The GMAT in itself is a highly challenging and tough exam. The adaptive nature of the exam, coupled with its duration and the higher-order reasoning skills that are tested, make it demanding and difficult.
One section that is certainly intimidating for most test takers is Reading Comprehension. Intertwined information, the sheer number of lines, and unfamiliar topics that one has to read drive much fear and apprehension in test takers.
But hey, there is some good news! With a combination of the right strategies and practice, GMAT Reading Comprehension (RC) can be mastered! In this article, we discuss how to solve GMAT Reading Comprehension questions fast and accurately.
Typically, you will encounter anywhere between 3 and 5 reading passages on the GMAT, accounting for about one-third of the total number of questions. The lengths and topics of passages might vary greatly - history, physical and biological sciences, business, and humanities are all common topics.
According to mba.com, GMAT Reading Comprehension evaluates a test taker’s ability to “understand words and statements, understand logical relationships between significant points, draw inferences, and follow the development of quantitative concepts.” Typically, a test taker’s reading abilities in terms of identifying the main idea, supporting idea, inference, application, logical structure, and style of the passage are tested.
Now that we know what the GMAT Reading Comprehension section tests us on, let's understand how to solve RC passages quickly without errors.
Though demanding, RCs can be mastered by using the right strategies. And once you are aware of and familiar with the strategies, solving RCs is a cakewalk.
The first step to solving RCs is reading the passage. And while we don’t mean that you must read it carefully and in detail, you must certainly get a good idea of its main purpose.
And how do you read RCs on the GMAT? Remember that reading a GMAT passage is very different from reading a newspaper article or a random article on the web. There are specific techniques and specific focus areas. Here are 4 tips for reading GMAT Reading Comprehension passages better:
The main idea of a reading passage is generally in the introduction or/and the conclusion. And isn’t this for obvious reasons? The introduction, as the name suggests, really sets the context for what is to follow. It establishes the base for the rest of the passage. So, when you read the introduction carefully, you often have a great idea of what the passage is about. Similarly, the conclusion sums up the entire passage, so reading the conclusion can help you understand the overall theme of the passage.
To identify any changes that occur in the passage, it is imperative that you focus on transition words or conjunctions. Conjunctions are important because they help you identify the transitions between ideas in a passage. Simple words such as however, although, but, yet, further, also, because, as, since, thus, therefore, and hence are transition words.
With a focus on transition words also comes the idea of anticipatory reading, which is a technique to predict text as you read. Anticipation of text helps you read quicker and this is a technique used often by speed readers.
Apart from just helping you understand the changes in ideas and tone and read quicker, transition words are also important because there is a high likelihood of a question being asked from an area where a transition word has been used.
So, really, focusing on transition words is your one magic wand to acing the RCs.
To understand a passage better, it is important that you be able to identify and differentiate between facts that the author has mentioned and his opinions. Look out for such ideas carefully!
When reading a long passage that consists of multiple paragraphs, you must understand the purpose of various paragraphs. Ask yourself why the author feels the need to divide his content into multiple paragraphs rather than write everything in one big chunk of text. Check on whether the information in the paragraphs is complementary or contradictory.
I know this sounds like a lot to focus on, but once you train yourself to read in this manner, your reading speed will certainly improve.
There are a few specific types of questions that appear on the RCs in GMAT. The more comfortable you are in identifying those questions and the strategies to answer them, the quicker you will get.
Broadly, there are 4 question categories:
These questions simply test you on the facts given in the passage. It goes without saying that such questions are the easy ones where a simple word match will suffice. Look out for phrases such as ‘according to the passage,’ ‘as defined in the passage,’ and ‘as described in the passage’ to identify factual questions.
Factual questions are location-based, and all you must do to solve these questions is look out for the specific location in the passage, match words, and eliminate answer options to get to the right one.
These questions require you to draw conclusions from the ideas stated in the passage.
Needless to say, these are the tricky ones that will require you to understand the implied ideas. Phrases such as ‘what does the author suggest’ or ‘what can you imply/infer from the passage’ are typical indicators of inferential questions.
To answer these questions, you must draw your own conclusions before looking at the answer options.
You will encounter a good number of such questions in the exam. This type of question checks your understanding of the main idea of the passage. Look out for phrases such as ‘what is the primary purpose / main idea / central theme / chief concern of the passage.’
A thorough reading of the introduction and the conclusion can help you understand the main idea of the passage better.
