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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: Passages 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 (Reading for the GMAT—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:

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20 Responses to How to Study for GMAT Reading Comprehension

  1. Ellie August 29, 2016 at 4:01 pm #

    I’m studying for the GRE so I can retake it to improve my scores. (My last combined score was 316.) Elsewhere, you recommend that advanced GRE studiers use the GMAT Official Guide in the area of RC and SC. At the beginning of this article you list GMAT RC Facts. Do those facts hold for the GRE also?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert September 10, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

      Hi Ellie,

      The reading comprehension passages from the GMAT are very similar to those in the GRE, but the sentence completion questions from the GRE (SC) are NOT the same as the sentence correction (SC) questions in the GMAT. I’m not sure where you heard this, but please DO NOT study the GMAT SC questions for the GRE!

      The types of reading passages and questions are very similar between the two tests, but the facts given here have to do with the layout and structure of the questions on the GMAT exam, which is very different in structure to the GRE exam. For information about how the reading comprehension questions will be structured on the GRE, check out the Ultimate Guide to the GRE. For specific information on GRE reading comprehension strategy, check out our GRE blog 🙂

  2. Nitin August 23, 2016 at 6:16 am #

    Hi! I wanted to ask you a question related to the number of questions in a GMAT passage. I understand it might either be 3 or 4. While taking the GMAT exam, will the number of questions linked to the passage be shown on the screen along with the passage? Or will I know whether there is a 4th question or not only after answering the 3rd question?

    I am asking this question to understand the time constraints.


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert September 10, 2016 at 5:45 pm #

      Hi Nitin,

      You won’t know exactly how many questions there are until you click ‘next’ and see a question unrelated to the passage–they won’t be numbered to show how many you have per passage.

  3. Shahzad June 8, 2015 at 9:45 pm #

    Hello mr mike
    I am feeing very trouble in reading comprehension. How can I improve my reading and understanding . Can it be improve after practicing tough comprehension paragraphs again and again

  4. John September 21, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

    I’m new to this, just wanted to know if the RC questions in order? Eg/ you answer all of the short passage questions…

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike September 21, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

      Dear John,
      My friend, I would like to answer, but I am not sure that I understand your question. When a RC passage appears on the GMAT, 3-4 questions will appear with that passage, and you do all those questions at same time, one after the other. The passage will be on the right side of the screen, and the questions, one at a time, will be on the left side of the screen. On a GMAT Verbal section, you do all the questions associated with a single RC passage, and then the test will give you a mix of individual SC and CR questions until you get to the next RC passage.
      Does this answer your question?
      Mike 🙂

      • John September 23, 2014 at 7:50 pm #

        Thanks Mike, this is what I am looking for. I was doing the practice OG (create your own) and the RC questions were all over the place. I finished one question after reading a passage which felt weird. I don’t mind a mix of SC and CR but definitely not RC in an unordered format.

        Now that you have clarified, at least I know what I am up for.

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike September 23, 2014 at 11:05 pm #

          Dear John,
          You are quite welcome. 🙂 I’m glad you found this helpful. Best of luck to you in your studies!
          Mike 🙂

      • Amit Mistry September 4, 2016 at 1:05 am #

        Thanks Mike and John. I was just looking for the same question as posted by John while preparing for RC questions in online tests!

  5. 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 MᶜGarry
      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 MᶜGarry
          Mike May 15, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

          You are quite welcome, my friend. Best of luck to you!
          Mike 🙂

          • Shahzad June 8, 2015 at 9:41 pm #

            Hello mr mike
            I am from Pakistan I am facing a lot of problems regarding to reading comprehension. I am not an English speaker so how I can improve my reading comprehension and speed. Can it be improve after practicing and practicing tough paragraphs.

            • Rita Neumann
              Rita Kreig June 9, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

              Hi Shahzad!

              Take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone – many of our Magoosh students face this same challenge. 🙂

              Reading in English and practicing tough paragraphs can definitely help you improve your reading comprehension. We also offer free Magoosh English prep, which can help you improve your English grammar. And, for more free English grammar and vocabulary help, I’d recommend reviewing our Magoosh TOEFL Blog, which is devoted to helping non-native English speakers!

              I hope you find these resources helpful! Thanks for reading our blog. 🙂

              All the Best,

  6. 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 MᶜGarry
      Mike July 16, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

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

      • abhishek March 9, 2016 at 12:01 am #

        Hi mike,
        sometimes i didn’t understand the full passage what it exactly try to convey.what is the solution?

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert March 18, 2016 at 1:47 pm #

          Hi Abhishek,

          I cannot stress enough how important it is to read as MUCH as possible. This will improve your knowledge of vocabulary in context as well as your comprehension. As you read, make flashcards of the vocabulary words that you don’t know. Pause every so often, and recap the main message in your own words. Here are some suggested reading materials:

          GMAT Reading List
          GMAT Reading Practice: What to Read

          You should also take a look at our idiom flashcards. Together with that high-level reading practice, they’re fantastic tools for bringing up your verbal score.

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