Top 10 Tips for GMAT Reading Comprehension

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Manhattan Prep GMAT Blog - Top 10 Tips for GMAT Reading Comprehension by Chelsey Cooley

As the most time-consuming GMAT problem type, GMAT Reading Comprehension has a lot of detractors. However, you could see as many as 14 Reading Comprehension problems on test day, making it the single most common Verbal problem type! In this list of GMAT Reading Comprehension tips, you’ll find simple advice for reading passages and getting more questions right.

Practicing GMAT Reading Comprehension before Test Day

1. Treat everything you read as a chance to practice. You can practice Reading Comprehension while going about your daily life. State the main purpose of that article your friend retweeted! Summarize each main idea of the email your boss just sent you! Sure, it’s weird, but a little weirdness is okay when you’re preparing for the GMAT.

2. Develop a reading habit (or maintain the one you have). Instead of playing Candy Crush before you fall asleep, read a few pages of that book you’ve been meaning to get to.

3. Build up your background knowledge. GMAT Reading Comprehension isn’t supposed to test background knowledge. Everything you need to answer a question is right there in the passage. However, a little familiarity with a topic goes a long way. Somebody who reads the science news every day will be better at skimming a biology passage than someone who doesn’t.

Read more broadly between now and test day, especially in areas that scare, bore, or confuse you. Reading Comprehension passages often cover biology, economics, history, sociology, and astronomy. Is one of those topics totally unfamiliar to you? Pick up some reading material from the links below. In general, read articles that are written in a formal style, about topics similar to those tested on the GMAT.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/
https://www.the-scientist.com/
https://www.sciencemag.org/
https://www.space.com/
http://www.astronomy.com/
https://www.economist.com/
https://www.nytimes.com/
https://www.newyorker.com/
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/
https://www.historytoday.com/
https://news.harvard.edu/
https://spectrum.ieee.org/
https://longform.org/
https://phys.org/

4. Train your focus. Reading Comprehension is by far the longest type of GMAT question. A GMAT Reading Comprehension passage requires that you pay full attention for at least 2-3 minutes, not to mention the time you spend answering the questions. If you choose to take the Verbal section after the Quant section, you’ll already be somewhat fatigued when you see your first GMAT Reading Comprehension question. You don’t want to drift off mid-passage on test day. As you practice Reading Comp, try to catch yourself drifting off and redirect your attention back to the passage.

Brain-training games may also improve your attention span, and so can meditation. Here are some more tips on focus from GRE instructor Neil Thornton.

Get the Most Out of GMAT Reading Comprehension on Test Day

1. Take “bad” notes.  

In college or in a business meeting, if you take notes, your goal is to remember what you just heard. In those areas of life, “good” notes are ones that still make sense when you look at them later.

Your GMAT notes should not be good notes!

On GMAT Reading Comprehension, the passage stays on the screen the entire time you’re answering questions. After you answer the last question for that passage, nobody will ever ask you about it again. Creating notes that help you remember the text is a waste of your time and brainpower.

Second, “college” or “meeting” notes tend to summarize, not synthesize. If you’re listening to a biology lecture, these might be good notes:

  • Hypothalamus
    • Includes 2 nerve clusters – SCNs
    • Believed to control circadian rhythms
    • Control blood pressure, body temp, etc.
  • 4 genes outside of SCNs also control circ. rhythms
    • SCN genes synchronized w/ light cycles
    • Non-SCN genes synchronized with eating schedule & temp. changes

But if you’re taking the GMAT, these would be good notes:

  • Old belief: SCNs controlled circadian rhythms
  • New belief: not JUST controlled in SCNs – other genes too
    • Shown in experiments
  • Scientists: both are related to circ. rhythms, but respond to diff. cues

Both sets of notes come from the same passage (it’s the one that goes with questions 409-411 in the 2018 Official Guide.) Look how different they are! The “college” notes focus on things and facts. The “GMAT” notes organize those facts into three big concepts: an old belief, a new belief, and the way they’ve been reconciled.

2. Predict. In Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, teacher James M. Lang shares a story about prediction and memory. During one college football season, he and two friends made a small weekly bet—the losers bought the winner a beer—on the outcomes of certain games. Lang found that this had a surprising side effect:

“Over the course of a college football season I might watch several dozen football games, most of which slide from my memory soon afterward. But the games that had featured into our previous prediction exercises stayed with me more firmly than those I had simply watched without having made any kind of guess as to the outcome.”

Predicting what’s about to happen gives your brain something to latch onto. When a passage poses a question or introduces a new idea, take a moment to predict what direction it’ll go in next. For instance, a passage that opens with “scientists have long believed…” might go on to show how the scientists’ belief was incorrect.

