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All you need to know about the GRE Reading Comprehension

Posted on March 25, 2018

Honestly, tell us…when was the last time you read something excruciatingly boring and didn’t doze off?
 
You’re probably thinking, “Right now! When I solve the GRE Reading Comprehension passages!!”
 
We completely get it!
 
Reading about topics that you have absolutely no interest in, and moreover when you don’t understand squat – it can be annoying.
 
But you gotta do what you gotta do!
 
In this article, we are going to ease out things a little bit.
 
We will talk about importance of RC passages on the GRE Verbal, and how you don’t really need to know the background behind the passage, but ways to just get the answer right.
 
And to help put this theory into practice, we will additionally provide a few practice passage towards the end of this article 🙂
 
Reading this article will give you a very clear picture of how to tackle RC on the GRE.
 
So why don’t you grab some coffee (or a pen and paper – whichever works!) and get yourself comfortable.
 
Let’s get started!
 

Section 1 : Why do colleges care about Reading Comprehension (RC)?

Section 2 : How is RC tested on the GRE?

Section 3 : Challenges answering RC questions( & how to overcome them!)

Section 4 : Mapping an RC Passage

Section 5 : Question types on the RC GRE

Section 6 : Practice Passages for the GRE RC

Section 7 : Commonly Asked Questions

 
 

Section 1 : Why do colleges care about Reading Comprehension (RC)?

 
Incidentally, Reading Comprehension is the only question that appears on all major standardized tests.
 
Irrespective of the academic career you wish to pursue, you will always come across dense complex written material which you have to make sense of.
 
According to the Educational Testing Services (ETS), the RC in the GRE – “tests your ability to actively engage with the text, ask questions, formulate and evaluate hypothesis and reflect on the relationship of a particular text to other texts and information”
 
To put it in simpler words, the GRE RC passages test you on your ability to comprehend individual words and sentences, bifurcate the structure of main text and parts that relate to each other, identify the author’s assumptions and perspective – also consider alternate explanations, and reason from incomplete data to infer missing information.
 
The good thing about Reading Comprehension is you don’t really require prior knowledge on the subject matter – all the answers lie within the passage.
 
Why don’t you require the prior knowledge?
 
RC GRE passages are hand-picked by the ETS. The passages chosen are from diverse backgrounds – academics, non academica, fiction, arts and humanities, history, english literature – to name a few. The probability of you having read these passages before is bleak.
 
These passages are picked in a way to test your vocabulary, comprehension of complex ideas and sentence structures, and the speed at which you are able to complete answering a complete passage.
 
So fretting about not knowing the content is pointless.
 
What you should be looking at are tips and hacks that will help you answer the questions below to get the answer right, and of course – a high GRE score. 🙂
 
We’ve observed a lot of students waste ample time reading and re-reading the passage – when you have only 30 minutes in hand for the entire Verbal section, it might not be greatest of ideas.
 
But lucky for you, we have a few ways in which you can make the RC process way faster.
 
A lot of students have been pondering over the same question, “If we don’t know what passage is going to appear, how are we supposed to prepare for it, and even if I do prepare, how is it going to help boost my overall GRE score?”
 
Well, RC in the is one of the most important sections under GRE Verbal.
 
Unlike the comprehension passages you got in school, this one is 10x times harder.
 
We will be covering all these aspects – one at a time 🙂
 
 

Section 2 : How is RC tested on the GRE?

 
Reading Comprehension (RC) questions are one of the three types of questions in the Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE.
 
RC makes up for almost ⅓rd of the questions under the Verbal section.
 

 
Total duration : 30 minutes
Total no. of questions : 20
 
The split :
 
> Reading Comprehension – 9 questions
> Critical Reasoning – 1 questions
> Text completion & Sentence Equivalence – 10 questions
 
GRE Verbal RC passages vary in length – approximately 200-500 words – short one paragraph passages to three long paragraph passages.
 
Ideally, each passage is followed by 1-3 questions.
 
