They manage to pick such interesting topics for RC, don’t they? It’s always the kind of thing you’d choose to read at home in your free time!
Wait. No, that’s not quite right. But the topics are relevant to business school… well, occasionally. Hmm.
So, let me get this straight. They’re going to give me somewhat obscure, very dense topics with very complicated ideas and sentence structures. I’m going to have about 3 minutes to read such a passage, and then I have to start answering questions about the material. That’s completely artificial; it would never happen in the real world!
Actually, yes it will. You’re going to do case studies in business school. You often won’t be given enough time to read through every last detail carefully; instead, you’ll have to figure out what’s important and concentrate on those pieces, while putting together a framework for the main ideas and the big changes in direction or opinion.
At work, you’re often going to have to make decisions based upon incomplete information. At times, you’ll have a ton of information—and not enough time to review it all before you have to take action. These situations are far from rare in the real world.
So when you find yourself a bit unmotivated because you know you’ve got to study boring RC today, remind yourself that RC will actually help you develop much-needed skills for business school and beyond!
The Master List
I’ve put together what I’m calling the Master Resource List for this question type. A couple of disclaimers. First, this list includes only free resources, no paid ones. There are a lot of good resources out there that cost some money—they’re just not on this list!
Second, this list is limited to my own articles. I’m not trying to claim that only my articles are good enough to make such a list—far from it. I’m most familiar with my own articles, so that’s what I’m using. And, okay, I will admit that I think the Manhattan GMAT RC process is the best one out there. But I’m biased. : )
How To Read
Before you dive into individual question types, it’s critical to know some overall processes for Reading Comp, starting with how to read! You already know how to read in general, of course. I’m talking about How To Read RC.
You’ll notice that the first article, linked above, discusses not only what to read but also what not to read. When you have only a few minutes, it’s just as important to know what you can skip or skim (and how to make that decision). For more, check out this lesson on What to Read and What Not to Read.
If, after trying the above, you still find yourself really struggling with either reading speed or comprehension, here are some resources to help you Improve Your Reading Skills. That article is especially important for people who don’t read regularly in English, either for work or on your own; this is particularly true if your native language is also not English and you did your undergraduate studies in another language.
Finally, one of our two main goals when first reading a passage is to Find the Main Point. (The other main goal is to take some light notes on each paragraph in order to understand the organization of the information.)
When you’ve mastered those skills, you’re ready to learn how to tackle the questions.
The RC Question Types
I literally just said this, but I’m going to repeat it: when you’ve mastered the reading skills, you are then ready to tackle the questions. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can ignore the previous section and just go straight for the questions. You will be slower and you will make more mistakes if you do that.
RC has three main question types: Main Idea, Specific Detail, and Inference. Each of those question types can have nuances or sub-types.
Most passages will include one Main Idea category question. Most commonly, you’ll be asked for the “primary purpose” (i.e., the main idea) of the entire passage, though a question could also ask for the primary purpose or role of just one paragraph.
If you’re asked for the purpose of the entire passage, then the correct answer has to cover the overall “real estate” of the passage as a whole. Wrong answers will often be too narrow (e.g., something that applies primarily to just one paragraph) or too broad (something that includes the main idea but goes beyond it to encompass ideas that were not presented in the passage). Follow the link above to get some practice.
This category refers to questions that ask about a particular detail in the passage. Most commonly, these questions will begin: “According to the passage…” Your task on these is to find an answer choice that matches something stated specifically in the passage.
That sounds easy—if the information is stated right there in the passage, how hard can it be?
As you already know very well, they can make it quite hard. First, the language in the passage is seriously complex; it’s not always easy to understand what they’re talking about. Second, right answers will often contain synonyms for words that appeared in the passage while some wrong answers will often contain the exact language used in the passage. If you’re not careful, you’ll be tempted to cross off that right answer because the language doesn’t match exactly!
Specific Detail Rule: Use the question wording to figure out where to go in the passage. Then re-read that detail carefully. Do NOT rely on your memory!
Why not? I was once taking a standardized test (not the GMAT, but similar) and I was about to pick an RC answer. Then I remembered that I should check the proof in the passage first, so—even though I was sure I was right!—I made myself find the proof.
The passage was about some mammals, one of which was the kangaroo rat. I looked at the passage, glanced back at my answer…and suddenly realized that the answer said kangaroo not kangaroo rat! I would have been really mad to get a question wrong for that reason!
The moral of the story: find the proof in the passage. Every single time.
We’re going to talk about two big things here: how to handle inference questions and how to analyze RC problems in general (which you can then use on any question type).
Inference questions do ask about specific details in the passage, but they add a twist: we have to deduce something that must be true given certain facts from the passage.
For example, if I tell you that my favorite type of book to read is biographies, what could you deduce?
Here’s the trap: don’t use your “real-world” conclusion-drawing skills. In the real world, you might conclude that I like reading books in general, or perhaps I’m interested in history, or maybe that I’m a nerd (really? biographies are your favorite??). These things don’t have to be true, though.
What has to be true? I don’t like fiction as much as I like biographies. I have read at least one book in a non-biography category (otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to tell that biographies are my favorite, which implies a comparison).
What’s the difference? GMAT deductions are usually things that would cause us to say, “Duh!” in the real world.
“My favorite category of book is the biography.”
“Oh, so you must not like fiction as much as you like biographies.”
“Uh… well, yeah, that’s what “favorite” means… I don’t like anything else better.”
A GMAT deduction should feel like a “duh” deduction—something totally boring that must be true given the information in the passage. Here, try out an Inference question.
That article also explains how to analyze your work and the problem itself. Did you miss something in the passage? Why? How can you pick it up next time? Did you fall for a trap answer? Which one? How did they set the trap and how can you avoid it next time? And so on.
Specific questions can come in one other (not as common) flavor: the Why question. These are sort of a cross between specific detail and inference questions: you need to review some specific information in the passage, but the answer to the question is not literally right in the passage. You have to figure out the most reasonable explanation for why the author chose to include a particular piece of information.
Test out this Why question to see what I mean.
Put It All Together
All right, have you got all of the pieces? What to read and what not to read? How to find the main point? How to answer main idea, specific detail, inference, and why questions?
Let’s test it out! This first article talks about how to read a tough science passage. This passage was taken from the free set of questions that comes with GMATPrep.
As I mentioned earlier, we really don’t have much time to read RC passages. Aim for about 2 to 2.5 minutes on shorter passages and closer to 3 minutes for longer ones. Of course, that’s not nearly enough time to read everything closely and carefully—but that’s not your goal! As discussed in the How To Read articles above, our goal is to get the big picture on that first read-through, not every last detail.
Aim to answer main idea questions in about 1 minute. You can spend about 1.5 to 2 minutes on the more specific questions. In particular, if you run across an Except question, expect to spend pretty close to 2 minutes; Except questions nearly always take a while.
As always, be aware of your overall time. If you’re running behind, skip one question entirely; don’t try to save 30 seconds each on a bunch of questions. Also, if RC is your weakest verbal area and you also struggle with speed, consider guessing immediately on one question per passage and spreading your time over the remaining questions.
Great, I’ve mastered RC!
Let’s test that theory, shall we? Your next step is to implement all of these techniques on your next practice test—and don’t forget about your timing. Good luck!