GMAT test prep expert and personal tutor, Chiranjeev Singh, shares tips on how to improve your reading comprehension (RC) score.
How to ace Reading Comprehension
by Chiranjeev Singh
What’s being tested in RC and why?
The name of the section is Reading Comprehension. So, what do you think is being tested in this section?
You’re right. It’s a test of comprehension. In other words, the better your comprehension, the better your score in this section. Simple! And common sense!
Yet, I’ve come across quite a few people who have been taught in classroom courses offered by Indian GMAT prep institutes that they don’t need to read the entire passage; they just need to read the first and the last line of each paragraph. They’re told that it’s not possible to read, let alone comprehend, the entire passage in 2-3 minutes. Thus, to ‘ace’ the GMAT RC section, they need to focus on just the first and the last lines.
The logic even makes sense to many people since they can see that it’s not possible for them to read such complex passages within the time constraints of the test. Thus, they end up believing that this must be the way to beat this challenging test.
Of course, almost all of them realize a few months later that this ‘logical’ way of preparing doesn’t work for them (A few exceptions end up achieving high scores not because of this approach but despite it).
The problem is not with the people. The problem is with the way and the logic behind it.
How can you expect yourself to score well in a test of comprehension without ‘comprehending’ the passage? Isn’t trying to do so equivalent to trying to fool the test makers? “You guys want to test my comprehension skills? I can score well in this section without comprehending much. You know, I’m smarter than you all”.
Of course, the approach backfires. After spending months following the approach, people realize that they are at the same level where they started from.
RC section tests comprehension skills. And the reason comprehension skills are tested is that you’ll need to have them to perform well in your MBA and beyond. The point is that in your MBA and beyond, you are expected to come across new ideas and information; your level of comprehension will determine how much you understand these things.
Ignorance about Ignorance
I have heard a story about the Pandavas of Mahabharat. Once upon a time, their Guru taught them that one should not get angry in any situation in life. The Guru then asked them whether they have understood the message. Everyone but Yudhishthira said yes. The Guru was surprised to see no response from Yudhishthira. Generally, Yudhishthira was the first one to understand anything. “How could he not understand this simple message?”, the Guru wondered.
The Guru repeated the message “we should not get angry in any situation in life” and asked Yudhishthira whether he has understood now. He still said no. The Guru became upset but repeated the message again for him. When Yudhishthira again said he had not understood the message, the Guru slapped him. After being slapped, Yudhishthira immediately said, “yes, I have now understood the message.”
“A slap is what takes you to understand a simple message?”, the Guru asked Yudhishthira.
Yudhishthira replied, “Guruji, when you slapped me, I did not feel anger. Thus, I now think I have understood your message of not getting angry.”
While others thought they had understood the message after remembering it, Yudhishthira had a higher benchmark; he considered the message understood only after he had imbibed the message in his life.
So, when you two people say that they have ‘understood’ something, we don’t know how much each one has understood. The reasons is that their benchmarks of understanding may be very different; one may say that he has understood after superficially knowing it while the other may say that she has understood only after deeply understanding it.
Similarly, even when two people say that they have ‘comprehended’ an RC passage, their levels of understanding may vary so much that one may get all questions right while another may hardly get one-third right (I narrate one such real-life story in this article). While for one, comprehending the passage may mean understanding the exact meaning and purpose of each statement, for another, it may mean just going through the statements.
Of course, the second person is ignorant about the right way of ‘comprehending’ a passage. However, the problem is not this ignorance. If he doesn’t know the right way, he can always learn it. The problem is ignorance about ignorance. The person doesn’t know that he doesn’t know how to read. He thinks he knows. Since he is not even aware of the problem, there’s no way he’s going to find a solution for the problem.
Even though I’m making it sound black and white i.e., one person knows the right way to read while the other doesn’t, it’s actually not. There are levels of comprehension. I find people stuck at different levels. And the reason they remain stuck is that they don’t know there is a higher level of understanding possible. They are ignorant of their ignorance.
What does comprehension mean?
I’m going to use the term ‘comprehension’ according to my benchmark. There are two aspects of comprehending a passage:
- Understanding individual statements – A significant majority of people falter in understanding individual statements, and most of the time, they are ignorant of their problem. Only when I point out deficiencies in their understanding of multiple statements do they start realizing how many times they are going off in this respect. Clearly, if you do not understand individual statements, you do not understand the passage.
Generally, people falter in understanding the meaning of individual statements in two ways: they fail to understand the exact meaning of certain words and structures such as ‘unless’, ‘must’, ‘if then’, ‘a few’, ‘few’ etc, and they fail to understand complex sentences.
