How To Read A Reading Comp Passage


Reading ComprehensionRecently, I was asked to write an article on the reading part of reading comprehension “ specifically, what are we supposed to do and look for during the initial few minutes before we start to answer the first question? I thought it was a great idea; a lot of people struggle with this.

Note: this article doesn’t address how to answer reading comprehension questions; it focuses on the initial read-through and note-taking. If you do that well, though, then that should help you answer any kind of question.


Whenever we start a specific type of problem, we should have certain goals in mind (depending, of course, on what that problem type is). Reading Comprehension (RC) is no exception.

First, we have some timing goals. I aim to complete an initial read-through of an RC passage in 2 (shorter) to 3 (longer) minutes. I try to answer general questions (e.g., main idea) in about 1 minute and specific questions in about 1.5 to 2 minutes.

I also take some short notes while I read through the passage; these notes will be based upon the goals discussed in the next several paragraphs. My notes will be heavily abbreviated; see the Taking Notes section below for more on this topic.

Next, we have some goals for the initial read-through of the passage. Every passage has a topic and what I call The Point. The topic is what you would probably expect: the basic topic under discussion in the passage. The Point is the main reason the author is writing this specific passage (you can also think of The Point as the thesis statement). For instance, a passage topic might be the curious decline of bees in recent years (entire hives have been dying, losing the ability to find their way back to the hive, and so on). The Point might be that, out of three possible causes (all mentioned in the passage), a certain pesticide is the most likely cause (according to the author). Back to our Goal: when I read the passage, I need to make sure I understand The Point, not just the topic.

Further, I also need to make sure I understand the purpose of each paragraph. These passages follow the same rules we’re supposed to use when we write an essay: each paragraph should have one distinct purpose or message (and, often, that message is delivered via a topic sentence, usually the first or second sentence of the paragraph).

Finally, I also need to make sure that I do NOT fully understand or remember all of the detail in each paragraph. That NOT was not a typo. I’m trying to read this passage in 2 to 3 minutes maximum; I don’t have time to try to fully understand, let alone remember, all of the detail. My goal is to know in which paragraph the different kinds of detail reside “ that’s all.

Wait “ How Can I Get Away With NOT Understanding the Detail?

This is where we can take advantage of the fact that the GMAT is a standardized test. An individual test-taker is given only about half of the questions that were written for that passage. That little piece of knowledge has major implications for how we conduct the initial read-through.

I know that I’m going to have to understand The Point, because that permeates the entire passage and even, to some extent, every question that I answer. I also know that I will not get asked about every detail on the screen, because I’m never going to see half of the questions. So why learn all of that annoying detail unless I know that I’m going to get a question about it? (And I won’t know that until the question pops up on the screen.)

Instead, as we discussed above, my goal for the detail is to know in which paragraph it resides. That way, if I do get a question about the chemical mechanism by which the pesticide affects a bee’s nervous system, I’ll immediately know that I can find that detail in paragraph 2. I won’t have any idea how to answer the question yet; I’ll have to read that detail now to see whether I can figure it out.

Note: did you hit a word you don’t know? Skip it. Is some sentence really convoluted? If it’s the first sentence of a paragraph, use your SC knowledge to find the subject and verb, just to get a basic understanding of what it says. If it’s a detail sentence, skip it.

The Initial Read-through

Most of the time, The Point can be found in one discrete sentence somewhere in the passage (though sometimes we have to combine two sentences to get the full Point). Most often, The Point can be found in the first few or last few sentences of the entire passage, but it is possible for The Point to show up anywhere.

So, a new passage pops up on the screen and we, naturally, start reading. Read the first sentence, then stop. Rephrase it in your mind (put it into words that you can understand very easily), and jot down a note or two. Then do the same with the second sentence. Once you think you understand the purpose of that one paragraph, you can start skimming the rest of the paragraph. While you skim, you’re trying to make this distinction: is this information just detail that goes along with whatever I decided was the purpose of this paragraph? Or is this information something new: does it represent a new idea or a change of direction? If it’s just detail, jot down the basic kind of detail it is (bees dying) and move on. If it represents a new idea or change of direction, then pay a little more attention and take some short notes.

