Active Reading Strategies for the GRE

Read the following passage and then we’ll talk:

Once American men returned from the WWII battlefields, they quickly displaced the women who had temporarily filled jobs otherwise reserved for men. With most women reverting to their domestic role, the dramatic increase in the number of infants born is perhaps not too surprising. Yet, such factors alone cannot explain the increase in the number of births from 1946-1951. Murray suggests that both women and men’s perspectives changed, mostly because of America’s success in the war. This optimism, in part, fueled the rapid growth in population. However, many argue that women, in returning to the home, were able to focus on raising a family, regardless of their levels of optimism.
Welcome back! Without looking at the passage above (you might want to put your hand over the passage or scroll down a bit to hide it), tell me what you just read.

You’re likely to pause for a minute and try to grab onto one of the words or phrases floating around in your head (“women,” “jobs,” “number of infants”) and then formulate a statement like: “It was about women in America and how they had more kids.” Your attention likely waned after the first couple of sentences and might have even derailed by the time you got to the name “Murray” (you might not even remember reading that name).

Passive reading

You probably had difficulty formulating a coherent and thorough summary of the text. This is in large part because your brain was in passive mode: it was simply stringing words together, and, once word was piled upon word, it got lost in the woods, so to speak.

Don’t worry. You are not alone. 99% of the adult population will probably have a very similar response. You are also not alone if, instead of stopping and thinking about what you read, you kept plowing forward in the mistaken notion that if you got to the end the passage would suddenly all make sense.

Here’s the thing: GRE passages are meant to be so dull that, after the first couple of lines, your attention is likely to wander. The good news is that we can use the predictability of the GRE passages to our advantage. To do so, we need to understand how a paragraph is designed.

Active reading

By simplifying all the major components in your head, the way that I’ve done above, you will easily be able to come up with what I call a “snapshot” — a simplification of the important parts of the paragraph. By paying attention to structure words, you won’t get lost in the sea of information.

Categorizing the passage in this way is what I call active reading, the topic of this post. Below, I discuss how to read actively.

The three tenets of active reading

1. Notice connections between paragraphs

The paragraph at the beginning of this post represents one possible paragraph structure. You’ll want to open up a GRE book (preferably the Official Guide) to see how the passages, especially the longer ones, are organized. They actually don’t vary much from the passage above.

Early in the text, a field of study will often be mentioned. Then a theory from this field will be mentioned. Evidence supporting this theory will typically follow. In longer passages, the author might critique the theory or contrast it with some other theory.

Once you can recognize and anticipate these structures, it will be easier for you to categorize the information in the passage.

2. Pay attention to “structure words”

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“Structure words” make up the glue that holds the paragraph together. But they are more than that: they show us how the sentences are logically connected.

Here are five of the most important types of structure words. The one you should pay the most attention to is “contrast words.”

Contrast words

however, though, although, still, nonetheless, at the same time, on the other hand, otherwise, but, yet, notwithstanding

Intensifying words

indeed, moreover, in fact

Illustrative words

for example, for one, to illustrate

Cause words

because, since, for that reason

Effect words

therefore, thus, hence, consequently, as a result

3. Make connections within paragraphs

It’s okay to slow down for a second and even look away from the screen. You’ll want to “digest” what’s being said. This is the golden pillar of active reading. Specifically, ask yourself, “what is the paragraph saying?” I call these ‘paragraph snapshots.’ You force yourself to make important connections in the paragraph while summarizing key points in your head.

You might be thinking, “Doesn’t that take a long time?” Well, when you get to the end of the passage, you’ll have a very good idea of what the passage is about. Consequently, you’ll be able to answer the questions more easily than if you had to hesitate among possible answer choices (which typically happens when you have an imperfect understanding of the passage). In the end, reading actively saves you time.

Finally, you don’t need to understand every detail in the paragraph. The end of paragraphs tend to be especially dense with details. It’s best to come back to this only if a detail is related to a question. Seeing the text a second time and within the context of a question will often make it is easier to digest.

Applying what you’ve learned

It’s easy to understand how active reading works. It is much harder to apply. Our basic instinct is to try to get through the passage as quickly as possible. If your RC practice is currently focused on improving your reading speed, you might want to reevaluate how you approach the passage. Again, by more effectively “packaging” textual information the first time around, you’ll be both more efficient and more accurate when you answer the questions.

Here are few tips to help you read actively.

