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GRE Reading Comprehension

GRE Reading Comprehension is the most significant part of GRE Verbal Reasoning. There are 5-7 RC passages and 10-13 RC questions in each of the two Verbal sections on the exam. This means that RC questions will always take up roughly half of all Verbal questions on the exam.

The passages themselves take up significant reading time. GRE RC passages are anywhere from 1-5 paragraphs in length, and are followed by 1-4 questions.

Below is a guide to everything you need to know about GRE Verbal Reading Comprehension. Enjoy!

Table of Contents

Click the links below to go to each section of our guide to GRE Verbal Reading Comprehension.

Reading Comprehension Introduction
 
Approaching the Reading Comprehension Passages

Approaching the Questions
 
The Many Reading Comprehension Question Types
 
General Reading Comprehension: The 4 Most Common Question Types

One Less Common General RC Question Type: Factual Detail
 
GRE Paragraph Arguments: The 6 Most Common Question Types

GRE Paragraph Argument Question Types: Examples and Tutorials

Reading Comprehension Introduction

Compared with the other parts of the GRE, Reading Comprehension seems to be the most difficult for many test-takers. As we’ll discover there are key insights and useful strategies, but no shortcuts.

Some test-takers believe that because they can read a newspaper, the Reading Comprehension passages and questions will be easy for them. But casual reading is not critical reading.

GRE students often react negatively to the unfamiliarity of the Reading Comprehension content, the sometimes-confusing nature of the questions, and the pacing requirements of this section.

For these reasons, Reading Comprehension is likely to be the most time challenging of the GRE verbal question types. Efficiency is critical to performing well on this section.

Efficiency = Speed + Accuracy

Approaching the Reading Comprehension Passages

For the shorter paragraph argument questions, the reading is fairly straightforward: just read the paragraph from beginning or end, pay close attention to every word, and be prepared to do a careful reread after you look at the question.

For longer passages, approaches to reading need to be more cautious and strategic. Obviously you want to pace your reading properly so you can finish RC in a reasonable amount of time. But RC success isn’t a mere matter of reading quickly. In fact, here’s no point in being fast if you’re not getting the questions right. And nailing the first few Reading Comp questions but then running out of time for the rest of the section won’t do much for your overall score.

So you need a strategy that lets you work quickly and accurately. And we have developed such a strategy for you.

Because the passages constructed by ETS (GRE test maker) are fairly consistent and the questions that follow are somewhat predictable we can employ a strategy or methodology suited to meet these expectations.

Four methods of reading and information processing include skimming, scanning, speed-reading, and critical reading.

Method 1: Skimming

Skimming is a reading technique used here to quickly identify the main ideas and thoughts of a passage while under time constraints, especially if it’s subject matter with which you are unfamiliar.

Our “skimming” is a pretty straightforward technique, and different than other kinds of skimming done for other, less-focused purposes.

Skimming is a form of speed-reading that involves scanning (looking quickly but not thoroughly) sentences and paragraphs for clues to understanding, mainly used to get an overall feel for the context.

In skimming you should:

  • Contemplate:
    • The meaning or purpose of the passage
    • The information provided in the passage
  • Ascertain:
    • The central theme(s)
    • The main idea(s)
  • Separate:
    • The main ideas from supporting ideas
  • Test:
    • The relevance and strength of the supporting ideas

When skimming, you should ask yourself:

  • What’s an appropriate title for this passage?
  • How can I summarize this excerpt?
  • Where might this passage have appeared — a newspaper, scientific journal?
  • For what reason was this piece written?

Method 2: Read the Passage

As you read, make some notes (using scratch paper or other material provided by your friendly test proctor) on:

  • main ideas (used in answering main idea questions)
  • key points and information (used in answering hunt and peck and inference questions)
  • transitions (used in answering inference and style/tone/organization questions)

Method 3: Sum up the Piece and Pinpoint Information

Try to summarize the passage and track the details as you move through the material. These techniques works especially well if you tend to lose concentration as you read.

Remember, this part of the GRE is basically an open-book test, so you don’t need to write down or remember every detail and key point. You just need to know where to find them.

