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How to Improve on GRE Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension is probably the most difficult section to improve on. Even when improvements occur, they occur slowly. Many become discouraged—and rightly so. After all, there are few sections in which you can still feel flustered and perplexed even after reading the explanation. Perhaps my number one piece of advice on this matter: don’t give up.

There are of course more specific pieces of information that can help you improve on Reading Comprehension. This advice is aimed not at somebody who is just starting off (though it is relevant as well), but for those who feel they’ve hit a plateau.

You may have even applied my other advice: read widely from publications noted for their high-quality prose. Doing this will help you strengthen your reading brain. But to get over the hump, you will want to apply the strategies below.


Practice, as much as possible, using official material

Content-wise nothing beats practicing with actual GRE questions. The style and tone of the passage, the why questions and answer choices are worded, and the subtlety between the correct answer and the incorrect answers can only be found in actual questions.


Know why the wrong answers are wrong

The wrong answers are the soul of the Reading Comprehension question. That may sound odd, like I’m trying to channel Shakespeare, but let me elaborate. Oftentimes, you may know the general answer to a question. That is not what the GRE is really testing. It is testing whether you can tell the difference between an answer choice that is almost right and one that is clearly right. Indeed, while sifting through the verbiage of the answer choices, you are truly employing your critical thinking skills.

Only by having a strong sense of why the correct answer is correct and the incorrect answer incorrect will you truly have mastered a question.


Re-do passages

Many times students balk at doing the same reading passages: ‘I’ve done that one before.’ Unless you have the photographic memory of an autistic savant, you’ll probably have forgotten most, if not all, of a passage you read six weeks ago.

Secondly, it is not about getting questions right. It is about knowing why the correct answer is correct and the wrong answer wrong (as I just noted above). The chances that you remember the nuances between answer choices are slight to none. Thus each time you go through the answer is a fresh opportunity to exercise your analytical muscles.


Be aware of your propensities for mistakes

Often there is a pattern to your mistakes. It could be inference questions in which you infer too much. It can be missing a single word in the passage that makes all the difference. It could be misinterpreting answer choices. Anticipating these mistakes can help you greatly.


About the Author

Chris Lele has been helping students excel on the GRE, GMAT, and SAT for the last 10 years. He is the Lead Content Developer and Tutor for Magoosh. His favorite food is wasabi-flavored almonds. Follow him on Google+!

22 Responses to How to Improve on GRE Reading Comprehension

  1. Sunny_K April 17, 2014 at 10:02 am #

    Hi Chris,

    My question pertains to the analyzing and reviewing aspect. Like you mentioned, I think its important to redo passages and figure out exactly what I’m doing wrong instead of doing more and more passages.

    So I redid passages which I got wrong by writing notes as to what I inferred from the answer options. About 50% of these were reading errors which i got right on the second attempt. However, when I compared the other 50% answers that I got wrong AGAIN, most of my notes for the correct option said (outside the scope of passage) or (incorrect assumption) – which basically means i can’t get my head around these passages anyway!

    This has given me immense cause for worry, with my GRE just a couple of weeks away. Please advise as to what I should be doing for the remainder of the period..

    Many thanks!

  2. Kailash October 3, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    I am Kailash. I have been practicing from Magoosh since September 1st. I have noticed that whenever I speed up I end up getting incorrect answers. But at the same time I am extremely slow whenever I get things right. For eg. 10 reading comprehension questions took me 35 minutes in a stretch and I got 8 correct. This included both long and short passages. Now to increase my speed w/o losing accuracy should I practice more on GRE RCs or should I try reading articles with a time target ?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 4, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

      Hi Kailash,

      To improve on speed, you might have to improve on retention first. What I mean is to speed up your reading you have to practice picking up on understanding more of the passage your first time around. One way to do so is to make a quiz summary in your head after each paragraph. As you read, anticipate what is going to come next and make note of any salient points. Next, when you go through the questions, practice on thinking about the answer in your own words before you try to answer the question. Many students spend too much time being confused by the answer choices because they haven’t sufficiently thought the question through.

      Basically, my guess is that is why you are taking a long time on the passages. Reading articles should help with your read speed, but it is important that you make mini-summaries of them as you go along.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Asa August 2, 2013 at 6:30 am #

    Hi there Chris,

    I’m an avid reader since childhood, subscribe to Harvard Business Review, the New Yorker, New Scientist since decades, and have a medical degree. Reading comprehension (RC) clearly is – as you state in this blog post – more about “figuring out the game” than actually understanding the text. I get irritated and a bit obnoxious as I think they’re often extremely illogical and can argue as to why another answer is just as correct. (I’d like to test GRE-test-makers, and people like you on blind RC’s…) Anyway, I do realize there is “ETS-GRE-logic” to the RC. I just received a 5,5 on the essays and a V 162, and I KNOW that the points I missed on the verbal section was from the RCs. Thus I’m now focusing on these.

