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GMAT Reading Comprehension Technique: Read Carefully Once

GMAT test takers have a variety of ideas and suggestions about how to tackle the challenge of GMAT Reading Comprehension.  Some like to skim, or to speed read, or to read the first paragraph carefully and skim the rest.  Perhaps there are individual test takers for whom each of those is a valid approach.  For most people, though, I think there are three words that summarize the core of the RC strategy that will be the most successful for the widest variety of test takers.  At Magoosh, we recommend: read carefully once.

 

Basics of GMAT Reading Comprehension

Just as a reminder.  Your GMAT Verbal section will have 41 questions, which will be split approximately equally into the three question types: Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, and Reading Comprehension —- about 13-14 of each.  The RC questions, obviously, will be “clumped” around passages.  A “short” passage (200-250 words) typically has 3 questions, and a “long” passage (300-350 words) typically has 4 questions.  On your GMAT section, you most likely will see three “short” RC passages and one “long” passage, although you could see two of each.

 

Reading the RC passage

What we recommend at Magoosh is: take time to read the passage — actually to read it.  This would be 2.5 minutes for a short passage and 3.5 minutes for a long passage.  From now on, in all your GMAT RC practice, set a timer when you read to convince yourself that these times are, in fact, ample for digesting a passage.  GMAT RC is not about speed reading.  It is not about a mad rush through a passage.  It is about actually reading in precisely the way you will have to read articles and memos once you have your MBA and are out working in some management position.  You want to be able to read it once and get what you need.  Yes, you may have to go back and re-read a specific part to answer a detail question, but your first reading should be enough to give you the layout of the whole passage.

You goal is in reading is to follow the argument and understand it, but not to memorize.  Map, don’t memorize!  As you are learning, the practice of  note-taking can help you develop this absolutely crucial skill.  Students resist practicing with note-taking, thinking it will take more time, but in the long run, mastering the skill of  “map don’t memorize” through note-taking is one of the biggest time-savings on the entire GMAT.

What notes do you take?  Write down the main idea, preferably in ten words or fewer.  Feel free to use arrows, symbols, any shorthand code that makes sense to you.  Write down the main idea of the passage very briefly, and write down just as briefly what each paragraph is about.  This is your “map” of the passage.  Eventually, you will be able to dispense with the physical notes and do this entirely in your head.  This is  important to practice: DO NOT plan on doing on mapping a passage the first time on test day.  Practice note-taking every time you read a GMAT RC passage, until you can seamlessly create a mental map every single time.

Here is one excellent test of your note-taking ability. One day, read a passage, at the relaxed speed we recommend, and take notes on it.  Put those aside.  A day, or a couple days, later pull out just those notes, not the passage itself, and try to answer the question from the notes.  Of course, you will not be able to answer every question, but from your notes, you should be able to answer any “main idea” question easily, and for detail questions, you should have a good idea about where you would re-read in the passage to find that specific information.  Over time, you can perform this same practice with your “mental maps” — read it once and set it aside —-  maybe not a day later, but a little later, say, after a couple math problems —- then without looking back at the passage at all, answer a main idea question.   Practice this way, and you will become someone who dispatches batches of RC question with lightning efficiency.

 

Summary

Read the GMAT RC passage once.  Read it carefully, for understanding.  Take notes, to learn how to extract a main idea and create a map of the flow of the passage, and use your map to locate details you need.  You can practice right now on this free question.

1) http://gmat.magoosh.com/questions/3623

 

About the Author

Mike McGarry is a Content Developer for Magoosh with over 20 years of teaching experience and a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard. He enjoys hitting foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Follow him on Google+!

28 Responses to GMAT Reading Comprehension Technique: Read Carefully Once

  1. Ori November 15, 2014 at 7:13 am #

    Hi Mike,

    I’ve never taken notes while reading RC passages. I have always thought that’s a waste of time. But everybody keeps recommending note-taking strategy. Since, my performance on RC questions is very low, I started using this strategy, but it’s a little bit annoying to me. It seems that I struggle when I take notes. It takes more effort, thinking and time to take notes. I start hating this note-taking. Do you think this strategy is not for everybody? Maybe for some people like me it doesn’t work. What do you think?

