How to Master Reading Sections on a Computer-Adaptive Test

The GRE is a CAT, or a Computer-Adaptive Test. But on some sections, the computer is less an assistance than a hindrance. 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 the test-taker 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 that luxury. But 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, and you should 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 GRE.