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Tips and Strategies for GMAT Reading Comprehension Questions

Seth Capron

Seth Capron - TestCrackers

Seth Capron is an mba.com Featured Contributor and a Kellogg ‘13 MBA. For the past 8 years he has taught and designed GMAT courses as a Co-Director at TestCrackers

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Reading Comprehension is one of the most important aspects of the GMAT™ exam, but also one of the most misunderstood. A streak of errors has an outsized impact on your score, and for many students a tough Reading Comprehension passage can lead to that negative outcome.

Despite this, in my experience teaching thousands of students through TestCrackers GMAT Courses, I see that a lot of students don’t know how to productively invest time in studying Reading Comprehension. As a result, many students studying on their own either don’t invest in it at all on the assumption that their abilities “are what they are,” or devote many hours to endlessly completing passages and reinforcing the methods that are not working, rather than making a systematic effort to change their approach or adopt a strategy that could make a difference.

How to improve on GMAT™ Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension (RC) is an area that you can improve through practice, and any improvement in RC is going to require a lot of hours of work. But the key to making the maximum score improvements in a limited time will be to use a more targeted approach.

Below I outline several of the most important tools and concepts for changing the way that you process an RC passage and approach questions on it.

The 3 types of GMAT™ Reading Comprehension passages

The majority of GMAT Reading Comprehension passages can be split roughly evenly into three common categories: Business, Science, and History.

Step one in accessing these topics involves overcoming jargon and confusing abbreviations. Jargon is a term for specialized vocabulary used by a specific group but hard for people who are not part of that group to understand. RC passages take advantage of the intimidation most of us feel when we encounter unfamiliar words. It can be a real blow to confidence, making us question whether we’re really smart enough to complete the task at hand. Practice can help us learn some of the jargon associated with our weaker areas, but more importantly, it can help us to build the generalized skill of ignoring jargon, making a reasonable guess what it means, and moving on.

1. Business

Business passages addressing the behavior of consumers and corporations show up with reasonable frequency among the easier GMAT RC passages, but more difficult questions are more likely to focus on more complex economic theories and international trade.

As with all of the topics below, these often introduce multiple perspectives and research designed to either criticize a common or historical view of how a certain issue functions or introduce multiple perspectives and evaluate them. Useful concepts here include supply and demand; free trade vs tariffs; economies of scale; and unemployment and inflation, among others.

2. Science

Science passages, most of all, require constant attention to who thought what when, and how new studies or findings may have changed that. Science passages often are best represented using a table to track, for example, what various experts think about various phenomena, or how different characteristics play out across different astronomical bodies or varieties of species.

Carefully identify the differences in perspectives from one expert to another, or how a consensus changed over time. What was the old theory and how did the new evidence demonstrate problems with that theory, leading to the new theories? Make extra note of when the author takes a stance and includes their own opinion on the topic rather than a relatively neutral summary of the opinions of others.

The most common science subtopic is biology, but others that frequently show up include social science (studies on behavior) and physics (including both astrophysics and the physics of subatomic particles). Basic understanding of any of these disciplines can be useful, with a particular focus on natural selection and evolution; sampling bias; and hypothesis testing.

3. History

Similar to science passages, simpler historical passages often outline changes over time. But more complex ones usually involve the opinions of multiple historians, an analysis of the merits and weaknesses of their theories, and even what their histories show about how we should think about the concept of history more generally.

Tracking these concepts in notes or tables so that you can easily draw lines separating them is very useful. GMAT historical passages often focus on the historically marginalized groups and their rights, with passages most commonly addressing the struggle for economic and political rights among women, African Americans, workers, and Native Americans.

Very useful concepts here include problems with sources of data, biases introduced by the assumptions of the researcher, and other ways in which the story an historian tells us may not fully reflect reality. It is also important to distinguish between two perspectives that are purely in conflict as opposed to one theory that adds onto the other with disputing it. 

