GMAT Reading Comprehension — Strategies for Score Optimization

This tutorial explores specific strategies for GMAT Reading Comprehension — for example, how to improve your GMAT score by ferreting out "red herring" wrong-answer choices, and how to read GMAT passages as efficiently as possible.

Q: How many and what types of reading passages will I encounter on the GMAT?

A: Expect to encounter four Reading Comprehension sets on your Verbal section. Passages vary in length from 150 to 325 words. Each passage will be accompanied by three questions (except that one passage might be accompanied by four questions).

The passages are drawn from a variety of academic disciplines within the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Expect to encounter at least one from each of these broad areas on your GMAT; the CAT (Computer-Adaptive Testing) system intentionally selects an eclectic array of passages for every test taker — so that no one test taker is at an undue advantage because of familiarity with a general subject area. The passages are very dense; they're extensively edited and packed with the sorts of detailed information and ideas the test makers need to create a bank of GMAT-style questions.

Q: How will the reading passages appear on the computer screen?

A: During the test, whenever you encounter a Reading Comprehension question, the computer screen will split vertically down the middle; the passage will appear on the left side, and a question will appear on the right side. You might need to scroll vertically to read an entire passage. If so, you'll see scroll bar to the right of the passage.

Every fifth line of the passage will be numbered: 5, 10, and so forth. The reason for line numbering is that a question might refer to a specific phrase in the passage, and the line number where the phrase is located. Expect to encounter one or two such questions on your GMAT.

Q: Turning to the Reading Comprehension questions themselves, what types of questions can test takers expect to encounter? Are some question types inherently more difficult than others?

A: Reading Comprehension questions fall into rather predictable categories, based on the various cognitive abilities tested under the rubric "reading comprehension." Here's a good list of these categories (in descending order of frequency in which they appear on the GMAT):

  • Central idea and primary purpose questions (both of which test you on whether you understood the passage's overall thesis, or point — in other words, whether you can see the proverbial forest from the trees)

  • Specific recall questions (which test not so much whether you understood the passage's ideas as whether you recalled specific, detailed information contained in the passage)

  • Inference questions (which require you to understand what the passage's author means — but does not state explicitly — by a particular phrase or statement, as determined by the context in which it appears)

  • Author agreement questions (which gauge your understanding of the author's perspective, point of view, or position on the topic at hand, and to distinguish that position from others discussed in the passage)

  • Specific function questions (which call for you to understand the author's reason or purpose in mentioning specific facts or providing specific information, as determined by the context in which that information appears)

  • Method and structure questions (which go beyond the substantive ideas themselves, to focus on the author's method of argument or reasoning, or on the organizational structure of the passage)

Expect to see at least one of each on your GMAT. Of course, you might encounter slight variations on these questions types as well, but nothing radically different from what is listed here.

It's important to recognize that, with the exception of specific-recall questions, GMAT Reading Comprehension is not about memorizing or remembering what you read; rather, it's about understanding the ideas conveyed and following the author's train of thought and reasoning. So the only questions that are inherently easier than others are the specific-recall questions, because they're designed to gauge your memory — a comparatively low-level skill. Otherwise, no question type is inherently more difficult than any other. A question of any type can be designed to be very easy or very difficult. It's primarily a matter of how the answer choices are drafted — how subtle the distinctions between the best answer choice and the "runners-up" are.

Q: What do you mean by "runners-up"? Are you suggesting that there might be more than one viable answer choice for a Reading Comprehension question? If so, how do you distinguish between the best response — the correct one — and a runner-up?

A: Reading Comprehension questions aren't at all like Quantitative questions, in which the correctness of the best response — and the incorrectness of all other responses — can be proven mathematically. Even in the other question types on the Verbal section there are clear rules that serve as reference points for determining the correct responses. Sentence Correction questions rely on rules of grammar, while Critical Reasoning questions rely on deduction and inferential reasoning. But for Reading Comprehension there are no such rules. For instance, consider a central-idea question. A typical second-best answer choice might incorporate the passage's central idea but go further to embrace a broader idea than that which the passage itself covers. Or it may be a bit too narrow in scope.

So there's a qualitative difference between the best answer choice and the others, and the difference can be subtle. But this doesn't mean that the test makers are asking you to split hairs or play semantic games. That's not what Reading Comprehension — or the GMAT in general — is about. What this feature does suggest, however, is one basic, and very important, bit of advice: always read all the answer choices before confirming your response (unless you're running out of time in the Verbal section).

Q: It seems that all of the GMAT-prep books go into great detail about how to spot wrong-answer choices. Is this advice useful?

A: To a point. Knowing how the test makers draft wrong-answer choices gives you a sense for recognizing a wrong answer when you see it. The test makers use two wrong-answer ploys especially often. One is the answer choice that is unsupported by the passage — that brings in information not mentioned or ideas not suggested in the passage. This ploy can be quite insidious, because as you read the choice your initial reaction might be that you missed something when you read the passage; you'll then go back and waste time re-reading to find a bit of information that isn't even there. Test takers most likely to fall for this ploy are those who lack confidence about their reading-comprehension skills and those who skim the passages or read them too quickly.

The second of the test makers' favorite wrong-answer ploys is the answer choice that is supported by the passage but doesn't respond to the question. This type of answer choice can be tempting because on its face it looks accurate. As you read it, you might think, "Yes, I remember reading that" and be tempted to select the choice as a result.

Q: What do these wrong-answer ploys suggest in terms of test-taking strategy?