Do the same with the other paragraphs, though you can be a bit more aggressive about skimming. If, for example, you think you understand the purpose of the second paragraph after reading only the first sentence, that’s fine. Start skimming (but take note of anything that represents a new direction).

When you’re done, take a moment to articulate The Point to yourself. Is that already in your notes? Put a star next to it. If it isn’t in your notes, jot it down.

Taking Notes

Your notes should be heavily abbreviated “ much more aggressively abbreviated than notes you would typically take at work or school. In fact, if I look at my notes for a passage a few days later, I should have a lot of trouble figuring out what they say (without using the passage as a reference).

How can we get away with abbreviating this heavily? Again, we’re taking advantage of the nature of this test. You’re going to spend perhaps 6 to 8 minutes with this passage and then you can forget about it forever. You don’t need to commit anything to long-term memory, nor do you need to take notes from which you can study in a week. (Of course, if you’re just practicing, you are going to review your work later, but you should still practice as though it’s the real thing.)

Analyzing Your Work

Everyone already knows that it’s important to review your work on the problems you do, but did you know that it’s also important to review how you read and take your notes? When you’re done with a passage and the associated questions, start your review with the passage itself. When you were done reading (but before you answered questions), what did you think The Point was? What did you think the purpose of each paragraph was? Did that knowledge or understanding change as you worked your way through the questions? If you misunderstood something after the first read-through, why do you think you misunderstood it? Did you read too quickly and overlook something? Did you not take the time to rephrase what you read? How could you do this better next time?

Next, match your initial notes to your current knowledge of what information is contained in the passage. Were you able to find the right paragraph easily when answering a specific question? If not, why not? What should you have jotted down on the initial read-through to make that easier? Conversely, did you have too much information jotted down? Maybe you were able to answer a specific question just from your notes, or maybe you had a lot of detail written down that you never had to use. If so, you wrote down too much information and you spent too much time on the initial read-through.

Could you have abbreviated even more? Write down what that might have looked like, from the beginning. (In general, if you feel your notes were fairly far from your ideal for any reason, then re-write the notes the way you should have written them the first time.)


(1) You do NOT want to learn or comprehend every single thing that the passage says

(2) Know your goals:

(a) Find The Point

(b) Find the purpose of each paragraph

(c) Know where (in which paragraph) to find different kinds of detail

(3) Practice sticking to your timing and practice abbreviating heavily

(4) When you review your work, also review how you read and took notes on the passage

  1. SW May 4, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Stacey – I have one question. Not sure what would you recommend – reading the first question that we see and then start reading the passage OR read the passage first and then go to the question 1. I just feel that it might be distracting if we read the 1st question, before reading the passage because then all we would be thinking about is the 1st question. Please provide your suggestions. I am a non native speaker.

  2. SW May 4, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Awesome post Stacey, so helpful!!! Thanks a ton for this invaluable information.

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  8. Business School Admissions Blog | MBA Admission Blog | Blog Archive » GMAT Impact: What NOT to Read on Reading Comprehension Passages February 27, 2013 at 10:22 am

    […] read the introduction entitled How To Read A Reading Comp Passage. (Hint: Take some notes! You are going to be trying this out on a real passage in a few […]

  9. Ngoc Pham February 21, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    Tks so much!
    I am going to take the first GMAT this Sat and had been worried so much about the RC skills. This article helped…

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  12. Justine Headley September 20, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Great way to tackle a serious subject. The tips are quite effective.

  13. Larry March 28, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    These are great pointers for getting through the GMAT. I feel the need to have every tool I can use to make it easier.

  14. Matt February 11, 2012 at 7:40 am

    I think the best way to remember the details is to keep mental note of what each passage is talking about or highlighting the idea expressed in the first paragraph and last paragraph.

