GMAT Reading Comprehension: Strategies for the 6 Question Types

Virtually all GMAT Reading Comprehension questions fall into these 6 categories: main idea, detail, inference, out of context, logical structure, and author’s tone. Familiarizing yourself with each type of reading comprehension prompt will allow you to think more like the test-writers and root out common traps.

GMAT Reading Comprehension Question Type 1: Find the Main Idea

Of all the reading comprehension (RC) types, “main idea” questions are the most common. You can expect the GMAT to ask this question about almost every passage within the RC section. Identifying the main idea is the quintessential RC skill, so expect to practice it over and over again. It will help to read at a relaxed pace (2.5 minutes for a short RC passage, 3.5 for a long passage). It will help to practice taking notes. It will also help to practice repeatedly from reputable sources, like the Official GMAT Guide or the RC sections of the LSAT guides.

As you study, always check the official answers each time and read the explanation, regardless of whether you got the question right or wrong. Doing this will allow you to think more like the test-writers. By practicing diligently, you’ll begin to notice how to weed out trap answers and how to select the best answer from the available options.

GMAT Reading Comprehension Question Type 2: Detail

Detail questions typically begin with prompts like, “The role of the second paragraph is …”, or “The author mentioned the life cycle of wombats at the end of the first paragraph in order to …”

These are related to the first question type. The main idea is what informs the entire passage, or what drives the whole passage. So any detail mentioned has to support the main idea in some way. To answer a detail question, you need to first know the main idea. From there, you probably will need to go back and re-read some particular sentences to see how the specific details fit into the main idea.

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GMAT Reading Comprehension Question Type 3: Inference

Good authors are not explicit about everything: while they say some things directly, they imply others. Inference questions test your ability to read between the lines and figure out what the author is indirectly implying.

On the GMAT, be careful to stay hyper-faithful to the passage. Any correct implication is something that was not explicitly stated but must be true. In other words, an inference must be a direct logical consequence of what was written. For example, if the passage reads, “Ben has been to every country in Europe at least once”, we cannot necessarily infer that “Ben enjoys traveling” — maybe Ben hates traveling, but he is required to travel for work! By contrast, an undeniable implication is: “Ben has been to Portugal at least once.” That’s the level of logical undeniability that you should seek in inference question answer choices.

GMAT Reading Comprehension Question Type 4: Out of Context

There are two subcategories for this reading comprehension type. Some of these questions will present a new concept—one not discussed at all in the text—and ask you what the author would think about it. Expect these to begin with something like: “How would the author of the passage most likely respond to the assertion that…?” In order to answer these questions, you need to deduce the perspective and preferences of the author from the passage

Alternatively, “out of context” questions may ask you to compare something in the passage to a hypothetical example from a completely different situation. “The compromised situation of the raccoon described in line X is most like …”, and then the correct answer could be something like “a ballerina with a broken foot.” In these questions, you are asked to abstract out all particulars, and focus on what is essential to the situation or relationship in its most rigid logical form.

In both cases, however seemingly remote the focus of the question is, the correct answer should still resonate with the author’s main idea as demonstrated by the passage.

GMAT Reading Comprehension Question Type 5: Logical Structure

Some questions will ask about the structure of the passage as a whole: Does the author present her own new idea? Does the author contrast two ideas, evenhandedly showing the strengths and weaknesses of both? Does the author sharply criticize a particular position or perspective? Sometimes this question is phrased as: “What would be the best title for this passage?”

Here, the main idea and paragraph summaries you formulate for your notes will be invaluable. Another huge help will be the “logical direction” words — “moreover”, “although”, “ironically”, “but”, etc. Always pay attention to these words as you read, notice the way they shape the paragraph, and you will start to develop an intuitive sense of the logical structure of the passages.

GMAT Reading Comprehension Question Type 6: Author’s Tone

This is tricky, because unlike the extreme opinions typical of nutcases in the media, all the opinions and perspectives of GMAT authors will be moderated and nuanced. An author who judges something “promising” is wildly enthusiastic about it. An author who deems something “less than satisfactory” is completely slamming it. An author who finds something “troubling” is essentially pee-in-his-pants upset about it.

If vivid emotions are bright colors, then GMAT passages don’t get any more colorful than pastels. Pay attention to any words that have any emotional charge: these are the ones that will allow you to figure out the author’s tone.

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It’s also important to remember: the tone in the passage will avoid extremes, so the correct answers to tone questions will avoid extremes as well. If the correct answer to a tone question is “skeptical”, wrong answers could include “dismissive” or “vengeful”—words that simply are two extreme for the tenor of GMAT RC. As you read, pay special attention to word choice. Subtlety is key for mastering this reading comprehension question type.

GMAT Reading Comprehension Practice Questions

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2012 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

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  • Mike MᶜGarry

    Mike served as a GMAT Expert at Magoosh, helping create hundreds of lesson videos and practice questions to help guide GMAT students to success. He was also featured as "member of the month" for over two years at GMAT Club. Mike holds an A.B. in Physics (graduating magna cum laude) and an M.T.S. in Religions of the World, both from Harvard. Beyond standardized testing, Mike has over 20 years of both private and public high school teaching experience specializing in math and physics. In his free time, Mike likes smashing foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Learn more about the GMAT through Mike's Youtube video explanations and resources like What is a Good GMAT Score? and the GMAT Diagnostic Test.

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