Who Needs the GRE Reading Comprehension Passage Anyway?
Let me be clear, if you want to maximize your GRE Reading Comprehension score, you should read each passage, thoroughly and entirely, before trying any of the questions about it. Strategies like skimming the passage or reading the questions first tend to result in sub-par performances. In the name of honing your Verbal skills, though, I’m going to suggest you do something seemingly ludicrous: practice answering some GRE Reading Comprehension questions without reading the passages.
You heard me—skip the passages entirely. Jump straight to the GRE Reading Comprehension questions and try to answer them with no context or background whatsoever. Of course, your accuracy will almost certainly drop when doing GRE Reading Comprehension questions this way. By starting with the answer choices, though, you may just train yourself to pay attention to some nuances in the way correct answers tend to be written and in the very common ways they take otherwise-fine answer choices and make them provably wrong.
For reference, I’ve found that when I do this, my accuracy falls from 90+% correct answering normally down to about 50% correct without reading the GRE Reading Comprehension passages. Even so, that’s much better than random guessing. When you try this, aim to beat the 20% odds you’ve got going for you on a run-of-the-mill guess. If you can learn to eliminate some obviously-wrong choices and identify some common themes in right answers, you’ll likely blow that number out of the water. And if you practice this without looking at the passages, imagine how well you’ll do when you start reading them again.
The Personality of the Test
To make this exercise work, you need to know something about the GRE: It has a personality. In both the Verbal and Math sections, there are themes, tricks, and traps that appear over and over again. The GRE Reading Comprehension passages also come with a bit of a personality. It’s a pretty stodgy test. There’s little in the way of slang or improper grammar. You’re not going to be reading racy passages or experimental fiction. There are no long, rambling excerpts from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road on this test. No bitter rants. No Twitter feuds. No 50 Shades of Grey.
Instead, remember that the GRE Reading Comprehension questions, answers, and passages are all written with a careful scholarly tone. All of the writing will be filled with the elevated vernacular and labyrinthine sentences characteristic of academic writing. Passages tend to discuss both sides fairly. Rarely do they advocate for one side of an argument over another; when they do, they’ll advocate carefully with caveats and concessions. You’ll never read a GRE Reading Comprehension passage that totally rips the opposing side to shreds. If you go in expecting all of this, it often helps you to dodge answer choices like this one:
D) The author’s work is vastly superior to all other fiction written in the 19th century.
Or this one:
E) The passage argues that all scientific theories have failed due to the same few reasons.
The “Right Answer Voice”
Here are some traits of the GRE Reading Comprehension “right answer voice.” For each one, I’ve written out an example of what a correct and an incorrect answer might sound like. Most of these are taken out of context from questions in the 5 lb Book of GRE Practice Problems.
The GRE Reading Comprehension “Right Answer Voice” is Bland and Hard to Disprove
Correct answers on the GRE tend to be vague or boring. They’ll be full of words like “may” and “generally” and “some” rather than words like “all” or “never.” The wrong answers tend to make bigger, more exciting claims that just aren’t quite backed up by the passage. Because the wrong answers on the GRE have to be provably wrong, they’re often written in simple declarative sentences: “It is exactly this way,” whereas correct answers tend to be written in a way that makes them more slippery and therefore difficult to disprove.
Example question: Which of the following expresses the main idea of the passage?
Right: A small set of non-human animals has been found to form social networks.
Wrong: Only humans can form social networks.
The GRE Reading Comprehension “Right Answer Voice” is Inoffensive
The GRE is written by people who value political correctness. You’ll never find correct answers that are offensive to an author, scholar, or group of people. If you can imagine a person being offended by an answer, it’s probably wrong.
Example question: Based on the information in the passage, which of the following would best explain Einstein’s motivation for stating that “God does not play dice with the universe”?
Right: Einstein did not believe that particles should be governed by probability as in a game of dice.
Wrong: Einstein’s religious beliefs did not allow him to fully understand the theory of quantum mechanics.
The GRE Reading Comprehension “Right Answer Voice” is Based on the Passage, Not on Common-Sense Knowledge
The GRE test writers very often plant a “common knowledge” trap—an answer choice that most folks know without ever reading the passage. That answer choice tends to be utterly unrelated to what the passage discusses, but perhaps it’s tempting because it feels familiar. If you notice blatantly obvious choices that clearly pull on outside knowledge rather than the passage itself, don’t pick them.