  15. vinay February 5, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    Thanks stacy.This article is an eye opener!

  16. Jinagna Shah January 5, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Its helpful..Thanks…

  17. Ash Wells December 23, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    I can’t agree more here. These are some very important comprehension techniques which are vital for success in a lot of examinations. Nice to see a truly educational article on the Internet, where today most stuff is just fluff these days because of social media. Yet, students still have exams and people, should be posting about those..

  18. STD Test Kits October 22, 2011 at 8:16 am

    Doing an initial reading is a good way to get an idea of what the whole thing is all about. Note taking is a great way to study. I didn’t realize that I had to acquire these skills…

    Thanks for providing us with these tips!

  19. Maria Keys September 2, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    “In fact, if I look at my notes for a passage a few days later, I should have a lot of trouble figuring out what they say (without using the passage as a reference).”

    I know this problem first hand… Taking good notes is key here, but its not easy and takes some time to practice if you want to bring it to perfection!

  20. Angel August 12, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Learnt a lot~
    Thank you~

  21. Patricia July 17, 2011 at 4:52 am

    Take aways (as you out it) are the most important parts of the whole reading experience. It is not smart (even impossible) to remember everything, the smart thing is to get what you need out of it. A great article you have here.

  22. Peni Gardner July 12, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    “(2) Know your goals:

    (a) Find The Point

    (b) Find the purpose of each paragraph

    (c) Know where (in which paragraph) to find different kinds of detail”

    To me this is the most important part to learn. Finding the point of the passage is a must.

  23. Steve June 14, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Yep, completely agree. I like the final point about reviewing your work, then reviewing how your read the passage in the first place. It is easy to think something has asked something closely related which it hasnt at all! So yes very important to check you actually answered correctly.

  24. Jamison June 13, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    “You do NOT want to learn or comprehend every single thing that the passage says.”

    This one simple piece of advice is perhaps the most important in a long line of advice given in this post.

    Very helpful and one I will be passing along.

    – J

  25. Bob Homes June 10, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    “I also take some short notes while I read through the passage; these notes will be based upon the goals discussed in the next several paragraphs.”

    This is a great idea. That way you don’t have to spend time searching through the text for major points; it’s all right there.

  26. Michael M. Ramnani June 8, 2011 at 11:02 am

    I always make it a point to analyze my work though it didn’t cross my mind to double check the notes. A detailed study is something that I have practiced, be it in reading or writing any material. These tips are quite good. I’ll keep them in mind.

    Thanks for sharing your insights,
    Michael Ramnani

  27. Rhett Bernheim May 25, 2011 at 9:47 am

    “I aim to complete an initial read-through of an RC passage in 2 (shorter) to 3 (longer) minutes.”

    The time you take for the initial reading is key. I have heard the term “photographic reading” to describe this kind of reading. Like anything else, one gets better at this, with practice. And once you master reading in this manner, the results will surely be significant.

    Rhett Bernheim
    Yoga Student and Teacher
    Yoga Instructor

  28. Marry May 24, 2011 at 8:24 am

    “Everyone already knows that it’s important to review your work on the problems you do, but did you know that it’s also important to review how you read and take your notes?”

    As a teacher I can agree 100% with this. Without afterwork, as we call it, there is no way to produce quality results. I hope a lot of people will read this passage and memorize it.

    Marry, webmaster of A1C levels

  29. hgh May 10, 2011 at 9:09 am

    This is a very helpful post for the upcoming GMAT. Thanks for keeping this going.

  30. casey May 9, 2011 at 4:52 am

    Not fully understand or remember all of the detail in each paragraph seem interesting. Skipping a detail sentence is also a good tip. But what I really like best is analyzing your work because it is important to review your answers.

  31. susie rasco September 24, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    very helpful thanks

    i am taking an abbreviated form of the gmat for a sales position and i dont know exactly what that might entail