It doesn’t matter whether your prediction is right or wrong! What matters is the act of predicting, which gives your brain something to focus on as you read. Read this piece of a GMAT Reading Comprehension passage from GMATPrep, and give it a try:

Astronomers have hypothesized that a meteor stream should broaden with time as the dust particles’ individual orbits are perturbed by planetary gravitational fields. A recent computer-modeling experiment tested this hypothesis by tracking the influence of planetary gravitation over a projected 5,000-year period on the positions of a group of hypothetical dust particles. In the model, the particles were randomly distributed throughout a computer simulation of the orbit of an actual meteor stream, the Geminid. The researcher found, as expected, that the computer-model stream broadened with time. Conventional theories, however, predicted that the distribution of particles would be increasingly dense toward the center of a meteor stream. Surprisingly, the computer-model meteor stream gradually came to resemble a thick-walled, hollow pipe.

3. I already know that!

GMAT Reading Comprehension passages are repetitive. A passage will introduce a major idea, then spend the next couple of sentences going on and on about that idea, without telling you anything new. If you’re reading an actual article, there are plenty of reasons to keep paying attention! You might find the details interesting, for example. Or you might not believe what the article is saying and want to see the evidence for yourself.

On the GMAT, none of those reasons apply. Once a passage tells you something, it’s a fact, and you can go ahead and believe it. If the next couple of sentences just elaborate on the same fact, you can pretty much ignore them (unless a Detail question happens to ask about them). Save time by skimming whenever the passage repeats itself and slowing down when it tells you something different from what you’ve read so far.

Vocabulary clues will often signal that the passage is changing topics. When you see a word like “however” or “but,” tune back in and pay attention to what the passage is saying. Vocabulary clues can also be more subtle: for instance, if the passage starts by talking about a hypothesis, then start paying closer attention when you see the words “tested” or “experiment.”

Answer GMAT Reading Comprehension Questions with Confidence

1. Main Idea questions are like essay prompts.

Here’s a neat trick that uses your existing knowledge to answer GMAT Main Idea questions. Imagine that the answer choices are different essay prompts, like you’d see in a college class, and picture the passage as being an essay written by somebody in that class. Here’s an example from GMATPrep:

The passage is primarily concerned with evaluating:

(A) The importance of Florence Nightingale’s innovations in the field of nursing
(B) Contrasting approaches to the writing of historical biography
(C) Contradictory accounts of Florence Nightingale’s historical significance
(D) The quality of health care in nineteenth-century England
(E) The effect of the Crimean War on developments in the field of health care

In your head, turn each of these answer choices into an essay prompt. Here’s how you could do the first two:

(A) “In your essay, evaluate the importance of Florence Nightingale’s innovations in the field of nursing.”
(B) “In your essay, evaluate several contrasting approaches to the writing of historical biography.”

Now, what’s the right answer? It’s the only answer where the passage, if it was written in response to this prompt, would get an A. If the passage seems “off topic,” then you haven’t found the right answer to the Main Idea question!

The passage that this question goes with spends several paragraphs just discussing Florence Nightingale. If you wrote that essay in response to a prompt such as “evaluate contrasting approaches to the writing of historical biography” or “evaluate the quality of health care in nineteenth-century England,” you’d be in trouble for leaving out key facts. So you know those can’t be the right answer to the Main Idea question.

2. Boring is beautiful.

This tip works for GMAT Reading Comprehension Main Idea, Purpose, and Inference questions—everything except Specific Detail.

When you look at the answer choices for one of these questions, you might notice that some answers are “stronger” than others. That is, one answer choice will make a more powerful or absolute claim, while another answer choice will be wishy-washy and leave room for interpretation. Here’s an example from GMATPrep:

With which of the following generalizations regarding management structures would the author of the passage most likely agree?

(A) Hierarchical management structures are the most efficient management structures possible in a modern context.
(B) Hierarchical management structures cannot be successfully implemented without modern communications and transportations.
(C) Modern multinational firms with a relatively small volume of business transactions usually do not have hierarchically organized management structures.

This is an Inference question, so our “boring is beautiful” principle applies. Let’s analyze the three answer choices.

The first two answer choices are much stronger claims than the third one. The first one says that a certain structure is the “most efficient structure possible.” The second one claims that something “cannot be successfully implemented.” The third one, though, has a lot of wiggle room! It uses softening terms, such as “relatively” and “usually.” Unlike the first two answer choices, it doesn’t say that something is “always” or “never” true.

Without even reading the GMAT Reading Comprehension passage, the third answer choice is much more likely to be the right answer. You can’t 100% rule out the first two, but if you’re making a guess, or deciding between two answers, you should lean strongly towards the weaker claim.

3. Read the entire question!

This tip is especially for Specific Detail questions. Make sure you read the specific question you’re being asked! For instance, a question might say the following:

The passage states that modern multinationals are more successful than early chartered trading companies in which of the following ways?

Without reading the answer choices, you can already tell that several of the wrong answers will be wrong in the same way. They’ll be wrong because they make a statement about early chartered trading companies, rather than modern multinationals. You’ll be able to find them in the passage, but the right answer will be the only one that appears in the passage, and describes modern multinationals, specifically. Make sure you double-check what the GMAT Reading Comprehension question is asking you about, rather than solely focusing on finding one of the answer choices in the passage! 📝


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GMAT prep offerings here.

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