GMAT Reading Comprehension Tips: CAT Strategies

The GMAT Reading Comprehension section is delivered as a CAT, or a Computer-Adaptive Test. This requires GMAT strategies you may be unfamiliar with. On some sections, the computer can be less of an assistance and more of a hindrance. Often, the older you are, the more likely it is that you spent your childhood, teen years, and even adulthood learning how to read in a paper-based world. Standardized testing, especially reading comprehension, is very different on a paper-based test than it is on a CAT. Years of paper-based reading trains many test-takers to take notes on the passage itself, underlining significant sections of the passage and putting notes in the margins near the relevant text. On a CAT, you don’t have the luxury of marking up the text. Learning to read actively–even without the benefit of marking up the text–is key to improving your reading comp score.
Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Outline the passage paragraph by paragraph as you read

    You will have scratch paper on the GMAT, and you should plan to take advantage of it. Jotting even just a few words to summarize each paragraph can help you get a handle on the passage and sharpen your focus. An example might look like this:
    Para. 1—intro, historical background
    Para. 2—traditional interpretation
    Para. 3—problems with trad. interp., and new interp.
    Para. 4—conclusion
    Taking notes like this as you read forces you to synthesize the text and read more efficiently.  Get into the habit now; use a notebook to annotate practice passages, even if you’re practicing on paper.

  • Keep track of proper nouns, dates, and other key words and phrases

    Often, a question will refer back to a specific detail without giving you a line reference, and hunting for that detail in the passage can cost you precious time.  Expedite the process by keeping track of the kinds of details that are common subjects of questions.  Examples of this would be references to individuals or groups of people, places, theories, ect.; dates or time periods, particularly if chronology is important to the passage’s meaning; and key ideas that are addressed in detail only in one part of the passage.  Since you can’t indicate those things by underlining them or putting a star or other mark in the margin nearby, instead write a couple of words with a line reference to tell you where to find what you’re looking for.

  • Go to CAMP

    CAMP—or Central Point, Approach, Map, and Perspective—issues are commonly addressed in questions.  Central Point is the main idea of the passage; often this will be summarized in one sentence, and you can indicate that sentence in your notes with a line reference.  Approach is how the author is writing the passage: is it a recommendation, a historical account, a rebuttal of a different idea, or something else entirely?  There are lots of possibilities here, but remember that each detail in the passage will in some way serve the author’s primary motivation in writing the passage; nailing the author’s approach can help you answer questions that ask you about the purpose of a specific statement or the passage as a whole.  Map is that paragraph outline that we talked about in number 1 above.  And Perspective is a one-word summary of the author’s tone: is it positive, negative, neutral, or something else?  Boil the tone down to a single word, and you’ll be prepared if it is the subject of a question, which it often is.  By taking a few quick notes on the CAMP issues before you tackle the question, you’ll be able to focus on finding correct answers that align with your CAMP notes, instead of being tempted by distracting wrong answers.  A sample CAMP note set might look like this:
    C: lines 4—7
    A: Rebuttal of traditional theory
    Para.1—intro, historical background
    Para. 2—traditional interpretation
    Para. 3—problems with trad. interp., and new interp.
    Para. 4—conclusion
    P: Critical

Reading on a CAT can require some adaptation of your usual approach, but with practice, it’s absolutely a surmountable challenge.  Start early, be consistent with taking CAMP notes on scratch paper during your practice, and remember that active reading is the key to success on the GMAT!

GMAT Reading Practice Tips and Strategies

Most of us, whether or not we consider ourselves inveterate readers, have already fallen into rather stubborn reading habits—some of them good, some bad, but none of them perfect for test prep. Our reading habits are shaped by a number of factors, from how we were trained to read as undergraduates (a biology major is trained to read differently than an English major), to personal preference or natural inclination (some of us prefer novels to magazines, while others prefer not to read for pleasure at all).
While those of us who read often are in better shape for the Reading Comprehension section on the GMAT, GMAT-specific reading practice is vital for everyone who takes the exam. The Reading Comprehension section requires a certain type of reading and thinking that must be practiced.
Here are some basic steps you can take to prime yourself for GMAT-style reading even before you begin practicing with test material:
1. Read Articles: Get in the habit of reading quality writing in article form. Put down your remotes, your game controllers, and (you’ll rarely here this from an educator) your novels. Internet junkies surprisingly have an advantage here since most of the written information on the internet is in article form. If you’re not sure where to look, begin with regional newspaper websites, e.g. Los Angeles Times or New York Times. For quality articles infused with humor and a light tone, but that still maintain a scholarly bent with grown-up vocabulary, check out web magazines like Salon and Slate. Remember, though, that you will rarely encounter humor on the GMAT.
2. Know Your Weaknesses: GMAT passages are generally broken up into physical and biological sciences, the social sciences, arts and humanities, history, and business. Though it’s far from a general rule, students often perform better on articles that they find interesting. If you are the arts-and-humanities type who abhors science, try reading some science articles (avoid esoteric articles in science journals, though, since they aren’t written for a specialized audience.)
3. Read Actively and Take Notes: As you read these articles, try to rid yourself of the habit of reading passively. In other words, constantly ask yourself “what is the main idea or purpose of this article?” or “what is the purpose of this paragraph in the context of the passage?” Get in the habit of jotting down brief notes in the margins—or perhaps on a blank document on your computer—so you can more easily immerse yourself in the meaning and structure of the article. Pay close attention to the first and last paragraphs, and especially the first and last sentences of each body paragraph.