What is the difference between these two GMAT tasks?
Some GMAT Reading Comprehension passages or AWA questions will have a "compare and contrast" type question. Others will ask us to compare "the pros and cons" or "the benefits and liabilities" or "the advantages and drawbacks" of a particular decision or plan or strategy. Students sometime wonder: what is the difference between these two tasks?
First of all, let's consider a concrete example. Suppose the topic is the New Deal programs initiated in the 1930s by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This was a series of programs to combat the worst effects of the Great Depression as well as some of the problems in the financial system that caused it. It produced numerous public works across the country, as well as systems that are still in place today, including both the Social Security System and the Security and Exchanges Commission (SEC). (Incidentally, both of those are systems with which you should have at least passing familiarity before taking the GMAT.) Politically, the New Deal is a charged topic, as American liberals would tend to valorize it as one of the great examples of a government program doing good for the public, and American conservatives would tend to vilify it as one of the worst examples of "big government" increasing spending and doing the jobs that private industry could have handled. This is a complex topic with lots of room for disagreement.
Compare and Contrast
Any "compare and contrast" question is going to ask you to compare and contrast the New Deal with something else. That's the big idea of "compare and contrast": it's always an external comparison, a comparison of the thing you are discussing to some completely new thing.
For example, you might be asked to compare and contrast the New Deal with some other social or political program in the United States: Reconstruction, or L.B.J's Great Society, or Obamacare. Alternately, you might be asked to compare the New Deal with a major social program in some other country, for example, the Great Leap Forward in China, or Gorbachev's Perestroika. You would be asked to "compare" --- that is, find similarities between the New Deal and the other program --- as well as "contrast" --- that is, find differences between the New Deal and the other program.
Any similarity could be a good thing both share, or a bad thing both share, or something neutral that they both share. Any contrast or difference might be something good that one plan included and the other lacked, or might be a bad effect of one that wasn't a bad effect of the other. In other words, either comparing or contrasting could make the New Deal look either very good or not-so-good, and any particular comparison or contrast might be completely value-neutral and objective, simply stating a similarity or difference that doesn't engender strong judgments. Neither the word "compare" nor the word "contrast" necessarily mean either something good or something bad.
Here's a GMAT RC practice question in which doesn't use the word "compare" buy asks you to discern what makes a newer study different from earlier research.
Pros and Cons
Any question about "pros and cons" or "benefits and liabilities" or "advantages and drawbacks" is asking you to talk only about features of the New Deal. That's the big idea of "pros and cons": it's always an internal comparison, a comparison of one feature of the thing you are discussing to some other feature of the same thing. Unlike "compare and contrast", this is definitely about good vs. bad. A "pro" or "benefit" or "advantage" of the New Deal is about something you (or the author of the passage) believe is a good thing, a worthwhile thing, something worth admiring and emulating. A "con" or "liability" or "disadvantage" of the New Deal is something you (or the author of the passage) believe is a bad thing, an unfortunate or problematic aspect, something to repudiate and avoid in the future.
Unlike "compare and contrast", an analysis of "pros and cons" necessarily involves value-judgments. Value-judgments about something as charged as the New Deal could be contentious. American liberals might think the New Deal a "holy cow," replete with benefits, and might be hard pressed to formulate any criticism beyond something like "it should have gone further." American conservatives, by contrast, might consider the New Deal a colossal failure, the worst example of bloated government overspending, and might be at a loss to find anything at all positive about it. The big idea: in considering "pros and cons", both the liberal and the conservative are focused only on qualities of the New Deal itself, pluses and minuses of this program only, without bringing in any comparison to anything outside the New Deal.
Of course, the GMAT is certainly not a place for you to air your own political biases, whatever they may be, but it may well be that in a particular Reading Comprehension, the author (through some subtle cues) will indicate something about his or her own political leanings, and discerning this can be invaluable in answering inference questions.
Here's a practice RC question that doesn't use the word "pros and cons" but asks you to make a value-judgment about someone's conclusions.
This post was written by Mike McGarry, GMAT expert at Magoosh, and originally posted here.