The reading comprehension part of the GMAT Verbal section can be intimidating at first. You have to glean key ideas and information from dense, jargon-filled passages, which probably don’t resemble the kinds of articles you read for fun.
Luckily, whether you love these kinds of passage-based questions or they fill your heart with dread, there are a number of tried-and-true strategies that you can use to improve your score. In this post, we’ll give you all the tips and tricks you need to ace GMAT reading comprehension—including how to approach the passages overall, how to attack the questions, and how to pace yourself so that you spend just the right amount of time on them.
GMAT Reading Comprehension Overview
You always have 36 questions in total on the GMAT Verbal Section. Of those, you’ll encounter about three or four reading comprehension passages, each with three to four multiple-choice questions associated with it. So that makes for 9-16 reading comprehension questions, or roughly one-third of the GMAT Verbal section devoted to reading comprehension.
Within that, there will usually be three “short” passages of 200-250 words with three questions, and one “long” passage of 300-350 words with four questions. Occasionally, you might get two of each. The passages are sourced from textbooks, journals, periodicals, scholarly articles and the like, and they center on topics from the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and the business world. Note that no outside knowledge is expected in any of these domains—all the information you will need to answer the questions is in the passages themselves.
The GMAT uses a split-screen presentation for reading comprehension questions: the passage is presented in its entirety on the left side of the screen, while the questions associated with it are presented one-by-one on the right side. This means that you can always see the passage, but you can only see one question at a time. Plus, as with every other section and question type on the GMAT, you cannot go back to the previous question—your answer, once you click “next,” is final.
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The reading comprehension questions on the GMAT are designed to test your ability to “understand, analyze, and apply information and concepts presented in written form”. Within this, you’ll need to:
- Understand words and statements
- Identify logical relationships between ideas and concepts
- Draw inferences
- Point out flaws in assumption and reasoning
- Understand and follow quant concepts as presented in writing
The GMAT uses a few distinct question styles to test these different skills, all of which we discuss in the next section!
GMAT Reading Comprehension Question Types
Reading comprehension questions on the GMAT focus on your ability to understand the given passage on either a micro/”little picture” level or macro/”big picture” level. Accordingly, all the reading comprehension questions you’ll encounter on the GMAT will fall into one of the following categories.
Main idea questions ask you to summarize the passage as a whole or to identify the author’s overall purpose in writing the passage. You might see questions asking you to pick out the “central” or “main” idea or asking you what the author was “primarily concerned with.”
Often, the answer choices given don’t use exactly the same language as the passage itself: they want to see that you really understand the main idea, as evidenced by being able to recognize it even when it’s phrased differently. They especially want to see that you can recognize the macro-organization of a passage and not get derailed by details or sub-topics.
Supporting Ideas and Details
Conversely, details questions do ask you to identify facts, details, descriptions or sub-topics. The details they ask about will always be explicitly stated, and sometimes the relevant part(s) of the passage will be highlighted to make it easier for you to find it. Thus, they’re often the easiest (or at least the most face-value) questions in a given set. They begin with phrases like “According to the passage” and “the passage states that.”
Inference questions, on the other hand, ask you to identify what is implied by the author but not explicitly stated. Rather than “the passage states that,” these kinds of questions will begin with something like “the passage suggests that,” so you immediately know that you’ll need to connect the dots yourself. Nevertheless, the correct answer is always supported by the passage.
Out-of-context questions ask you to apply information from the passage to a different context. They often ask you to identify a parallel situation or analogous example. You’ll also see out-of-context questions asking whether the author would agree or disagree with something. Unlike inference questions, out-of-context questions use ideas or situations that aren’t from the passage.
Logical Structure and Organization
Logical structure questions center on function. Sometimes you’ll be asked to assess how a passage is constructed (does it define an idea, compare and contrast, refute an idea, etc.); other times you’ll be asked to recognize underlying assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses of the passage’s argument—as well as potential counterarguments.
Also falling under this category are questions that ask how the author persuades the reader—as opposed to what the author is persuading the reader of (which is more of a main idea question).
Style and Tone
Style and tone questions ask you about the author’s expression of ideas through diction, or word choice. You may have to deduce the author’s attitude toward a specific idea he/she brings up or identify the tone of the passage as a whole. Words like “critical” and “enthusiastic” often appear in the answer options for these kinds of questions.
Should You Read the Passage or Question First?
