Reading Comprehension: Structure of Ideas on the GRE

GRE Reading Comprehension tests you ability to read a passage carefully, and no question type will test you ability to read closely more than the Structure of Ideas prompts on the test. On these questions, you will have to identify a passage’s main idea and understand how the passage is laid out, structurally. Although this sounds simple, the test-makers will throw in confusing “asides” and extraneous details to trick you. The key to master GRE Reading Comprehension, then, is plenty of test prep.
To ace Structure of Ideas questions in general, you will need to look at 1) transition words/phrase, and 2) topic sentences. These two things will give you the biggest clues as to how the ideas of the passage are put together. Let’s look at a sample paragraph with the important transitions and topic sentences highlighted:

The origin of the moon remains a subject of contention for some theorists. There is one contingent that insists that the moon was formed in the same way that the planets of the inner solar-system were.

According to this view, the moon, like the Earth, Venus, Mars, and Mercury, was the product of planet-forming materials in the pre-solar nebula. However, the cores of those inner solar-system planets contain iron, and the materials from which they were formed were iron-rich. By contrast, the moon’s core contains barely any iron.
This leads us to the second, more widely-accepted theory, known as the ‘collision hypothesis.’ Collision hypothesis advocates believe that the moon was torn from the rocky mantle of the Earth when the Earth collided with another large celestial body, probably about the size of Mars, some 4.51 billion years ago. This hypothesis is supported by the geochemical, mineralogical, and isotopic compositions of lunar samples gathered during the Apollo and Luna missions.

Notice how even just skimming for these structural phrases gives us big clues into how the argument is laid out. The first sentence introduces the topic: a “subject of contention.” The second paragraph explains that view, then reveals flaws in the first theory. The third paragraph introduces a secondary viewpoint, and ultimately gives evidence in support of it. We can tell all of that even without focusing on the details! Always identify transition words and read for structure. It’s a way to avoid getting lost in the sometimes confusing details of GRE passages.

Practice Passage

For now, though, let’s examine a sample reading passage for its Structure of Ideas:

The criticism of art requires, above all else, the ability to separate one’s own taste from one’s intellectual evaluation of the work. It is easy for the unwary critic to find her judgment swayed by subjective factors such as her emotional response to a piece of art. This tendency must be strictly curbed so that the critic is able to judge the art with an unbiased eye. One of the best ways to build the foundation for this objective criticism is to obtain an education in the history of art, cultivating the ability to place a given work within a social and ideological context. Only once the critic has established this intellectual framework can she allow herself to react to the art on a visceral level, blending her subjective and objective responses into a unified critique.

What’s the main point being made in the paragraph above? The first sentence (“The criticism of art requires…the ability to separate one’s own taste from one’s intellectual evaluation of the work”) is an important clue, as many first sentences for short passages will be. The important thing is to check if this idea remains constant throughout the passage. We see that the critic cannot be “swayed by subjective factors” and that she must be “able to judge the art with an unbiased eye” and even gain professional training to help her understand important aspects of art history. The main idea is staying the same, so let’s move to the end of the passage. With the proper training in hand, the critic can, according to this passage, effectively critique a work of art without interjecting her own personal opinions.


Don’t rely on the first sentence to always give you the passage’s Structure of Ideas.


Practice Question

Now, try out this Structure of Ideas question for the previous reading passage:

According to the passage, which of the following is necessary to create a unified critique of a work of art?
A) The complete removal of one’s own taste from an intellectual evaluation of the work
B) An intellectual foundation in art history, as well as a visceral response to the work
C) An extended perusal of each relevant piece of art
D) The viewpoints of numerous well-educated critics who have also seen the work
E) The discipline to focus solely on the creative style of one artist

The correct answer is A) The complete removal of one’s own taste from an intellectual evaluation of the work for the reasons stated above. The others can’t be correct because: there’s no mention of benefiting from a visceral response to the work; nothing about observing the art piece for a long period of time, nor needing other critics to tell one what to think about the art.
Structure of Ideas questions on the GRE Verbal section can be confusing, but with practice you’ll be able to answer these questions easily.