Tackling the Reading comprehension section of GMAT

The Verbal section of the GMAT will contain two written passages (each between 400 – 600 words long) followed by a series of questions. Passages can be about any
subject, but the most common themes are politics, history, science, business and the humanities. Most readers find the passages difficult because the subject matter is dry and obscure. Many are written in the passive voice and contain unpronounceable words. By design, no academic background offers an “edge” or greater likelihood of success in this section of the test. The material is purposely selected to test your reading comprehension, rather than your understanding of a specific subject area.

This ensures:
a) the passages do not require the reader to have any specialized knowledge in the subject area
b) everything you need to answer the questions is presented in the passage
The passages always use a formal, compact style. They are excerpted from academic journal articles, but are not printed verbatim. The original article is heavily edited to just one-quarter to one-third of its original length, retaining the formal style of the piece, but removing the introductory material, fillers and transitional phrases. Worse, passages are untitled and often start in the middle of an explanation or discussion, so the reader must jump in with no clear point of reference. The purpose of the section is to determine if you can quickly identify the structure, objective and logic of a long, difficult passage and apply the author’s premise to new situations. To succeed in the rigid timeframe, students must read with a different mindset than they use in most traditional coursework.
Here are the exact directions used on the exam:
Directions: Each selection in this test is followed by several questions. After reading the selection, choose the best response to each question and mark it on your answer sheet. Your replies are to be based on what is stated or implied in the selection.
Reading styles are subjective, as what works for one person may not work for another. Success with these passages depends on your individual style. We can’t recommend speed reading, which is designed for ordinary, non-technical material. Because passages are so dense, you can not skim over a single sentence without missing key information. You should read faster than normally, but not to the point that your comprehension suffers. Experiment to find your optimum pace. Some guides recommend that you read the questions first, then go back and read the passage. Sadly, few students will have enough time for that approach. In some cases, the questions and answer choices are longer than the actual passage! Take a few seconds at the beginning of the section and scope out the passages. Read the first line of each and determine which will be easiest for you and which will be hardest. Do the easiest one first. Don’t waste precious time on a dense, difficult passage. Rack up as many “easy” points as possible first, then return to the hardest questions.
The Five Questions
The key to performing well on the passages is not your particular reading technique, but in your familiarity with the types of possible questions. In general, there are only five question types explored on the reading comprehension test:
a) Main Idea
b) Details
c) Organization
d) Extension / Application
e) Attitude / Tone
As you become familiar with the different question types, you will gain an intuitive sense for the places from which they are likely to be drawn. You can then approach these questions quickly and efficiently. Generally, the order in which the questions are asked corresponds to the order in which the main issues are presented in the passage. Early questions should correspond to information given early in the passage, and so on.
a) Main Idea Questions
Main idea questions test your ability to identify and understand an author’s intent. The main idea is usually stated:
i) in the last (occasionally the first) sentence of the first paragraph ii) in last sentence of the entire passage.
Main idea questions are usually the first questions asked in the question set.
Some common main idea questions are:
Which of the following best expresses the main idea of the passage?
The primary purpose of the passage is to …
In the passage, the author’s primary concern is to discuss. ..
Which of the following would be an excellent title for the passage?
Main idea questions are usually not difficult. If you don’t catch the main idea after your first reading, review the first and last sentence of each paragraph. These will give you a quick overview of the passage.
Because main idea questions are relatively easy, the test writers try to obscure the correct answer by surrounding it with close answer-choices that either overstate or understate the author’s main point. Answers that stress specifics tend to understate the main idea, while choices that go beyond the scope of the passage tend to overstate the main idea. The correct answer to a main idea question will summarize the author’s argument, yet be neither too specific nor too broad. In most cases, the main idea of a passage is found in the first paragraph or in the final sentence of the entire passage.
b) Detail Questions
Detail questions refer to a minor point or to incidental information in the passage, but not to the author’s main point. These questions take various forms:
According to the passage. ..
In line 25, the author mentions….for the purpose of …
The passage suggests that which one of the following would….
The answer to a detail question must refer directly to a statement in the passage, not to something implied by it. When answering a detail question, find the point in the passage from which the question is drawn. Don’t rely on memory, as many tactics are used with these questions to confuse test takers. Not only must the correct answer refer directly to a statement in the passage, it must refer to the relevant statement. The correct answer will be surrounded by wrong choices which refer directly to the passage but don’t address the question. These choices can be tempting because they tend to be quite close to the actual answer.
Once you locate the sentence to which the question refers, you must read a few sentences before and after it to put the question in context. If a question refers to line 30, the information needed to answer it can occur anywhere from line 25 to 35. Even if you spot the answer in line 28, you should still read a few more lines to ensure you have the proper perspective.
c) Organization of the Passage
Because they are derived from diverse subject areas, passages can cover an infinite number of topics.
While main idea questions ask the purpose of the piece, organization questions ask how the author presents his ideas. While authors can theoretically use an endless number of writing techniques, most test passages use one of just three organizational styles:
i) Compare and contrast two positions
This technique simply develops two ideas and then explains why one is better than the other. Some common comparison phrases include “by contrast” or “similarly”.