Now that you’re familiar with the kinds of passages and questions that you’ll see, let’s talk about the order in which you should approach them.
The first option is to read the entire passage first, then attack each question. The second option is to read the first question first—just the question, not the answer choices—to get an initial idea of what you’re looking for before you start reading the passage. Feel free to practice both ways to see which one works best for you.
Ultimately, though, I recommend reading the passage first.
Why? Because you’re only able to see one question at a time on the GMAT. You might be able to skim the passage with that first question in mind and get to the right answer, but then the next question could be on a completely different facet of the passage, and you’ll be ill-prepared to answer it. Moreover, even a question that seems to be specific to one detail probably requires a holistic understanding of the passage in order to answer it correctly.
How to Approach the Passages: 7 GMAT Reading Comprehension Strategies
Nest up, let’s go over the best GMAT reading comprehension strategies for attacking the passages. After that, we’ll talk about the best GMAT reading comprehension tips for answering the questions, and then we’ll put all of this into action on a few of the real, official GMAT sample questions.
Practice Pacing Yourself
The Verbal section gives you 65 minutes for 36 questions, or a little under two minutes per question. But reading comprehension questions are going to take a bit longer than the critical reasoning questions, and significantly longer than the sentence correction questions. You should budget enough time to read these passages carefully—rather than skimming—in order to absorb all the important ideas and details.
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That said, you don’t want to spend a ton of time decoding each word or sentence. If you really don’t “get” a sentence, don’t read over it more than twice, because you’ll lose a feel for the passage as a whole—you can come back to it if you need to for a specific question.
Plan your time accordingly: A good rule of thumb is to spend six minutes on a short passage with three questions, and eight minutes on a long passage with four questions. Two to three minutes should be spent on the initial reading, and the rest should be spent on the questions (including time to refer back to the passage as needed).
While you’re doing practice questions, consistently set a timer to get used to the recommended pace. This way, you can get timing down to an instinct before you take the real GMAT.
Watch for Transition Words and Phrases
Transition words track the relationship among ideas—as well as among the bits of reasoning and evidence that support or negate them. There are five main categories of transition words that you should know and recognize for the GMAT:
- Cause-and-effect: words like “consequently,” “because,” and “thus” and phrases like “as a result.”
- Agreeing/further expounding upon the same argument: words like “similarly” and “furthermore” and phrases like “in addition.”
- Adding evidence: phrases like “for instance” and “in fact.”
- Contrast or opposition: words like “yet,” “however,” and “nevertheless” and phrases like “on the other hand” or “in reality.”
- Conclusion: Phrases like “all in all” and “in essence,” which indicate that the author is about to sum up or conclude their point. “Thus” can sometimes be used as a conclusion word as well.
Paying close attention to these words will help you follow the logical progression of a passage as you’re reading. Unless the passage actually centers on defining a concept, understanding the relationship among ideas and the author’s train of thought as the passage goes on is more important than doing a deep dive into what the ideas actually mean.
This is especially true if a passage is heavy in jargon (like natural science ones often are): the GMAT doesn’t care if you understand what “suprachiasmatic nuclei” is. They care that you can understand the role it plays in the passage’s main idea or thesis.
Along these lines, you should abbreviate jargon and technical terms in your mind as you read. Any time you see a long technical term, a Latinate scientific name, or something similar, you should mentally shorten it to the first syllable. If it’s more than one word, abbreviate it into its initials. Either way, let your eyes gloss over the rest of the letters.
Many questions will abbreviate these terms anyway. For example, you might see something like “SN” in reference to “suprachiasmatic nuclei” in questions or answer options.
In general, you can think of jargon as a decoy: it’s there to distract you from tracking the logical progression of the passage and the point the author’s trying to make. Don’t fall into this trap!
Make a Mental Summary
GMAT reading comprehension passages often follow a typical structure: the main claim or point will be at the beginning, the next paragraph elaborates, and the next concludes. Even for ones that deviate slightly from this outline, you should still try to identify the main point as soon as possible—and then read each paragraph with an eye for how it builds or relates to the main point. After every paragraph, stop and take a moment to distill the “key idea” of the paragraph and fit it into your mental summary of what you’re reading. If the passage doesn’t have separate paragraphs, stop after every couple of sentences or right before a transition word.
Your mental summary should contain two parts: what and why.
- What: What’s being said?
- Why: Is the author trying to convince us of something or just laying out information? What’s the point of each paragraph, and why organize them that way?
