GMAT Reading Comprehension: Strategies for the 6 Question Types and Example Passage

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 often. Identifying the main idea is a quintessential skill. Practice identifying it with each passage you tackle. 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 Offical Guide.

As you study, always check the official answers and read the explanations, regardless of whether you got the question right or wrong. Doing so 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 tend to be one of the most straight forward question types because they literally ask you about something that you can lookup in the passage. Detail Questions are readily identifiable if you know what to look for. “According to the passage,” is the biggest clue that you’re facing a Detail Question.

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. A 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.” For these questions, your mission is to 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 in 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 the talking heads in today’s 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 take-all-his-toys-and-go-home upset about it.

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

It’s exceedingly important to remember this about the GMAT: the tone of the passage will avoid extremes. Thus, 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.

Most educated people of the eighteenth century, such as the Founding Fathers, subscribed to Natural Rights Theory, the idea that every human being has a considerable number of innate rights, simply by virtue of being a human person. When the US Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, many at that time felt that the federal government outlined by the Constitution would be too strong, and that rights of individual citizens against the government had to be clarified. This led to the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments, which were ratified at the same time as the Constitution. The first eight of these amendments list specific rights of citizens. Some leaders feared that listing some rights could be interpreted to mean that citizens didn’t have other, unlisted rights. Toward this end, James Madison and others produced the Ninth Amendment, which states: the fact that certain rights are listed in the Constitution shall not be construed to imply that other rights of the people are denied

Constitutional traditionalists interpret the Ninth Amendment as a rule for reading the rest of the constitution. They would argue that “Ninth Amendment rights” are a misconceived notion: the amendment does not, by itself, create federally enforceable rights. In particular, this strict reasoning would be opposed to the creation of any new rights based on the amendment. Rather, according to this view, the amendment merely protects those rights that citizens already have, whether they are explicitly listed in the Constitution or simply implicit in people’s lives and in American tradition.

More liberal interpreters of the US Constitution have a much more expansive view of the Ninth Amendment. In their view, the Ninth Amendment guarantees to American citizens a vast universe of potential rights, some of which we have enjoyed for two centuries, and others that the Founding Fathers could not possibly have conceived. These scholars point out that some rights, such as voting rights of women or minorities, were not necessarily viewed as rights by the majority of citizens in late eighteenth century America, but are taken as fundamental and unquestionable in modern America. While those rights cited are protected specifically by other amendments and laws, the argument asserts that other unlisted right also could evolve from unthinkable to perfectly acceptable, and the Ninth Amendment would protect these as-yet-undefined rights.

1) The author cites the scholars referring to “voting rights of women or minorities” in order to

(A) cite unquestionably justified Ninth Amendment rights

(B) demonstrate how changing priorities can alter perspectives on fundamental human rights

(C) argue for the modern extension of Natural Rights Theory

(D) refute the traditionalist interpretation of the Ninth Amendment

(E) champion the rights of all citizens in the democratic process
2) Constitutional scholars of both the traditionalist and liberal views would agree that “Ninth Amendment rights”

(A) accommodate shifts in cultural values with respect to issues affecting human rights

(B) cannot serve as the basis of legal decisions

(C) are directly reflected in our understanding of who can and can’t vote

(D) are not stated explicitly in the Bill of Rights

(E) extend the idea of Natural Rights Theory
3) According to the passage, what would the Ninth Amendment imply about a right to “a trial by jury”, guaranteed in the Seventh Amendment of the US Constitution?

(A) The Ninth Amendment would provide direct support for this right.

(B) The Ninth Amendment would not support this right directly, but would support all the logistics that would allow citizens to exercise this right.

(C) The Ninth Amendment would apply to trials that fall outside the jurisdiction of Federal Courts.

(D) The Ninth Amendment would apply to all trials that do not involve Constitutional Law

(E) The Ninth Amendment is irrelevant to any right mentioned explicitly in the Bill of Rights.
4) In the view of James Madison and the other Founding Fathers, the Ninth Amendment limits the power of the central Federal government by

(A) preventing constitutionally listed rights from being viewed as exhaustive

(B) giving the citizens rights in every area not explicitly addressed by the law

(C) codifying a vast universe of federally enforceable rights

(D) guaranteeing, in the text of US Constitution, all rights held by Natural Rights Theory

(E) ensuring all citizens are able to vote and, thus, choose the democratic leaders
5) The primary purpose of the passage is to

(A) clarify the most proper interpretation of an amendment

(B) argue for a broader perspective on human rights and their legal protection

(C) contrast historical perspectives of an amendment to its modern legal reading

(D) explain the motivation for an amendment and the ambiguity this amendment presents

(E) demonstrate how the Founding Fathers’ intentions have been distorted by subsequent legal proceedings.

