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GRE Reading Comprehension

GRE® reading comprehension is the most important part of the GRE® verbal reasoning section as it makes up for about 50% of the marks on the test.

This section of the GRE® test consists of:
  1. About 10 passages
  2. Each of them is followed by 1–5 questions based on the passage
  3. Most passages are just one paragraph long, though some can reach up to five paragraphs
  4. The passages are taken from books and periodicals on:
    1. Physical sciences
    2. Biological sciences
    3. Social sciences
    4. Arts and humanities
    5. Everyday topics in popular culture
Broadly, you will see three question types on the GRE® reading comprehension section:
  1. Multiple-choice question with five options and only one correct answer
  2. Multiple-choice question with five options and multiple correct answers — you have to choose all the correct answers
  3. Select in passage type questions — you will have to click on a sentence in the passage that answers the question asked

What are the challenges in understanding the passage?

Before we discuss GRE® reading comprehension strategies, we must understand what makes this section so challenging.

  1. Some passages can be difficult regardless of the topic.
  2. Some can be understood given ample time - but time is in short supply.
  3. Some passages can be from specific areas that are unfamiliar or obscure.

Here are some topics on Reading Comprehension:

  1. The effect of industrialization on the role of women in society. Whether it helped or hindered them.
  2. The contributions of a poet, an author or an artist and how it influenced society.
  3. Two schools of thought on a subject - Whether the universe is expanding or contracting? The author may provide thoughts on the subject.
  4. A new discovery or observation in the world of science and the promise the discovery holds to answer some of the unanswered questions in that field.
  5. The author provides a hypothesis to explain a situation or the author attacking someone else's claims through counterexamples or arguments. The disciplines could include science, history, economics or sociology.

As you can guess, the passages presented in the GRE® reading comprehension section are deliberately chosen to be difficult to understand. Without proper GRE® RC practice, you would be stuck trying to decode what the passage is trying to say. Before you jump into reading comprehension practice, you must understand what the various components of a passage are.

Components of a passage

GRE® reading comprehension passages can have many different structures. For example, some passages may:

  1. Introduce a problem and explain the author’s solution to the given problem.
  2. Raise a question and answer it later in the passage.
  3. Criticize a hypothesis and present a new one to replace it.

If you can identify the building blocks of the reading comprehension passage presented to you, you would be able to understand the meaning of the passage with relative ease.

Most passages on the test are made up of four basic building blocks. Not all blocks are present in all passages. These blocks are:

  1. The point: the most important piece of information that the author wants to convey. You should be able to identify the main point of the passage in the first read-through.
  2. Background: the information that you need to understand the point.
  3. Support: evidence or examples that support the point.
  4. Implications: the consequences that emerge from or the after-effects of the point conveyed.

Identifying these building blocks will make it easier for you to answer the questions that follow the passage. We would look at the various question types that appear in the GRE® reading comprehension section, but first, let us answer a key question we are often asked by the students

Is it necessary to read the entire GRE® reading comprehension passage?

A Useful Metaphor

If you need to go from point A to point B, and you have a physical map of the area – would you read the whole map to determine how to get from point A to point B? Of course not! You would look at the specific data that will help solve the problem at hand.

GRE® reading comprehension is no different. The passage is like a map that you would use to answer the questions that follow. Here are three good reasons not to read every word in the passage:

  1. The passages are boring: If the passage is longer than 2-3 sentences, it will take much longer to read than a similar size passage from your favourite novel. You are pressed for time, use it wisely.
  2. You should not answer from memory: You have access to the passage all the time. Never try to remember what you can quickly look up. This is especially important in the reading comprehension section as the test makers will try to trick you into picking the wrong answer. For example, they would include a phrase directly from the passage that you would immediately recognize in the answer choices – in the wrong answer choice.
  3. No advantage from reading every word in the passage: Instead of reading the whole passage, you should skim through it and create your own map of it. i.e. make effective notes that would help you answer the questions asked. Of course, this means that you should always read the questions first and the GRE® reading comprehension passage next.

So, before we get to how to take notes – let us return to the various question types that appear on the GRE® RC section.