Example Question: Which of the following can be inferred from the passage?
Right: At least some individuals in Puerto Rico have expressed opposition to Puerto Rico becoming a U.S. State.
Wrong: There are currently 50 states in the United States of America.
You Try a Few!
Read each of these questions and do a little process of elimination. You’ll probably be able to rule out at least a few wrong answers for the reasons listed above. You might not be able to get all the way to the correct answer, but I bet you can get close. I’ve also written out my analysis of the choices (without reading any of these passages, I promise). If you do want to look up any of the original passages and questions, you can find them in the 5 lb Book.
5 lb. Book p.208 #72
The author of the passage would be most likely to agree with which of the following statements?
A) Free Riders cannot be blamed for their actions, because they are an inevitable part of any government.
B) Free rider problems are not worth worrying about, because they are an inevitable part of any government.
C) There are at least some situations in which the free rider problem should not be viewed as an inevitable part of government.
D) National defense is a perfect example of why free rider problems need to be stamped out as quickly as possible.
E) Free riders are morally at fault, and ought to be punished.
5 lb. Book p.218 #92
2. Which of the following most accurately states the author’s reason for citing the Copernicus and Brahe models of the solar system?
A) It shows that a theory without predictive power can never be tested and verified.
B) It reveals that some theories can have more or less of an “ad hoc” quality.
C) It shows that two different theories can never yield the same predictions for future events.
D) It is used to support the idea that a more complicated model will always fail to a simpler model.
E) It provides an example of when a theory can correctly predict future events but not offer the best explanation.
5 lb. Book p.194 #45
3. The passage implies which of the following?
A) Students can benefit from exposure to inaccurate accounts of history.
B) Students today prefer music to film.
C) Students today are functional illiterates.
D) Students today prefer charts to opinions.
E) Students today should not be exposed to political agendas.
Before I give you the answers, here is my analysis of the choices.
A and B both make the claim that this problem is ”an inevitable part of any government.” That’s a pretty big claim and would be very hard to prove. All it takes is one government that solves this problem to prove these false. Answer choice D calls this a “perfect example,” which also feels a little too strong for the GRE. Stating that they need to be “stamped out as quickly as possible” also sounds rash and judgmental—not the typical voice in which these passages are written. Choice E also makes a pretty big subjective claim, so it’s likely to be wrong. My guess is answer choice C because it’s such a small claim: “at least some situations” are an exception to the rule. This is much more bland and more difficult to disprove, compared to the other choices.
I can’t guess all the way on this one, but I can narrow it down to two. Answer choices A, C, and D all use extreme language. By using the words “never” and “always,” they open themselves up to be easily disproved. They’re almost certainly going to be wrong. Answer choices B and E both seem pretty good to me. B is nice because it only talks about “some theories.” And answer choice E just says that the author used this as an example of a very particular and un-extreme phenomenon. Without reading the passage, I’m stuck between those two choices, but I’m willing to bet B or E is correct.
Many of the choices here are both extreme and offensive. Take a look at choice C, for example. Any current or former student would feel hurt by that choice. “But I’m not a functional illiterate! Leave me alone!” So that choice is definitely going to be wrong. I also thought all of the choices from B through E were making bold, black-and-white claims that would be easily disproved. Surely some students don’t prefer film over music or charts over opinions. And answer choice E also feels a little subjective and moralistic. To state that students should not be exposed to political agendas is a value statement—not the carefully-worded, judgment-free kind of statement we typically see on the GRE. I’d be willing to bet the correct answer is A without ever reading this passage. It’s a mild claim. It’s not even stating students “will” benefit but that they “can” benefit. Who could argue with that?
After checking these in the answer key, it seems like my predictions were pretty close. Here are the actual correct answers:
How did you do?
Imagine How Well You’ll Do When You Start Reading Again
If you can learn to answer these questions without reading the passages, imagine how well you’ll do when you start reading them again. You’ll likely find that you start paying attention to wording and turns of phrase in a way that you weren’t before. Good luck with this GRE Reading Comprehension exercise. Happy studying! 📝
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Tom Anderson is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. He has a B.A. in English and a master’s degree in education. Tom has long possessed an understanding of the power of standardized tests in propelling one’s education and career, and he hopes he can help his students see through the intimidating veneer of the GRE. Check out Tom’s upcoming GRE courses here.