    Do you think I should continue struggling with note-taking and one day I will like it and it will pay off? Also do you think it’s possible to practice RC while taking notes, but in the real exam not to do so?Please note that I have 1 month left to my real exam.

    Thanks!

    • Mike
      Mike November 15, 2014 at 7:37 am #

      Dear Ori,
      I’m happy to respond, my friend. :-) You are in the stage of learning, and when you are learning, yes, note-taking is arduous and time-consuming. If you give up, you basically will return to your low performance in RC. If you keep pushing forward, it will be hard, because you are building neural circuitry, but if you can practice it so much that you get used to it, you will arrive at a new level. I am going to urge you to work on your attitude. If you resent this technique, or harbor negative emotions against it, you will not get the full benefit. My friend, believe in yourself. Believe in your potential. Welcome anything that will catalyze the emergence of your highest potential. Be courageous in embracing the difficult path that leads to a better you.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  2. Anna October 15, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    Hi Mike,

    I am a non-native speaker. In RC part, it takes me very long time to understand the passage. Since I start to train myself really carefully read once, my accuracy rate does go up to 90%-100%. But the issue is, this carefully once reading takes me too long… eg. the question linked from this article, for me i need to use about 6 minutes to finish the passage reading. And for some long passage in OG, I need to take 10 min to got understand what it says. This time does not include the time to answer the question afterwards. But then, my question answer is about 1 minute for each, and almost correct. I am totally lost how I can improve the reading speed.

    Looking forward to expert’s advice…

    Kind regards,

    Anna

    • Mike
      Mike October 15, 2014 at 10:38 am #

      Dear Anna,
      I’m sorry to hear about your struggles, and I am happy to respond! :-)
      First of all, I don’t know whether you have already taken the TOEFL: even if you have, you may still find it helpful to read the free Magoosh TOEFL blog:
      http://magoosh.com/toefl/
      If you still have to take the TOEFL, you will find the Magoosh product helpful. In fact, if you purchase the Magoosh GMAT product, we will give you the Magoosh TOEFL product for only $49 for six months (or $29 for one month).
      Unfortunately, there is no way to improve your reading speed without good old-fashioned practice, practice, practice. You need to immerse yourself in English as much as possible. You need to read challenging works in English every single day. See this blog for recommendations about what to read:
      http://magoosh.com/gmat/2012/gmat-reading-list/
      Force yourself to fight through a few 1000+ word passages every single day, even some 2000+ word passages, so that GMAT passage seem short by comparison. When you read, you must be diligent: write down every word or phrase that is not totally familiar, and drill these on flashcards until you own them completely. Don’t let a single word or phrase pass without nailing it down. If you practice assiduously like this, every single day, you will improve over time.
      Does all this make sense? Best of luck to you!
      Mike :-)

      • Anna October 15, 2014 at 8:11 pm #

        Thank you very much Mike!

        I will practice in the way you guide.

        Kind regards,

        Anna

        • Mike
          Mike October 15, 2014 at 9:38 pm #

          Dear Anna,
          You are quite welcome! I wish you the very best of good fortune in your studies!
          Mike :-)

  3. Sagnik Baksi June 2, 2014 at 10:38 am #

    I just practiced RC and it took me 75 minutes to complete 31 questions (in the RC section) is that good or bad?

    • Mike
      Mike June 2, 2014 at 11:16 am #

      Dear Sagnik,
      If this includes all the time to read all the passages, that’s very good. If this is simply the time to answer the questions without counting the time to read the passages, then this is somewhat slow. In fact, when you read thoroughly, you should be able to complete RC questions in about half the time.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • Sagnik June 2, 2014 at 4:42 pm #

        Yeah this includes the time to read the passages, I got 20/31 so I have to improve (practicing from the OG 13, but I am confident I can do so). Thanks for your reply

        • Mike
          Mike June 2, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

          Dear Sagnik,
          You are quite welcome, my friend. Best of luck to you!
          Mike :-)

  4. David May 21, 2014 at 12:08 am #

    Hi Mike,
    In the real GMAT, is it possible to use search function for reading comprehension? I assume this is not possible but I’d like to hear from our experts anyway.