Typical questions for these types of passages are:
According to the passage, a central distinction between a woman’s position and a man’s is:
In which of the following ways does the author imply that birds and reptiles are similar?
ii) Show cause and effect
The author demonstrates that a particular cause leads to a specific result. Sometimes this method introduces a sequence of causes and effects: A causes B, which causes C, which causes D, etc. Hence B is both the effect of A and the cause of C.
iii) State a position and then offer supporting evidence
This technique is common with opinionated passages. Many authors prefer the reverse order, where the supporting evidence is presented first and then the position or conclusion is stated.
Following are some typical questions for these types of passages:
According to the author, which of the following is required for one to become proficient with a computer?
Which of the following does the author cite as evidence that the species is dangerous?
d) Extension / Application Questions
Extension questions require you to go beyond what is stated in the passage, asking you to draw an inference, to make a conclusion, or to identify one of the author’s tacit assumptions. You may be asked to draw a conclusion based on the ideas or facts presented:
It can be inferred from the passage that. ..
The passage suggests that. ..
From this we can conclude that…..
Since extension questions require you to go beyond the passage, the correct answer must say more than what is stated in the passage. The correct answer to an extension question will not require a quantum leap in thought, but it will add significantly to the ideas presented in the passage.
While extension questions ask you to apply what you learned from the passage to derive new information about the same subject, application questions go one step further, asking you to apply what you have learned from the passage to a different or hypothetical situation.
The following are common application questions:
Which one of the following is the most likely source of the passage?
Which of the following is an appropriate title for this piece?
Which one of the following actions would be most likely to have the same effect as the author’s actions?
The author would most likely agree with which one of the following statements?
Which one of the following sentences would the author be most likely to use to complete the last paragraph of the passage?
To answer an application question, consider the author’s perspective. Ask yourself:
what is he arguing for?
what might make his argument stronger?
what might make it weaker?
Because these questions go beyond the passage, they tend to be the most difficult. They require you to pick up subtleties of the author’s attitude.
e) Attitude / Tone Questions
Tone questions discuss the writer’s attitude or perspective. Does he feel positive, negative or neutral? Does he give his own opinion or objectively present those of others? Before reading the answer choices, decide whether the writer’s tone is positive, negative or neutral. If you didn’t get a feel for the writer’s attitude on the first reading, check the adjectives used (they nearly always have a strong positive or negative connotation).
Beware of answer choices that contain extreme emotions. Passages are usually taken from academic journals, where strong emotions are considered inappropriate. The writers usually display opinions that are considered and reasonable, not spontaneous or off-the-wall. The tone or attitude of a passage closely parallels the main idea. If the author’s intent is to explain the reasons for abolishing slavery, the tone is explanatory or encouraging, not negative or discouraging. The correct answer will also be indisputable. The test writers NEVER allow the correct answer to be vague, controversial or grammatically questionable.
Key Words That Identify Potential Questions
Each passage contains about 400 – 700 words and only a few questions, ensuring that you will NOT be tested on most of the specific details. Your best reading strategy is to identify the places from which questions will most likely be drawn and concentrate your attention there.
Key, pivotal words indicate contrast, warning that the author is about to either make a U-turn or introduce a counter-premise (a concession to a minor point that weakens his case).
Common pivotal words include:
But, Although, In, Contrast, Even though, Nevertheless,However, Yet, Nonetheless, Except, Despite…
These words show where the author changes direction, providing natural places for questions to be drawn. The test writers form questions at these junctures to test whether you followed the author’s line of reasoning or got lost. Sentences containing pivotal words nearly ALWAYS contain the answer to a test question.
Handling Incorrect Answer Choices
One of the most difficult tasks in writing test questions is composing tempting, incorrect answer choices. In most cases, only two of the five choices will have any real merit. We’ve observed several common threads in the wrong answer choices that most test takers should consider. Be on the look-out for the following:
a) For main idea questions, incorrect choices use the wrong verb and focus on supporting details, rather than the main point of the passage. Incorrect choices also tend to either overstate or understate the author’s view. Beware of extreme choices, as they are often wrong. Correct answers tend to be rational, measured responses. Other tempting incorrect answer choice are “half-right, half-wrong”, incorporating some of the author’s view, but not a complete match. Other wrong answers pick a point of view that is inconsistent with the author’s.
b) On detail questions, incorrect answer choices distort the author’s words or are exact opposites of the correct answer.
c) For inference questions, incorrect choices distort the passage’s ideas and go beyond the scope of the passage. For application questions, wrong choices are not parallel or analogous to the situation in the passage.
d) Incorrect tone answers are overly emotional or the opposite of the correct answer. Some incorrect answers are odd combinations of adjectives that make no sense in real world applications, such as “detached ambivalence”, “enlightened apathy”, and “muffled denial”.
e) Sometimes incorrect answers are logically wrong. They misrepresent the author’s purpose or focus on the “what” rather than the “why” of the detail.
f) Watch for unusual or uncommon usage of words. Students sometimes overlook points in passages because a familiar word is used in an unfamiliar manner. An example is champion. As a noun, champion means a hero or accomplished person. Yet, a verb, champion means to support or advocate.
g) Be wary of extreme answers that contain “all or nothing” buzzwords such as must, always, impossible, never, cannot, each, every, totally, all, solely and only. Few passages will be written in such an absolute tone.