Practice Question Solutions

1) This quote appears in the third paragraph, in which the author is discussing liberal interpretations of the Ninth Amendment.

(B) is the credited answer. Scholars cited indicated these rights as examples of rights the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have recognized but which modern Americans take for granted. In other words, the change in priorities over the past two hundred years has “alter[ed our] perspectives on fundamental human rights.”

Choice (A) is wrong, because as the passage points out, these particular rights are guaranteed in other parts of the Constitution, and anything stated explicitly in the Constitution is not relevant to the Ninth Amendment.

Choice (C) is wrong, because whether these rights would in any way be considered as part of Natural Rights Theory (a 17th & 18th century theory of white European males) is not discussed at all in the third paragraph.

Choice (D) is wrong, because while this quote does support the liberal interpretation of the Ninth Amendment, and therefore raises an objection to the traditional interpretation, to say that it “refutes” the latter is far too strong. It merely raises an objection for which the traditionalist may well have a satisfactory answer.

Choice (E) is wrong, because it’s far too broad. The author is specifically talking about readings of the Ninth amendment, so conclusions about “the rights of all citizens” is a much broader concern than is being addressed in this passage.

2) Notice that the two sides vehemently disagree about the whole notion of “Ninth Amendment rights” — the liberals might argue for them, but the traditionalists thing the term itself is a fallacy. These two sides would only agree on something very basic.

(D) is the credited answer. The amendment itself says that it addresses rights that are not stated explicitly in the Bill of Rights. Both sides would have to agree — any right that is explicitly stated in the Bill of Rights is not a “Ninth Amendment right.”

Choice (A) is wrong, because this is something the liberals would embrace and the traditionalists would reject.

Choice (B) is wrong, because while we know the traditionalists accept this, it’s implied that the liberals reject it.

Choice (C) is wrong, because it focuses on a detail: the detail of voting rights isn’t even directly related to the Ninth Amendment.

Choice (E) is wrong, because it’s not completely clear where either side in the modern debate stands with respect to this much older theory. Moreover, we suspect that, if they have opinions at all, the liberals would have a much broader understanding of how the Ninth Amendment extend the idea of Natural Rights Theory, while traditionalists argue that the Ninth Amendment does extend anything.

3) The right to “a trial by jury” is an explicitly listed right in the Bill of Rights. As such, the Ninth Amendment does not apply to it at all. The whole point of the Ninth Amendment is that it applies only to rights not explicitly addressed in the Constitution. (E) is the credited answer. All the other answers, about the Ninth Amendment supporting this right or applying in one way or another, are incorrect.

4) (A) is the credited answer. The Bill of Rights listed certain rights, but Madison and others did not want this list read as if it were “exhaustive” — that is, as if it were a complete list to which nothing else could be added. This is precisely the motivation for the Ninth Amendment, explained in the first paragraph.

Choice (B) is wrong, because nothing in the passage says that the amendment automatically gives people specific tangible rights.

Choice (C) is wrong, because while the liberals might argue that it supports several rights, these new rights are not “encoded”, that is guaranteed as law.

Choice (D) is wrong, because the passage doesn’t even discuss what rights are held my Natural Rights Theory: furthermore, presumably some of those rights, such as freedom of speech, were already guaranteed in other amendments of the Bill of Rights, so the Ninth Amendment wouldn’t apply to those.

Choice (E) is wrong, because it picks up on a detail of the passage, from modern times, and says it applies to Founding Fathers. The fundamental voting rights that the Founding Fathers recognized were written explicitly in other parts of the Constitution, and are not in the “unwritten” area covered by the Ninth Amendment.

5) (D) is the credited answer. The passage gives us some history, about why the Founding Fathers felt this amendment was needed, and then the last two paragraphs exploring different ways of interpreting this amendment: because the amendment lends itself to such radically different interpretations, we can say it contains “ambiguity.”

Choice (A) is wrong, because the passage does not draw any conclusions on whether the traditionalist or liberal interpretation is better.

Choice (B) is wrong, because this answer would imply that the purpose was to agree with the liberal interpretation, but the passage does not clearly valorize one view over the other.

Choice (C) is wrong, because the primary contrast is not between 18th century readings vs. modern readings, but between two modern readings.

Choice (E) is wrong, because we don’t actually know the Founding Fathers’ intentions — the passages says very little about this, and its’ rather unclear whether Founding Fathers as a group would have agreed more with the liberal or the traditionalist interpretation of the Ninth Amendment.