Some GMAT prep resources may suggest you skim the Reading Comprehension passage, or read the first sentence of each paragraph; I suggest the opposite approach. You need to thoroughly understand what the passage is saying and how the ideas fit together to be able to answer the questions properly.
The Reading Comprehension section of the GMAT is testing your ability to see the relationships between ideas in an argument. It is testing how well you can understand, analyze, and apply information. Questions will test whether you have a nuanced understanding of the passage, so relying on keywords and general ideas will only get you so far.
You have an average of two minutes per question, but this includes the time it takes to read the passage. In general, you should spend two-to-three minutes reading (and understanding!) the passage and then move on to the questions.
Tips for approaching GMAT’s Reading Comprehension passage
1. Feign interest in some of the world’s most boring topics. This will help you to focus on whatever obscure topic the passage covers.
2. You should be able to sum up the key idea in each paragraph as you read—what the paragraph is talking about (e.g. frog skeletons in the Southern Hemisphere) and why this information is mentioned (e.g. it's an exception to a widely held theory, and supports the author’s argument)
3. Don’t become fixated on jargon and technical terms. Reading Comprehension questions are testing your ability to understand meaning based on context, so understanding the role that a piece of information plays (e.g. an example that supports the opposing theory) is usually more important than an exact understanding of the technical term.
4. See if it helps you to make brief notes. Brief notes can help you stay focused, but time is a factor. Experiment in your practice to see when and how notes can be helpful.
5. Make a mental map of the structure of the passage so you know where to return to for detail questions.
6. Do not confuse points of view. You’ll often be asked to compare or contrast different viewpoints or theories so take note of key differences as you read.
7. Watch out for so called transition words like ‘however’, ‘on the other hand’, ‘despite’, ‘furthermore’, etc. These are sign posts that help you see how concepts fit together, and they can help you track the twists and turns in the structure of the passage. These are the same transition words you will use to structure your Analysis of an Argument essay.
If you have read and understood the passage properly, the questions are much easier and quicker to answer. Remember that the questions use different techniques to see that you really understand the passage.
Tips for approaching GMAT’s Reading Comprehension questions
8. The correct answer is always supported in the passage. Even when you have to connect the dots yourself to make inferences, there is always something you can point to in the passage to support your answer. Do not let your own opinions cloud your thinking.
9. Questions that use the phrases ‘according to the passage’ or ‘the passage states that’ will require you to find specific details. Always go back to check in the passage. Don’t fall prey to phrases mentioned in the passage but in a slightly different context. Use your mental map of the passage to help you find the correct information quickly.
10. The right or wrong answer often comes down to a detail, sometimes to one word. Read the question carefully to ensure that you are answering the question rather than just finding an answer choice that uses words from the passage. The right answer choice may be phrased differently to the passage, so you need to understand the meaning rather than relying on key words.
11. You use a process of elimination to find the right answer, so consider all answer choices carefully.
Don’t avoid Reading Comprehension practice because it’s boring. Like all aspects of the GMAT, practice will help you recognize common traps, hone your technique and improve your accuracy.
Cara Skikne is an MBA graduate from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, expert GMAT coach, and founder of Admissions Africa, which helps students from Africa apply for MBA programs both locally and abroad.