How to Approach GMAT Reading Comprehension Questions | TopMBA.com

How to Approach GMAT Reading Comprehension Questions

By QS Contributor

Updated March 1, 2021 Updated March 1, 2021

Four things to consider when approaching a GMAT reading comprehension question:

  • How is the test passage structured?
  • What is the point of view of the extract?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • How broad is the scope of the passage?

One of the secrets of standardised entrance exams like the GMAT is that the mentality behind the questions is similar, no matter what kind of question you're trying to answer, whether verbal or quantitative. 

GMAT questions are really puzzles to be solved rather than questions to answer. The reason for this is that these exams are designed to test your logic and critical thinking skills using a somewhat limited set of academic skills and concepts.  

Once you know what these concepts are, it becomes much easier to anticipate what the test writers are actually trying to do and understand how they want you to think.

GMAT Reading comprehension questions are a great case-in-point.  Many students with whom I've worked as a GMAT tutor approach reading comprehension in one of two ways: The first is to passively read through the passage, hoping to absorb whatever information is necessary, then haphazardly go for whichever answers feel right. 

The second approach is to get completely mired in the details of the passage, reading through with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that you've internalised everything before beginning the questions. 

While such approaches may work for certain test takers, they are not a particularly strategic, often inefficient, and can end up wasting valuable time.

To think like the test writers in a reading comprehension question, you need to know what aspects they'll typically ask you about and read accordingly. 

Structure

Structure has two components: 1) logical flow and 2) general organisation of content. To determine the logical flow of the passage, keep your eyes open for key signposts. These include the introduction of the passage (with particular focus on the thesis statement), the conclusion of the passage (if there is one), the topic (first) sentence of each paragraph, and the concluding sentence of each paragraph. 

Also look for words that might tell you where the passage is going: transition words and phrases like “however”, “moreover”, “furthermore”, “on the other hand”--all of these offer clues to the way the passage is set up, and they can help you find your place. They also help you to determine the general content of the passage, and where key ideas are located.  

As you read through, try to get a sense of what the passage is about (hint: the thesis statement will help you here) and the main idea of each paragraph. Don’t read for details at this point—internalising the basic structure will help you recall where the details are when you get a question about them.

Point of view

This is graduate level reading, so there will be more than one voice in any given passage. One point of view will, of course, be that of the author/narrator. But you'll also come across points of view that may tell you about conventional wisdom, or previous research, or supporting arguments, or counterarguments.  

Each of these is a distinct point of view, and the questions will expect you keep track of who believes what. Incorrect answer choices will commonly attribute a particular point of view to the wrong person, so be on the lookout!

Tone and audience

For whom is this piece being written? Is it advocating something? Criticising? Is it a neutral academic piece? Is there any editorialising—perhaps a slightly praising or condescending tone? 

Look for key words that can clue you in to where the author (and those with other points of view) are coming from. Some questions ask you about the function of a particular word, phrase, or line—proper identification of tone and audience can help you with these types of questions.

Scope

How broad or narrow is the passage, and what is the main idea of each paragraph talking about? Make sure the scope of the question, your answer choice, and the corresponding part of the passage all match up. 

Here's an example: let's say you encounter a passage about the development of automobiles in the 1920s, and their contribution to the rise of American suburbs. The first question asks you the main idea of the passage. Is it ‘The History of Cars’?  Nope—far too broad.  You're asked about one particular aspect of automotive history and its role in a societal change—not about the entire history of automobiles!

At the other extreme, an answer choice that would be far too narrow might be something like “The Manufacturing Process of the Model T”. 

Identifying the correct scope isn't just for main idea questions either—it can be an effective tool for function questions (why did the author choose to include a particular line?) and can help you to determine answer choices that may be too tangential or irrelevant.

Time to practice

In order to identify these aspects, you'll need to make sure you're reading actively, not passively. Ask yourself why certain words and phrases are used. Take note of words or phrases that jump out at you, and see if you can determine why the author may have chosen those terms, and make sure to practice.  

It's too easy to take reading comprehension questions for granted—sure, you know how to read, but are you sure you know how to read GMAT-style?  

Time yourself—give yourself about six minutes for shorter passages (typically three questions), and about eight minutes for longer passages (typically four questions). Create frequent mini quizzes for yourself. Try to answer without looking at the answer key. This will help you measure whether you are truly making progress.

If you take this approach to GMAT Reading Comprehension questions, you'll soon find yourself becoming increasingly familiar with the question types.  You'll read more quickly and more efficiently and be on your way to a higher GMAT score.

Steve Markofsky is a senior GMAT and GRE tutor for MyGuru, a provider of one-to-one and small group tutoring and test prep. Steve holds a BA from the University of Rochester (political science), an MA in Archaeology (Durham University in UK), and a PhD in Archaeology from University College London. He has been a private GRE and GMAT tutor for over a decade.

This article was originally published in March 2021 .

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