1) Look away from the passage after each paragraph

This is a strategy to get your brain used to taking snapshots of the paragraph. If you’re focused on the screen, it’s easy to become distracted by the words dancing in front of your face. By looking away, you can more easily come up with a quick summary, or snapshot: “It’s about two different theories on the population increase after WWII. One is that people were more optimistic about starting families; the other that women who were working were able to go back and start a family.”

Saying that in your head takes a mere few seconds — and you can work on making your snapshots even more condensed. Then, when the next paragraph deals with, say, an analysis of that theory, you’ll have a much easier time following along.

2) Take notes

Sometimes it’s hard to organize the clutter of thoughts pin-balling through your head as you read a passage. Take shorthand notes after each paragraph. The ultimate goal, though, is to wean yourself off written summaries so that you’ll only need to take mental snapshots.

3) Look away after you’ve read the passage

The same as point #1, except now you’ll want to answer the question: “What was the primary purpose of the passage?” Putting this in your own words is a good idea, since, especially on the long reading passage, there will likely be a question that asks you to do so.

Active reading in action

Let’s take the paragraph from the beginning of the post and dissect it the way you should if you’re actively reading the passage.

With most women reverting to their domestic role, the dramatic increase in the number of infants born is perhaps not too surprising. Yet, such factors alone cannot explain the increase in the number of births from 1946-1951. Murray suggests that both women and men’s perspectives changed, mostly because of America’s success in the war. This optimism, in part, fueled the rapid growth in population. However, many argue that women, in returning to the home, were able to focus on raising a family, regardless of their levels of optimism.
The most important structure words are contrast words, because they change the direction of the paragraph. In other words, someone—it could be the author or somebody the author talks about in the passage—disagrees with something or somebody else in the passage. Understanding the twists and turns in the paragraph that result from “contrast words” is key to understanding the passage. Remember, the passage is not just about imparting information; it is about subtle distinctions that arise from a debate.

In the paragraph above, notice how the first sentence introduces the topic. After that, it is straight into a contrast word. Therefore, the second sentence does not completely agree with the first.

1st sentence: women returning to home cause of more babies
2nd sentence: other factors also account for more babies

Notice that the second sentence does not completely disagree with the first sentence. It just qualifies, or limits, the first sentence.

In the next sentence, we get Murray’s view. Always notice when the author brings up another point of view.

Murray’s view: people became more optimistic; made more babies

Now there’s another contrast word: “however.” This signals that we are getting another point of view.

Other view: women were able to focus on raising a family

One final point

Once you’ve noticed the relationships between sentences in a paragraph and the meanings they convey, you will be able to deal with the questions more confidently. Indeed, you’ll be able to formulate an answer in your head. And if you do have to consult the passage (as you should), you’ll know where to look.

All in all, becoming an adept active reader will help you home in on the correct answer instead of having to fumble frantically through the morass of words that make up the answer choices.


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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!

22 Responses to Active Reading Strategies for the GRE

  1. Drasti Kirti Chaudhari April 4, 2018 at 4:22 am #

    This article is on point!! Loved it!! Def need to start reading more actively and pausing to rephrase after every paragraph!

  2. Rishabh August 14, 2016 at 9:08 am #

    Hi Chris,

    What do you think would be the right amount of time spent on reading the passage based on its length.

    Does the other’s Average pace include reading time ,If so than can you tell me a formula for extracting reading time for that passage.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 14, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

      Hi Rishabh,

      Since you are asking a question specifically about our Magoosh premium product, I am sending this to our group of experts to answer for you! You should hear from them soon. Don’t forget to ask questions like this directly to the experts via [email protected]!

  3. Eilon Shalev July 1, 2016 at 12:41 am #

    Hey guys,

    First and foremost, what a coruscating article!

    Not only am I a slow reader, but also I am so passive, as to maunder away with my thoughts during reading these tedious passages. But hey! At least I’m normal (99%..).

    I really hope to become a natural active reader–by mechanically using this technique–and ace the RC questions.

    In my view, this is the most important part of the verbal section, and this ability is also palpably conducive in the SE and TC, for it helps to cut off considerable amount of time during these questions as well.

    Btw, I took the real test yesterday (received a decent score but not what I wanted), and there was a battery of crazy words in the RC passages, all of which I learned from Magoosh–I felt that Vocabulary-wise–I beat the GRE; I’m beholden to Magoosh!

