GMAT Reading Comprehension

Read Actively

Do GMAT passages make you fall asleep? Do you invariably find yourself drifting off somewhere around the middle of the second paragraph. Do all of the answer choices sometimes seem correct?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then you may not be using the secret weapon: active reading.


Active Reading Tip #1 – Know the Structure

The good news about GMAT passages is they are very formulaic. The person writing the passage is most likely discussing some arcane topic. (1st paragraph). He/she is usually questioning another person’s theory regarding this topic (2nd paragraph). Then in the last paragraph, the author of the passage provides his or her opinion on the matter (the primary purpose/main idea of the passage).

The bad news is the topic is usually so obscure as to be laughable. Then there is the density of ideas that make reading a passage trying to run through a bed of quicksand. That doesn’t mean you should, figuratively speaking, sink in the bog. Knowing the structure of GMAT reading comprehension will make the process seem less of a slog and more of a jog.


Active Reading Tip #2 – Read the Entire Passage First

There is a myth that has been bandied about so often that many accept it as true: do not read the passage, just read the questions. While this strategy is better than randomly picking answers, it is by far one of the worst strategies for Reading Comprehension.

Instead, always read the entire passage first. Do not spend time taking copious notes nor rush through the passage so quickly that you have only a vague notion as to what the passage is talking about. You will definitely want to know the structure – as mentioned above – but you will also want to keep the following points in mind…


Active Reading Tip #3 – Look for the Big Picture

A good test of whether you understand the passage is to be able to answer the following questions as soon as you are done reading the passage. This will generally give you the big picture of the passage so that you can more easily answer the questions.

What is at issue?

The passage is not concerned with simply relating facts. The writer of the passage has an opinion on a complex, academic matter. While the matter can may seem ridiculously esoteric to you – or just about anyone you would ever consider hanging out with – there are other academics who also have opinions on this very matter. By reading a GMAT passage, you are essentially privy to an academic debate.


What prevalent theories on the matter does the author discuss, and to what extent does he agree with them?

There is usually one, but can sometimes be as many as three, competing theories that the author discusses. The author usually finds some merit with the theories, but disagrees with them on what he believes is a crucial point. Be aware why the author finds the other theories lacking.


Why does the author usually believe his theory is best?

The author’s theory has to account for something that the author theories do not. Know what supporting evidence he uses, and how the other theories fail to account for this evidence.


What is the main idea?

Finally, you will want to be able to put the main idea in your own words. And you can almost bet that one the questions will ask what is the main idea/primary purpose of the passage.

(In an upcoming post, I will take apart a specific GMAT passage using this very schematic).


Active Reading Tip#4 – Do not get bogged down in the details

At the same time, you do not want to focus on every detail (doing so is simply beyond the cranial processing power of most.) Unless those details relate to the questions above, they may not even pertain to any of the five or six questions relating to the passage.

Often you will come to a part of the passage that makes you scratch your head. You will be tempted to read it over and over again, until you understand it. But doing so, will take you out of the flow, so that you will forget the answer to the crucial five questions discussed above.


The Love Life of Sea Mollusks – The Greatest Story Ever Told

Changes in the Delaware tax code? Iceberg sediments that can accurately date the end of the Cretaceous period? Wormholes, copper ore deposits….oh it sounds all so exciting.

Fine, that is a note of sarcasm you detect. However, whenever you tackle a GMAT reading passage, you must not have the attitude of, I have to slog through another one of these. Instead, convince yourself – trick yourself even – into thinking that you have been longing forever to read the material before you. And you have only a few minutes to gather as much as you can from this exciting passage.

So why throw yourself into a dry passage with such gusto? Why not read the way you would a textbook, or the Sunday paper? Well, by reading through a passage with great intensity and unflagging interest you are less likely to lose interest somewhere in the second paragraph. And when you make a passage exciting, you will pick up on the passage structure and wonder what the author is going to say next. Can icebergs really tell us about the end of the dinosaurs?

In essence, you become involved in a topic that before held as much interest as the love life of sea mollusks (perhaps you may even get a passage on sea mollusks). Then, when you go to answer the questions, you will not flail about, helplessly going back and forth between question and passage, but should know the answer with little effort. Speaking of which…


Active Reading Tip #6 – Use Your Own Words

The response I get to the following question is usually the same. As soon as you read the question you should?…

In a classroom, a few typically blurt out, look at the answer choices, with the rest of the class nodding.

Dashing into the answer choices is the last thing you want to do. In fact think of the answer choices as swamp or quicksand. Once you begin to read them your interpretation of the passage becomes corrupted.

The GMAT test writers deviously create wrong answer choices that are very alluring, because they recycle much of the material, but change one crucial thing. The answers are almost right…but not quite.

Indeed, the wrong answer choices have a special name: distractors. And that’s exactly what they do—they distract you from answering the question based on your interpretation of the passage.

Instead, know what the question is asking and go back to the passage to find the relevant part. You will always be able to find a specific line or lines that provides support for your answer. Make sure to answer the question in your own words, instead of just plucking a word or two from the relevant lines. Then, and only then, go back to the answer choices and match the answer choice that is closest to your answer.



While the strategies above sound natural enough, most of us have a deeply ingrained sense to go against one or all of them. After all, sometimes you just don’t feel like reading about icebergs or sea mollusks. And with answers right below you, the last place you want to go is back to a 500-word passage.

However by not letting your mind wander, and by following the strategies above, you should be able to turn the GMAT reading comprehension section from a weakness to a strength.

Ready to get an awesome GMAT score? Start here.

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  • Chris Lele

    Chris Lele is the Principal Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. Chris graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology and has 20 years of experience in the test prep industry. He's been quoted as a subject expert in many publications, including US News, GMAC, and Business Because. In his time at Magoosh, Chris has taught countless students how to tackle the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT (CARS), and LSAT exams with confidence. Some of his students have even gone on to get near-perfect scores. You can find Chris on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!