Words, Unlike People, Are Not All Born Equal

Avi Gutman —  September 12, 2012 — 5 Comments

Most students who struggle with Reading Comprehension share a common issue: they focus equally on all words in the passage. Some words, however, are not as important as others, and in order to improve our comprehension we must first learn to identify which words we should focus our energy on. You may have noticed that the title of this blog post is difficult to follow; words such as unlike and not are important structural words, since they describe a 180 degree change in meaning. If we speed through the title we are likely to miss something important, and our comprehension level will drop! Instead, let’s come to a complete stop and hold off on the rest of the post until we have milked those structural words for all they’re worth.

GMAT wordsThe title first makes a comparison (actually an anti-comparison) between words and people, and then separately says that words are not all born equal (for a moment we can ignore the modifier trapped between the commas).

If words are not all born equal, and words are unlike people, one could infer that all people are born equal. Did you get that from the title when you first read it? If you didn’t, you read it too quickly

Most people read at a constant pace (e.g. 40 words per minute). If your pace is constant, you are focusing evenly on all words in the passage. Instead, I urge you to try and use a varying pace: speed through the detailed parts of the passage (you can always go back to those later when you get a detailed question) and slow down almost to a complete stop (in some cases do stop) when you see structural words or phrases.

For example, consider the following phrase as part of a passage: this assumption has led to the conclusion that. Notice that I have no idea whether this passage is about Geology, Biology, or Economics; there are no details in the phrase, but the structural words assumption, led, and conclusion would cause me to stop reading. I don’t want to continue until I am confident that I understand what the assumption and the conclusion are, and how one could reasonably reach the conclusion based on the assumption.

Other structural words or phrases could include: thus, however, because, but, therefore, having said that, nevertheless, be that as it may, as well as, not, theory, hypothesis, since, etc. Can you tell what they all have in common? These words and phrases all carry a heavy dose of meaning without providing any details.

If you practice this idea of reading at a varying pace, you will begin to notice that often you can predict what the next paragraph will be about. For example, if a paragraph ends with the phrase it has been frequently assumed, but not proved, that (notice again I don’t know what the passage is about), one might predict that the next paragraph will launch into an investigation of whether that assumption is true (and the author is probably going to argue that it’s not).

Did you notice that I started the previous paragraph with a if x, y construction, followed by an example? This is what I mean by focusing on structure!


  1. If you spend 4 minutes reading a long passage on the GMAT, try spending most of that time focusing on structure (even though details account for the vast majority of the words).
  2. When you stop to consider the implications of a structural phrase, don’t feel like you’re wasting your time “ it will always be time well spent.
  3. This blog post is just as relevant for Critical Reasoning as it is for Reading Comprehension; in fact, it may help you with Sentence Correction as well!
  4. You will often be able to predict what the passage will be about by the time you’ve finished the first paragraph (arguing for/against a theory, describing a phenomenon objectively, etc.).

Avi Gutman


Avi Gutman earned his MBA at NYU’s Stern School of Business. While at Stern, he took on the position of teaching fellow and taught his classmates several courses including Operations, Foundations of Finance, and New Venture Financing. Avi has been teaching test prep since 2004 and has worked for several different companies before joining Manhattan GMAT.

5 responses to Words, Unlike People, Are Not All Born Equal

  1. Hi, Thanks for the post. Very informative to read.

  2. thank you i’ll try to apply the techniques explained,,,:)

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