    So thanks guys, you are definitely alleviating this taxing experience,


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 2, 2016 at 2:33 am #

      Hi Eilon,

      We are so happy to know you’re benefitting from studying with us. 🙂 It can definitely be tedious, but if you stay the path, you’re going to reach your goals and never have to thing about the GRE again. 🙂

      You’ve got this!

  4. Caio June 18, 2016 at 11:17 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Great article indeed!

    However, I have a question:

    He is restating the topic in the last sentence, right?

    I got the impression that the author in the first sentence introduces an ideia, then the author says that there may be other views, then he introduces Murray’s opinion, and then restates what the first sentence in a different way.

    First sentence the author says “With most women reverting to their domestic role, the dramatic increase in the number of infants born is perhaps not too surprising”

    Last sentence “However, many argue that women, in returning to the home, were able to focus on raising a family, regardless of their levels of optimism.”

    Is it right?

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 20, 2016 at 10:43 am #

      To correct you there, “With most women reverting to…” is not the first sentence. But it is the topic sentence of the paragraph, so you’re on the right track. The final sentence restates the main theme of the topic sentence– the correlation between women returning to the home and increased rates of childbirth. However, it also touches on cultural attitudes and societal optimism, two themes that arose after the topic sentence. Since this is just one paragraph and not a complete, standard format five-paragraph essay, the concluding sentence won’t perfectly mirror the introductory main idea, but it will echo the main idea in some ways.

  5. Aravind April 22, 2016 at 5:29 am #

    Hi Chirs

    Great Article. 🙂

    I found these tips and techniques to be quite useful.
    And it has significantly improved my ability to answer RC questions.

    However, this article encourages the use of making notes.
    But the article “”
    advises to not make notes.

    Am a bit confused here 🙂
    Could you please help me out

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 23, 2016 at 11:32 am #

      Hi Aravind,

      Nice job noticing that detail! I can see you’ve been using your reading skills already to think critically about what you’re learning. 🙂

      So the truth is that the advice is similar in both posts–you do not want to take notes on the day of your GRE. In this post, Chris does say, “The ultimate goal, though, is to wean yourself off of these summaries so that you’ll be able to take mental snapshots.” So while you should use notes to help activate your reading mind and train yourself to be an active reader, it is not a long-term strategy that you should employ during all of your studies.

      I hope that helps clarify here! Happy studying. 🙂

  6. Nate February 12, 2016 at 8:54 am #

    Hey Chris

    Tbh, i never imagined following these tips would help me this fast. It really helped big time and cut the time into half.

    Really appreciate.

  7. Tanya January 26, 2016 at 9:35 am #

    Thank you for explaining everything so profusely and cogently, Chris.
    Team Magoosh has made prepping for GRE so much fun.

  8. Shishir August 12, 2015 at 5:24 am #

    Thanks a lot Chris for your lucid articulation on RC active reading. It would be help for many of us. Keep Posting..:)

  9. Sherri July 19, 2015 at 10:24 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your elaborate guidance on effective reading. Do you have any suggestion with regard to additional sources for GRE similar passages? I am juggling to get the habit of effective writing and more relevant and similar GRE style passages will be very useful.
    The series of “The best writings in nature and science” provide ample source of vocabulary but in many instances the style of GRE passages is missing.

  10. Nidhi Desai June 8, 2015 at 5:03 am #

    Magoosh’s GRE blog is really useful. Thank You for making it available to everyone.

    • Rita Neumann
      Rita Kreig June 8, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

      Hi Nidhi,

      Thank you! I’m really happy that you find our blog helpful. 🙂

      Best of luck with your GRE prep!

  11. Uzair May 25, 2015 at 7:43 am #

    Thanks Chris Lele for this lucid post..
    Hope, this will remove my ambiguity regarding how to prepare for GRE reading comprehension.

  12. sm March 20, 2015 at 5:43 am #

    great post!
    big help

  13. Premanand March 19, 2015 at 7:17 am #

    It really does disabuse me of my impression about reading passages. I have been floundering on RCs for quite some time. This should really help…. Hats off!!! for this post.:)

  14. Feroz March 18, 2015 at 2:35 am #

    Very nicely explained Chris. Its a privilege to read your analysis and make the most out of it. 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele March 18, 2015 at 2:39 pm #

      Thanks Feroz, I’m glad it was helpful 🙂

  15. steve March 16, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

    highly appreciate your work, active reading is more than useful in GRE verbal section

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele March 17, 2015 at 11:21 am #

      You are welcome! Glad it was helpful 🙂

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