ISEE Upper Level Reading : Comparing and Contrasting in Contemporary Life Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for ISEE Upper Level Reading

varsity tutors app store varsity tutors android store

Example Questions

Example Question #31 : Contemporary Life Passages

"Addictions" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

Addictions come in many forms, often quite hidden from those who should be aware of them. It is helpful to be aware of how hidden these obsessive behaviors can be. Often, they appear to be harmless, but this appearance is deceptive.  Perhaps several examples can assist in increasing the reader’s awareness of these potentially problematic habits. 

A very simple example of such an apparently innocuous addiction is the addiction that many people have to a beverage like coffee. While not as destructive as an addiction to alcohol, an extreme need for caffeine often covers a need for more sleep or an overzealous desire to be completely energetic at every waking moment. Also, a great deal of caffeine can potentially do damage to one’s heart due to the stress caused by its stimulating effects. 

Another example of a seemingly harmless addiction can be found in the case of people who are addicted to work. It is very tempting to praise such obsessive behavior, as it provides many benefits for others and even for the one doing the work. The advancement of a career certainly seems beneficial and often allows for great personal and financial fulfillment. Nevertheless, constant work often hides some sadness, insecurity, or fear that should be confronted by the person who slaves away without cessation. Likewise, over time, such continuous work often can be greatly destructive of important personal relationships.

Of course, many more examples could be brought forth, for one can obsess over almost anything. Still, even these two simple examples should make clear to the reader that it is possible for there to be apparently harmless—indeed, seemingly helpful—life practices that in reality can pose a potential harm to one’s physical or mental well-being.

What is different about the way that the author presents addiction to work and addiction to coffee?

Possible Answers:

In the case of work, he denies the negative aspects on the whole.

In the case of work, he ignores the psychological damage of such obsession.

In the case of work, he notes that addiction to work can even appear to be a positive thing.

There are no significant differences in presentation.

In the case of caffeine, he focuses only on physical damage that can occur.

Correct answer:

In the case of work, he notes that addiction to work can even appear to be a positive thing.


The only acceptable answer is the one that notes that the author remarks that obsession with work can often appear to be a good thing, something he does not do in the case of coffee. Among the wrong answers, there is a trap answer: "In the case of caffeine, he focuses only on physical damage that can occur." It is true that the author focuses on physical damage in the case of coffee but does not do so for work. Still, the author does not focus only on that even in the case of coffee.

Example Question #41 : Understanding And Evaluating Opinions And Arguments In Argumentative Humanities Passages

"Commentaries" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

The idea of a commentary is not anywhere as simple as most people think. To the popular imagination, the commentator makes a few observations based on a text, not going far beyond its contents. This standard opinion completely misses the various types of commentaries that can be written. Indeed, even the notion of “literal commentary” is itself so variegated that it is incorrect to imagine that such “literal” work is merely a slavish repetition of an original text.

Some literal commentaries truly are “literal,” that is, based on the letters and words of the text. Such philological studies investigate the language structures and meanings of a text. The interpretation of the text proceeds based on these linguistic investigations. Often, this process will note the types of rhetoric being used, the dialects utilized, and any odd language structures that might imply something with regard to the text’s meaning. All of these methods remain very concerned with the “letter of the text” in a very direct manner.

Indeed, even the Medieval commentaries on Aristotle’s works could be considered “literal,” though they do differ from such linguistic approaches. Men like Thomas Aquinas would very carefully read Aristotle’s text, giving what was called a divisio textus for every section of the text in question. This “division of the text” sought to provide a succinct but correct outline of the text in question so that its literal meaning might be more easily noticed. Certainly, the commentary that followed this divisio textus did express some aspects of Aquinas’ own thought. However, he (like other literal commentators of this type) would attempt to remain as close to the literal meaning of the text as possible, always using the divisio textus as a guide for understanding the structure of the original author’s thought.

What is the difference between the type of commentary mentioned in the second paragraph and that which is mentioned in the third paragraph?

