GRE Strategy for Approaching Reading Comprehension Passage

Reading Comprehension passages are a very important question type in the GRE. Considering the timeline that the GRE must be completed in, one must adopt an efficient strategy to read the passage and answer the questions in a timely manner.

While approaching the RC questions one must read the passage twice. The first reading entails a quick run through of the passage to grasp the overall meaning and theme of the passage. The second reading is done while approaching the questions and looking at specific lines and paragraphs within the entire passage to find the right answer choice.

Below is a strategy that you can adopt for the first reading. It’s called the principle of active and efficient reading. As the name suggests one needs to read the passage in an active manner so that the main points of the entire passage and each paragraph is well understood. The seven principles for active, efficient reading are:

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  1. Engage with the passage – The GRE picks up passages from different subject areas. Some of these subjects maybe of your liking and others may not. But the attitude that you must adopt toward any kind of passage is that of interest. You need to tell yourself that the passage is so interesting and you are going to learn something new from it. This attitude will help you adopt a positive outlook toward the passage and hence you will be able to better engage with the passage. No passage requires you to have outside knowledge of the subject. For example, if you haven’t studied astrophysics and there is a passage on it, don’t worry, the passage has all the information you need to answer the questions.
  2. Look for the simple story – When you are reading the passage for the first time, try to think of it in the form of a simple story. A good way to do this is to write the story in a few words, in a simple and brief manner. At the level of processing, this exercise helps you to grasp the main meaning of the passage and the important turns in the passage. For example, the first paragraph may introduce the topic, perhaps a new hypothesis, the second will have evidence in support of the hypothesis and the third paragraph will have information that weakens the hypothesis. You must be able to put this understanding down in short and simple words. But don’t forget the GRE will not be giving passages in a simple manner. You need to look out for twists in the passage as there will surely be some. So, look for the simple story along with some twists in it.
  3. Link to what you already know – We all have immense amount of information stored in our memory and when you read new material a lot of this latent information is activated. You must make use of this natural process of memory activation and link the material that you read on the GRE passage with the information that you already have. For example, you come across a passage that tells you about sea weed. Maybe on your last vacation you saw these sea weeds on the beach and you remember how they look, what the color was, you may have seen some creature eat it etc. You can link the information presented in the passage with the memory you have of sea weed inorder to form a connection and bring about interest in the subject matter of the passage.
  4. Unpack the beginning – The first paragraph of any passage is very important as it gives you an idea on what the passage is about. Spend time to understand the first paragraph. Go slow with reading the first paragraph and make sure you have understood it well before moving further. Once you understand the beginning of the passage, it becomes easier for you to understand the structure and tone of the passage, and the role of each paragraph in the context of the entire passage.
  5. Link to what you have just read – Reading comprehension tests you on your critical thinking skills which entails the readers understating the entire passage and the connection of each line and paragraph with other lines and paragraphs. That means you cannot just read the passage passively. You need to actively read the passage to understand the role of each sentence and how it relates to other sentences. And the role of each paragraph and how it relates to other paragraphs.
  6. Pay attention to details – Even though the first reading will not require you to get too much into the details but you must atleast know where the details of the passage are. This will help you later when you are attempting questions and are required to look up at details to answer the questions. The point is to know where specific information lies in the passage.
  7. Pick up the pace – After you have grasped the first paragraph you must pick up the pace and browse through the following paragraph with an aim to understand the main points of each paragraph and to know where specific information lies. Do not get bogged down by the details of the passage, just go through it quickly to know what information is placed where in the passage. This will make sure that you are not spending too much time on reading the passage.

Overall the aim of the first reading is to understand the topic, main idea, tone and structure of the passage along with understanding where specific information lies, incase you need to go back when attempting a question that asks you for specific details.

As a result of this active and efficient reading you must be able to come up with three key points of the passage:

  • The point of the entire passage which is the main idea of the passage. Every passage is written to communicate a certain point, you must gauge the purpose of the passage through your first reading.
  • The point of each paragraph. Each paragraph has a certain role within the entire passage. You must determine the purpose of each paragraph through your first reading.
  • Other important information. Passages will also give you information on other aspects of the subject. You must determine critical information from unimportant specific details.

The main aim for creating this outline is to make sure you understand the passage. The outline is also called a passage map. It’s a good practice to jot down these points to form a solid understanding of the passage. It helps later when you are attempting to answer questions.

Each passage on the GRE has four parts to it. They are:

  1. The point which is the main purpose of the passage. It’s the reason why the passage is written. It communicates the main purpose of the entire passage. Every passage will have a point to it.
  2. The background is the contextual information that helps one to understand the point of the passage. It maybe facts or opinions or simply contextual information.
  3. Support is information that provides evidence in favor of the point of the passage. The background and the support are sometimes the same.
  4. Implication is information that is not directly stated in the passage but can be inferred from the information given in the passage. Implication may not always be present.

The above pointers are critical to understanding the passage and getting the best out of the limited time that you are given on the GRE.

Now we will look at a strategy that will help you to arrive at the right answer. There are three steps to it:

1. Identify the Question

2. Find the Support and Predict an Answer

3. Eliminate and find a match

1. Identify the Question: When you are looking at a question for the first time, just focus on the question do not read the answer choices at this time. There are two things you need to look at. First is the question format; is the question multiple choice select one or multiple choice select all or select in passage question.

In a multiple choice select one, you will be given five answer choices and you have to select one correct answer.

For a multiple choice select all question you will be given three answer choices and there is a possibility that all the three answer choices are correct. You need to gauge how many out of the three answer choices are correct for the question; all three, two or only one.

For a select in passage question you will have to mark the answer in the passage itself. There will be one correct sentence in the passage, which when you select will be highlighted.

Second thing to look out for when you read the question stem is the question type. Following are the question types that you will come across on the GRE.

  • Main Idea
  • Structure-based
  • Detail
  • Inference
  • Extrapolation (context outside passage)
  • Passage tone and style

Understanding the question type makes it easier for you to look at the right place for your answer. If it is a main idea question, you may already know the answer based on your first reading. If it is a detail question you will know which paragraph to consider for the answer. This way you can avoid rereading the entire passage and only look at that part of the passage which will provide you with your answer. Therefore, it is important to read the passage for the first time in an active and efficient manner. This helps in saving time and navigating to the right part of the passage when looking for your answer.

2. Find the Support and Predict an Answer: Once you have determined the question format and the question type look at the outline that you have created for the passage, find evidence to answer the question and then predict an answer.

This is where your understanding and outline of the passage will help you. If it is a general question asking you about the purpose of the passage you will look at the point of the passage. If it is a detail question then you can look at the relevant paragraph where the answer lies and predict an answer.

3. Eliminate and find a match: Finally, you must look at the answer choices given and eliminate those options that are wrong. Wrong answer choices will have extreme words in it or they may have words that are picked up from the passage just to make it look relevant. With practice, you will be able to determine the right answer from the wrong one. Among the answer choices find the one that matches with your predicted answer. Once you find this recheck for evidence in the passage or the passage map that you create for yourself.

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