What is Reading Comprehension anyways?
Congratulations, we’ve reached the Reading Comprehension section of the GMAT! This is one of the more difficult sections to crack as it requires us to use all of our hard-earned verbal skills – vocabulary, grammar and critical reasoning – while dealing with long texts. In this blog we’ll go over the most important things we should do when preparing for Reading Comprehension.
What should you expect to see in the RC section?
The Reading Comprehension format usually consists of 250 word (short) to 350 word (long) articles on a variety of topics. The passages are highly structured and each is centered on one topic. Topics are usually business-oriented, but can also be chosen from the humanities and sciences.
Examples of the kind of content found in the RC passages:
- A historical description of an event
- An analysis of a policy
- A comparison of different research methodologies
- An introduction to a scientific theory
Whatever the topic, the tone of the article is passive – it is written in the third-person and is intended to convey information rather than to provoke an emotional response.
Tip #1 to crushing Reading Comprehension
As mentioned, the passages are highly structured. This means that the individual sentences are linked in a paragraph such that each sentence has its own purpose, and every sentence is logically connected to the one before it.
As such, paying attention to connecting words is an extremely important aspect of successfully understanding the text. Negative connectors such as ‘however’, ‘although’ and ‘instead’ signal that one idea contradicts or weakens another, while positive connectors such as ‘furthermore’, ‘additionally’, and ‘moreover’ signal that one idea builds upon or strengthens another. In academic writing, such connectors are “stop signs” that call for our attention: we should stop and pay special attention to the new connection that they present and ask ourselves questions such as “why does A contradict B?”, “how does C support D?”, etc.
Tip #2 — What to do before we even look at the questions
Firstly and most importantly – we must read as much as we can! This is especially true for test-takers whose native language isn’t English, but also for a native speaker who isn’t familiar with academic writing. We should spend at least 75 consecutive minutes every day for at least a few weeks before the exam reading articles. 75 minutes is the length of the Verbal section. That’s 75 minutes of rapid reading and quick decision making. The majority of test-takers have difficulty finishing the Verbal section of the exam, and one of the main reasons for this is that they read slowly. Practicing will help us increase our speed, freeing up more time for the important part of the exam – answering the questions! We’ve collected some great links to articles in the Introduction to Reading Comprehension. They give a good impression of the test’s level and topics.
Tip #3 — Take notes
Now that we’ve gotten our reading speed up, let’s talk about how to approach the passage. The method we recommend is that of Active Reading: while reading the passage, we’ll stop once in a while to make sure we understood what we’ve just read, ask ourselves questions to make sure we understand how one paragraph connects to the other, and most importantly, take short notes about the main message of each paragraph or sentence.
For example, say we read the following passage:
“The early 20th century physician, Dr. Stone, tried, over the course of his career at the local hospital, dozens of different types of treatments to treat his patients’ sore throats. After much trial and error, including an unfortunate case of one patient’s death, he eventually concluded that antibiotics provided the most effective remedy for the majority of patients.”
Even though the passage itself is rather long, the note we’ll write on our scratch pad is very short, such as ‘Dr. Stone – sore throat treatments – antibiotics best’. No need to note down all the information in the paragraph – fragments like ‘early 20th century’ and ‘over the course of his career’ are probably additional, unimportant pieces of information we can come back to later.
The different types of questions we’ll encounter in RC
After we’ve thoroughly read the passage and written down our notes, it’s time to move on to the first question! Our first task is to determine what kind of question we’re dealing with. The GMAT questions can be classified into 3 types:
- Specific questions – these questions ask us to extract specific information from the text. For example, “The word ‘considers’ in line 3 is closest in meaning to:” or “To illustrate her point, the author gives the example of:” In these cases, the Precise approach is the way to go – going directly to the location in the text we’re guided to and looking for the answer. Once we’ve decided for ourselves what the best answer is, only then will we look at the answers given on the exam and select the best one.
- General questions – these questions ask us to infer a ‘big picture’ from the text. For example, “It can be inferred from the text that the reason for…” or “What is the main purpose of the third paragraph?” These types of questions are most amenable to a Logical approach – using our notes, we’ll look for the logical connections that run through the whole text and figure out what kind of answer we’re likely to expect. Once we have an idea what we’re looking for, we’ll read the answers and select the one that is the best fit.
- Critical examination of the answers – in these types of questions we have no choice but to look at the answers because the question doesn’t give us enough information to figure the answer out on our own. For example, “Which of the following would the author most likely agree with?” or “Which of the following is a good title for the text?”. With these types of questions, our guiding approach should be Alternative. We’ll need to read all of the answers, eliminate those that are clearly wrong, and look for the answer that best fits the text. Note that an answer that is ‘out of the scope’ of the text or one that ‘uses additional information’ is a classic example of a misleading answer. Watch out for these!
Take home messages
That’s it! Now that we understand the overall structure of the Reading Comprehension section, we are well-equipped with strategies to approach the different types of questions and are on our way to success. Before we go, here are a few common mistakes we should avoid and a few take-home messages:
- There is no need to read all the answers! They are more likely to confuse us than to help us understand. It’s much better to first read the question, decide for ourselves what the best answer is and only then look for it in the answers. In about two-thirds of the questions, we can figure out the correct answer directly from the text without looking at the answer choices themselves.
- If we must work with the answers, we’ll make sure we choose the one that matches the text itself and not things we know from our own experience: answers that are ‘out of scope’, ‘add additional information’ or ‘are partially correct’ are wrong!
- The importance of practice cannot be emphasized enough, both to get used to the style of GMAT articles and to improve our reading speed. We’ll want to spend at most 2-3 minutes per passage, reading and taking notes, so as to have time for the questions themselves.
- When we’re practicing (with the examPAL materials or the Official Guide To GMAT), we’ll make sure to practice active reading – stopping at connecting words, asking ourselves questions, and taking notes while we read! This will prevent rereads and save a lot of time.
Enjoy reading – and comprehending!