Reading comprehension questions are among the most dreaded questions on the GRE. This does not have to be the case, however, if we simply train ourselves to read in a certain way. To begin with, though, lets talk about the basic question format so we can know what to expect.
First of all, know that you will see between 6 and 9 Reading Comprehension Questions on Test Day, and these will be spread through the course of 2 or 3 passages. If you end up having only 2 passages instead of three, it is most likely the case that one of the passages will be lengthy. There’s no need to worry about it though, as the principles we will cover will help you tackle even the longest passages.
Second, you should aim to answer all of the reading comprehension questions in an average of 1.5 minutes per question. This means that they take the longest out of all the verbal question types. This doesn’t mean that they are necessarily harder, though. It just means that you have to take some time to read the passage to find the answer.
Third, it is important to note that reading comprehension questions are NOT more subjective than any other verbal question. They are not more open to opinion than other questions, and they DO have correct answers. The answer to any reading comprehension question will be based on what is stated or implied by the passage. This is what makes them very susceptible to good reading techniques. If you can read well, you will be able to see the best answers very easily.
So, what do the reading comprehension questions require of you?
To put it simply, reading comp requires you to understand what you read– the content and the reasoning of the author. This means you must not jump to your opinion or your feelings about what the author has said, but to understand clearly what the author has in fact said. Many questions will inquire regarding what the author might agree with, so it is as if you have to get into the mind of the author. This requires a kind of active reading we need to learn.
The actual directions from ETS for the reading comprehension sections are as follows:
The passage is followed by questions based on its content. After reading the passage, choose the best answer to each question. Answer all questions following the passage on the basis of what is stated or implied in the passage.
These are fairly straightforward directions, the important thing to remember about them is that the answers to the questions will always come from what is stated or implied by the passage. This means that you will always have some indicator from the passage regarding the true answer to the question. So you need to understand what you read.
Now lets talk a little bit about the passages themselves.
The subject matter of each passage will come from one of three areas: the sciences, the humanities, or the social sciences.
The science passages will come from a branch of science like medicine or chemistry, and may be about the development and use of a new pharmaceutical drug, or the spread of disease, or some biological process like photosynthesis. It is important to follow the pattern of the passage to see exactly what the purpose of the author is in a science passage.
A passage on humanities will involve literature, art, or music… sometimes it will cover a new genre in music, for example, or the development of the work of a prominent artist or how his work changed over time, etc.
And a social science passage will be based on the claims of sociology, history, economics, or even psychology. Look for passages that describe the flow of ideas and traditions among a group of people, or a discussion about the economics of the business cycle, or perhaps a discussion of the context of a historical event.
The important thing for any of these subject matters is that you find out not so much what he is saying, but what the author is doing with what he is saying.
Consequently, it is vitally important to listen for the tone of the passage. Some passages are objective and have an explanatory of descriptive tone, while others may have a positive or negative point of view. Key words and phrases from the passage will help you discover the tone.
Lastly, you needn’t worry if any of these subject matters are unfamiliar to you. Test questions are designed so that they can be answered based on the passage by itself and you are not expected to rely on outside knowledge of a certain subject matter.
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