds of Washington, the patriot, are the essential thing; the cherry-tree incident is of no consequence. Tell was more and better than a mere marksman, more and better than a mere cool head; he was a type; he stands for Swiss patriotism; in his person was represented a whole people; his spirit was their spirit—the spirit which would bow to none but God, the spirit which said this in words and confirmed it with deeds. There have always been Tells in Switzerland—people who would not bow. There was a sufficiency of them at Rutli; there were plenty of them at Murten; plenty at Grandson; there are plenty today.

Which of these questions is least central to the passage?

Possible Answers:

What makes Switzerland unique?

How will the railroad alter Swiss life?

Is there such thing as religious truth?

What is the best motivation for war?

When traveling is it better to take: the quickest option, or the most enjoyable?

Correct answer:

Is there such thing as religious truth?


All of these questions are central to either the whole passage, or one of the paragraphs, except for the question “Is there such a thing as religious truth?” Although the author seems to suggest that fighting a war for the purposes of subjugating others to the interests of one religion is deserving of condemnation and does make some references to God, heaven, and religion in general, this is not actually part of the argument or purpose of the passage. Most of the passage is related to the question of “What makes Switzerland unique?” The first paragraph is related to “How will the railroad alter Swiss life?” As is the author’s discussion of how he prefers to travel in the second paragraph. The second paragraph, particularly the excerpt that reads “here is no fatigue connected with the trip. One arrives fresh in spirit and in person in the evening—no fret in his heart, no grime on his face, no grit in his hair, not a cinder in his eye. This is the right condition of mind and body, the right and due preparation for the solemn event which closed the day . . . “ is related to the question “When traveling is it better to take the quickest option, or the most enjoyable?” And, finally, the question “What is the best motivation for war?” is related to the author’s discussion of Swiss conflicts compared to the War of the Roses and the Crusades at the end of the third paragraph.

Example Question #180 : Comprehension

Adapted from “Disraeli” in Political and Literary Essays 1908-1913 by The Earl of Cromer (1913)

Whatever views one may adopt of Disraeli's character and career, it is impossible not to be fascinated in watching the moral and intellectual development of this very remarkable man, whose conduct throughout life, far from being wayward and erratic, as has at times been somewhat superficially supposed, was in reality in the highest degree methodical, being directed with unflagging persistence to one end, the gratification of his own ambition—an ambition, it should always be remembered, which, although it was honorable, inasmuch as it was directed to no ignoble ends, was wholly personal. If ever there was a man to whom Milton's well-known lines could fitly be applied it was Disraeli. He scorned delights. He lived laborious days. In his youth he eschewed pleasures which generally attract others whose ambition only soars to a lower plane. In the most intimate relations of life he subordinated all private inclinations to the main object he had in view. He avowedly married, in the first instance, for money, although at a later stage his wife was able to afford herself the consolation, and to pay him the graceful compliment of obliterating the sordid reproach by declaring that "if he had the chance again he would marry her for love"—a statement confirmed by his passionate, although somewhat histrionic love-letters. The desire of fame, which may easily degenerate into a mere craving for notoriety, was unquestionably the spur which in his case raised his "clear spirit." So early as 1833, on being asked upon what principles he was going to stand at a forthcoming election, he replied, "On my head." He cared, in fact, little for principles of any kind, provided the goal of his ambition could be reached. Throughout his career his main object was to rule his countrymen, and that object he attained by the adoption of methods which, whether they be regarded as tortuous or straightforward, morally justifiable or worthy of condemnation, were of a surety eminently successful.

From earliest youth to green old age his confidence in his own powers was never shaken. He persistently acted up to the sentiment—slightly paraphrased from Terence—which he had characteristically adopted as his family motto, Forti nihil difficile; neither could there be any question as to the genuine nature either of his strength or his courage, although hostile critics might seek to confound the latter quality with sheer impudence. He abhorred the commonplace, and it is notably this abhorrence which gives a vivid, although somewhat meretricious sparkle to his personality. For although truth is generally dull, and although probably most of the reforms and changes which have really benefited mankind partake largely of the commonplace, the attraction of unconventionality and sensationalism cannot be denied. Disraeli made English politics interesting, just as Ismail Pasha gave at one time a spurious interest to the politics of Egypt. No one could tell what would be the next step taken by the juggler in Cairo or by that meteoric statesman in London whom John Bright once called "the great wizard of Buckinghamshire." When Disraeli disappeared from the stage, the atmosphere may have become clearer, and possibly more healthy for the body politic in the aggregate, but the level of interest fell, whilst the barometer of dulness rose.