    Thanks!

    • Mike
      Mike May 22, 2014 at 10:03 am #

      David,
      I’m happy to respond. :-)

      That’s a fantastic question, and the answer is: NO, not at all. It’s funny — I think we are all spoiled now, because whenever we read anything on a computer, whether a Word Doc or on the Web, we just take for granted that we will be able to search for individual terms. In this respect, the GMAT RC hearkens back to old-school hard copy reading — a newspaper, a magazine, a printed report. Sometimes still, in the modern business world, you get either a hard copy or some kind of text-as-image file that you can’t search, and you need to be able to digest it quickly and go back to locate the detail you need. The GMAT RC is preparing you for those scenarios.

      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • David May 22, 2014 at 10:12 pm #

        I expected that big ‘no’ hahaha
        In this case I would prefer going back to non computer age as I wold be able to encircle interesting words on the passage itself. Going back to reality, mapping it out on my brain seems more plausible.

        A follow-up question Mike, I see that in Magoosh practise questions, the passage is given then a bunch of questions follow the passage. However, since I am practising all of the RC pool in Magoosh, sometimes I get to see the passage more than once, say in the first session taken at Monday, then in the third session taken at Wednesday (I do practise 10 Q at a time). Then I would read the passage at least once every session, which would bloat out the total time reading the passage from 2.5 mins to 5 mins. If in the real GMAT, questions relating to a single passage would not be consecutive, then it might be troublesome remembering the passage, say the first Q is at #20 then the next Q is at #35.

        • Mike
          Mike May 23, 2014 at 10:31 am #

          David,
          Yes. It’s funny: we have tried to make the Magoosh question bank as flexible as possible, so folks can use it however they like. It’s the old paradox: if you give people whatever they want, sometimes it’s not what they want! For example, a consequence of all this choice is: when you fix the number of questions you are practicing, say 10 questions, the program will obediently cut off after that 10th question, which may be the first or second questions of a new RC passage, and then when you start a new practice session a few days later, the final unused questions of that same passage are still unanswered, and the program gives you the same passage again because those leftover questions are still unanswered. That’s why you see the same passage twice.
          One way to avoid this would be, rather than fixing the number of RC questions beforehand, simply leave it unlimited, and work through all the questions of, say, three complete RC passages. In other words, first of all, consciously decide on number of RC passages, rather than number of questions, for that particular sitting. Leave “number of questions” at “no limit” on the Practice page, and simple keep track yourself of how many passages you have done. If you have decided you are going to do, say, three passages in one sitting, then when a new, fourth passage comes up, simply end the practice sessions there and then without reading or answering even the first question — that way, that next complete passage will be waiting for you, pristine and fully unanswered, at your next practice session.
          This is NOT an issue if you take the Magoosh practice GMAT, and it most certainly is NOT an issue on GMAT PowerPrep or the real GMAT. In a full 41-question 75-minute computer-designed Verbal section, you will always get the 4 passages, and the the individual RC questions for any passage will always be consecutive — the passage will never “disappear” and then come back. That just doesn’t happen in a single test session. In a full 41-question Verbal section, the test is always designed so that the questions of an individual RC passage are contiguous. The problem comes only when it’s not a computer-designed 41-question session, but instead just an individualized practice session in which the student himself is choosing the number of questions. It’s the very fact that the student has a choice that is wholly responsible for this issue, if that makes any sense. Understand, from our perspective the the deep paradox here: we have designed Magoosh to be full of choices, so folks can completely individualize their own study processes, but the only thing we can’t do is shield people from the natural unavoidable consequences of their own choices: in other words, when we let people do whatever they want, sometimes, it’s not what they want. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
          I hope all this is helpful. The big idea is (1) this issue is not at all a problem on the real GMAT, and (2) by choosing number of passages, rather than number of questions, you can avoid it in your individualized practice.
          Please let me know if you have any further questions.
          Mike :-)

          • David May 24, 2014 at 2:48 am #

            Hi Mike,
            Thanks for the clarification, it’s not a big deal with Magoosh practise facility, I’m ok with the wide variety of options available. Just had a thought about the real GMAT.