Whether you understand the passage or not, you need to be able to skim through it entirely and absorb only what is required to answer the questions below.
 
There are 3 question formats on the RC GRE:
 
–> Multiple Choice Questions – 5 answer options and 1 right answer
 

 
–> Multiple Response Questions – 3 answer options, upto 3 right answers – More than one right answer. Pick all the correct options to get the right answer.
 

 
–> Select in Passage Questions – clickable parts of the passage will be marked with an arrow on the main passage.
 

 
The first question format – MCQ – there is only one right answer – thus increasing the probability of you getting the right answer much higher compared to the second format.
 
In the second format, all answers could be right, or just 3 out of the 5 – if you get one answer option incorrect, you lose out on the entire question.
 
Now the third questions format, you need be extremely aware of how you go about selecting the line from the passage – reread the question if you have to, but make sure the sentence you pick is accurate.
 
 

Section 3 : Challenges answering RC questions( & how to overcome them!)

 
Reading passages and answering questions within a few minutes is not easy – you have to
read, process, comprehend, and answer.
 
To be good on the GRE RC, you need to realize that Reading Comprehension is extremely challenging both inherently and by design.
 
 
Let’s explore these challenges and ways to overcome them.
 

Limited Time

 
“Don’t spend too much time reading the passage” – we said. “ But I always thought I should, it’s important to understand what I’m reading, right?” – said one of our students.
 
The answer to why you shouldn’t spend too much time reading the passage is simple. You are awarded points for answering the questions below – NOT for comprehending every tiny detail the passage provides.
 
Your approach should be:
 
> Read the passage for surface level details i.e overall idea discussed, how many ideas transition through paragraphs and what the author’s perspective is.
 
> Read in-depth only if and when needed. If a question asks about a particular detail, you can always go back to the passage to find more about it. So don’t focus your energy towards absorbing the details, but only to grasp the highlights.
 
Now, let’s calculate how much time you should be allocating per passage:
 
You have only 30 minutes to finish the entire Verbal section – 20 questions – including Text Completion, Sentence Equivalence and Critical Reasoning.
 
Assume you have 3 RC passages with 3 questions each.
 
Let’s split the time you take to read and answer:
 
> 3 minutes – reading
> 5 minutes – answer questions
 
In total, you will take 24 minutes for 3 passages – 8 minutes per passage.
 
That, my friend, leaves you with only 6 minutes to solve the remaining questions.
 
Is that freaking you out a little bit? It should be.
 
Ideally, candidates spend over 8+ minutes reading and trying to dissect the passage.
 
On the GRE RC, time is of the essence- make every moment count.
 
To make things easier, start practicing RC passages when you start your GRE Verbal Prep.
 
Bring down the time from 8 minutes to 6 minutes per passage. That should give you an additional 6 minutes (totally 12) to figure out the rest of the Verbal section.
 
When you take the tests, keep a log of the:
 
> Time you take to read
> Time you take to answer
> Measure your accuracy
 
This is the simplest way to manage your time on the RC.
 
 

Confusing Content

 
What are you doing to do if you get an RC passage that is highly tormenting? A passage you feel you need to re-read multiple times?
 
You enter the panic stage. And boom. 30 minutes gone!
 
Don’t worry. We are not going to let that happen to you.
 
We have identified 3 GRE prep tips that should help you better your RC skills.
 
> Familiarize yourself with the content style
 
GRE throws passages drawn from diverse backgrounds- history, astronomy, art and humanities, social sciences, biological sciences – among others.
 
Test takers find the subject matter of these passages extremely scary and overwhelming.
 
Honestly, the probability of you having read the passage is bleak.
 
So don’t let the unfamiliarity of the content stand in the way of your study plan.
 
Here are a few ways to help you stick to the ‘6 minute rule per passage’:
 
> Start reading A LOT – don’t stick to a particular genre – explore types of content out there
> Learn to map passages (we’ll explain passage mapping in the next section)
> Twin with the author – start reading from his perspective
> Read in between lines – only if required.
 