Some passages may have line numbers for references. Some passages may not. In those that don’t, the question stems may reference information in the passage by paragraph number so be conscious of the paragraph breaks as you read.

Method 4: Critical Reading

To be a critical reader you must think critically. A GRE critical reader:

  • reads with a purpose – and the purpose is to answer the questions correctly
  • recognizes each paragraph as an integrated whole
  • understands how each paragraph fits into the overall passage
  • evaluates arguments and supporting evidence

Approaching the Questions

1)      Read the question stem (the part before the answer choices). By identifying the question-type, you’ll know better how to approach the answer choices. Here, the stem reflects the nature of the question leading you to the first paragraph and providing information to answer the: where, when, who, and what questions. Don’t time yourself on the Koko and Chocolate passages.  Focus on finding the correct answers. You can work on timing later, with the practice sets.

2)      Review each answer option critically to eliminate those not supported by the passage. Focus on important words and try to articulate reasons to discard each choice. (Note that answer choices that “contradict” the passage or choices that are “not mentioned” or “not supported” in the passage are favorite GRE distractors.)

3)      Make sure your choice responds to the question stem. Refer to your notes and don’t pick an answer until you’ve found the evidence to support it (or lack of evidence to discard it).

Once you’ve eliminated as many answers as you can (ideally, four), pick the best remaining choice and move on.

The Many Reading Comprehension Question Types

There are 11 common question types for GRE RC. This sounds like a lot, but don’t worry– it’s easier to remember them all than you might think. Helpfully, the questions are divided into two groups: question types for Paragraph Argument passages (sometimes still referred to as “Critical Reasoning,” their name on the old GRE), and question types for passages that are not paragraph arguments.

Non-PA Reading Comprehension questions can vary in length. They can even be as short  as a single paragraph. But whether a regular RC passage is a paragraph long or several paragraphs long, their questions are distinctly different from those of paragraph arguments. We’ll look at the question types for these more general, non PA passages first.

The Four Most Common Question Types for Short, Medium, and Long GRE Reading Comprehension passages 

Here is a list of the four most common question types for regular, non-Paragraph-Argument GRE passages. Click each item on the list for a full, in-depth article devoted to the question type. Or for a “quick hit,” see a brief description of each question type right below the list.

Main Idea Question Type

Main idea questions are exactly what they sound like. You will be asked to identify the main idea, dominant theme, or primary purpose of the passage as a whole. Ways to identify main idea questions and strategies for approaching these questions can be found in Kevin’s main idea GRE Reading Comprehension tutorial here on the blog.

Inference Question Type

This is perhaps the most common type of GRE question. As you’d expect, this question type requires test-takers to make inferences based on what they’ve read. What you might not expect is just how strict the rules are for identifying the correct inference.

On the GRE, inferences must be based only on the passage. You shouldn’t infer something to be true based on any personal knowledge of the topic; look only at what’s in the passage. Also avoid inferences that depend on possibilities rather than certainties from the passage. If you find yourself thinking “this inference is true if…”, you are not making a proper GRE RC inference. GRE inferences are only correct because of something concretely stated in the passage, no “ifs” about it.

If this still sounds  a little confusing to you, don’t worry. Kevin has written a full tuotorial on GRE RC inference questions.

Meaning in Context Question Type

If you’re already a little familiar with GRE Verbal, you know that it’s a very vocabulary-driven assessment. While the Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence sections of the GRE focus the most on vocabulary, vocabulary is important in RC as well, especially for meaning in context questions.

Like Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence, RC meaning in context tests your knowledge of advanced academic vocabulary, and often focuses on unusual or less-commonly-used definitions of words.

Unlike TC or SE, RC Meaning in Context questions give you a lot more context (hence the name) In fact, you get an entire passage of context that can help you figure out the meanings of the words you’re being asked about. Generally though, you won’t need the whole passage. Focus first on the sentence that the word appears in. If that’s not enough, look at the immediately adjacent sentences. If you still can’t tell what the word means from there, keep looking further out in the paragraph and passage. But generally, the immediate sentence or sentences should be enough context. For more information on this question type, see Chris Lele’s blog post “GRE Reading Comprehension Question Type: Definitions in Context.”