Reading about unfamiliar topics is great because it allows you to quickly climb the steepest part of the learning curve. If you read business texts every day, you probably won’t gain a huge advantage by reading a few more. But the amount of understanding that you’ll gain from the first five articles that you read about women’s labor rights in 19th century British Mills is enormous. Later, diminishing marginal returns set in, and each additional article only offers a small benefit because you’ve already made it through that first, most rapid stage of learning.

How to approach GMAT™ Reading Comprehension with an eye for detail

The questions that focus on super-specific details can be extremely challenging for those of us who are not trained lawyers. But thinking like a lawyer is often the key to these questions. Normal humans don’t fixate on the hyper-literal and fanatically-precise definitions of the individual words in a given paragraph, but that is exactly what a lawyer does when reviewing a legal document, and exactly what you need to learn to do when you’re going over an RC passage.

Two very useful concepts here are what I call “scope” and “intensity”.

1. Scope: The who/what/when/where

A good way to think about scope is just the list of “wh” words above. To a lawyer, it is very different to say, “Citizens have access to public parks.” and to say “Between the hours of 6 am and 10 pm, residents of New York City have limited access to public parks on Manhattan Island managed by the City Parks Department, provided that they obey all posted signs.”  Note all of the additional details that the second statement adds about who (residents of NYC who obey all posted signs), what (limited access), when (between 6 and 10 pm), and where (public parks on Manhattan Island managed by the City Parks Department).

2. Intensity

Casual spoken language allows us to play fast and loose with words, including those about proportion. When a friend tells you that “Everyone loves this donut shop”, it does not have to be literally true that every human on earth feels the same way. But on the GMAT™ exam, it does! Perhaps a better phrase would be “most people”. Even that has a specific meaning (more than half) that may be too intense to reflect reality. Perhaps what your friend really meant was “many people love this donut shop”. The word many is so vague that it hardly means anything. For GMAT™ purposes, I like to define “many” as just “more than some”, as “some people” is about as vague as it gets. “Some” basically means “more than none”. Thus, there is a hierarchy created by these proportionality words:

None < Some < Many < Most or “The Majority” < “The Vast Majority” or “Nearly All” < All/Every

These differences may seem trivial, but they often contain the key to unlocking the difference between right and wrong answers in Reading Comprehension (and Critical Reasoning)! A good general rule for many Reading Comprehension questions is that answer choices need to match the scope of the passage and use language that is less than or equal to the intensity of the language used in the passage.

Putting it all together: Specific strategies for GMAT Reading Comprehension questions

Just as you should on all GMAT™ questions, on RC questions you should start by recognizing what specific questions suggest about where to focus your attention. I like to divide RC questions into three main categories that each have fairly distinct approaches.

1. According to the passage (i.e., “Did the passage say these ideas?”)

The most common and in some ways the most straightforward type, these questions are often framed as something along the lines of  “According to the passage, which of the following is true” or perhaps something more specific, such as “According to the passage, which of the following is a reason that experts believed the plan was unlikely to succeed?”

Don’t mistake these questions for asking about opinions or analysis, but also don’t mistake them for asking you to find specific words or phrases. The correct answers here are generally a rephrasing of an idea that was mentioned in the passage. The key to getting them correct is to adequately understand both the passage and the answer choices on a detailed idea and meaning level, rather than simply as a set of words. On this level, you should aim to eliminate four answer choices that mention ideas that were not in the passage, and confirm that the one that remains is a nearly perfect match, expressing something that means basically the exact same thing as an idea that was mentioned in the passage, though in most cases using an entirely different set of words.

These questions are about details and thus scope and intensity are key concepts. Tempting answers will repeat something that nearly matches familiar words and/or ideas from the passage but changes the scope or intensity slightly so that we no longer have a match.

2. Inference (i.e., “Can the passage 100% prove these ideas?”)

Nearly equally common are questions that use the frequently misunderstood term “inference”. Though many of us use this phrase to mean “a pretty good guess based upon what we know” in normal life, step one in approaching these on the GMAT™ is to scrap that definition. Correct answers on this exam will be “deductive inferences”, which is technically defined as a statement that is “necessarily true if the premises that it is based upon are true.” The way that I like to think about the answer is that it must be “100% provable solely based upon the passage.”