If the saying generally attributed to Buffon that "the style is the man" is correct, an examination of Disraeli's style ought to give a true insight into his character. There can be no question of the readiness of his wit or of his superabundant power of sarcasm. Besides the classic instances which have almost passed into proverbs, others, less well known, are recorded in these pages. The statement that "from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to an Under Secretary of State is a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous" is very witty. The well-known description of Lord Derby as "the Rupert of debate" is both witty and felicitous, whilst the sarcasm in the context, which is less well known, is both witty and biting. The noble lord, Disraeli said, was like Prince Rupert, because "his charge was resistless, but when he returned from the pursuit he always found his camp in the possession of the enemy." Much has at times been said and written of the solecisms for which Disraeli was famous. They came naturally to him. At the same time there can be little doubt that his practice of indulging in carefully prepared solecisms, which became more daring as he advanced in power, was part of a deliberate and perfectly legitimate plan, conceived with the object of arresting the attention and stimulating the interest of his audience.

Which of these questions is most central to the passage?

Possible Answers:

What aspects of Disraeli’s character made him predisposed towards a life of political success?

Is it acceptable to pursue public goals for personal satisfaction?

What makes Disraeli so witty?

How does the life of Disraeli differ from that of his contemporaries?

Why did Disraeli enter politics in the first place?

Correct answer:

What aspects of Disraeli’s character made him predisposed towards a life of political success?


This essay is primarily a consideration of the aspects of Disraeli’s character that have made him predisposed towards political success, such as pragmatism, industry, intelligence, and wit. The other answer choices are all a part of the passage, so to answer this question correctly, you have to determine which answer is most central. When you are asked to do this, it is wise to consider which of the answer choices relates to the largest amount of the text, although this is not a foolproof system.

Example Question #5 : Formulating Useful Questions

Adapted from The Everyday Life of Abraham Lincoln by Francis Fischer Browne (1913)

In 1838, Lincoln was for a third time a candidate for the State Legislature. Mr. Wilson, one of his colleagues from Sangamon County, states that a question of the division of the county was one of the local issues. "Mr. Lincoln and myself," says Mr. Wilson, "among others residing in the portion of the county that sought to be organized into a new county, opposed the division, and it became necessary that I should make a special canvass through the northwest part of the county, then known as Sand Ridge. I made the canvass. Mr. Lincoln accompanied me, being personally acquainted with everyone we called at nearly every house. At that time it was the universal custom to keep some whiskey in the house for private use and to treat friends. The subject was always mentioned as a matter of politeness, but with the usual remark to Mr. Lincoln, ‘We know you never drink, but maybe your friend would like to take a little.' I never saw Mr. Lincoln drink. He often told me he never drank, and had no desire for drink, nor for the companionship of drinking men."

The result of this canvass was that Lincoln was elected to the Legislature for the session of 1838-39. The next year he was elected for the session of 1840-41. This ended his legislative service, which comprised eight consecutive years, from 1834 to 1841. In these later sessions, he was as active and prominent in the House as he had been in the earlier times when a member from New Salem.

Lincoln's faculty for getting the better of an adversary by an apt illustration or anecdote was seldom better shown than by an incident which occurred during his last term in the Legislature. Hon. James C. Conkling has given the following graphic description of the scene: "A gentleman who had formerly been Attorney General of the State was also a member. Presuming upon his age, experience, and former official position, he thought it incumbent upon himself to oppose Lincoln, who was then one of the acknowledged leaders of his party. He at length attracted the attention of Lincoln, who replied to his remarks, telling one of his humorous anecdotes and making a personal application to his opponent that placed the latter in such a ridiculous attitude that it convulsed the whole House. All business was suspended. In vain the Speaker rapped with his gavel. Members of all parties, without distinction, were compelled to laugh. They not only laughed, they screamed and yelled; they thumped upon the floor with their canes; they clapped their hands and threw up their hats; they shouted and twisted themselves into all sorts of contortions, until their sides ached and the tears rolled down their cheeks. One paroxysm passed away, but was speedily succeeded by another, and again they laughed and screamed and yelled. Another lull occurred, and still another paroxysm, until they seemed to be perfectly exhausted. The ambition of Lincoln's opponent was abundantly gratified, and for the remainder of the session he lapsed into profound obscurity."

