What NOT to read on Reading Comprehension passages


gmat reading compIt’s kind of ironic that, in order to do a great job on RC, we actually have to learn what NOT to read. You may already have read an earlier article of mine on this same topic; I want to revisit the issue not only because so many people struggle with it but also because we used an MGMAT example last time. This time, we’re going to use an example from OG13 β€œ that is, the real thing.

Required Preparation

You need to do a little prep before you can get the most out of this article. πŸ™‚ First, read the introduction entitled How To Read A Reading Comp Passage. (Hint: take some notes! You’re going to be trying this out on a real passage in a few minutes!)

Next, you are going to need OG13 in order to do this exercise β€œ I can’t reproduce the entire passage here for copyright reasons. We’re looking for the second-to-last passage; it’s on page 414 and begins All the cells in a particular plant

Here’s what to do: set a timer for 3 minutes, read, and take whatever notes you like. If the timer buzzers before you’re done, take note. You can then go ahead and finish the passage β€œ I just want you to notice how much extra time you need. Then come back here.

Okay, are you ready? Let’s do this!

Paragraph 1: 90% focus, 10% skim

Of course, when I first start, I’m going to start by reading β€œ I won’t get very far otherwise! I need to figure out:

  1. what words or parts of the sentence are so complex that I’m going to ignore them for now?
  2. when can I stop reading and start skimming?
  3. when do I have to start paying close attention again?

So let’s dive into the first paragraph (partial reproduction; see the Official Guide for the full text):

All the cells in a particular plant start out with the same complement of genes. How then can these cells differentiate and form structures as different as roots, stems, leaves, and fruits? The answer is that only a small subset of the genes in a particular kind of cell are expressed, or turned on, at a given time. This is accomplished by a complex system of [things] that in plants include [some stuff].

Let’s start with the formatting I inserted. Normal text means: I did read this but didn’t pay extra attention to it.

Boldface: These words really stood out for me: my brain perked up and paid attention. Notice that I didn’t bold any of the crazy words β€œ not even the mildly hard ones.

Strikeout: I did technically read these words β€œ my eyes looked at them β€œ but I glossed over them. I didn’t think about what they mean or how they fit into the overall message. I made sure my brain did not engage when I read them.

[Words between brackets]: Hard words or concepts that I do not need to understand right now. At this point, I’m starting to skim more aggressively.

Next big question: how did I know when to pay attention and when to skim?

I really am looking for the easiest path to the main messages. I glossed over the big or harder words and paid more attention to the easy ones. How did I get away with that? Because the easy words give me enough info to understand the general message β€œ and that’s all I want at this stage!

Do I need to know how they use the term differentiate or the term expressed? No. Each term is actually explained right afterwards. Lesson: when they use hard words or technical terms, I can probably turn my brain off because I’ll get the info elsewhere.

Do I need to know that the messengers are chemical? No, not right now β€œ that’s a detail. Regulatory molecules? Not sure what those are β€œ but that’s okay, because I don’t need to know any detail now. Lesson: detail is not important at this stage. Skip it.

Let’s examine the last two sentences of the paragraph (not reproduced here). The second-to-last sentence lists the 5 relevant hormones. I have read this passage many times, but I have still never read the full list. As soon as I see Auxin and realize a list is coming, I immediately skip ahead.

The final sentence has some language that indicates I need to take it seriously: Studies have now identified something new. Ignore all the hard words and just think of the 5 hormones (mentioned earlier) and the new O.

Let’s take stock here: I probably paid attention to about 90% of what I read in this first paragraph; this is pretty typical for a paragraph 1. As I move further, I can expect to be able to pick up the speed.

Paragraph 2: 60% focus

Unlike the oligosaccharins, the five well-known plant hormones are pleiotropic rather than specific; that is, each has more than one effect on the growth and development of plants. The five have so many simultaneous effects that they are not very useful in artificially controlling the growth of crops. Auxin, for instance

I have a lot bolded so far β€œ a lot more than 70%. Everything that I didn’t include in the quote, though, is pure skim. How do we know? First, the word for instance telegraphs that we’re about to get some detail. Second, when we scan that detail looking for any high level language, we don’t see any. Pure detail = skim.

Those first 2 sentences, on the other hand, contain some important info. The O’s aren’t like The 5 in some way. What way? Well, there’s the crazy p-word oh, and check it out β€œ once again, they then tell me what the crazy word means. The 5 = more than one effect. O = unlike, so the Os must have just one effect.

Paragraph 3: 40% focus

All right, I’m starting to understand a bit β€œ which is good news, because that means I can start to speed up! How much can I skim this paragraph?

The pleiotropy of the five well-studied plant hormones is somewhat analogous to that of certain hormones in animals. For example, hormones from the hypothalamus [blah blah detail blah]

One sentence in, and we already have a for example β€œ excellent! We do have to know the harder word analogous, a form of the wordy analogy. Essentially, the first sentence tells us that something similar might happen in animals. Then it goes into crazy detail. Scan until you either (a) find language that indicates a high level message again, or (b) finish the paragraph.