One great trick is to simplify your summary as if you have to explain the passage to a little kid. This will help you distill complex passages down into their most straightforward, absorbable message.
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Watch Out for Multiple Viewpoints
Sometimes a passage will contain multiple viewpoints—the viewpoint of the author and a viewpoint he/she disagrees with, multiple disparate viewpoints that the author is trying to mediate, etc. Take note of this: there will almost certainly be a question or two that tests your ability to distinguish, compare, or apply the different viewpoints presented. So these viewpoints should be a part of your mental summary: if they’re there, they’re there for a reason.
Find a Reason to Be Interested
It may seem counterintuitive, but to some extent, you really can choose whether or not you care about what you’re reading.
For example, let’s say you’re learning about bird migration patterns. Think about how cool it is that birds migrate in the first place. How amazing is it that they’re just born with the knowledge to fly thousands of miles south in the winter, and then back when it gets warm again up north? That’s so cool! Of course scientists want to understand how this works—and you do, too!
Okay, so I’m at risk of getting a little hokey here. But the point stands: find a way to engage with the passage. Find a way that it relates to the kind of knowledge that you might seek out in your own time. You’re more likely to absorb the passage well if you’re interested in what you’re reading.
Most people think that the scratch board you’re given while taking the GMAT is just for the Quant section. This isn’t necessarily true: if there’s a single use case for it on the Verbal section, it’s reading comprehension. You don’t want to waste time writing down every detail, but on a passage-as-a-whole level, it can save time in the long run to jot down your mental summary as you read. You should then use your notes to help guide you on the questions.
Taking these kinds of notes is a good idea for most if not all students, but if you’re resistant to it, here are what I consider to be the three biggest use cases for taking notes:
- You’re the kind of reader who finds it helpful to annotate the books you read for class.
- In practice questions, you find that you’re consistently having a hard time answering “big picture” (main idea, inference, out-of-context, logical structure) questions.
- Your eyeballs start to gloss over what you’re reading, and/or you find you have to read the passage multiple times to “get it.”
Of course, no one strategy works for every single student. Ultimately, you should practice both taking and not taking notes for the passages, and see which way works best for you.
Don’t Do This: Speed-Read or Skim
It bears repeating: GMAT reading comprehension questions require a thorough understanding of the passage. While you can (and should) simplify jargon in your mind as you read, you shouldn’t rush through the passage or just read the first and last sentence of every paragraph.
For one thing, you can’t see what you’re going to be asked beyond the very first question, which makes it hard to read predictively. You might unintentionally gloss over parts of the passage that will be important for a coming question. Moreover, as we just mentioned, the “next-level” questions (such as inference and out-of-context questions) will require a holistic, in-depth understanding of both the main idea and important details and how they interrelate. Overall, skimming and speed-reading can leave you poorly prepared for whatever lies ahead.
The Single Most Important Takeaway
Above all, the most important strategy for approaching the passages is to always read with the “main claim” or “main idea” in mind. Whether the author is making an argument or simply laying out information, there will always be a main idea that governs the passage’s content and organization.
4 GMAT Reading Comprehension Tips for Answering the Questions
Now that we’ve discussed how to approach reading the passages, let’s get into how to attack Reading Comprehension GMAT questions themselves.
#1: Make Sure You Answer the Question Being Asked
This may seem obvious, but the GMAT loves to give you answer options that are factually correct given the information in the passage but which don’t actually answer the question being asked. For example, if the question is asking you to identify an “assumption” behind a particular statement, the answer isn’t going to be something explicitly laid out in the passage. Likewise, if you’re being asked to identify a “main idea,” it’s not going to be a piece of supporting evidence.
#2: Stick to What You Can Prove With the Passage
Don’t bring in outside knowledge, even if you’re familiar with the topic being discussed. The “right” answer should always be 100% supportable by the passage alone.
#3: Read All the Answer Choices and Use Process of Elimination
Getting rid of wrong answers is an integral part of the process of getting to the right answer. Even if you’re absolutely 100% sure of your chosen answer, you should always take the time to briefly check the other options and make sure you can discount them before moving on.
This is also a good strategy for when you’re stuck between answer options: focus on disproving each one, and then go with the answer option that is hardest to disprove. It’s almost always easier to weed out the wrong answers than it is to find the right one.
