Comprehending GMAT Reading Comprehension

The Reading Comprehension question on the GMAT don’t get talked about (or practiced) as often as the other two question types; even though there are 139 RC questions in OG12 (compared to 124 CR and 140 SC), RC’s connection to your lifetime of reading skills — difficult to improve in a couple months before the test — and the time investment in practice make it less-studied.
As with all other parts of the GMAT, the makers of the test cannot and will not make the passages and its questions impossibly hard! All questions are constructed so that a statistically significant number of people will get it right.

What makes Reading Comprehension passages more challenging?

  • Long passage

    Passage length is always an obstacle: it takes more time to read the first time, and more time to find the answers to details and inferences. The upside of long passages is that they are more likely to be several paragraphs, which mean better organization of the ideas in the passage.

  • Complicated passage

    RC that is complex in language or logic calls for extra attention in your initial reading; while it may be tempting to go to the questions hoping that it will sort itself out as you go, remember that harder passages are typically paired with easier questions, and that you still need to understand the passage to answer even easy questions.

  • Hard questions

    Questions about details from the passage and about the main idea/author’s purpose tend to be on the easier side, but inference and “application” questions are harder — and they are common. Unlike their analogs in CR, where you only have to scan a few sentences for your inferences and overall structures, such questions in RC may force you to review many points in the passage. The added difficulty is, of course, that inference and application questions do not have their answers stated explicitly in the passage anywhere.

  • Unfamiliar subject or format

    No matter your background, you inevitably will have some subject areas with which you are more familiar, and some with which you are less familiar. Science passages are different from history passages, which in turn differ from business ones. If you are very unfamiliar with the subject, it may be much more challenging to understand what is going on: it is easier, for example, to read a passage based on a book review if you know the topics, perspectives, organization typically used in book reviews.

  • Different type of reading

    GMAT RC is, simply put, a different type of reading. Authors of passages attempt to explain or convince; reading such passages outside of the GMAT, you read for general comprehension, absorb details passively with the expectation that you will see those details again if they are important to the purpose of the passage, make inferences unconsciously, and bring in all the outside knowledge you have, in order to maximize your understanding. On the GMAT, you are asked to pick out details, make inferences explicit, ignore your outside knowledge, and apply structures from the passage to completely new situations. The difference between normal reading and GMAT reading is like the difference between enjoying a good meal and cooking one — on the GMAT, you need to see the components of a passage individually as well as together.

Reading Comprehension Tips

To round out the overview on Reading Comprehension, let’s look at some ideas about how to address those common RC difficulties.

Global Tips

Read the passage thoroughly before you hit the questions.  This cannot be stress enough; you don’t know how many questions you will get, and unless you are a Verbal wizard, you cannot afford the time it will take to re-skim for relevant information for each question, or the risk of getting the question wrong. The main idea of a paragraph does not always appear in the first or last sentence (which is also true of CR).

Do untimed practice as well as timed practice.  Timed practice is essential to success; the more you do timed practice, in particular full-length practice tests, the more the real test will feel like just another practice session (i.e. with less pressure and stress). If you are struggling with RC, though, untimed practice is key. With infinite time, you can learn what it feels like to really understand a passage before you get to the questions; you can move on to the questions with confidence when you have that feeling, and decide whether to review the passage when you do not. With infinite time, you can develop your strategies and methods, and more importantly get faster at them.

Take notes.  The act of note-taking is more important than having the notes themselves for review later. It takes very little time to jot down key ideas, but help fix them more firmly in your mind. Don’t bother with full sentences or outlines — just brief notes, more akin to what you might do if you were taking a message on the telephone.

Pre-read.  Some students struggling with RC find it helpful to do more than one complete reading of the passage. One strategy that can yeild immediate (and dramatic) results is approaching the passages by reading only the first and last sentence of each paragraph initially, then tackling the passage as a whole once you have a rough idea of what was going to happen. Some test takers have more than doubled their accuracy immediately in exchange for some additional time spent on the initial reading.

Solutions to common RC problems

Losing focus within the passage.  If you find yourself daydreaming or barely comprehending often, get in the habit of making the end of every paragraph a “check point”, where you pause to summarize the main idea of the paragraph you just read. Aside from forming a solid ongoing basis for your understanding of the passage, it also prevents you from continuing onward and compounding your lack of comprehension.

Passage is too boring.  Note-taking is the most useful here; by forcing yourself to pay attention to something, your mind focuses more in general (this is also a fantastic technique for staying sharp in lectures and staff meetings, by the way!). You can also challenge yourself to take very concise, effective notes, which has the effect of forcing you to synthesize ideas and entire paragraphs into very small, meaningful phrases.

Passage is too interesting.  This is a challenge, and is in some ways a little unfair: why should we have to stomp out a brief moment of fun in a four-hour stretch of concentration and challenge? The truth, of course, is that you don’t need to stomp the fun out of it — you do, however, need to focus. The strategy for people who “space out” also works here: if you find yourself getting carried away by “fun” passages, make the end of every paragraph your “check point”, where you make sure to summarize mentally what the passage actually addresses without your outside knowledge and interest. 

Understanding the passage, but getting the questions wrong.  If this is happening, only one of two things can explain it: you aren’t understanding the passage as well as you think you are, or your specific approach to the type of question(s) is flawed. If the questions truly are the problem, invest the time required to develop an error log, where you track not only which questions you get wrong and their type, but what type of wrong answer tempted you (you may also want to log which wrong answer choices were very tempting on questions you got right). Patterns will emerge from the log.

Finishing the passage and missing the main idea.  This is a subset of the problem directly above this one, but a short strategy helps (and doesn’t require an error log): when you’ve finished the passage, take a moment to decide whether the author expressed an opinion (whether advocating something or refuting something) or simply explained. Did the author say one thing was definitely better than another thing? The answer to this question alone can help you eliminate wrong answer choices on detail and tone questions as well as main idea ones.

Taking too much time.  Practice is key of course, but pay particular attention to what is taking too much time. You should finish the passage in under five minutes, ideally under four; questions should ideally be a minute or less each. If you are spending too much time on questions, perhaps you are not grasping the passage as well as you should; an extra 30 seconds on the passage might save you that same amount of time on each of multiple questions. If the passage is the time-consuming one, there is less that can be done, unless you are taking too much time for one of the other reasons listed in this series of articles — consider adding some outside reading to your study schedule or a speed-reading course.

Unfamiliar subject matter causing problems.  If you find yourself misapplying patterns from other passages, take a step back and simplify your approach to unfamiliar topics. Take brief notes and summarize the general idea after each paragraph as best you can. Aim for 80% comprehension; it’s a bit of a gamble, but you cannot afford to spend 10 minutes or get five wrong in a row on one passage. Another good rule is to look at the transitions between paragraphs; if you know you didn’t fully understand one paragraph, it is a safer gamble to proceed anyway the more the subject shifts in the next paragraph. For example, if paragraph 1 describes a theory or approach and paragraph 2 describes a different one, it is safer to move on, even if you didn’t fully understand that first paragraph; your understanding of the previous material may well increase after reading the later material, as you will then further define the theory or approach in the first paragraph by what it is not (namely, whatever is in the second paragraph).