> Complicated Wording and Perspectives
 
GRE RC passages are often heavy duty- long sentences structures, complicated words, confusing ideas – purpose of the passage, difficult vocabulary – to name a few.
 
Let’s take this practice passage for example :
 
“ The discovery of what Loody has called the ‘enabling effects’ of literacy in contemporary societies tends to seduce the observer into confusing often rudimentary knowledge of how to read with popular access to important books and documents: this confusion is then projected onto ancient societies”
 
The whole paragraph is one big complex sentence. It consists of words like seduce, contemporary and rudimentary.
 
Next, try and map the passage to understand the gist of it.
 
Loody – the author talks about a theory he coined – ‘enabling effects’. He draws parallels between the contemporary (modern) and the ancient societies, and how one influences the other.
 
Mentally break it down into –
 
    • Words and meanings
    • Writers perspective – background
    • Points to ignore
 
Breaking the passage down will help process information faster and thus save on time.
 
The intent of the Reading Comprehension passage is seldom to check vocabulary.
 
When you do come across an unknown word while reading the passage, try figuring out what it means through context (if you aren’t able to – don’t worry about it – it’s probably not gonna be important!).
 
Although, there might be cases in which some words or terms may be of importance; in such cases ETS (the guys who set the test) will make sure an explanation or a definition is provided.
 
 
> Know the subtle difference
 
We call it the ‘Jugglery of Words’
 
Say for example the words ‘discuss’ and ‘debate’
 
Discuss is when two or more people get together to share and talk about ideas.
 
Describe is a detailed explanation of the subject – can be written or oral – you are explaining the logic to someone, not discussing it.
 
A lot of people confuse the both – and it’s not uncommon – it’s just the lack of knowing the subtle difference.
 
On the GRE RC, you have to understand the exact usage of words and phrases and what they exactly mean.
 
Even the slightest difference in your understanding will cost you a few points (scores).
 
 

High Mental Stress

 
Quick! What is the difference between cold-blooded and warm blooded animals?
 
If someone were to ask you that out of the blue, and expected a response within seconds you’d be taken off guard – it’s not that you don’t know what the answer is, it’s just you need to clear your head and think it through.
 
Keeping up with the time limit on the GRE RC is just like that.
 
You need to make quick right decisions.
 
The secret is to train your brain to stay calm under pressure – thus not affecting your performance.
 
GRE is a 3 hour 50 minute demanding and rigorous test.
 
To give the GRE, you need to be in the right state of mind and you need to be able to withstand an almost 4 hour-long test.
 
The only way to overcome the mental stress is to include RC passages as a part of your GRE study plan.
 
Constant practice will improve your working speed and thus your accuracy.
 
Remember, you aim is to answer the question correctly, not understand the content of the passage.
 
 

Section 4: Mapping an RC Passage

 
Passage:
 
A measles-like virus is being cited as a likely cause for the mass dolphin die-off that’s been plaguing the U.S. East Coast this summer. Since July 1, 333 carcasses have littered shores from New York to North Carolina – a number that’s roughly 10 times more than normal for this time of year. Scientists don’t yet know how many dolphins have died offshore without reaching mid-Atlantic beaches, but it could be thousands. In July, NOAA declared the die-off an Unusual Mortality Event, which frees up federal funding and investigators to address the crisis.
 
Now, a NOAA team in charge of investigating the event is pointing to a type of morbillivirus as the culprit behind the bottlenose dolphins deaths. Morbilliviruses are responsible for measles in humans, rinderpest in cattle, and canine distemper in dogs, coyotes, wolves and seals. There is no easy way to identify morbillivirus infection just by looking at a carcass, so identifying the pathogen as the cause of the die-off involved a feat of molecular detective work using tissue collected from the dead animals.
 