            Magoosh is a great product by the way :)

            • Mike
              Mike May 24, 2014 at 4:34 pm #

              David,
              You are quite welcome. Best of luck to you, my friend.
              Mike :-)

  5. sonia May 4, 2014 at 9:10 am #

    Mike – is it good or bad to take notes (Just brief title for each paragraph or may be some lines describing each para)of an RC passage during the GMAT. As one can forget what each paragraph talked about when we jump on to questions.
    OR is it not recommended because of the amount of time taking notes could consume, thus – what I see people recommending is during practicing RC – take notes, but come up with a habit of taking mental notes? Is taking mental notes recommended because you can always look back to the para and see what its talking about?

    • Mike
      Mike May 4, 2014 at 11:45 am #

      Sonia,
      Note-taking is a valuable skill on the GMAT RC, but it can only be recommended with a few caveats. First of all, if you ever get into the habit of writing complete sentence notes, the practice will not save you time. You have to be skilled at coming up with a combination of verbal abbreviations, arrows, stars, emoticons, etc., so that you can jot done a meaning in as few marks as possible. For example, the tilde (~) is a logical abbreviation for “not” — that’s a handy one to know. The words “not increasing” could be abbreviated, for example, as a tilde and an up-arrow. You have to practice, practice, practice, so the habit of abbreviating with quick notes becomes almost automatic. the GMAT RC passages you read will probably not provide enough practice: you need to practice while doing outside reading, reading that you are doing to improve your RC skills. If you practice consistently, so that you become efficient, then note-taking can be a valuable time-saver on the GMAT RC. You will probably find that the process of thinking about the notes and writing them automatically helps you to remember the passage more clearly.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • sonia May 4, 2014 at 11:56 am #

        Great. Thanks Mike! As always your responses are so helpful. Yes! per your recommendations in your earlier replies I have started Reading!! – NYT, etc. Thanks much!!

        • Mike
          Mike May 4, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

          Sonia,
          You are quite welcome. Best of luck to you, my friend.
          Mike :-)

  6. Rahul Sehgal April 7, 2014 at 3:43 pm #

    Mike – Great article as always. I am hitting an error on trying to check the free question.

    It gives me an error that the question is not available at this time. Can you please check when you have a minute ?

    Thanks,
    Rahul

    • Mike
      Mike April 7, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

      Dear Rahul,
      I’m sorry. That was a link to a question we retired a long time ago. I replaced that with a link to a live question. It should work now.
      Mike :-)

  7. domenico October 18, 2012 at 1:56 am #

    I use this strategy from the first time. Is impossible to tackle the most difficult RC passage without understand he entire situation. This is a test about logic, if was a test about reading pieces of information, then it was not the GMAT.

    The Gmat prepare people that handle all the information at end, and understand the things deeply, how you could achive this statement, this goal only reading part of the information in front of you ??

    it doesn’t make sense at all.

    Read carefully to understand much deeper. ;)

    • Mike
      Mike October 18, 2012 at 11:57 am #

      Domenico: with all due respect, your objections do not make sense to me. In this post, I am recommending that GMAT takers read the WHOLE passage, not only part of it; moreover, I don’t recommend skimming the whole, but rather, reading the whole thing mindfully and carefully, and absorbing all the logic of its argument. I am recommending one methodical reading to understand and master the content of the paragraph. I’m not at all sure what gave you the impression you conveyed.
      Mike :-)

      • Domenico October 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

        is weird. may be my words have been misunderstood.

        I said the same thing: it is important to understand the whole picture and read the entire passage, non only part of it or pieces of information (i.e.: read the first and last paragraph or simply scan the passage).

        I fully agree with you thoughts.

        Thanks :)

        • Mike
          Mike October 18, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

          Very good. Best of luck to you, my friend.
          Mike :-)

  8. Sourav October 5, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    Fully agree.

    • Mike
      Mike October 5, 2012 at 11:16 am #

      Excellent. Best of luck to you!
      Mike :-)


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