In June, 1842, ex-President Van Buren was journeying through Illinois with a company of friends. When near Springfield they were delayed by bad roads, and were compelled to spend the night at Rochester, some miles out. The accommodations at this place were very poor, and a few of the ex-President's Springfield friends proposed to go out to meet him and try to aid in entertaining him. Knowing Lincoln's ability as a talker and storyteller, they begged him to go with them and aid in making their guest at the country inn pass the evening as pleasantly as possible. Lincoln, with his usual good nature, went with them, and entertained the party for hours with graphic descriptions of Western life, anecdotes, and witty stories. Judge Peck, who was of the party and a warm friend of the ex-President, says that Lincoln was at his best. There was a constant succession of brilliant anecdotes and funny stories, accompanied by loud laughter in which Van Buren took his full share. "He also," says the Judge, "gave us incidents and anecdotes of Elisha Williams, and other leading members of the New York bar, going back to the days of Hamilton and Burr. Altogether there was a right merry time. Mr. Van Buren said the only drawback upon his enjoyment was that his sides were sore from laughing at Lincoln's stories for a week thereafter."

Which of the following questions is most related to this passage?

Possible Answers:

What inspired Lincoln to enter politics?

When did Lincoln begin his rise to the U.S. presidency?

How was Lincoln viewed by his contemporaries?

How did Lincoln gratify his political ambitions?

Why was Lincoln so opposed to slavery?

Correct answer:

How was Lincoln viewed by his contemporaries?


It could perhaps be stated that the questions “How did Lincoln gratify his political ambitions?” and “When did Lincoln begin his rise to the U.S. presidency?” are loosely framed around this passage; however, neither of them are anywhere near as closely related as is the question “How was Lincoln viewed by his contemporaries?” This question is addressed time and again in the passage, from the description of Lincoln’s constituents' fondness for him in the first paragraph, to the effect Lincoln has on his peers on the Legislature in the third paragraph, to the account of Van Buren’s perspective on Lincoln in the final paragraph.

Example Question #181 : Comprehension

Adapted from Utilitarianism by John Stewart Mill (1863)

Only while the world is in a very imperfect state can it happen that anyone’s best chance of serving the happiness of others is through the absolute sacrifice of his own happiness; but while the world is in that imperfect state, I fully admit that the readiness to make such a sacrifice is the highest virtue that can be found in man. I would add something that may seem paradoxical: namely that in this present imperfect condition of the world, the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of bringing about such happiness as is attainable. For nothing except that consciousness can raise a person above the chances of life by making him feel that fate and fortune—let them do their worst!—have no power to subdue him. Once he feels that, it frees him from excessive anxiety about the evils of life and lets him (like many a stoic in the worst times of the Roman empire) calmly develop the sources of satisfaction that are available to him, not concerning himself with the uncertainty regarding how long they will last or the certainty that they will end.

Meanwhile, let utilitarians never cease to claim that they have as much right as the stoic or the transcendentalist to maintain the morality of devotion to a cause as something that belongs to them. The utilitarian morality does recognize that human beings can sacrifice their own greatest good for the good of others; it merely refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. It regards as wasted any sacrifice that doesn’t increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness. The only self-renunciation that it applauds is devotion to the happiness, or to some of the means to happiness, of others. . . . I must again repeat something that the opponents of utilitarianism are seldom fair enough to admit, namely that the happiness that forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.