A: There are two lessons here. First, read the entire passage so you won't waste precious time going back to see if you missed certain information provided by an answer choice. If you're reasonably confident that your concentration was good while you read the passage, immediately eliminate any answer choice that brings in information or ideas that strike you as unfamiliar.

Secondly, after you read the question stem — the question itself, apart from the answer choices — take a few seconds to formulate your own response to the question. Try to predict, or predetermine, what sort of "best" response you're looking for, before you scan the choices. By doing so you're far less likely to fall prey to wrong-answer ploys just described. You'll zero-in right away on the one or two most viable choices.

Q: What inherent problems are involved in reading passages on a computer screen rather than on paper, and what test-taking strategies might help compensate for these problems?

A: When it comes to Reading Comprehension, the computer interface poses three problems:

  • Text is more difficult to read, adding to eye strain and fatigue.
  • To view an entire passage you might need to scroll vertically.
  • You can't annotate directly on the text.

The testing service has tried to compensate for the first two drawbacks in two ways. First, the passages are shorter than on the old paper-based GMAT — about half the length — with about half the number of questions per passage. Secondly, the CAT is much shorter in total length than the old paper-based test, to account for the eye fatigue factor. The third problem is inherent to a computerized test, of course, and it suggests a basic strategy: use your scratch paper to outline the passage. There's no need for a formal outline, of course. Just take some shorthand notes organized in a tree-like and/or bullet-point fashion.

Q: Can you be more specific about the sort of note-taking that might be useful for responding to the questions, and why?

A: Jot down key points as you read them — for example, key names, and the events or ideas associated with them, reasons that support a major point in the passage — that sort of thing. If the passage consists of more than one paragraph, organize your notes by paragraph. When you've finished reading the passage, review your notes and formulate your own brief thesis statement for the passage, then jot down that statement.

This note-taking process compels you to read actively, to anticipate the sorts of questions you already know you'll be asked, by continually asking yourself as you read the passage:

  • Based on what I've read so far, how would I express the central idea, or thesis, of this passage, in a brief sentence?

  • What is the author's purpose in mentioning this particular point in the passage? How does this point relate to the passage's central idea?

  • What is the author's point of view on this topic, vis-a-vis other viewpoints presented in the passage?

Also, if you need to go back to the passage to respond to a particular question, your notes will help you identify where to look.

Q: What about pacing yourself during a Reading Comprehension question set? How much time should test takers devote to each question?

A: Pacing for Reading Comprehension is a bit trickier than for other questions. With a total number of 41 Verbal questions and a 75-minute time limit, it would seem that just under two minutes per question would be the ideal pace. But keep in mind that for Reading Comprehension questions you need to read the passage, assimilate it, take notes, and perhaps review it as well. All this takes time — time you must account for in determining your optimal pace.

Most test takers can easily make up this time by spending an average of only one minute (or even less) on each of the Sentence Correction questions, because they involve very little reading. But don't try to make up time on Critical Reasoning questions — the third question type in the Verbal section. Critical Reasoning questions involve a bit of reading, as well as considerable thought.

The bottom line: Plan to devote more than two minutes per Reading Comprehension question. As a rule of thumb, allow 8 minutes for a passage accompanied by three questions. Of course, test takers for whom English is a second or third language might find 8 minutes per set insufficient time. Should these test takers spend even more time on an average Reading Comprehension set? Probably not, because these test takers will also find the language aspect of the other Verbal question types challenging. Remember: Your goal should be to save time for at least a reasoned guess on each of the 41 questions on the Verbal section.

Q: What about techniques such as speed-reading and skimming? Would you recommend these techniques?

A: You've mentioned two distinct techniques here. By speed reading, let's assume you mean reading the entire passage but simply trying to assimilate it all more quickly than you would at your normal pace. By skimming you're probably referring to selective reading — where you read only certain portions of the passage — such as the first and last sentences of each paragraph. If you're running out of time on the Verbal section, by all means use either method to ensure that you have enough time to make at least a reasoned guess for all 41 Verbal questions. With either method you can get the gist of the passage, a flavor for what it's generally about, which will help you make reasoned guesses on certain questions — particularly central-idea, primary-purpose, and author-agreement questions.

Otherwise, don't use either technique. Either one takes time — time that could be better spent reading the passage in its entirety, with due care and while making judicious notes. Besides, for all but central-idea and primary-purpose questions you might need to review portions of the passage anyway.

Q: Assuming a test taker has at least a few weeks until exam day, what's the best way to prepare for the Reading Comprehension portion of the GMAT?

A: Practice pushing your reading pace. Most people read at a far slower pace than optimal. Work on increasing your reading pace by taking practice sets — the ones you'll find in GMAT-prep workbooks and software products. Most people find that their overall comprehension actually improves as they quicken their reading pace — up to a point. That's because keeping yourself moving helps you see how the ideas flow from one to the next.

Q: Finally, what is the single most important advice every test taker should keep in mind when tackling Reading Comprehension sets on the GMAT?

A: As you read any Reading Comprehension passage, think thesis. Remember: The majority of the Reading Comprehension questions will test you on your understanding of the passage's central idea and the major points that support that idea. If you're not careful, you can easily get bogged down in the detailed information and lose sight of the main gist. By focusing on thesis you'll have a compass by which to analyze every question in the set. In other words, regardless of the question, any answer choice that runs contrary to the thesis and major supporting ideas you can eliminate out of hand. This is the most useful way of ferreting out wrong-answer choices, making reasoned guesses, and optimizing your score.

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