While there are no unifying anatomical findings that point toward the pathogen, many of the animals washing ashore have suggestive lesions in their mouths, lymph nodes, brain, or lungs. Potter, and the others who conduct necropsies (animal autopsies), collect bits of these damaged tissues, as well as other organs.
 
So far, nearly all of the carcasses – 32 out of 33 – fresh enough to be analysed by these methods have tested positive for, or are strongly suspected of having, morbillivirus. Of those, genetic sequencing confirmed that 11 of the carcasses carry the cetacean form of the virus, which affects dolphins and porpoises.
 

 
 
Paragraph-wise explanation:
 
First – The opening statement – “A measles-like virus is being cited as a likely cause for the mass dolphin die-off that’s been plaguing the U.S. East Coast this summer.” – tells us that the passage is about dolphin die-offs and that there is an ongoing investigation to figure out the reason. We also know that 1333 carcasses is 10 times more than normal.
 
Second – This paragraph tells us that NOAA is investigating the issue. The rest of the information in the second paragraph – just skim through. If there is a question on the investigating team/complexity of the investigation, you come back and scan the it.
 
Third – While there are no unifying anatomical findings that point toward the pathogen, many of the animals washing ashore have suggestive lesions in their mouths, lymph nodes, brain, or lungs. Potter, and the others who conduct necropsies (animal autopsies), collect bits of these damaged tissues, as well as other organs.
 
Fourth – So far, nearly all of the carcasses – 32 out of 33 – fresh enough to be analysed by these methods have tested positive for, or are strongly suspected of having, morbillivirus. Of those, genetic sequencing confirmed that 11 of the carcasses carry the cetacean form of the virus, which affects dolphins and porpoises.
 
And that is how you go about mapping the passage.
 
Limit the time you spend mapping the passage to max. 2 minutes.
 
Let’s now move on to the types of questions you will see on the GRE RC.
 
 

Section 5 : Question types on the RC GRE

 
These are the 3 major types of questions that appear on the GRE RC.
 
We will explain what the question type means with the example of the passage above.
 

1. Big Picture Questions

 
Questions under this category test your ability to understand the main idea of the passage and distinguish it from the supporting ideas.
 
The idea behind the Big Picture question is to identify the primary purpose of the passage, and differentiate that from the secondary and tertiary purposes.
 
These questions will also test your ability to understand the structure and the tone of the passage.
 
Q – This passage is primarily concerned with:
 
Before going through the answer options, we will try to get the answer from our map.
 
Looking at the map, we know that the passage revolves around dolphin die-offs.
 
The author is giving us details of an ongoing investigation and some indicators and evidence to suggest that morbillivirus is the cause for the die-offs.
 
We will go through the answer options and pick the option closest to the answer we got from the map.
 
A. exploring possible causes for a phenomenon
B. illustrating the mechanism of propagation of infection by the morbillivirus in dolphins
C. Evaluating the actions taken by the NOAA with respect to Unusual mortality events
D. Providing evidence to suggest a likely cause for a phenomenon – Correct Answer.
E. Suggesting that the cetacean form of the morbillivirus is the only cause for the dolphin die offs.
 
 

2. Anchor-phrase Questions

 
Questions under the Anchor Phrase category will ask you to deal with information explicitly stated in the passage and with information implied in context-specific statements.
 
Basically, you need to answer with the literal meaning of words and sentences. And not try to be creative or illogical.
 
If you find an anchor phrase in a question, you will find the same phrase explicitly mentioned in the passage – your answer must be with reference to that phrase and not in general context.
 
Q. While there are no unifying anatomical findings that point toward the pathogen, many of the animals washing ashore have suggestive lesions in their mouths, lymph nodes, brain, or lungs. According to the passage, when the author says “many of the animals washing ashore have suggestive lesions”, the author is
 
A. Giving proof that the die offs are caused by the morbillivirus –
B. Indicating that infected dolphins show similar characteristic signs of infection in their bodies
C. Putting forth findings that help the NOAA team progress in its investigation of dolphin die offs – Correct Answer
D. Indicating that it is not easy to identify morbillivirus looking at a carcass
E. Suggesting that lesions in their mouths, lymph nodes, brain or lungs is the only reason for dolphin die offs
 
 
3. Inference-based Questions
 
Inference is information necessarily implied ‘in’ or ‘between’ context specific statements. It is based on information that may or maynot be explained in the passage.
 