As the practical way to get as close as possible to this ideal, the ethics of utility would command two things. (1) First, laws and social arrangements should place the happiness (or what for practical purposes we may call the interest) of every individual as much as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole. (2) Education and opinion, which have such a vast power over human character, should use that power to establish in the mind of every individual an unbreakable link between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the kinds of conduct (whether doing or allowing) that are conducive to universal happiness. If (2) is done properly, it will tend to have two results: (2a) The individual won’t be able to conceive the possibility of being personally happy while acting in ways opposed to the general good. (2b) In each individual a direct impulse to promote the general good will be one of the habitual motives of action, and the feelings connected with it will fill a large and prominent place in his sentient existence. This is the true character of the utilitarian morality. If those who attack utilitarianism see it as being like this, I don’t know what good features of some other moralities they could possibly say that utilitarianism lacks, what more beautiful or more elevated developments of human nature any other ethical systems can be supposed to encourage, or what motivations for action that aren’t available to the utilitarian those other systems rely on for giving effect to their mandates.

Which of the following questions is MOST relevant to the passage?

Possible Answers:

What are the theological implications of self-sacrifice?

How long has utilitarianism been a moral system?

Why were stoics persuctued in ancient Rome?

What is the best way of determining how much happiness or unhappiness an action may cause?

Why do people value education?

Correct answer:

What is the best way of determining how much happiness or unhappiness an action may cause?


The most relevant question to this passage, and most any passage outlining utiliatarian moral beliefs is "What is the best way of determining how much happiness or unhappiness an action may cause?" As the author puts forward acting for the greatest good as highest moral aim in utilitarianism, the best method of determining the greatest good is a highly relevant question. This is true in light of the passage's discussion of self-sacrifce especially, since self-sacrifice should only take place if it increases the total amount of happiness in the world; therefore, the amount of happiness caused by that sacrifice would have to be determined.

Example Question #182 : Comprehension

Adapted from Samuel Johnson's "Labor Necessary to Excellence" in No. 169 of The Rambler (1751)

No vanity can more justly incur contempt and indignation than that which boasts of negligence and hurry. For who can bear with patience the writer who claims such superiority to the rest of his species as to imagine mankind are at leisure for attention to his extemporary sallies and that posterity will reposit his casual effusions among the treasures of ancient wisdom?

Men have sometimes appeared of such transcendent abilities that their slightest and most cursory performances excel all that labor and study can enable meaner intellects to compose, as there are regions of which the spontaneous products cannot be equalled in other soils by care and culture. But it is no less dangerous for any man to place himself in this rank of understanding and fancy that he is born to be illustrious without labor than to omit the cares of husbandry and expect from his ground the blossoms of Arabia.

The greatest part of those who congratulate themselves upon their intellectual dignity and usurp the privileges of genius are men whom only themselves would ever have marked out as enriched by uncommon liberalities of nature, or entitled to veneration and immortality on easy terms. This ardor of confidence is usually found among those who, having not enlarged their notions by books or conversation, are persuaded, by the partiality which we all feel in our own favor, that they have reached the summit of excellence because they discover none higher than themselves; and who acquiesce in the first thoughts that occur, because their scantiness of knowledge allows them little choice; and the narrowness of their views affords them no glimpse of perfection, of that sublime idea which human industry has from the first ages been vainly toiling to approach. They see a little, and believe that there is nothing beyond their sphere of vision, as the Patuecos of Spain, who inhabited a small valley, conceived the surrounding mountains to be the boundaries of the world. In proportion as perfection is more distinctly conceived, the pleasure of contemplating our own performances will be lessened; it may therefore be observed, that they who most deserve praise are often afraid to decide in favor of their own performances; they know how much is still wanting to their completion, and wait with anxiety and terror the determination of the public. I please everyone else, says Tally, but never satisfy myself.

It has often been inquired, why, notwithstanding the advances of later ages in science and the assistance which the infusion of so many new ideas has given us, we fall below the ancients in the art of composition. Some part of their superiority may be justly ascribed to the graces of their language, from which the most polished of the present European tongues are nothing more than barbarous degenerations. Some advantage they might gain merely by priority, which put them in possession of the most natural sentiments and left us nothing but servile repetition or forced conceits. But the greater part of their praise seems to have been the just reward of modesty and labor. Their sense of human weakness confined them commonly to one study, which their knowledge of the extent of every science engaged them to prosecute with indefatigable diligence.

