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GMAT Reading Comprehension


GMAT reading comprehension questions are meant to test your understanding of the implications, meanings, and structures presented in the passages. You can expect to see 2 to 4 passages of 200 to 400 words each, in the verbal section of the GMAT exam. Each passage will be followed by 4 questions. Because the GMAT is now a computer-adaptive test, you will only see 1 question at a time. The passage, however, will remain on your computer screen until you have answered all of the questions related to it.

The 3 Most Common Types of Reading Comprehension Passages

The passages you will encounter on the GMAT will most likely address one of the 3 topics described below. Each type of passage calls for a slightly different optimum test-taking strategy. Regardless of what topic you encounter, you can rest assured that everything you need to know will be included in the passage. GMAT test writers intentionally pick obscure topics for comprehension passages. They do this to minimize the chances of giving someone with previous exposure to a particular topic an unfair advantage over others taking the same version of the test.

1.) Science Passages.  These passages deal with topics including biology, chemistry, and medicine. You should approach them by doing an initial speed reading/skimming of the text. Your goal in this first review is simply to understand how the passage is structured and to analyze its outline.

Although they are often quite boring (no joke!), science passages are also very factual and straightforward. Hence, they will likely provide the easiest reading comprehension questions you will encounter on the GMAT exam. You are not likely to see any inference questions drawing on a science passage. You are much more likely to see several factual questions that can be answered directly from the passage. Science passages will likely be the easiest reading comprehension questions you encounter!

2.) Social science passages.  Typically, these passages deal with topics such as history, politics, and geography. They will probably be the most enjoyable reading comprehension passages you will read. This is fortunate, because you must read these passages slowly in order to answer the many inference questions they are sure to present.

3.) Business passages.  Business passages involve very difficult structures, and present questions that require you to infer information and even to determine the authors' moods and opinions. They need to be read slowly and carefully.

Frequently, business passages also include compound words that few people have ever heard before, and that even fewer people use in ordinary conversation. Don't feel bad when you run into such terms. They are not very difficult to decipher if you break them down and examine each of their parts.

The 4 Most Common Types of GMAT Reading Comprehension Questions

1.) Factual Questions.  You will likely find these questions the easiest ones to answer, but also the most time consuming. You need to be careful because they often contain "curveballs" such as those described below, in the strategies and tips section. However, these curveballs are also relatively easy to recognize and overcome.

2.) Inference Questions.  Inference questions do not test your knowledge of explicitly-cited facts, but rather your ability to draw conclusions from other information. These questions may even ask you to make a judgment about the author's opinions, or to guess what further conclusions the author might draw. They are usually the most difficult questions for test takers.

3.) Main Idea Questions.  Main idea questions ask the test taker to identify the passage's overall theme, as opposed to supporting facts and arguments. Many clients have told us that they thought these questions were exceptionally difficult. Our advice is to accept that just because all of the answer choices have been discussed in the passage, it does not mean that every one of them can be called the passage's central theme.

In main idea questions, answer choices that emphasize factual information can usually be eliminated. Answer choices that are too narrow or too broad also tend to be incorrect. Those answer choices that contain key words and concepts from the main idea presented by the passage are more likely to be correct.

4.) Tone Questions.  You will often be asked to describe the passage's tone. The same general rule about negativity applies here. The tone is much more likely to be positive or neutral than it is to be negative. For a science passage, the tone is most likely neutral.

Reading Comprehension Tips and Strategies

Tip 1: Use your scrap paper.  Since these passages can be rather long and present difficult sentence and paragraph structures, you may want to use your scrap paper to take very brief notes on the main ideas of each paragraph. Because the GMAT is now computer adaptive, you will not be able to mark up the passages on your monitor.

Taking brief notes is particularly useful for remembering where to find factual information in the science passages. When we say very brief notes, what we have in mind is something along the lines of "Paragraph 1: The different types of butterflies, Paragraph 2: How their nervous systems work, Paragraph 3: Why pesticide A is killing too many of them," etc. Use abbreviations liberally. Using scrap paper in this fashion can also help you outline passages and identify their main arguments for main idea questions.

Of course, you can also use your scrap paper as you go along, to keep track of the answer choices you are able to eliminate as incorrect.

Tip 2: Read the first question before the you read the passage.  As we stated earlier, the new CAT structure of the GMAT prevents you from seeing all of the questions about a reading passage at the same time. Nonetheless, you will gain a slight advantage by reading the first question before you read the passage for the first time. This will give you a better idea of what you should be focusing on as you read, in order to answer that question.

Tip 3: Identify the type of passage you are reading.  Memorize the 3 common passages types that we outlined above and remember that each one should be treated differently in order to optimize your score on this section.

Tip 4: When answering a fact question, read both the passage providing the data and several lines before it carefully.  When a fact question directs you to look at a particular line of text for information, you will often find that one of the answer choices is a deceptive one, taken directly from that line number. More likely than not, there will be something in the sentence or two before the referenced line number that will give you the proper frame for interpreting the data and hence direct you to the right answer to the fact question.

Tip 5: Don't jump to conclusions with fact questions using Roman numerals to identify answer choices.  You will recognize this style of question as soon as you see it:

  1. I only
  2. II only
  3. III only
  4. I and II only
  5. II and III only

The catch is that, oftentimes, facts I and II will be presented very close to each other in the passage, but fact III will be buried much further in the text. Take the time to review and consider each fact on its own merits.

Tip 6: Eliminate the "oohs and ahhs" answer choices.  When consultants refer to "oohs and aahs," they are talking about interesting factoids that spice up presentations without adding anything of real value to the analysis. The GMAT also contains these types of answer choices. An 'ooh and ahh' choice will refer to a fact in the passage ... but just not to one that answers the question being asked.

Tip 7: Practice, practice, practice.  We just want to say this one last time. You can't expect to become a scratch golfer just by reading a few magazine articles and watching a few golf tournaments on TV. Likewise, you can't expect to become an expert at taking the GMAT just by reading some tips and advice. You also need to work through many practice questions and learn to put tips and strategies like the ones we have presented to use.

Click here to see our reading comprehension practice questions.

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