Ace the GRE Reading Comprehension – Tips and Strategies

The GRE is a standardized test you take to get accepted to many graduate schools. It gives the admissions department a better idea of how qualified you are for their program. The items on the test include basic and college-level knowledge. You’ll also have a chance to show critical thinking skills as you’d use in a graduate course.

There’s a whole market out there for GRE test prep. You can find advice on how to study beforehand and pace yourself during the test. Getting tips about the general test is helpful, but you should also focus on specific sections of the test.

The GRE has two verbal sections that total 40 questions. The Reading Comprehension section makes up almost half of these questions. Don’t get intimidated by those numbers! Follow these tips for acing the Reading Comprehension section. You’ll be happy to know that you’ve got 20 points on your side already.

What Is the Reading Comprehension Section?

The GRE Reading Comprehension section has passages that you read. You then answer questions about the information you learned. It sounds very straightforward, but the test makers purposely bog down the passages. You’ll encounter vocabulary words and details that seem important but aren’t.

The test makers also stuff these passages with vocabulary words. They are trying to make you pay attention to things that don’t matter when it comes to the following questions.

The GRE has five reading passages in each section. There are anywhere from one to five paragraphs per passage. Test makers pull many passages from academic books and papers. Some come from various works of literature or even magazines. They cover any topic from science, politics, arts, humanities, and everyday life.

Each passage has up to five questions that refer back to it. Question styles include:

  • multiple-choice where you choose just one response
  • multiple-choice where you can choose more than one response
  • select-in-passage, where you click the relevant sentence in the passage

Regardless of the style of question, there is no partial credit. If the multiple-choice questions allow you to choose more than one response, you must select every correct answer.

The writing style mimics what you will see in grad school courses. That’s why this section is so important—the test makers want to make sure you can handle the work in grad school.

If you know what to look for in each passage, you’ll have an easier time finding the answer to each question. Each passage potentially uses four unique parts:

  • main idea
  • background
  • supporting evidence
  • implications

The main idea is the whole purpose of the passage. It’s not necessarily the first sentence or the last sentence. The author might have buried it in the middle of the passage. The background is extra information that helps you understand the point.

It can be difficult to discern supporting evidence from background information. The test makers use this to their advantage. They try to confuse you with irrelevant information. Supporting evidence can be studies or examples that reinforce the main idea.

Implications are the consequences of the main idea. They help hit the point home to ensure you understand it. After you pick out the background and supporting evidence, you’re left with the implications.

Just reading about the questions might seem a bit confusing. You can check out samples from the test provider. This will give you a better understanding of the GRE Reading Comprehension passages and questions.

How to Approach the Reading Comprehension Section

There are different types of questions on the GRE, but you’ll want to have a consistent approach to working on this section. Take time to develop a system that works well for you during test prep. This will make you feel confident during the actual test. You’ll be more likely to work efficiently and score higher.

You might feel inclined to read the passage closely the first time through. This method wastes time, so try another approach. You might take notes of facts that aren’t addressed in the questions. Students try this because it’s how they study for classes, but it’s not as effective for the GRE.

You only need to remember the information in the Reading Comprehension passages long enough to answer the questions. You don’t need to closely read and retain this information. You’re not studying for a month-long course, so you don’t need to invest that much time into your reading.

Instead, skim the passage the first time you read it. Get a basic concept of what the passage is about. Note the main idea and the tone of the piece. Then read the first question so you know what you need to look back over. Since you skimmed the passage, you’ll have a general idea of where you can find the information, which saves time.

If you can’t find the answer when you go back to the passage, don’t hunker down and focus more on the first question. Move onto the second question and go back to the passage to find the information. When you’ve answered the questions that come easily, go back to the one you struggled with. You might have a better idea of the answer now that you’ve completed the rest.

Another way to save time in this section is to read the questions first. Don’t even skim the passage before you jump to see what they’re asking. Keep the question in mind when you look back at the passage and try to find the relevant information as you read.

If you use this method, you might not even have to read the entire passage. Find the terms that relate to the question and read a sentence or two before and after it so you get an idea of the context. Otherwise, reading the entire passage might not add enough information to make it worth it.

When you’re reading the question first, try to not read the multiple-choice answers. If you see what answers are available, you might look for those terms instead, which could sway your response.

Tips to Ace the Reading Comprehension Section

Knowing how to approach the GRE Reading Comprehension section will help you out greatly. Tried and true tips will ensure you ace this part of the test.

Study, Study, Study!

Some people think they don’t need to study for the GRE because they’ve done well in college classes. The thing is, the GRE is a tough test. It’s not like anything you’ve encountered in your coursework, so don’t go in unprepared. There are plenty of GRE prep books that will help you out.

Studying helps even the smartest students. Make sure you have time to study on top of any other coursework or job duties you may have. There are plans you can follow to study for the GRE within certain time restraints.

Take Practice Tests

Studying will help you be more prepared for the test, so you don’t want to skip that step. But you can also take a free practice test. This will give you an idea of the structure of the test.

The GRE is different from tests you’ve taken in your college courses. Doing a practice run is a great way to get the feel for the layout of the test. It will also ensure that you’re completely prepared when you go in to take the test for real.

