GRE Reading Comprehension is probably the most difficult section to improve in. Even when progress occurs, it happens slowly. Many become understandably discouraged. After all, there are few sections in which you can feel flustered and perplexed even after reading the explanation. Perhaps my number one GRE Verbal tip on this matter is simply: Don’t give up.
As long as you remain tenacious, there are specific ideas that can help you improve your Reading Comprehension skills. The advice in this post is aimed not at someone who is just starting off (though it is also relevant to tyros), but for those who feel they may have hit a plateau or an impasse where it seems impossible to advance any further.
You may have already applied my other advice: read widely from publications noted for their high-quality prose. Doing this will help you strengthen your reading brain. But to ultimately get over the hump and increase your Reading Comprehension score, you will want to apply the strategies below, and review our Complete Guide to the GRE.
Practice using official GRE Reading Comprehension material
Content-wise, nothing beats practicing with actual GRE questions from the ETS Official Guide. ETS is the same company that makes the GRE itself, so everything you see in the Official Guide is written to the same specifications as something you’d find on a real GRE. The style and tone of the passage, the way questions and answer choices are worded, and the subtlety between the correct answer and the incorrect answers can only be fully appreciated in actual GRE Reading Comprehension questions.
Know the general structure of GRE Reading Comprehension passages
Most RC passages on the GRE will adhere to the same general structure. First, they introduce a theory or an idea. Then, some background or support will be provided regarding this idea. Often, a similar or competing idea will be introduced and scrutinized. Finally, the passage will close by addressing the implications of the aforementioned arguments.
Once you understand these general tendencies, you’ll be able to better identify the main idea of each passage. Moreover, you’ll train yourself to recognize the function of each individual sentence within the larger role of the main idea itself. Ultimately, you’ll be able to dissect each piece of information and determine whether it is the crux of the author’s argument, a piece of supporting evidence, a counter-theory, or a conclusion about future ramifications.
Know why the wrong answers are wrong
Wrong answers are the soul of Reading Comprehension questions. That may sound odd, like I’m trying to channel Shakespeare, but let me elaborate. Often, you may know the general answer to a question, or you may be able to easily spot common trap answers. But that is not what the GRE is ultimately testing. It is testing whether you can tell the difference between an answer choice that is almost correct and one that is unambiguously correct. Indeed, while sifting through the verbiage of the answer choices, you are truly employing your critical thinking skills.
Only by having a strong sense of why the correct answer is correct and the incorrect answer incorrect will you truly have mastered a question.
Students often balk at revisiting reading passages: ‘I’ve already done that one before.’ Unless you have a photographic memory, you’ll probably have forgotten most—if not all—of a passage you read six weeks ago.
Second, it is not about getting questions right. It is about knowing why the right answer is correct and the wrong answer incorrect (as I just noted above). The chances that you remember the nuances between answer choices are slight to none. Thus, each time you go through a passage is a fresh opportunity to exercise your analytical muscles. Magoosh students who go through practice problems multiple times show a higher score increase than students who do problems only once.
Know the different types of questions
There are a few recurring question types on the GRE Reading Comprehension section. Once you understand the goal of the different question types, you’ll be able to better intuit the correct answer. Likewise, you’ll increase your ability to avoid common trap answers. For more specific information, see the blogposts below:
- Primary Purpose/Main Idea Questions
- Inference Questions
- Vocabulary In Context Questions
- Select the Sentence Questions
Be aware of your propensities for mistakes
Do not fear making mistakes during your studies. Instead, realize that each mistake is an invaluable opportunity to learn something new or to correct an old misunderstanding. You will often find a pattern to your mistakes. It could be that you infer too much in inference questions. It could be that you overlook single words that end up greatly altering a sentence’s meaning. Or it could be that you misinterpret the connotations of the answer choices. Anticipating these mistakes can help you greatly.
Make it your goal to understand what errors you are prone to committing, and maintain mindfulness so these errors are not repeated.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2012 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.
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