So basically, you will have to read between the lines. However, you will have to understand the author’s perspective, and not make assumptions about content that is not relevant to the question or doesn’t exist in the passage.
 
Q. It can be inferred from the passage that the morbillivirus
 
We won’t get this information directly from the passage, so we’ll use the map for direction to identify areas on the passage we need to scan.
 
A. is the only pathogen that causes lesions in the organs of dolphins
B. has other forms apart from the cetacean form that can affect dolphins – Correct Answer
C. is more lethal, in its viral proliferation, to infected dolphins than to infected humans, cows, or dogs
D. is the cause of the mass dolphin die-off in the U.S East Coast
E. has been substantially more virulent than it was last year
 
So these are the 3 most commonly asked question types.
 
We’ll now provide you with practice passages where you can apply these techniques and give it a shot on your own.
 
 

Section 6 : Practice Passages for the GRE RC

 
We have compiled a series of GRE RC passages that we think will help you analyze your strengths and weaknesses.
 
GRE RC practice passages
 
 

Section 7 : Commonly Asked Questions

 

What are the total number of questions on the RC GRE?

 
On the GRE RC, you can get upto 1-5 questions – per passage. This primarily depends on how the passages and the questions are set by the ETS.
 
 

How do I manage time spent for an RC passage?

 
If you didn’t read the “Limited time” section above, here’s the gist.
 
Assume you have 3 RC passages with 3 questions each.
 
Let’s split the time you take to read and answer:
 
> 3 minutes – reading
> 5 minutes – answer questions
 
In total, you will take 24 minutes for 3 passages – 8 minutes per passage.
 
That, my friend, leaves you with only 6 minutes to solve the remaining questions.
 
 

Why is it important to prepare well for the RC section?

 
It is an important section on the GRE Verbal, and will help improve your overall score. However as the RC section is highly time consuming, you will have to train you mind with the tips/hacks mentioned above to help increase your speed.
 
 

What if I don’t know the meaning of certain words in the given passage?

 
Doesn’t matter. Try and understand what the author is trying to say in that particular context, and pick the option closest to the question asked.
 
 

Is RC question adaptive?

 
No, the RC on the GRE is not adaptive. Points are allocated per passage, not per question.
 
 

What are the types of questions on GRE RC?
 
There are 3 main types of questions on the GRE RC. 1) Big-Picture Question 2) Inference-Based Question 3) Anchor-Phrase Question.
 
To read more on the types of questions ( with examples) – skip to the “Types of Questions” section above.
 
 

What if I don’t understand the passage at all?

 
You don’t have to understand the complete passage. Learn how to map the passage instead.
 
Scroll to the example above to learn how to map the passage.
 
 

Are the questions within the RC passage counted individually or is the entire RC passage counted as 1 question by the scoring algorithm?

 
The score is calculated per passage – not per question.
 
 

Do I get marks for a partially correct answer?

 
No. You either answer correctly or you don’t. There is no in-between.
 
 

Are there any books/magazines that will help me improve my reading speed?

 
Reading speed comes with practice. Moreover especially for the RC, you need to learn to map the passage.
 
Try starting by reading posts from Business magazines, Finance blogs, any academic content you can lay your hands on, autobiographies, and so on. Make sure you pick heavy reads – so you won’t be cause off guard on the day of the test. This kind of reading will also help you understand the author’s perspective.
 
And is all we have to share on GRE RC. Just remember the ultimate goal is to get all the answers right without wasting time.
 
If you need help on the GRE Verbal, we are just a click away 🙂
 
 

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