The GMAT Reading Comprehension (RC) questions make up roughly one-third of questions of the Verbal section of the GMAT. Reading Comprehension marks a crucial part of your GMAT exam where you run the risk of either doing it all good if you comprehend and organize well or doing it all wrong by wasting your valuable time during the examination.
Without a solid GMAT Reading Comprehension strategy, you are most likely to spend a lot of time reading and re-reading while time keeps ticking taking you to a point of guessing a number of known questions in the Verbal Section at the end.
Here we come up with some tips to help you ace in the Reading Comprehension section.
The GMAT Verbal section consists of a total of 36 multiple-choice questions that you have 65 minutes to complete. This section consists of Reading Comprehension, Sentence Correction and Critical Reasoning that can appear in any sequence.
GMAT Reading Comprehension Question Types
There are 6 types of GMAT Reading Comprehension sections that you can identify.
1. Main Idea
If the reading comprehension section is of the main idea type questions, you are most likely to present an overall understanding of the idea rather than identifying the micro details. Main idea questions which test your ability to identify the primary purpose or main point of a passage is the most common question type asked in the GMAT exam.
2. Supporting Idea
Supporting idea questions would demand your attention on the key details or facts in the given passage. You are supposed to notice specific information mentioned explicitly in the passage. These types of questions are the opposite of main idea questions. Here little things matter more than the gist of the passage.
An inference question is an unwritten conclusion that must be derived from the information given in the passage. You are to derive a conclusion from the facts stated in the passage. These questions ask about something implied. When presented with such questions, your job is to find answers not explicitly stated but given a hint by the author. An important thing to remember is that these are not mere assumptions but information that comes from the passage itself.
Application questions in the GMAT reading comprehension section ask you to apply information from the passage to a context that is outside of the passage. You are to identify an analogous situation to determine whether the author would agree or disagree with a statement, recommendation, or belief not stated in the passage, or to recognize the similarity between a relationship or idea discussed in the passage and one not discussed in the passage.
5. Logical Structure
Logical structure questions require you to analyze the function and purpose of key elements in a passage. For instance, you might be asked to determine the purpose of a piece of information, a term used, a sentence, a paragraph, or a quote, to name a few examples. you might be asked questions on various aspects including contrasting ideas, defining a concept, discussing the plan of action or offering a solution to the problem.
Style questions require you to choose an answer choice that best captures some aspect of the author’s opinion or tone. These questions depend on your ability to “decode” the author’s word choices in order to assess their attitudes, sentiments, and motivations. Such questions require you to take the author’s perception on their agreement, disagreement, indifference or argument on a point of view. The questions would require the applicants to notice the author’s style and tone of writing. It would depend on your ability to read between the lines.
Some tips and dos and don’ts for performing well on the Reading Comprehension section of the GMAT exam.
Tip #1: Read the Passage First
The general notion is to read the questions first before reading the passage itself. However, doing so might make you miss some crucial points of the passage. Adopting the general notion might sometimes lead you to go back to the passage and re-read. This is why it is always recommendable to quickly skim through the passage to get a general idea of what it is all about in the very beginning. The next step would be to read the complete passage and pick up the main ideas.
Mere skimming without the next step might make you miss many of the nuances, connections between ideas, and relationships between different parts of the passage. You will probably find it harder to interpret the meaning or function of sentences and be more likely to choose trap choices.
DO: A quick skim through the passage + read the passage to take in all the ideas in the passage.
DON’T: Read the questions first and skim the passage looking for the answer alone.
Tip #2: Identify the Main Idea
Even when you read the passage, try identifying the key idea that the passage wants to convey parallelly.
Generally, students start to assume that the main idea might be stated in the first or last paragraph of the passage which is not the case for many passages. While identifying the main idea, you would want to accumulate the details that indicate and converge to the main idea stated throughout the passage.
Reading a passage thoroughly can be beneficial in cases multiple ideas are clubbed in one paragraph of the passage. Incorrect answers might be identical to the main ideas yet a little different which is why it’s smart to identify the overall idea for yourself.
DO: As you read an RC passage, quickly identify the main point or primary purpose of the passage.
DON’T: Assume that the main idea of a passage will be stated in the first or last paragraph.
Tip #3: Identify Structural Keywords
Identifying a pattern of keywords in the passage can help you understand the logic of a passage. It helps you analyse the function of different elements of the passage, the relationships between ideas and facts, and the intention or viewpoint of the author. It is important to recognize the roles of the keywords whether it indicates contrast or disagreement, agreement or introduces a conclusion. Structural keywords are important to decode the author’s major feelings.
DO: Look for keywords and phrases that indicate cause-and-effect relationships, contrast, or agreement or that introduce examples or conclusions.
DON’T: Check keywords in isolation instead of considering their meaning and function in the broader context of the passage.