Possible Answers:

The first type is based primarily on details of language, while the other focuses primarily on the outline structure of the whole text. 

The first type is far more modern than the other type.

The first type is far more scientific and historical than the latter, outdated medieval methodology.

The first type of commentary is still being written, but Thomas Aquinas was the last person to do a literal, divisio textus commentary.

The first merely provides an historical analysis, while the latter provides a true commentary.

Correct answer:

The first type is based primarily on details of language, while the other focuses primarily on the outline structure of the whole text. 


Do not be distracted by secondary details about the two paragraphs. Clearly, the overall intent of this passage is to show these as two legitimate examples of types of so-called "literal commentaries." The first sentence of the third paragraph can help to see the contrast: "...though they do differ from such linguistic approaches." The difference is then stated: divisio textus outline in opposition to the linguistic approaches noted above.

Example Question #1 : Comparing And Contrasting In Contemporary Life Passages

"American Students and Foreign Languages" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

American students often find it difficult to understand the need for learning a foreign language. In part, this lack of understanding seems to occur because of the insulated nature of American geography. Unlike Europe, America is a massive country, comprised of states that all speak the same language. When an American travels from state to state, he or she is not confronted with a completely different language group as is the case when, for example, a Frenchman travels from his native land to the neighboring country of Italy or to England. Although America does have Canada to its north and Mexico to its south, it still does not have the great internal variety of languages as one finds in the small European continent. Therefore, students often do not experience the practical importance of knowing other languages.

Of course, America has always been called the “melting pot,” for many peoples have arrived on its shores, bringing their own distinctive cultures and languages with them. Still, this very expression—“melting pot”—shows that these immigrant cultures do not forever retain their own particular manners and languages. With time, these varied cultures become part of the American culture as a whole. While they do influence and change the culture, they likewise become assimilated into it. Their spoken language often becomes English. Even if they retain their mother tongue, they generally speak it privately. This is done as a matter of personal heritage, not as part of the day-to-day life in the culture. 

Additionally, America’s global dominance likewise allows Americans to avoid learning other languages. Since America has such influence over the rest of the world, it is generally in the interests of other peoples to learn English in order to be part of the economic, political, and military world in which America operates. Therefore, even at international meetings that are filled with people from many nationalities and language groups, English-speakers are at an advantage because they can talk with the many individuals who speak English. The work and learning of other peoples thus allows the Americans to convince themselves that there is no need to learn another language. 

Lastly, American education has come to emphasize mathematics and science to such a great degree that things such as language can often seem unimportant. The main goals of education are said to be the training of students for the technology workforce. If this is presented as the main goal of school, few children will understand why any of the non-scientific subjects are included in the curriculum. If a subject does not help in learning math and science, it will appear to be irrelevant. In particular, foreign languages do not seem to add to the teaching of math and science, which can be done very easily and effectively in English alone. 

Of course, many other reasons could be considered, and a more detailed discussion would undertake such a lengthy investigation. Still, the factors discussed above do provide some sense as to why American students find it difficult to understand the importance of learning a foreign language.

What is the contrast expressed in the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

Citizens of the United States travel far less frequently than Europeans.

Europeans are far more likely to understand that there are other nations, for the French and English meet regularly in cities and towns.

Europe is much smaller than the United States.

While Europe has a number of language groups in close proximity, this is generally not the case within the United States of America.

Europeans have a much greater appreciation of other cultures and ways of life than do citizens of the United States.

Correct answer:

While Europe has a number of language groups in close proximity, this is generally not the case within the United States of America.


The contrast in the first paragraph intends to express that Europe is made up of a number of countries that are in close proximity. This creates a situation in which different language groups come into contact more readily than in the United States, which is much larger and "comprised of states that all speak the same language." This contrast is then used to support the conclusion: "Therefore, students often do not have the experience of the practical importance of knowing other languages."

Learning Tools by Varsity Tutors