A significant reason people fail to understand complex sentences is that they take a pause only at the end of the sentence and thus try to assimilate the entire sentence in one go. I take multiple pauses when I read a complex sentence. Thus, in a way, I lift 100 kgs by lifting 20 kgs at a time while others try to lift 100 kgs in one go and thus fail. Here’s a video in which I explain how I read complex sentences.
- Understanding relationships/connections between statements – RC passages are not a collection of independent facts. Statements are connected. There’s an underlying story, which you will understand only if you try to do so. Understanding the exact meaning of a statement is one aspect. The second aspect is to understand the purpose of each sentence – why that sentence is there. It must be related to what has happened before that in the passage. We need to make a deliberate effort to understand the connection. This ‘deliberate’ effort is what I find missing in many people. They go through the passage without any such deliberate effort. Thus, they understand the connections that their minds can naturally make (given their familiarity with similar contexts or logical structures) but fail to see the connections that would require some conscious effort. They don’t even know that they are supposed to take pauses while reading the passage and to ask themselves how statements are connected with the previous ones.
Before I talk about how to read an RC passage and how to attempt the questions, I’d like to address two common misconceptions that hold people back from improving their RC performance.
- There is nothing to learn in RC – In SC, there are many rules to master. In CR, there are a bunch of concepts to understand. What is there to learn in RC? Nothing. This thinking leads to the second misconception.
- RC performance cannot be improved – If there’s nothing to learn, how can you improve your performance? You either have it in you or don’t have it.
As I said, these are misconceptions. People can improve and have improved considerably in terms of their RC performance. People improve by learning better processes and by improving their comprehension skills.
Before we talk about the process to follow while reading an RC passage, let’s talk about a more fundamental aspect – the mindset you need.
Comprehend – Your mindset while reading an RC passage should be that you are trying to ‘comprehend’ the passage and not trying, through tricks or techniques, to just find answers to the questions. The importance of the correct mindset cannot be overemphasized. Without the right mindset, nothing else may work.
Have Interest/Be Curious – If you do not have interest in the passage you’re reading or are not curious about the text, you’re not going to get a good understanding of the passage, simply because your mind may not form connections between various ideas presented in the passage. Thus, if you don’t find yourself naturally interested in the subject matter, you need to build interest in the passage deliberately. For example, one of my students would speak to himself while reading an RC passage, “Interesting. I want to know more about it.” One common reason why people find passages boring is that the passages are too difficult for them. For example, if I play chess at the expert level, I’m going to find it hard to remain interested since the level is too challenging for me. If that is the reason, it may make sense for you to focus on easier passages first. Also, do not worry about timing while doing such passages. Take as much time as you need. Your objective should be to have a good understanding of the passage, regardless of the time it takes. If you time yourself on a hard passage, this may be too overwhelming for you.
Accuracy first, timing later – Your first aim should be achieving a high level of accuracy (90-95%) in untimed practice in a mix of questions of varying difficulty levels. Once you hit your desired accuracy level, you may start focusing on ways to improve your timing. This article may give you a perspective on how to improve your timing:
Process for reading a passage
We’ve discussed that our objective/mindset is to comprehend the passage. We have also discussed what comprehension means. The process is thus:
- Understand a statement ‘in isolation’ – In other words, understand the literal meaning of the statement without relating it to what you’ve previously read. People who start relating statements even while they are reading them end up misunderstanding statements. As they read a new statement, they start imposing their expectations on the new statement. Thus, in many cases, they are reading their own expectations, not what the sentence is actually saying. Thus, it is critical to understand the exact meaning of a statement in isolation and then make connections.
- Relate the statement back to the context – Since a passage is not a bunch of independent facts, the statements are connected with each other. We need to make a conscious effort to understand those connections.
Here, at times, there will be keywords to help you understand the connections between ideas. However, some people understand the connections very superficially. When they see ‘however’, they’ll just say that there is a contrast. When I ask them, “what exactly is the contrast here?”, they’ll be clueless. Just saying that the new idea is in the opposite direction to the previous idea is not enough; you need to figure out ’exactly’ how the direction is opposite. Similarly, if you see ‘because’, you need to figure out exactly how one idea supports the other. If you don’t understand, you’re not going to score well on a test of comprehension.
- Get it right the first time – There are three levels of re-reading people engage in:
- It’s about understanding the story, not about remembering all the details. We are being tested on comprehension skills, not on memorization skills. Thus, we are not expected to remember all the details. If we come across a question that is around some detail, we can always go back to the relevant part of the passage to answer the question.
Statement level – They read a statement and then realize that they need to reread it to understand it.
Paragraph level – They read a paragraph and then realize that they need to reread it to understand it.
Passage level – They read the entire passage and then realize that they need to reread it to understand it.
Of course, the worst level of reading is at the passage level. It’s as if we are sleeping while reading the passage that we don’t realize that we’re not understanding it. This never happens to me.