Tip #4: Locate Key Information in the Passage
The overall goal in reading RC passages is to gain a general understanding of the context in which the author is saying something and why and how he/she’s saying it. But there is another very important skill that you must hone in order to perform well in Reading Comprehension, and that is the skill of noticing WHERE key information is located in the passage. Again, this is not a memorization game or even an exact science. However, the fact is, RC passages are composed of dozens of sentences, but to answer a question you may need only two of those sentences. Thus, you need to be skilled in finding the right information
So, when you read an RC passage, in addition to gaining a general understanding of the what, why, and how of the author’s writing, keep in mind the where.
DO: Get a sense of where key pieces of information are placed in the passage so that you can quickly locate them if you need to answer questions related to them.
DON’T: Attempt to note what is discussed in a passage line by line.
Tip #5: Always Refer Back to the Passage
I’ve alluded to this already, and it’s certainly relevant with regard to the previous tip, but unless for some wild reason you clearly and unequivocally remember something you read in the passage, you should refer back to the passage EVERY TIME you answer an RC question. Remember, all of the answers you need are within the passage — why not take full advantage of that incredible resource at your disposal? Yes, you’re under a time constraint, so you don’t have an infinite number of minutes to read and reread and pore over every word and detail to make sure you’re not missing anything. However, if you’ve followed my previous tips, you shouldn’t have to do any of that anyway.
Referring back to the passage allows you to confirm or disprove your suspicion about whether an answer choice is correct, refresh your memory about a specific fact or detail, re-examine a relationship to make sure that your understanding of it is accurate,or look more closely at the author’s conclusion to properly apply it to a different context.
If you already have a general understanding of what the passage is saying, how it’s organized, and the author’s tone, then grabbing the additional information you need to decide between answer choices (that are carefully worded in order to trick you) shouldn’t take much time. As I’ll discuss next, RC questions are designed to fool you into choosing trap answers, so relying on memory alone — or your hastily written notes from your initial reading of the passage — is not a foolproof strategy.
DO: Refer back to the passage EVERY TIME you answer an RC question.
DON’T: Answer RC questions by relying solely on your memory and any notes you took during your initial reading of the passage.
Tip #6: Don’t Match Words to Find Correct Answers
RC questions are a veritable minefield of trap answers, and a major way that GMAT question writers lay their traps is by choosing words and phrasing that make right answers look wrong and wrong answers look right. Often, incorrect RC answer choices seem to match exactly what the passage says, whereas correct answers will switch up the wording so that the answer seems less related to what is in the passage. Let’s look at an example.
A passage discusses “an atomic clock located in Colorado.” A very tempting incorrect answer choice says something about “an atomic clock located in Colorado.” The correct answer, on the other hand, says something about “an advanced timepiece placed at a great distance from the researchers.” Nowhere in the passage is the expression “an advanced timepiece” ever used. However, given the context of the passage, the atomic clock could rightly be described as “an advanced timepiece placed at a great distance from the researchers.”
The question writers matched the wording of the passage in their trap choice and changed the wording in the correct answer because they know that doing so will make test-takers second-guess whether to choose the correct answer.
It’s only natural to be thrown by something that “sounds wrong” and tempted by something that “sounds right.” So, you have to be very careful not to simply eliminate choices because the wording doesn’t “match” what is in the passage, and not to choose answers simply because the wording matches the passage’s wording exactly. You must be sophisticated in your thinking and find the choice that really makes sense given what the passage says.
DO: Eliminate answer choices based on meaning and logic.
DON’T: Eliminate choices simply because the wording doesn’t “match” what is in the passage, or choose answers because the wording matches the passage’s wording exactly.
Tip #7: Read Similar Publications for Practice
In addition to honing your skills with realistic GMAT practice Reading Comprehension questions, a good way to accustom yourself to the style and subject matter of RC passages is to regularly read RC-like writing. High-quality newspapers and magazines such as The Economist, Smithsonian magazine, and The New York Times feature writing on many of the same topics and in a similarly sophisticated style to the writing in GMAT RC passages, and you can generally access some articles in those types of publications for free online.
Think of that time as “bonus” GMAT prep — after all, there is only so much time you can spend practising with GMAT questions. But the more exposure you have to RC-type passages, the more comfortable you’ll feel when you see the real thing. Perhaps you already read some RC-like articles every so often. Make doing so a daily habit. Maybe you read The Wall Street Journal on a regular basis; why not add The Atlantic or Scientific American into the mix?
If you want to add another level of practice to your “bonus” GMAT study time in RC, when you’re reading a newspaper or magazine article, practice identifying the writer’s main idea. Notice whether there are any cause-and-effect claims made, or problems introduced and solutions offered, or opposing viewpoints or conflicting evidence discussed. Notice the writer’s opinions and tone.
You may end up finding that you come away with a much deeper understanding of what you’ve read than you typically would. Just don’t convince yourself that reading newspapers and magazines can replace practice with realistic GMAT questions. Regardless of how avid a reader you are, you should engage in ample practice finding correct answers to GMAT RC questions.
DO: Get more comfortable with RC-style passages by regularly reading high-quality publications, and practice identifying the main idea and other key elements of articles as you read.