“Highlight the Sentence” Question Type

“Highlight the Sentence” questions require you to highlight a sentence in the passage. Of course, the more important questions are why you’re being asked to highlight a sentence, and how to find the correct sentence. So let’s look at this question type in a little more detail.

In GRE Reading Comprehension, “highlight the sentence” questions ask you to select the sentence in a paragraph that serves a specific purpose. For example, you may be asked to find the sentence that analyzes and critiques an approach to the scientific method, or distinguishes two different Baroque styles of writing.

Chris has written a post that gives an overview of the “highlight the sentence” GRE RC question type. Since this is one of the trickier GRE Reading comprehension question types, it may also be helpful to look at an sample “highlight the sentence” question. I’ve provided a short passage, with sample question, immediately below:

Highlight the Sentence Question (with short GRE Reading Comprehension passage)
Charles Darwin, the famed originator of the theory of evolution, was the first scientist to posit that certain human facial expressions are innate and exist in all cultures. While Darwin’s theories of innate psychology were overshadowed by his theory of evolution, his suggestion that some facial expressions are universally human was never entirely forgotten. In the 1970s, nearly a century after Charles Darwin’s death, a group of researchers lead by psychologist Paul Ekman set out to investigate the validity of Darwin’s belief in culturally universal non-verbal face expressions. Ekman and his research team used a modern technology that had not been available to Charles Darwin: videotape.

Ekman and other psychologists reviewed hundreds of hours of footage of psychoanalysis sessions with patients from various cultures, searching patients’ faces for expressions that may be universal. Ultimately, the new research revealed a number of important discoveries. First, the researchers determined that there are seven major culturally universal face expressions: ones that represent disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, contempt, and surprise. Second, the research revealed that these face expressions were involuntary; even subjects who were trying to hide their emotions would make a universal “microexpression” for a fraction of a second, disclosing their true feelings whether they intended to or not.

Question: Select the sentence that introduces an important fact about the minimum duration of a type of nonverbal language.

Answer and answer explanation:
The correct sentence to highlight is:

  • Second, the research revealed that these face expressions were involuntary; even subjects who were trying to hide their emotions would make a universal “microexpression” for a fraction of a second, disclosing their true feelings whether they intended to or not.

This is the correct sentence because it explains the minimum amount of time (a fraction of a second) that a certain type of nonverbal speech (universal “microexpressions”) lasts.

You can find a few additional examples of this question type in The Official Guide to the GRE General Test, and many more practice “Highlight the Sentence” questions  if you subscribe to Magoosh GRE Premium.

One Less Common (but important) Reading Comprehension Question Type: Factual Detail

Factual detail questions are fairly common on undergraduate university admissions tests such as the ACT, SAT, and TOEFL. (Yes, I know grad schools also require the TOEFL, but ETS has really designed it for undergraduate admissions!) In this question type, test-takers simply have to correctly identify a fact that was stated directly in the exam. This fact will be paraphrased in the correct answer choice.

This question type is not that common, but there’s a distinct possibility you’ll see it once on test day, somewhere in the two verbal sections on the test. In fact, the GRE Official Guide has one of these in its sample test.

Factual detail questions are fairly straightforward, and again– they are rare. So you don’t need to spend too much time studying them. Below is a short passage and sample factual detail question. I recommend looking the passage and question over briefly, just so you know what to expect if one of these questions appears on your exam.

Factual detail question (with short GRE Reading Comprehension passage)
Marsupials and placentals, the two largest divisions of mammals on the earth today, are distinct from each other primarily due to the way their young are gestated. Marsupials have comparatively short gestation periods, after which minimally developed offspring are born and promptly move into a protective pocket outside the the uterus where they can develop further. Placental mammals demonstrate longer gestation periods, with young that are born more fully developed; placental newborns nurse at mammary glands outside of the mother’s body and experience prolonged periods where they have no physical contact with their mother.

