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After working with thousands of students, I’ll admit: Reading Comprehension is my least favorite subject to teach. Why? Because unlike Quant or grammar, it doesn’t have concrete rules to apply, so it can be harder to find ways to help when students are struggling.
I have found, though, that many students who struggle with GMAT Reading Comprehension aren’t actually struggling with the “reading” or the “comprehension” part (unless they struggle with English skills generally). No, the passages – though dense and often boring – are mostly ok. It’s answering the questions that’s a struggle!
RC questions can seem vague, and the answer choices can feel like a sphinx’s riddle. Often 2 or 3 answers choices may seem equally right, or maybe none of them seem right! So what should you do?
Think Like a Lawyer (TLaL)
Have you ever watched a courtroom drama on TV, in which the lawyer knew her client was guilty but couldn’t say so? “Your Honor, it’s possible that my client may have been present at some point, but…” This lawyer will be very sure never to make any declarative statements, because then no one can claim that she ever lied!
When students are approaching GMAT Reading Comprehension, they often focus exclusively on the content of the answer choices, and forget to pay attention to language. You should ask yourself as you’re going through answer choices: Would this hold up in court?
Answer choices with strong, definitive language are rarely right answers. This is especially true on main idea and inference questions. Inference questions especially ask you about things that were not directly stated but only implied, so TLaL: It’s hard to know anything for sure that wasn’t directly stated.
Find the Right Answer Without the Passages
Here is an experiment for you to try: TLaL and see if you can guess which answer choices wouldn’t stand up in court, even though you haven’t read the passage! This is a 700-800 level question from the Manhattan Prep practice exams.
The passage implies that:
(A) the Monteverde area may be home to toad or frog species that have not yet been noted by researchers
(B) the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve was not large enough to protect the golden toad
(C) only Costa Rican amphibians living near Monteverde have disappeared since the 1980s
(D) if amphibians did not have permeable skin, then they could not act as biological harbingers
(E) more than one third of the world’s amphibian species have become extinct
Without knowing anything except that the passage was about amphibians, you should still be able to eliminate most of the wrong answers if you TLaL:
(A) “may be” sounds vague and noncommittal – that would be hard to prove wrong. Sounds good!
(B) “was not large enough.” That sounds really definitive. When we’re talking about protecting a species, is there ever one definitive cause? Probably not. A lawyer would probably phrase it as “may not have been large enough,” or “its small size was likely a factor,” etc.
(C) The word “only” is a major dealbreaker! It seems pretty unlikely that the passage would prove that no other amphibians disappeared in the entire country.
(D) This one is hypothetical. Consider this statement: “If I didn’t teach the GMAT, I could not have written blog articles.” Well, in that alternate universe, I might be writing other kinds of blog articles! We can almost never make definitive declarations about hypothetical realities (unless the passage stated that it was the only way for something to have happened).
(E) This one is awfully specific. “More than one third” implies that we have data on all of the exact numbers. Unlikely! A lawyer might say “perhaps as much as one third” or “some scientists theorize that it could be more than a third,” etc.
As it turns out, the correct answer was in fact A! Many of the other answer choices were tempting based on the content of the passage (you’ll just have to take my word for it), but we could eliminate them based on language alone.
Practice TLaL With the OG
You can practice this on your own: flip through the Official Guide to any RC passage. Without reading the passage, see if you can eliminate at least several of the wrong answers based on lawyerly-ness (not a real word, I know) of language.
You may not get all the way to the right answer every time, but it will help key you in to the specificity of language that the GMAT uses to distinguish right answers from wrong answers.
Please note: this won’t work on every question! I am not advocating that you skip the passage itself on test day. For questions that ask you about specific details from the passage, it won’t really help to use this technique. But for Main Idea and Inference questions, developing a radar for the intensity of the language in addition to the content will help to improve your accuracy on GMAT Reading Comprehension. 📝
What other strategies do you use to conquer a difficult RC question? Comment below!
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Céilidh Erickson is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Boston, MA. When she tells people that her name is pronounced “kay-lee,” she often gets puzzled looks. Céilidh is a graduate of Princeton University and a master’s candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Tutoring was always the job that brought her the greatest joy and challenge, so she decided to make it her full-time job. Check out Céilidh’s upcoming GMAT courses (she scored a 760, so you’re in great hands).