These questions typically test you on identifying the purpose of a specific idea or sentence in the passage. Look out for phrases such as ‘what is the purpose/ role/ function of XYZ.’
Reading the context in which a sentence or a phrase has been used will help you fetch the answers to such questions.
Now that you are aware of the basics of RC, let’s work on one passage together. Go ahead and give this one reading.
Historians remain divided over the role of banks in facilitating economic growth in the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some scholars contend (5) that banks played a minor role in the nation’s growing economy. Financial institutions, they argue, appeared only after the economy had begun to develop, and once organized, followed conservative lending practices, providing aid to (10) established commercial enterprises but shunning those, such as manufacturing and transportation projects, that were more uncertain and capital-intensive (i.e., requiring greater expenditures in the form of capital than in (15) labor).
A growing number of historians argue, in contrast, that banks were crucial in transforming the early national economy. When state legislatures began granting more bank charters (20) in the 1790s and early 1800s, the supply of credit rose accordingly. Unlike the earliest banks, which had primarily provided short-term loans to well-connected merchants, the banks of the early nineteenth century issued credit wisely. As Paul (25) Gilje asserts, the expansion and democratization of credit in the early nineteenth century became the driving force of the American economy, as banks began furnishing large amounts of capital to transportation and industrial enterprises. The (30) exception, such historians argue, was in the South; here, the overwhelmingly agrarian nature of the economy generated outright opposition to banks, which were seen as monopolistic institutions controlled by an elite group of (35) planters.
Did you follow the above pointers to read this passage? The opening lines of the passage gave away the primary purpose, didn’t they? When you read that ‘historians remain divided over the role of banks in facilitating economic growth,’ you should have anticipated that the rest of the passage will discuss that division of opinion among historians.
In terms of the structure of the passage, the two paragraphs have very specific purposes - while the first discusses the views of those historians who believe that banks played only a minor role in the economic growth of the United States, the second discusses the view of the second group of historians who are of the opinion that banks played a significant role in changing the economy.
Do you also agree that the author has not presented his opinion in this passage? He has only shared the opinions of the two groups of historians.
1. The primary purpose of the passage is to
A. compare the economic role played by southern banks with the economic role played by banks in the rest of the United States during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
B. re-evaluate a conventional interpretation of the role played by banks in the American economy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
C. present different interpretations of the role played by banks in the American economy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
D. analyse how the increasing number of banks in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries affected the American economy
E. examine how scholarly opinion regarding the role played by banks in the American economy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has changed over time
This question asks you to identify the main idea of the passage, something that we have already done when we read the opening lines.
Wasn’t it easy to eliminate answer options in this question? A discusses ‘southern banks’ and not banks in general, which helps us eliminate it. It is important to note that because the author does not give his opinion, it is incorrect to say that he might have ‘reevaluated,’ ‘analysed’ or ‘examined’ any ideas which could have helped you eliminate B, D, and E.
The correct answer is option C.
2. The passage suggests that the opposition to banks in the South in the early nineteenth century stemmed in part from the perception that banks
A. did not benefit more than a small minority of the people
B. did not support the interests of elite planters
C. were too closely tied to transportation and industrial interests
D. were unwilling to issue the long-term loans required by agrarian interests
E. were too willing to lend credit wisely
The use of the word ‘suggests’ tells us that this is an inference question. We might have to read between the lines to get to the answer to this question. Also, it is highly recommended that you draw a conclusion yourself before you look at the answer options.
The last lines of the passage discuss the opposition to banks in the South, saying, “here, the overwhelmingly agrarian nature of the economy generated outright opposition to banks, which were seen as monopolistic institutions controlled by an elite group of planters.”
This means that the perception in the South, which was a primarily agrarian economy, was that banks were controlled by only a specific group of planters. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this idea is that the opposition to the banks stemmed due to the perception that banks might cater to this small group and not help the majority.
Doesn’t this help us narrow down to option A? While B was just the opposite of the anticipated answer, C, D, and E are irrelevant to the opposition to banks in the South.
They don’t say practice makes a man perfect for nothing. The more you practice, the easier GMAT Reading Comprehension questions will seem. Use authentic material such as the official guide for more practice. Also, ensure that you practice both short and long passages equally, along with working on passages of all genres.
We would also recommend that you not time yourself when solving the first few GMAT passages. Rather, focus on the strategies and processes. Once you are comfortable with the processes to solve a passage, your timing will certainly get better.