Once again, these questions tend to be detail focused and thus require attention to Scope and Intensity. To use the metaphor of a high jump, Scope and Intensity set the height of the bar, and your job is to recognize that height and then determine whether the passage can clear it. Sometimes the correct answer will be something very uninteresting and unrelated to the main focus of the passage, but with a low bar to clear; this could be a statement similar to “at least one of the people on the committee was late”. Other times the correct answer will use stronger language, but the passage will have equal or even stronger language that will justify it.

If an answer choice reads as “Most of the people on the committee were on time”, the key would be to recognize scope (people on the committee) and intensity (most = more than half) and then check the passage for statements strong enough to prove it. This might show up in an unexpected way, such as one statement saying “7 people arrived after the start of the meeting”, another statement describing it as a “15 member committee”, and a third statement saying “Immediately after the introduction, all members were present for a vote on the proposed name change.” The specific proportion of on-time members is never mentioned, we can 100% prove (“infer”) it so long as we can add up A + B + C to determine definitively that more than half of the members were present on time.

3. Main idea/purpose questions (i.e. “Why did someone write this?”)

These questions can be asked about the entire passage, a single paragraph, or even a specific word or phrase. Unlike the previous question types mentioned that often require a “maximum zoom in” on details, these questions generally require a big step back to look at context. Here we need to ask the question “what was the author trying to convey overall here” before thinking about the role that a given paragraph or detail might play in it.

The answers to these questions also tend to have two components that I call Verb + Topic. The verb tells us something about the tone or attitude of the author, and most importantly it helps to differentiate between a neutral narrator who is simply sharing information (discuss, explain, report, describe, outline), analyzing a bit more (compare, contrast, analyze), or crossing over into significantly opinionated territory (advocate, criticize, argue, defend, refute). The topic has to be broad enough to capture the purpose of basically every part of the passage or paragraph, from the first word to the last. It cannot simply be something that is mentioned once, but instead must be something that is present throughout as the key idea.

Wrong answers often use inappropriate verbs that don’t match the author’s attitude, or get one of the details of the topic wrong, because it doesn’t match the ideas of the passage at all (out of scope), it misrepresents them with inappropriately strong language (too intense), or it throws some other detail into the mix that simply is not justified. An example of this last part can be phrases like “commonly held belief” or “a controversial theory”. Don’t choose an answer that uses terms like those without finding language in the passage that justifies them.

Putting in the work to improve on GMATReading Comprehension

A college professor of mine loved to say that “A system that cannot learn from its own mistakes is, by definition, stupid.” This is true on all sections of the GMAT™ and EA, but it is particularly important for the process of improving Reading Comprehension.

What I’ve done above is to outline the kinds of tools that can be used to focus on what is most likely to make wrong answers wrong and right answers right. But the way to make the most possible improvement in Reading Comprehension is to use these categories to recognize and break down the sources of your current errors and try to continually refine your process to address those issues.

Like everything on this exam, it is very much possible to make huge progress on your own, particularly if you’re seeing success identifying the sources of your errors and making continuous adjustments. But if you’re struggling to make these changes on your own or simply interested in making progress more quickly, I highly encourage you to check out our small-group courses and private tutoring over at TestCrackers. We take a deep dive into these and other tools, and then work with students individually to help them identify and address the places that they need to make changes in their process to streamline their improvement.

Seth Capron

Seth Capron - TestCrackers

Seth Capron is an mba.com Featured Contributor and a Kellogg ‘13 MBA. He scored in the top 1% on the GMAT, and for the past 8 years has taught and designed study programs as a Co-Director at TestCrackers, where he has worked to create highly-interactive small group GMAT courses, live online Executive Assessment courses, and customized private tutoring.  For more information or free study suggestions, give them a call at 415-323-5728 or write to contact@testcrackers.org