Differences between the prehistoric ancestors of these two divisions of mammal are discenred through study of the fossil record rather than examination of life cycle. Scientists theorize that the ancestors of marsupials, known as metatherians, probably split from those of the eutherians, placental mammals’ ancestors, during the mid-Jurassic period. Fossil metatherians differ from eutherians in their dental morphology. Fossilized metatherians show four pairs of molars in each jaw, whereas eutherian mammals never have more than three pairs. Per this criterion, the earliest known metatherian is Sinodelphys szalayi, which lived in China around 125 million years ago. It seems that Sinodelphys szalayi lived alongside some early eutherian species, fossils of which which have been found in the same area.
(Note: This passage was adapted from Wikipedia: Marsupial.)

Question:
According to the passage, scientists distinguished between the evolutionary forbearers of marsupials by seeing whether or not fossil remains indicated

A) minimal fetal development
B) prehensile tails
C) a specific number of teeth
D) indications of a pouch
E) origins in East Asia

Answer and answer explanation:
The correct answer is (C), because the passage mentions that the ancestors of marsupials had four sets of molars, while the ancestors of mammals had three sets or fewer. (A) is incorrect because the passage says that fetal development is a distinguishing trait of modern marsupials and placentals, not their ancestors. (B) is wrong because the passage doesn’t even mention tails. (C) is wrong for the same reason as (A): (C) mentions a distinguishing trait of modern mammals, not prehistoric ones. (D) is wrong because both marsupial and placental ancestors were found in ancient China; this does not distinguish one group from the other.

Reading Comprehension Paragraph Arguments: The Six Most Common Question Types

There are six commonly recurring question types for Paragraph Argument Passages on the GRE. You can expect to see all six of the following kinds of GRE RC PA Qs (what a lot of letters!) on test day:

  • Weaken/Strengthen
  • Evaluate Argument
  • Paradox
  • Assumption
  • Bold-Faced
  • Fill-in-the-Blank

When considering the difference between these question types, it’s important to remember that the task for Paragraph Argument questions is always fundamentally the same regardless of question type. In any case, you are reading and carefully analyzing a short, paragraph-length argument. With that in mind, here is a brief description of the six question types commonly associated with paragraph arguments in GRE Reading Comprehension:

Weaken/Strengthen

With this question type, the answer choices always introduce new facts that weren’t in the original passage. Test takers may be asked to select a new fact that would weaken the argument’s main claim if it were true, or they may be asked to select a new fact that would make the argument weaker if true.

Evaluate Argument

This question type is used for arguments that have a “gap”– a leap in logic or a piece of missing information that makes it difficult to assess whether or not the argument is correct. An evaluate argument question asks test takers which additional information would be necessary to determine if the argument is valid or not.

Paradox

This question type appears when the initial passage makes statements that appear to be contradictory. For example, a passage might say that climate change has caused average atmospheric temperatures to rise, while also exposing the majority of the earth’s population to greater extremes of cold each year. Such a passage would likely be followed by a paradox question, which asks test-takers to choose an additional fact (not in the original passage) that would explain the passage’s contradiction.

Assumption

Assumption questions are similar to evaluate argument questions in some ways. A passage preceding an assumption question will have a leap in logic or an information gap, like an evaluate argument question. However, in the case of assumption questions, test-takers need to identify the assumption the author is making but not directly stating.

Bold Faced

Bold faced Paragraph Argument questions are a lot like the “highlight sentence” questions associated with general RC passages. However, bold faced questions involve two sentences rather than one, and the sentences will already be highlighted for you. With this question type, it’s your job to correctly identify the purpose these two sentences serve, and the relationship the sentences have to each other.

Fill-in-the-Blank

This is the least common Paragraph Argument question type, but it could still easily come up a time or two on test day. Here, as you would expect, you need to select an answer that completes a blank space in the initial passage. The blank space will always be at the end of the argument, and the answer choices will always be possible conclusions to the argument. In this question type, test-takers will, of course, need to choose the best, most appropriate conclusion.

GRE Paragraph Argument Question Types: Examples and Tutorials

Chris Lele has written a number of excellent blog posts to help you get better acquainted with the questions in GRE Paragraph Arguments, AKA Critical Reasoning. This includes:

And be sure to check out the Magoosh GRE Blog’s GRE paragraph argument archives for additional help with these kinds of questions.

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