When you take practice tests, you’ll also be able to try out the different approaches mentioned above. You can take the test once when you skim the passages before answering the questions. Time yourself and take note of your score.

The next time you take a practice test, read the questions first and then refer back to the passage. Compare your time and score to the other approach, and consider which option works better for you.

Find Your Weaknesses

As you study and complete practice tests, take notes on any sections that you have trouble with. If you notice the vocabulary questions always trip you up, be sure to go back and study those before the test. Practicing, noticing your weaknesses, and studying to overcome them will give you a leg up when you take the test.

Use Context Clues

Some questions will give you a specific line to look at to answer the question. They might ask what the author meant when he used a certain word in line five. Instead of going back to line five, go back and start reading two sentences before. This will give you the context of the word in line five.

Reading the line mentioned won’t clarify anything for you, because it’s a single sentence. Starting two sentences before the word in question will give you more context. You’ll want to read two lines past the word as well, to get even more clues about how the author used the term.

Pay Attention to the Beginning and End

Most passages aren’t too long, but some have multiple paragraphs. In that case, especially if you’re pushed for time, focus more on the beginning and ending paragraphs. This is where the author introduces the information and then wraps it up. You’ll get the bulk of the information there.

The main idea is usually present, in some form or another, in the opening and closing of a passage. The middle will have some background and supporting evidence, which you can skim. If any of the questions deal with that information, you can go back to those sections when it’s time.

Identify the Tone

Now you know that you can find the main idea without closely reading the entire passage. Use this method to also identify the tone right off the bat. Even if there is no specific question about the tone, knowing the author’s intention can help you with other questions.

As you read or skim the entire passage, make notes about any subjective phrases that stand out to you. Maybe the author uses words like doubtful, think, or believe. Some passages may be neutral, but identifying that upfront can also help you.

Tackle Unfamiliar Passages Last

Since the GRE addresses many different topics, you might feel more confident with the passages that cover your area of expertise. In that case, make sure you read the passages that are more comfortable for you first. You’re more likely to get these answers right since you understand the subject. It’s important to give them attention so you’ll get these points.

This approach might seem counterintuitive. If you don’t understand the topic, you want to spend more time with it so you can get the answers right. However, with the GRE, it’s better to answer questions you’re more likely to get correct so your score will be higher. If you waste time on subjects you don’t know, you’re likely to get a lower score because you didn’t know the material.

Understand the Questions

Before you read the answer options on a multiple-choice question, make sure you know what is being asked. If you understand the question, you should already have a possible answer in your mind after you read it.

If you jump ahead and start reading the possible answers before you know what the question is asking, you might confuse yourself. You might think that another choice sounds better than what you initially thought.

Stay Away From Extremes

Multiple choice answers sometimes help you out by having an extreme term in them. Words like always or never are exaggerations. There is almost always an exception to the rule, making them untrue. You’ll want to pay more attention to answers that use words like many or some.

Looking for an answer that has an extreme word in it can help you weed out the wrong answers. Note that answers will never be too specific, too broad, or irrelevant to the theme of the passage itself. Make sure the option you choose answers the question, too. Sometimes it’s easy to see an option that gives a true statement as an answer, even if it’s unrelated to the question.

Don’t Use Outside Knowledge

Everything you need to know is in the passages on the test. Don’t let any knowledge from your personal life or courses affect your answer. This will lead to you making assumptions beyond the scope of the passage. Instead, infer answers based on the information given to you on the test.

Some of the answer choices might sound right, but they need to have evidence in the passage. The test makers are trying to appeal to your broader knowledge. The only correct answer will have information from the passage backing it up.

Narrow Down Your Options

First, try to answer the question yourself without seeing the choices. Then work to narrow down your options. Staying away from answers with extreme phrases is usually a great way to cut at least one answer. If an answer has nothing to do with the passage, remove that choice as well.

If you’re able to discredit one or two answers, you’ll have a better chance at getting it right. This works even if you don’t know the answer on your own. Once you have your choices narrowed down, refer back to the passage. You can check for relevant evidence in the text relating to each answer.

Don’t Dawdle

If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t linger over it. It’s better to complete as much of the test as you can. Once you go through the test, you can come back and focus on a single question or passage. Spending too much time on a single section will make you feel rushed on other passages. You want to make sure you can give them the time and consideration needed.

After you’ve marked the answers you know are correct, go back to the sections you had trouble with. You might have a new understanding of the passage or question and be able to address it properly. You might also feel better now that you have finished the rest of the test. You’re now able to clear your mind a bit better and focus on your problem area.

Answer Every Question

Make sure you spend more time on the sections you know you’ll do well on. If a passage interests you or plays to your strengths, you should focus on it.

But you also want to ensure you have an answer to every question. You won’t get penalized for wrong answers, so it’s worth taking a guess! You might luck out and get something correct, which will boost your score even more.

Final Notes

Not all graduate schools require the GRE, but you want to make sure you have a stellar score when it’s necessary. Understanding the basics of the Reading Comprehension section makes a big difference in how well you do with this test.

The tips included in this article ensure you’ll ace the Reading Comprehension section when you take the GRE. Having a great score will set you apart from other applicants. This will help you get into your dream program.

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Michelle Tsou

Contributor at ExamCave. Michelle graduated with a BA in English from Portland State University. She hopes to one day run her own test-prep organization.