Which of these questions is most relevant to the passage?

Possible Answers:

How was it that so much ancient writing was successfully preserved over so many years?

What is the ideal amount of study and effort to put into a work of writing?

When was the first truly great written work composed?

What is the fastest speed at which a person can write a book?

Why did the "Patuecos of Spain" not simply build more roads?

Correct answer:

What is the ideal amount of study and effort to put into a work of writing?


The most relevant question to the fundamental argument of the text is "What is the ideal amount of study and effort to put into a work of writing?" The author clearly outlines the failings of minimal effort, and praises the work arising from humble, hard work, but he does not establish an actual tangible amount of work that is ideal. Answering this question would further elucidate and strengthen the text's arguments on its own terms.

Example Question #8 : Formulating Useful Questions

Adapted from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume (1748)

1. Moral philosophy, or the science of human nature, may be treated after two different manners, each of which has its peculiar merit and may contribute to the entertainment, instruction, and reformation of mankind. The one considers man chiefly as born for action and as influenced in his measures by taste and sentiment, pursuing one object and avoiding another according to the value that these objects seem to possess and according to the light in which they present themselves. As virtue, of all objects, is allowed to be the most valuable, this species of philosophers paint her in the most amiable colors, borrowing all helps from poetry and eloquence and treating their subject in an easy and obvious manner and such as is best fitted to please the imagination and engage the affections. They select the most striking observations and instances from common life; place opposite characters in a proper contrast; and alluring us into the paths of virtue by the views of glory and happiness, direct our steps in these paths by the soundest precepts and most illustrious examples. They make us feel the difference between vice and virtue; they excite and regulate our sentiments; and so they can but bend our hearts to the love of probity and true honor, they think, that they have fully attained the end of all their labors.

2. The other species of philosophers considers man in the light of a reasonable rather than an active being, and endeavors to form his understanding more than cultivate his manners. They regard human nature as a subject of speculation, and with a narrow scrutiny examine it in order to find those principles that regulate our understanding, excite our sentiments, and make us approve or blame any particular object, action, or behavior. They think it a reproach to all literature that philosophy should not yet have fixed, beyond controversy, the foundation of morals, reasoning, and criticism, and should forever talk of truth and falsehood, vice and virtue, beauty and deformity, without being able to determine the source of these distinctions. While they attempt this arduous task, they are deterred by no difficulties, but proceeding from particular instances to general principles, they still push on their enquiries to principles more general, and rest not satisfied ‘till they arrive at those original principles, by which, in every science, all human curiosity must be bounded. Though their speculations seem abstract, and even unintelligible to common readers, they aim at the approbation of the learned and the wise, and think themselves sufficiently compensated for the labor of their whole lives if they can discover some hidden truths that may contribute to the instruction of posterity.

3. It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and abstruse, and by many will be recommended, not only as more agreeable, but more useful than the other. It enters more into common life; molds the heart and affections; and, by touching those principles which actuate men, reforms their conduct, and brings them nearer to that model of perfection that it describes. On the contrary, the abstruse philosophy, being founded on a turn of mind, which cannot enter into business and action, vanishes when the philosopher leaves the shade, and comes into open day; nor can its principles easily retain any influence over our conduct and behavior. The feelings of our hearts, the agitation of our passions, the vehemence of our affections, dissipate all its conclusions, and reduce the profound philosopher to the mere plebeian.

Which of these questions is central to the passage?

Possible Answers:

What is the nature of vice?

What is the nature of abstraction?

Which of the two schools of moral philosophy is the most in line with Judeo-Christian religious morality?

Which of the two schools of moral philosophy discussed is more valid? 

Which of the two schools of moral philosophy discussed came about first, and as such has lasted longer?

Correct answer:

Which of the two schools of moral philosophy discussed is more valid? 


Of the questions listed, the MOST fundamentally relevant to the passage is "Which of the two schools of moral philosophy discussed is more valid?" The author outlines both schools, listing some positives and negatives of both. His discussion is centered on the intellectual and applied utility and validity of these schools; he is not seeking the perfect system (which would be right in all cases), merely the one that is the most intellectually valid.

