GRE Verbal Reasoning - Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension is one of the question types in the Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE. About half of the questions in each Verbal Reasoning section will be Reading Comprehension questions. Reading Comprehension questions are intermingled with Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion questions in the Verbal Reasoning section. While Reading Comprehension focuses on analysis of a passage, the other question types are more concentrated on vocabulary usage and understanding.

For Reading Comprehension questions, you are given a passage to read and must answer questions about the content and structure of the passage to demonstrate your comprehension. Reading Comprehension passages vary in length from one paragraph to several paragraph. Each passage will correspond to 1-6 questions. The test will contain approximately 10 passages, most of which are a single paragraph in length. One or two Reading Comprehension passages per test will be several paragraphs long. In addition to long passages, there are also very short "Argument Structure Passages" of 25-75 words that correspond to a single question. There will usually be approximately one Argument Structure Passage per Verbal Reasoning section.

Reading Comprehension Passages

The Reading Comprehension questions are intended to test a wide range of abilities including understanding the meaning of paragraphs and large bodies of text as well as individual words and sentences, summarizing passages, distinguishing between major and minor points, drawing conclusions and making inferences from incomplete data, understanding the structure of a text, identifying authorial assumptions and perspective, analyzing a text and reaching conclusions about it, identifying strengths and weaknesses of a position, and developing and considering alternative explanations.

The GRE Reading Comprehension questions can be very challenging, especially because the content of the passages may be very boring or difficult material that you will not be interested in. Time management is critical on these sections, because all of the answers to the questions can be found inside the reading passage. In addition, the computer-based test makes it easy to mark questions for review so that you can answer them later. For the Reading Comprehension sections, it is wisest to answer all of the questions for a passage once you have analyzed it – if you need to return to the same question later, you will waste time re-reading the passage to find information. Nevertheless, if a passage seems particularly difficult or uninteresting to you, it may be wise to skip the entire passage until the end of the section.

The content of Reading Comprehension passages varies tremendously. The subject matter may come from Natural Science (Astronomy, Physics, Biology, etc.), Social Science (Philosophy, History, etc.), Business-related content (Business History, Marketing, Economic Theory, etc.), or other topics that may be relevant to graduate study. The passages will be written in GRE style, which likely appear bland and tasteless compared to what you usually read. Even a passage on your favorite topic may not be an easy ride for you, because of the complexity of its structure and the depth of the information it will present.

Reading Comprehension Strategy

Once you have chosen a passage to analyze, it is important for you to make use of active reading strategies to ensure that you are able to efficiently process, digest, and utilize information on test day to answer questions effectively. One such strategy is to outline the passage while you are reading, reverse-engineering the main ideas, arguments, and important pieces of information that the passage discusses. This will reimage the content of the passage in a more easily presentable format, so that once you begin answering questions you will have a resource to help you. This technique is especially useful if you must skip a question and return to it at the end of the section, as it refreshes your memory of your thoughts about a passage without requiring you to reread the entire text.

Success on the Reading Comprehension questions requires active engagement with the texts, including asking questions, forming hypotheses, and reflecting on the relationship of the text to other texts and information. It may be helpful for you to diagram the important components of a passage as you find them – things such as keywords, transition phrases, points to illustrate main ideas or arguments, or notes to remember important pieces of information. Whether you diagram the passage or not, you should carefully read and analyze the passage before trying to answer any of the questions.

While reading it is important to prioritize the information that will help you answer questions. Particular things to notice include: distinguishing main ideas from supporting ideas and evidence; noticing whether the author is advancing ideas or merely reporting; evaluating whether the author is committed to an idea or is hypothetical and speculative; identifying transitions and transition keywords in the text; and tracking the relationship between different ideas, whether they support or contrast with each other. Once you have analyzed the passage, read the questions carefully, and answer each question based on information from the passage; do not rely on outside knowledge. Refer back to the passage as often as necessary to find the information you need. Sometimes your views or opinions may conflict with the passage, so be sure to work carefully within the context of the passage and the questions. Try to answer all of the questions for each passage once you have read it, for if you return to the questions later you may need to reread the passage.

Test Structure

Reading comprehension sections can pose two types of multiple-choice questions, and it is important to be able to distinguish between them on test day to ensure that you answer each type appropriately. One way to remember what type of question you are answering is to pay attention to the formatting of the test: single-answer multiple choice questions use "bubble" formatting for the answers (so you can only select one answer at a time), whereas multiple-answer multiple choice questions use "box-selection" formatting for the answers (so that you can select one or multiple answers, as appropriate). The best way to become familiar with this distinction is to take multiple practice tests, so that you can comfortably navigate both types of multiple-choice questions.