GMAT test prep expert and personal tutor, Chiranjeev Singh, shares tips on how to improve your reading comprehension (RC) score.
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.
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.
I’m going to use the term ‘comprehension’ according to my benchmark. There are two aspects of comprehending a 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.
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.
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:
We’ve discussed that our objective/mindset is to comprehend the passage. We have also discussed what comprehension means. The process is thus:
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.
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.
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.
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.