    In your text- and video explanations it would be really helpful if you could give more generalized/logical explanations as to why one answer is more correct than the other and not just repeat what one can get from reading the text. I’m having a hard time finding practice material for RC that a) gives the core of the “right” thinking b) doesn’t take too much of my time; less is more…!

    Thanks in advance.

    Kind regards,

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

      Hi Asa,

      Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. We are deluged with comments, and for some reason your well-written/thoughtful comment got lost in the mix. Even though it has been two months, I do want to get back to you.

      As you mentioned, there is a “game” involved, and it is important to master that game. I usually tell my highly intelligent SAT students–the one’s who come up with a brilliant defense of why their wrong answer is right–is that they should try to look at the right answer and see what makes it right–and not just right but unassailably right. Often times, they don’t debate the validity of the right answer, but believe there wrong answer is equally legitimate. It is finding that little “rotten spot to the fruit” as I put it that makes that answer incorrect. By learning the “game”, i.e., what makes a right answer right and a wrong (though often very tempting) answer wrong, is the key.

      Going forward, I will try to make sure that each answer choice has a better “big picture” reason for being wrong. I want to make sure that there aren’t any debatable answer choices (which is a challenge–but our excellent support team is always there to help).

      Hope that helps, and again, sorry your comment got lost in the shuffle :)

  4. shuca October 12, 2012 at 12:59 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for your helpful tips on how to improve on GRE Reading Comprehension!! RC section scares me a lot; I am a non-native speaker and I bet the improvements will show even more slowly than it would for native speakers. I am doing the best I can to prepare for it by memorizing vocabulary and reading some passages for 10-20 minutes every day, but I feel like not growing up using this language will still put me behind a lot of other test-takers.

    Anyhow, I have a question about how to best utilize practice tests. As you said above, I think re-doing passages is important, but I’m wondering how I should tackle the reading the first time around. I know for a fact that I will encounter A LOT of words in the passage that I do not understand. If the vocabulary is hindering my comprehension so much that I am not even able to grasp the general idea of what the passage is about, should I go ahead and look up words in the passage before tackling the questions? (And when I say “tackling the questions”, I mean “reading the questions but not reading the answer choices yet”, as I see in so many places it is suggested that test-takers try to come up with their answers first so they are not tricked by ETS.) Or should I try to refrain from looking up too many words, and use that opportunity to improve my skill of guessing words meanings in context? After all, latter option will be closer to the situation I will find myself in on the actual test day (i.e. me without access to dictionaries and completely lost as to what the passages are about) so I feel like I should be mocking that situation when I take the practice test. But I also feel like there is no point of answering the questions if I have no idea what the passage means.

    What do you think? I see both pros and cons in either approach, and I am unable to decide which one I should go with. I also have the same question about answer choices too – should I look up the vocabulary if I see too many words in answer choices that I do not know, or should I try to guess on the first try?

    I would appreciate it if you could tell me what you think might be a better strategy when using a practice test (as a non-native speaker of English). Like I said, my question here concerns the time I’m taking the test for the first time – if I’m redoing the passages or trying to find out why my answers were wrong, I think it’s more important that I have a better understanding of the passages, therefore I feel that using dictionaries then will be almost necessary.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris October 12, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

      Hi Shuca,

      That is an excellent question! And I get your frustration with difficult words in the passages. This is what I propose: on actual ETS material (because there is so little of it) do not look up words, but approach these tests (there are four of them) as you would the real test.

      For other practice material, Barron’s, Magoosh, MGRE, etc., do a mix of looking up words the first time you see a passage, and approaching the passage the way you would test day. You may also want to reserve the latter method for the passages that are not overly difficult (read: vocab dense).

      This way your brain will be prepared for most of what you’ll test day; by doing ETS material, without a dictionary, you will be able to learn how to get through a passage with limited comprehension.

      Hope that helps!