While abstraction (or abstruse philosophy) and vice are discussed, neither is the central concern of the passage.

Example Question #3 : Formulating Useful Questions

Adapted from "A Criticism on the English Historians" by Samuel Johnson in The Rambler #122 (1751)

Of the various kinds of speaking or writing, which serve necessity, or promote pleasure, none appears so artless or easy as simple narration; for what should make him who knows the whole order and progress of an affair unable to relate it? Yet we hourly find such as endeavor to entertain or instruct us by recitals, clouding the facts that they intend to illustrate, and losing themselves and their auditors in wilds and mazes, in digression and confusion. When we have congratulated ourselves upon a new opportunity of inquiry, and new means of information, it often happens, that without designing either deceit or concealment, without ignorance of the fact, or unwillingness to disclose it, the relator fills the ear with empty sounds, harasses the attention with fruitless impatience, and disturbs the imagination by a tumult of events, without order of time, or train of consequence.

It is natural to believe, upon the same principle, that no writer has a more easy task than the historian. The philosopher has the works of omniscience to examine, and is therefore engaged in disquisitions, to which finite intellects are utterly unequal. The poet trusts to his invention, and is not only in danger of those inconsistencies, to which every one is exposed by departure from truth, but may be censured as well for deficiencies of matter, as for irregularity of disposition, or impropriety of ornament. But the happy historian has no other labor than of gathering what tradition pours down before him, or records treasure for his use. He has only the actions and designs of men like himself to conceive and to relate; he is not to form, but copy characters, and therefore is not blamed for the inconsistency of statesmen, the injustice of tyrants, or the cowardice of commanders. The difficulty of making variety consistent, or uniting probability with surprise, needs not to disturb him; the manners and actions of his personages are already fixed; his materials are provided and put into his hands, and he is at leisure to employ all his powers in arranging and displaying them.

Yet, even with these advantages, very few in any age have been able to raise themselves to reputation by writing histories; and among the innumerable authors who fill every nation with accounts of their ancestors, or undertake to transmit to futurity the events of their own time, the greater part, when fashion and novelty have ceased to recommend them, are of no other use than chronological memorials, which necessity may sometimes require to be consulted, but which fright away curiosity and disgust delicacy.

It is observed that our nation, which has produced so many authors eminent for almost every other species of literary excellence, has been hitherto remarkably barren of historical genius; and so far has this defect raised prejudices against us, that some have doubted whether an Englishman can stop at that mediocrity of style, or confine his mind to that even tenor of imagination that narrative requires.

They who can believe that nature has so capriciously distributed understanding, have surely no claim to the honor of serious confutation. The inhabitants of the same country have opposite characters in different ages; the prevalence or neglect of any particular study can proceed only from the accidental influence of some temporary cause; and if we have failed in history, we can have failed only because history has not hitherto been diligently cultivated.

But how is it evident, that we have not historians among us, whom we may venture to place in comparison with any that the neighboring nations can produce? The attempt of Raleigh is deservedly celebrated for the labor of his researches, and the elegance of his style; but he has endeavored to exert his judgment more than his genius, to select facts, rather than adorn them; and has produced an historical dissertation, but seldom risen to the majesty of history.

Which of the following questions is MOST relevant to the passage?

Possible Answers:

How long does it take to produce an accomplished work of history?

Why is it so difficult to gain literary esteem when writing about history?

What is history?

Which country has produced the best writers?

Who is the most famous historian of all time?

Correct answer:

Why is it so difficult to gain literary esteem when writing about history?


The question most relevant to this passage is "Why is it so difficult to gain literary esteem when writing about history?" Through the passage, the author discusses the relative lack of "esteemed" historical writers, especially when compared to other literary fields. He cites, in particular, England's failure, but also applies this statement generally across history, and the question of which country has done the best at historical writing has little bearing on his fundamental point about the relative lack of esteem in the field. While he does cite one historian as an example of an accomplished, but not "genius," historical author as an example, the questions of who the best historical author is and how long he or she would take to produce a work are not as relevant as the broader questions surrounding the difficulty of gaining literary esteem while writing histories.

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