GRE Reading Comprehension
Updated March 04, 2010
Read and Comprehend
The concept here is simple enough- you’ll get between 2-4 passages of text in the Verbal Section of the GRE, and each passage will come with several multiple-choice questions that you’ll have to answer. You have to select the best answer based on the information contained in the passage you’re given.
There are 2 types of passages you might get. A long passage has about 50-60 lines, and you won’t find more than 1 long passage on the GRE. You might also find a few short passages of 20-25 lines. Topics for the passage range from scienctific concepts, which generally talk about the failures or successes of scientific discoveries, to humanities and social sciences that discuss art or history and provide some opinion and analysis.
What should you do?
The thing about GRE Reading Comprehension questions, unlike some of these type of questions you might find elsewhere, is that they usually look for specific details hidden within the passage. The main idea, structure, and analysis within the passage are usually less important.
The thing to do is skim the passage- look it over quickly. Then move straight to the questions. The questions might point you to a specific line, or else they’ll point to some key-word which you should scroll for and find in the passage. Now read the short section around that line or keyword, and you should be able to find your answer.
Do not try and read the whole passage before answering questions! This will waste your time, and you don’t have a whole lot of time here, remember that. Read fast, and if you can’t find the answer, just eliminate as many choices as possible and guess. There are, however, some tricks that might be useful.
Some useful tricks
Always use common sense. Passages are usually taken from scholarly essays and publications, so they’re likely to support science and arts. If an answer doesn’t make sense, regardless of the passage, you can usually eliminate it.
Extreme answers are almost always wrong. When question choices use ‘always’, ‘everyone’ and ‘completely’, or else ‘never’ or ‘no one’, the choices are usually wrong. Generalizations and extreme answers can be eliminated.
The right answer will often be paraphrased within the passage, especially in questions that look for something specific, but they won’t use the exact same wording. If a choice uses wording that’s nearly identical to a sentence from the passage, read it carefully- it might just be there to confuse you and make it seem like the right answer.
When questions refer to specific lines, remember to always read a little bit before and after the line- the answer will almost never be on that exact line, but it will usually be nearby.
A couple of other points:
Vocabulary is important! Just like the rest of the GRE, Reading Comprehension questions become easier if you know the words involved. You’ll often encounter long scientific words that might be new to you- learn them as you’re practicing, they might come in handy. However, when you’re writing the GRE, don’t let big words confuse you, because scientific names and words are sometimes thrown in for no practical value just to throw you off. Read around big words to guess their meaning.
Get used to reading comprehension on a computer. On paper, you can highlight and underline phrases, words and sections, but you can’t do that on the copmuterized GRE. Make sure you get used to writing down your notes on scratch paper and keep referencing lines to make things easier to find later.
Here’s a passage taken from the Wikipedia Article about the History of Writing:
Writing systems are distinguished from other possible symbolic communication systems in that one must usually understand something of the associated spoken language to comprehend the text. By contrast, other possible symbolic systems such as information signs, painting, maps, and mathematics often do not require prior knowledge of a spoken language. Every human community possesses language, a feature regarded by many as an innate and defining condition of mankind (see Origin of language). However the development of writing systems, and the process by which they have supplanted traditional oral systems of communication has been sporadic, uneven and slow. Once established, writing systems on the whole change more slowly than their spoken counterparts, and often preserve features and expressions which are no longer current in the spoken language. The great benefit of writing systems is their ability to maintain a persistent record of information expressed in a language, which can be retrieved independently of the initial act of formulation.
I might ask you this: In what way do writing systems change slower than spoken word?
- Writing systems don’t allow to maintain a persistent record of information
- Writing systems supplament systems of oral communication
- Writing systems keep certain features even if they’re no longer used in oral systems
- Writing systems require prior knowledge of the spoken language
- Writing systems were used less often, so they did not change as fast
Answer: Note that options A and B contain sections directly from the passage, which suggest they’re wrong. In this case, they are wrong- writing systems do allow you to maintain record of information, while choice doesn’t provide an answer to the question. Choice D again doesn’t provide a very good answer. Choice E provides a perfect answer to the question, but sadly this answer is not found within the text, so it’s unacceptable. That leaves C- in the passage you will find this sentence: “writing systems on the whole change more slowly than their spoken counterparts, and often preserve features and expressions which are no longer current in the spoken language”. Answer C is a well paraphrased piece with the same information, which means it’s the right answer we’re looking for.
Hopefully that gives you some idea on how to look for and answer reading comprehension questions.
Online GRE Practice Tests
Use these tests to practice reading comprehension and other parts of the Verbal Section:
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