GRE Reading Comprehension: Types of Questions and Tips

Reading comprehension questions on the GRE will ask you various details about long and short written passages.  For many people, the reading comprehension is the part of the test that they fear the most.  So you know what to expect on the reading comprehension portion of the test, look below to see the different types of questions that you’ll be asked.  We’ve also included some basic tips for doing well.
Types of questions:

  1. Purpose—The most important skill to gain before taking the test is being able to identify a written passages purpose.  In other words, you have to identify the main point, or thesis, of the short or long reading sample.  The answer choices will often be very tricky, pointing out details, although not the main point, of something that was in the passage.  Make sure to read carefully so you don’t fall into this trap.
  2. Detail—Many questions may focus on specific details within the passage. These questions may also ask you to infer, or make an educated guess based on evidence, what an author of a passage might feel about a tangential topic.  Once again, many of the answer choices might be events highlighted in the passage, but you have to focus in on the specific detail being asked.
  3. Structure of Ideas—This type of GRE reading comprehension question will ask you to identify the order of a specific set of events from the passage.  Attention to detail is extremely important, as the test-makers might try to trick you with events that weren’t in the passage.  If you read carefully and following some of the tips below, you shouldn’t be fool by their tricks!
  4. Vocabulary-in-Context—Oftentimes, you’ll be asked the meaning of a word, with the test makers giving you guidance for where you can find that word.  (They’ll write something like, “The word _______ on line 7 most likely means which of the following.”)  The words they ask will have multiple meanings, so be careful when answering these questions.

Tips for scoring well:

  1. Read the passage first!  Our first instinct is to read the question and then look for the answer.  Don’t do this, though.  You’ll be asked multiple questions about each reading passage, both short and long.  If you read the first question, you may not focus on gaining a general understanding of the passage, something that’s important for doing well on the reading comprehension portion of the GRE.  Remember that this is a timed test, too.  By thoroughly and carefully reading the passage first, you should cut down the amount of time you’ll have to re-read the passage.
  2. Take notes!  You’re given plenty of scrap paper for the test, so don’t be afraid to take notes.  Make an outline of the topics covered in the reading passage, thus making it much easier for you to find topics when you return to them later.  Making an outline will also help you if you’re asked to identify the structure of ideas in a reading passage.
  3. If you’re asked to define a vocabulary word, be sure you read the three lines before and after the line in which that vocabulary word appears.  Remember that many words have multiple meanings.  To be sure you have the correct definition, or to pick up context clues if you don’t know the word’s definition, reading an extra sentence or two will ensure you choose the correct answer.
  4. Don’t be overly concerned with details and specifics when you first read the text.  You don’t need to memorize anything!  If you read the passage for a general understanding of its purpose and structure, you’ll more than likely be able to go back and find specifics if they’re asked.
  5. Don’t get hung up on vocabulary that you don’t know the meaning of when first reading the text (that is, unless it could totally alter the purpose of an entire passage).  Once again, you’re being timed, so it’s important to be able to brush off anything confusing.  Chances are you could be asked the definition of this specific word, but you might not be.
  6. Be aware of the common ploys, or tricks, that test-makers will try to confuse you with:
    • Answer choices with details from the passage that are not relevant to the question being asked.  The test-makers are seeing if you read the question carefully, throwing in options that could be the right response, that is, if the question was different!
    • Answer choices that present the opinions of others, even as outlined by the passage’s author, as the correct choice.  In other words, the author of the passage may refute the point of view of others.  Test-makers will oftentimes put these refuted points of view as answer choices.  Make sure you don’t get confused and pick them by accident.
    • Answer choices with information not provided in the passage.  Although this sounds like an easy test-making trick to avoid, these answers are sometimes tempting because they may even sound like something the passage’s author would support.  Or, it may seem like you overlooked a detail.  This is why reading the passage carefully the first time is extremely important.