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How to Study for GMAT Reading Comprehension

Reading Comp. Facts

Fact: A typical GMAT Verbal Section will have four Reading Comprehension passages, among batches of SC & RC.  Each Reading Comprehension question has a batch of 3-4 questions with it.

Fact: “Short” Reading Comprehension passages are typically 200-250 words, and typically have 3 questions.  “Long” RC passages are typically 300-350 words, and typically have 4 questions.  A GMAT Verbal section usually has 3 Short passages and 1 Long passage, although in rare instances it could have two of each.

Fact: Passage may concern the natural and social science (e.g. from textbooks or journals), the humanities (e.g. from books or academic articles), or the business world (e.g. economics, sales, human resources, etc.)   In no case are you expected to have outside knowledge of what’s in the passage.

Fact: The primarily skills RC tests are (a) the ability to determine the main idea of a passage; (b) the ability to draw connections between facts and concepts; (c) the ability to extend the pattern, to see where the argument is heading.

Fact: The GMAT presents RC on a split screen.  On the left side is the passage: it will have a scroll bar if it’s long.  On the right side, one question at a time will appear.  You will always be able to see the passage in its entirety, but you can only see one question at a time.

Fact: Virtually all RC questions fall into one of the following six categories:

(a) find the main idea (this is almost ALWAYS one of the questions)

(b) supporting ideas/details — why did the author mention such-and-such?

(c) inferences — with which new statement would the author agree?

(d) analogical — applying information in the passage to a completely new and different situation

(e) logical structure — does author support a new idea? contrast two ideas? shoot down something traditionally accepted? etc. etc.

(f) tone — the emotional color with which the author presents the material — is the author enthusiastic? critical? optimistic? etc.


GMAT Reading Comprehension Strategies

Strategy #1: GMAT Reading Comprehension is not a speed reading contest!

Give yourself 2.5 minutes for short passages, and 3.5 minutes for long passages.  Every time you read a passage, set a timer for this time, so that you get used to it: you will find that these times let you read at a relaxed that allows for thorough comprehension, while still affording a minute per question.

Strategy #2: Map, don’t memorize!

When you read, your job is to determine (a) the main idea of the passage, and (b) the topic/function of each individual paragraph.  Create, as it were, a “map” of the passage, from which you can locate details if the questions address them.

You do not need to memorize the vivid details of, say, Hesseldorf’s new theory of the evolutionary changes in mammalian digestion at the onset of the Pleistocene; you just have to know: where does the passage go into detail about that factoid, so if a detail question arises, you can go back to that place and re-read.  Your goal is to read the whole passage once, at a relaxed pace, and re-read only specific detail passages as necessary.

Strategy #3: Take notes!

This is one strategy many people fight tooth and nail.  When you read RC passages, take notes on scrap paper.  Write down the main idea, in ten words or fewer (symbols & abbreviations that make sense to you are fine).  Write down the topic of each paragraph, in ten words or fewer.  This seems like it would take more time, but when you practice this skill and get efficient at it, it’s actually a time-saver overall.

On the real GMAT, you will get a erasable packet and dry-erase pens: many folks find this is helpful for calculations on the Quantitative section, and the principal use on the Verbal section is for taking notes on Reading Copmrehension questions.

Here’s an excellent way to see how good your notes are.  Read a passage, taking notes.  Then, without even looking at the questions, put that passage aside.  The next day, with just your notes and without rereading the passage, try to answer the questions: you probably won’t be able to answer detail questions, but if your notes are any good, main idea questions should be easy.

Strategy #4: Read the first question first

One suggested strategy is: before your read the passage, read the first question —- not the answer choices, good god! — but just the question.  That way, you will have it on your radar.  In particular, if the first question is a detail question, you will have your antennae up for that detail as you read.

Not everyone finds this helpful.  Experiment, and see what works best for you.

Strategy #5: Read!

Especially if RC is not your thing, then read every day.  Read hard challenging reading even outside your GMAT prep.  The Economist ( is, for a variety of reasons, probably the best weekly journal to read regularly.

For science reading, both Scientific American and National Geographic are excellent sources.  If you have a friend who majored in a discipline different from yours, ask to borrow a couple textbooks and ask for their recommendations of good chapters to read.  After you read it, your friend may even be willing to quiz you on the text.

Wikipedia is another virtually inexhaustible source of challenging reading.  Pick a famous scientist (e.g. Linus Pauling, Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock, etc.), follow the link to one of their discoveries or theories, and read that thoroughly.  Or, pick a famous historical figure whose name you’ve heard but about whom you know nothing (e.g. Cardinal Richelieu, Suleiman the Magnificent, Eleanor of Aquitaine, etc.) and read thoroughly about their role in history.  Or pick a discipline about which you know nothing, follow a link to one of the important ideas in that discipline, and read about it thoroughly.  There’s no end of cool new stuff to learn!!

See also

= The most important RC strategy

= Strategies for the six RC question types

= The “Secret Sauce” of RC success


Here’s a practice question to try out:

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+!

6 Responses to How to Study for GMAT Reading Comprehension

  1. David May 14, 2014 at 8:14 am #

    Hi Mike,
    Something that I would want to clarify about pacing. Short passages are to be read for 2.5mins, then for each of the 3 Q 1 min. This should total to 2.5mins + 3mins or the first min for the first Q is assumed to be already included in the 2.5mins while reading the passage?


    • Mike
      Mike May 14, 2014 at 7:56 pm #

      I’m happy to clarify. :-)
      The reading should take 2.5 minutes, not including the first question, then each question, including the first, should take a minute. For three RC questions, that’s 5.5 minutes total for them all from start to finish.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • David May 15, 2014 at 9:33 am #

        Hi Mike,
        Thanks for the clarification :)

        • Mike
          Mike May 15, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

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

  2. domenico July 16, 2012 at 1:39 am #

    I’m comfortable with the strategy to read the entire passage, even though do not focus on so much on details. In this way for me is more simple to find the main idea, the tone and the eventual role of a single paragraph AND have a better understanding of the whole picture.

    Suggesting strategy as to read the first and the last sentence of each paragraph for me is not so good due to the high risk to re-read the passage a second or a third time.

    Of course, everybody has its strategy ;)

    All the best.

    • Mike
      Mike July 16, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

      Domenico: I’m glad you found this helpful. Best of luck to you.
      Mike :-)

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