I read I think:
These hormones have this is detail, keep skimming
One hormone stimulates probably a detail
for example bingo, detail!
In other words Hold up! Might indicate a high level message; pay attention.


In other words, there is a hierarchy of hormones.

Another harder word. Hierarchy well, a company often has a hierarchy. The CEO runs things and then some Vice Presidents report to the CEO, and then each VP probably has managers, and so on. So this hormone stuff has a hierarchy as well, with some things reporting to others.

Before we move to paragraph 4, go look at #3 one more time. Notice how much we really did just skim / skip there!

Paragraph 4: 20% focus

Such a hierarchy may also exist in plants. Oligosaccharins are fragments

The first sentence says it all; the rest is detail.

One important thing to note: I put some percentages next to each paragraph. These won’t always be the same on every 4-paragraph passage; we adjust as we see what the language is actually telling us. As a general rule, though, the further in we get, the more we’ll be able to speed up (though sometimes the last paragraph really does contain some kind of broader message that needs a more careful read).

Taking Notes

Here’s one example of a possible set of notes (but these will vary!)

P1 cells diff: genes, 5HAlso, O
P2 O NOT like 5H5h >1 effecteg Auxin
P3 Animals similarhormones have hierarchy
P4 Maybe Hier in plants too?

*5H = 5 major hormones; O = oligosaccharins

Our notes are so skimpy! Notice how much we don’t know. That’s perfectly fine β€œ in fact, it’s better than fine. This is exactly where we want to be at this point in the passage. We have the big picture and we have a pretty good idea of where to go if we get asked about certain topics. Animals? Paragraph 3. Auxin? Paragraph 2. And so on.

Really? That’s all I need?

Really. Here’s the deal: you’re not actually done reading. When you get a question about a particular detail, you are going to go back and read that information to try to figure out the answer. You’re just deferring β€œ you’re going to read it later, not right now during the initial read-through.

Why? There’s just not enough time. Luckily, we know that we aren’t going to get asked about all of these details β€œ only some of them. So we don’t bother to learn those pesky details until we know that we need them. (And we know that when we get a particular question about that detail!)

If you have access to our GMAT Navigator study tool, I’ve also posted a video discussion of the passage. It’s very similar to what we do here, but you may want to watch anyway to help reinforce the lesson (and to see and hear an example rather than just read about it). The questions associated with the passage each have two videos: one discussing the overall passage (same video for all questions), and one discussing that particular question.

Key Takeaways for What NOT to Read

(1) The bigger the words get, the more likely we’ll want to skim. They’re going to use technical terms, such as expressed in paragraph 1, and they’ll even toss crazy words like pleiotropy at us. Such technical language, though, will almost certainly be described in easier language at some point β€œ go look for that easier description rather than spending precious time trying to decipher the hard stuff.

(2) Despite #1, we are still expected to have a decent vocabulary. In this passage, we were expected to know analogous and hierarchy. If you run across an unknown-to-you word that isn’t otherwise defined, then you are forewarned: learn this vocab word before you take the GMAT.

(3) Look for language clues that help distinguish between high level and detail. The detail clues tend to be more obvious: for example, for instance, one type of something, and so on. On the other hand, you may need to need to train yourself to notice the high level clues. Start with the ones discussed above and keep searching for more when you practice!

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  2. Salman February 27, 2013 at 11:08 am

    The method above does work – but with a caveat – Stacy, here’s the issue. You are probably a fantastic reader, and have had enough practice with the GMAT reading comps to understand the specific format the test uses in its reading comps – you KNOW what to expect from the GMAC – their language speaks to you directly. But for many people who do not have a reading habit at all, the issue is quite complex. I strongly believe that GMAT hopefuls will first need to develop a reading “eye” which may require them to read in a lot more detail than you have suggested – in fact I make my students start off with somewhat easier passages (the one you chose above is probably one of the toughest to crack). Once they are trained in the specific format of the GMAT reading comp, your strategies are no doubt going to start working.

  3. MBA Hopeful February 22, 2013 at 3:44 am

    “Boldface: These words really stood out for me: my brain perked up and paid attention”

    That’s my point: Only when you read extensively from standard text on __varied__ topics, would these “boldface” words stand out for your …. You need to be comfortable with text on unfamiliar topics such as science, history, economics or just any other topic. This kind of skimming of passages and aloofness towards the details will surly ruin your RC section. Good luck.

  4. MBA Hopeful February 22, 2013 at 2:06 am

    Let me tell you how to ace the RC. There is one and only trick: Read a LOT from standard text. Op-ed columns from leading newspapers such as NY Times or Washington Post and most importantly read varied topics, not just want you like. Be comfortable in reading text on unfamiliar topics.

    All other tips and tricks mentioned here and elsewhere are just crap. Don’t waste your time.

    My GMAT Verbal: 46