DON’T: Neglect practice with realistic GMAT Reading Comprehension questions just because you’re an avid reader of newspapers and magazines.
So, we’ve learned what GMAT Reading Comprehension tests and how RC questions are structured and discussed 8 key strategies for tackling RC passages. To cap off our discussion, let’s take a look at how to properly pace yourself when working through RC questions on the actual GMAT and in later practice during your GMAT prep.
GMAT Reading Comprehension Pacing Strategy
The “common wisdom” in GMAT circles is that test-takers should spend 1 minute per paragraph reading an RC passage and 1 minute answering each question associated with that passage. Sounds pretty simple, right? Unfortunately, the first half of that equation doesn’t take into account that paragraphs in RC passages can vary pretty widely in length, regardless of whether you’re dealing with a short passage or a long one.
For example, one paragraph in an RC passage could be just 40 words long and another could be 260 words. Would you spend the same amount of time, 1 minute, reading each of those paragraphs?
The 1-minute rule of thumb does make sense for answering each question associated with a passage, but clearly, it isn’t a wise strategy to shoot for a 1-minute reading time for every paragraph you encounter in RC passages.
To illustrate this point, let’s game out a couple of scenarios.
You are presented with a short passage consisting of 1 paragraph that is 215 words, and you take approximately 1 minute and 45 seconds to read that paragraph. You then answer 2 questions about the passage, taking about 1 minute per question. Total Time: 3.75 minutes
You are presented with a long passage consisting of 4 paragraphs that are about 95 words each, for a total of 380 words. You spend approximately 45 seconds reading each paragraph, for a total of 180 seconds, or 3 minutes, of reading time. You then answer 4 questions about the passage, taking about 1 minute to answer each question. Total Time: 7 minutes
Notice that the 1-paragraph passage took more than 1 minute to read, while the 4-paragraph passage took less than 4 minutes to read. In other words, there was not a 1:1 relationship between the number of paragraphs and the number of minutes to read the passage. While that ratio could very well play out in some cases, there is no rule that it must.
Of course, you’re not going to be counting words as you read RC passages during the GMAT. However, you should be able to eyeball RC passages and get some sense of whether you’re, for example, spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get through what looks like relatively short paragraphs in a passage.
You’ll also have the comfort of knowing, for example, that if you’re faced with a long passage featuring 3 paragraphs that all look fairly long, you don’t have to start panicking if you need longer than 3 minutes to read that passage.
If you follow the tips I’ve laid out in this article and hone your skills with numerous realistic GMAT practice Reading Comprehension questions, you should be able, on average, to keep this pace. If, on the other hand, you find that you’re having trouble distinguishing between correct and incorrect answer choices in an efficient manner, first and foremost, make sure that you are not merely skimming the passage on your initial read and that you are understanding what you’re reading. In order to understand what you’re reading, as opposed to just letting the words “wash over you,” until your reading skills improve, you may need to slow down when reading passages and answering questions, particularly if you are in the earlier stages of your GMAT study.
To improve Reading Comprehension skills to the point at which you can tackle RC questions efficiently, you should start off doing RC practice questions slowly, carefully applying and learning to execute the strategies I’ve discussed. Only once your skills are more advanced and these strategies feel like second nature to you should you seek to answer questions at the pace laid out above.
TTP PRO TIP:
To develop the skills you need to perform well in RC, you should start off doing RC practice questions slowly.
Another way to ensure that you’re properly pacing yourself as you answer RC questions is to read ALL of the answer choices for a question before you eliminate ANY of them. No matter how hard a question is to answer, there will always be one or two choices that you can eliminate as soon as you’ve read all the choices. In other words, there will always be one or two choices that are pretty clearly worse than the other choices. By eliminating them and leaving yourself with fewer choices, you ”clear the deck” some, so you have less to think about at once. So, after you read a passage, read all of the answer choices for the question, and then start eliminating choices from worst to best.
TTP PRO TIP:
Read all of the answer choices for a question before you eliminate any of them, so you can quickly determine which 1 or 2 choices are the worst of the bunch and “clear the deck” of those distractions.
A Note About Note-Taking
There are varying opinions out there about whether test-takers should take notes as they’re reading RC passages. The truth is, when it comes to note-taking, what works for one test-taker may not be the right strategy for another. The important thing is to find a method that is comfortable and efficient for you. Some test-takers find that they perform better on RC questions when they don’t take notes at all because the notes distract them or prove too time-consuming.
Others find that jotting down notes helps them focus and organize their thoughts. It may take a bit of trial and error for you to figure out your note-taking process for RC questions, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. For one, using shorthand for RC notes is key. You have a limited number of minutes to answer each question, so you don’t want to regurgitate the entire passage on your notepad.
Furthermore, you simply won’t know which details are going to be relevant and which aren’t, so you don’t want to get bogged down writing summaries of all the different points a passage touches on. Remember, all of the answers to RC questions are right there in the passage for you!