  5. Prabhanjan October 6, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    Chris i read all the strategies from most of the book out there but i seem to really stumped as i’m getting only 60 to 70 % question right while practising RC. i don’t know what do to can u please offer me some advise ?. i have been Practising from following resources daily
    Gre offical guide
    Gmat and Lsat for Critical Reading (only)

    Well i’m a avid reader of book since childhood. can u please help me in anyway ?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris October 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

      Hi Prabhanjan,

      As the post mentioned, it is important to review your mistakes. Understanding why you missed a question can help you in the future. So the resource you are using is great. But it is how you use it. If all you are doing is answering questions, tallying the number wrong, and moving on to the next passage, you are missing a valuable step in the process: Reviewing and analyzing your mistakes.

      Hope that helps!

      • Prabhanjan October 16, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

        Hi Chris

        Well thanks for ur help it has helped me a lot , i just wanted to ask u whether solving Gmat OG will help improve my GRE RC or are they completely different ?

        • Chris Lele
          Chris October 17, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

          Glad I could be of help :).

          As for the GMAT OG some of the passages, esp. the science ones, overlap well with the GRE. So definitely practice using the OG as well!

  6. Jung September 21, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    I first want to say thank you (to Chris and other staffs as well) for your solicitous replies on comments. I am actually getting helped by reading the contents in blogs and the comments made by other people.
    To introduce myself, I am an undergraduate senior preparing for Ph.D degree for Economics, and I am studying GRE these days. I am taking GRE on Oct. 5th and Nov. 9th, and I really want to get a safe score so that I would be accepted at least one of many schools that I am planning to apply.
    I don’t know if it is an appropriate question to post up in this blog, but I was wondering what could be a minimum score for verbal and writing for a student like me.
    Thank you so much for reading this comment, and have a good weekend!


  7. Mehedi September 21, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    Hello Chris,

    Can you suggest me any books for Reading comprehension for practice??? It will be really helpful for me.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris October 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

      The MGRE books are helpful in terms of providing a strategy. You may also want to look at Princeton Review for strategies. See which one works better for you. For sources for practice questions, MGRE is okay; PR far too easy. It is best to use official materials: ETS 2nd edition.

      Hope that helps you get started :).

  8. shuddha September 17, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    Thank you so much chris for your invaluable advise.Yes,undoubtedly RC is the toughest of all and obviously requires high amount of motivation and perseverance to get success.Really I am still suffering with my poor reading speed on the PC and dont know how to improve dramatically since my exam is on November 21th.I am becoming frustrated but try with my best effort to keep improving.Any helpful advise how to cope up with the speed is highly appreciated:)

    • Chris Lele
      Chris September 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

      As much as possible try to decode the meaning of the sentences as you read. So don’t just string words together. By building meaning, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, you’ll be able to package the in coming flow of information better. One temptation many in your situation can fall prey to is trying to string words together faster. Doing this will only compromise your overall understanding of the passage.

      Hope that makes sense :).

      • Prafulla September 20, 2012 at 8:26 am #

        Your ideas are really simple, especially the sentence equivalence and completion section.
        In RCs however, I know that I get all (or most) of my answers right when I spend an extra 3-4 minutes understanding 120 line passages.
        Doing the same in under 3 minutes is still a huge challenge for me.
        Any suggestions?

        • Chris Lele
          Chris October 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

          There are few ways that you could improve.

          1) Increase reading speed

          2) Retain more of the passage

          I think most people would opt to focus on number 1. I, however, think that 2) is more practical. The idea is you process/take in more of what you are reading so that you spend less time fumbling with questions/groping about the passage. To become better at active reading come up with mental summaries (you do not need to write this down) of the passage as soon as you are done reading. You should highlight some general points the passage made, as well as specific details that you think are important to the author’s point. Finally, when you get to the questions anticipate a response before diving into the answer choices.

          This post helps elaborate some of these concepts:

    • Andou September 20, 2012 at 8:26 am #

      Hi, Chris! Thank you very much for these inestimable posts. As I’ve already written to someone else at Magoosh, your site is a revelation to me. Unfortunately, a tardy epiphany, as my GRE day is impending and I’ve been riding abreast with some infelicitous troika-prepping stuff provided by a giant with feet of clay…

      I wonder whether you could also give us some insightful tips regarding the connection between two sentences. It might sound ludicrous, but in my standpoint these ones pop up as one of the most arcane questions in the Verbal section. I get swamped almost every time, struggling to figure out which answer choice best fits.

      Thank you.

      • Chris Lele
        Chris October 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

        Hi Andou,

        I would definitely like to help – and I surely would not want to have clay feet (be I colossus or otherwise :)). Alas, I’m not quite sure if you are asking about the argument paragraphs in which two sentences are bolded, or if you are asking about Text Completions with multiple blanks.

        Let me know, and I’ll try to provide some felicitous feedback :).

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