The Eight Question Types

We have divided the questions that appear on the reading comprehension section into eight broad types. For each type, you should develop GRE® reading comprehension strategies that would help you answer it. Use these on every reading comprehension practice question so that they become second-nature by the time the test day rolls in. Main idea questions
  • Probably the most frequent question in the GRE® reading comprehension section.
  • Asks you to identify the main idea or the primary purpose of the given passage.
  • For example:
    1. In this passage, the author is primarily concerned with…?
    2. Which of the following would be the most appropriate title for the given argument?
The tone of the author questions
  • Considered a tricky question by most test takers.
  • Asks you to identify the tone of the author or the reading comprehension passage.
  • For example:
    1. The author’s attitude towards the subject of the passage can be best described as…?
    2. The passage regards the idea discussed in the passage with…?
Specific fact questions
  • Ask you to identify information that is factual in nature.
  • These questions typically deal with consequences.
  • For example:
    1. The author refers to ‘phrase’ in line 3, primarily in order to…?
    2. According to the passage, the critics considered the theory presented to be…?
Implied questions
  • Ask you to identify an idea that is suggested or implied in the passage.
  • For example:
  1. It can be inferred from the passage that, in evaluating the novelist’s work, some of the critics were…?
  2. The passage suggests that if the predictions made by the scientist were to be true, it would be…?
Structural questions
  • Ask you to identify the technique or the writing style employed in the passage.
  • For example:
    1. Which of the following best describes the structure of the passage?
    2. Which of the following best describes the organization of the lines 10 through 17?
Extrapolation questions
  • Most students find these to be the most tricky among all GRE® reading comprehension questions.
  • Requires you to draw parallels with other situations.
  • For example:
    1. Which of the following best describes the structure of the passage?
    2. Which of the following best describes the organization of the lines 10 through 17?
Negative or exception questions
  • Asks you to identify the choice that is not true or something the author will not agree with.
  • For example:
    1. The passage states all of the following about big cats, except?
    2. The author asserts that technology has led us to do all of the following miraculous experiments, except?
Definition of a term/ word questions
  • Asks you to identify the meaning of a word or phrase based on the context it was used in.
  • For example:
    1. As it is used in the passage, the term ‘inchoate’ can be best described as?
    2. The term ‘convivial’, used by the author in line 6, refers to?

How to take notes in GRE® reading comprehension?

To answer many of these questions you would be referring back to the passage. It is easier if you had made notes reading the passage, and can refer to the same. Here are a few tips to help make note taking as effective as possible.

  1. No full sentences: instead use extreme shorthand, abbreviations, and text message lingo.
  2. Make a mind-map of the passage: paraphrase key ideas into short phrases, arrange them to reflect the passage's structure, and note signalling words that decide the direction of the argument.
  3. Note signalling words: this includes words like –
    1. yet
    2. but
    3. however
    4. on the other hand
    5. in contrast
    6. in addition
    7. firstly, secondly
    8. in conclusion

Be totally focused while reading.

You cannot read these passages as though you are reading an online news article. You should read minutely and pick up on possible clues. The easiest way to do that is to understand what the subject of the passage is - which is usually clear in the first two lines.It's better to use paper and a pen to write down all the important points. There are also multiple techniques involved such as active reading, analytical reading, etc. However, practicing enough reading comprehension gets you ready.

Try to understand the purpose of the passage.

Is it pure factual information or a hypothesis? Is the author trying to criticize or laud something or someone? Is the author talking about a new development or trying to compare two views or theories? In some passages, the author's intention is clearly outlined at the outset. Most often, the onus is on you to determine the author's intention. At times, the author may conclude towards the end of the passage. If it matches your guesswork, then you know you are on the right track.

Gathering other relevant elements in the passage.

As you read, learn to identify statements that reveal the tone of author. Mentally note where they lie in the passage so that you can revisit them when you are answering questions.You should learn to differentiate relevant content from the not very important ones which can be easily mastered by practice. There would be some points which would sound unreal, but if carefully read, the author and the passage would be testing your reasoning ability. Ensure that you read carefully.

Increasing your reading speed.

Do not worry about the time during the initial part of your practice. Focus more on comprehension and answering the questions correctly. Analyze your incorrect questions and understand why it happened.With time, your speed will increase as you get familiar with the typical sentence structures and the presentation styles used. Also, read editorials, essays and opinion pages of prominent newspapers and magazines to increase your reading speed.

Handling long and factual passages.

If the passage is factual, understand the flow or organization of the passage. Note the key terms introduced and in which paragraphs they are detailed. Skim through the passage and create a memory map of the key points in the passage. Revisit any paragraph if there is a question associated with it. After practicing about 10-12 passages, you will develop a good judgment of what to read in detail and what to skim through.Make sure that you try timed RC tests for practice

Learn the act of making mind maps.

As discussed earlier when you read, make notes for your reference. Ideally, a memory map that connects all important points to show the logic works best and would be extremely helpful. With practice, you will get good at creating memory maps also known as mind maps. Try with simple ones and then move to GRE® RC passages. As you answer questions, you may revisit the passage to understand details or to verify. The memory map will help you get there in the least amount of time.

GRE® Reading comprehension Practice test

The best way to score maximum marks in these passages is to practice more & more. As we told before there are a limited types of RCs in GRE® verbal section and if you practice well, you will have a knack the GRE® passages. AdmitEDGE, a pioneer in online GRE® coaching, has provided practice tests for you. Click here.

GRE® Reading Comprehension section FAQS

Q. How can I improve my reading comprehension in GRE?

Ans. Continuously read passages and newspapers. Read with a timer so you keep track of your reading speed. Try to solve at least two passages a day to familiarize yourself with the questions.

Q. How many marks can I score in GRE® if I correctly answer all the RC questions?

Ans. 50% of one of the Verbal sections is for the RC. How much you score depends on the difficulty level of the Question.

Q. Will all passages come together in GRE® Verbal section or will they come in between Text Completion & Sentence Equivalence questions?

Ans. The entire paper will be jumbled and you will obtain the question at random.

Q. In how many minutes should I finish one RC passage set of questions?

Ans. Ideally, you should take 1 and a half mins to read the passage. And you should take 30 secs to answer each question. So depending on the length of the passage, you should spend 3 to 4 mins per question.

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