The second level of rereading is at the paragraph level. This is also very rare (one in a hundred probably) for me.
While rereading individual statements is more common than rereading at other levels, we need to understand that
Any rereading is bad and reflects a deficiency in our way of reading.
Thus, our objective is to get things right the first time. We can go as slow as we need to. Going slow is absolutely fine. The point is to first get into a habit of reading the right way. Once we become accustomed to reading in a way that we understand things in one reading, we’ll gradually pick up the pace.
Process for attempting questions
- Understand the exact meaning of the question stem: In many instances, I’ve found that people fail to understand what exactly the question is asking. Clearly, in such cases, your chances of getting the right answer are remote. Taking multiple pauses while reading the question stem may help in assimilating the question stem better.
- Predict the answer – You’re not expected to come up with the exact wording of the answer, but you’re expected to have a good idea of what the correct answer could say. If you don’t have such an idea after reading the question stem, you may revisit the relevant part of the passage. The point is to have some idea of what you’re looking for before moving onto the options; otherwise, the options may completely mess up your mind.
The following steps will help you get more learning out of your practice. You are not expected to follow these steps during mocks or the actual exam.
- Bucket incorrect options – In RC questions that have to be answered ‘according to the passage’, we can generally segment incorrect options into three categories:
Not given – If an option is nowhere given in the passage, it cannot be the answer to such a question.
Contradictory – Some options may be in the opposite direction to what is given in the passage. Of course, such options cannot be the answer to such questions.
Given but doesn’t answer – This option can be inferred from the passage but doesn’t answer the question.
By bucketing incorrect options, you increase your clarity and thus get more out of your practice.
- Select or Reject. Holding onto an option is not allowed – Normally, as people go through the options, they reject some options while keeping others on hold as probable answers. If you think about it, the more options a person keeps on hold, the less clarity that person has. A person who is very clear about every aspect of the passage and the options need not keep any option on hold except the correct one. Right? One way to force yourself to be clearer about things is that you stop keeping options on hold. Either select or reject. However, you still have to analyze other options even after you’ve selected an option. In some (or many!) cases, you’ll end up selecting more than one option. This is fine. There will also be questions in which you will end up rejecting all the options. There will be four possible scenarios:
- All good – You selected only the correct option and rejected the four incorrect options. A good indicator that you were comfortable with the question.
- Selected more than one option, including the correct option – In this case, you have something to learn – where did you falter that you did not find a problem with the incorrect option?
- Rejected all five options – In this case, you rejected the four incorrect options – that’s good. However, you need to understand why you rejected the correct option. Clearly, your reason for rejecting the correct option is wrong. And if your reason for rejecting the correct option is the same as your reason for rejecting some other options, you need to re-evaluate those options too.
- Worst case – You rejected the correct option and selected one or more incorrect options. Antardhyaan jao! Kya kar rhe ho life me! 🙂 This case indicates some serious comprehension problems w.r.t. the passage, the options, or both.
- Easy – > Medium -> Hard – Nobody wants to do easy and medium passages. Because they won’t get you 740 or 760 on the GMAT. However, they’d get you to 650-700. And unless you reach there, there’s no chance you’ll reach 760. Secondly, easy and medium passages will help you build a foundation. If you directly jump to hard passages, not only will you get most hard questions wrong, but you’ll also not be able to learn from those hard passages since you will not have the capability to even learn from those passages. I see that many people continue to wrestle with hard questions and thus waste their time even though they do not even have a 85% accuracy on medium questions.
- Build familiarity with a subject area by reading RCs from a subject area together – Many a time, people struggle very heavily with RCs from a specific subject area such as science or sociology. The reason they struggle is that they don’t have any familiarity with the subject matter – they don’t know what’s going on in these passages. It’s hard to figure out how statements connect with each other. The reason they don’t have familiarity is that they have not read similar content ever or for a long time. The way out is to build familiarity. How do we do so? By doing 20 such passages together (I don’t mean ‘in one go’ or ‘in one day’. I mean you don’t do other stuff in between). Of course, you need to go through them with the right mindset and process we discussed above. If you do so, you’ll be able to have a much better idea as to what happens in such passages, what kind of terminology is used, etc. Thus, when you read the 21st passage, you’ll be much more comfortable.
I hope this article helps you improve your reading comprehension score. I’ll be happy to hear from you – what you liked in the article and what can be improved.
About the author: A passionate teacher and learner, Chiranjeev Singh is a private GMAT tutor based out of Delhi. CJ (as he is commonly called) is an IIMA Alumnus and has scored 780 on the GMAT (we’ve verified his score from the Pearson VUE site). He follows a skills-based questioning-driven methodology and takes online sessions for students across the world.
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