#4: Familiarize Yourself with Incorrect Answer Types
In your test prep, don’t just find the right answer and move on: practice asking yourself why the other answer options are incorrect. You’ll start to see patterns in the wrong answers that are given, including:
- Too broad: In main idea questions especially, you’ll need to watch out for answer options that take the main idea of the passage just a little bit too far. Sometimes this can hinge on a single word: something like “all,” “never,” or “every” that makes it too extreme of a statement given what’s in the passage.
- Too narrow: A cousin of “too broad,” the “too narrow” answer options might get at a specific detail but not the main idea, making them incorrect answers for a main idea question.
- Reversed causal or temporal relationship: Some answer options will “flip” a relationship. They’ll say that B caused A when the passage really states that A caused B, or they’ll say something came first in the process when it really came later on.
- Not supported by the passage: The easiest to eliminate, these answer options bring in information or ideas that weren’t mentioned at all in the passage.
- Supported by the passage but doesn’t answer the question being asked: As we said above, this is a very common wrong answer type, which is why it’s so important to make sure you fully understand what the question is asking before picking an answer. “Too narrow” falls into this broader category, but there are other kinds of decoy answer options that come up as well: options that are too much of an inference for a details question, options that are too explicit for an inference question, and so on.
Finally, let’s see these GMAT reading comprehension strategies in action with some sample questions.
Reading Comprehension GMAT Examples
Check out out GMAT reading comprehension tips in action on the passage and questions below.
A meteor stream is composed of dust particles that have been ejected from a parent comet at a variety of velocities. These particles follow the same orbit as the parent comet, but due to their differing velocities they slowly gain on or fall behind the disintegrating comet until a shroud of dust surrounds the entire cometary orbit. Astronomers have hypothesized that a meteor stream should broaden with time as the dust particles’ individual orbits are perturbed by planetary gravitational fields. A recent computer-modeling experiment tested this hypothesis by tracking the influence of planetary gravitation over a projected 5,000-year period on the positions of a group of hypothetical dust particles. In the model, the particles were randomly distributed throughout a computer simulation of the orbit of an actual meteor stream, the Geminid. The researcher found, as expected, that the computer-model stream broadened with time. Conventional theories, however, predicted that the distribution of particles would be increasingly dense toward the center of a meteor stream. Surprisingly, the computer-model meteor stream gradually came to resemble a thick-walled, hollow pipe.
Whenever the Earth passes through a meteor stream, a meteor shower occurs. Moving at a little over 1,500,000 miles per day around its orbit, the Earth would take, on average, just over a day to cross the hollow, computer-model Geminid stream if the stream were 5,000 years old. Two brief periods of peak meteor activity during the shower would be observed, one as the Earth entered the thick-walled “pipe” and one as it exited. There is no reason why the Earth should always pass through the stream’s exact center, so the time interval between the two bursts of activity would vary from one year to the next.
Has the predicted twin-peaked activity been observed for the actual yearly Geminid meteor shower? The Geminid data between 1970 and 1979 shows just such a bifurcation, a secondary burst of meteor activity being clearly visible at an average of 19 hours (1,200,000 miles) after the first burst. The time intervals between the bursts suggest the actual Geminid stream is about 3,000 years old.
Before I get into the questions, I’ll take a moment to summarize the passage:
- Main idea: a computer simulation of the Geminid meteor stream has found that meteor streams broaden over time and form a hollow pipe shape.
- Contrasts with conventional theories, which predicted broad, but centrally dense (not hollow)
- Data from real Geminid meteor shower supports hollow shape theory: two bursts of showering when earth entered and exited the pipe
Note how I drilled the passage down to just the key ideas—this is more or less what your own notes and/or mental summary should look like for this passage.
Which of the following is an assumption underlying the last sentence of the passage?
(A) In each of the years between 1970 and 1979, the Earth took exactly 19 hours to cross the Geminid meteor stream.
(B) The comet associated with the Geminid meteor stream has totally disintegrated.
(C) The Geminid meteor stream should continue to exist for at least 5,000 years.
(D) The Geminid meteor stream has not broadened as rapidly as the conventional theories would have predicted.
(E) The computer-model Geminid meteor stream provides an accurate representation of the development of the actual Geminid stream.
First, let’s look at the question and nail down exactly what it’s asking of us. This is a logical structure question, which we know because it’s asking us to identify an assumption underlying a statement in the passage. It has kindly directed us specifically to the last sentence: “The time intervals between the bursts suggest the actual Geminid stream is about 3,000 years old.”
Clearly, you can’t answer this question by reading the last sentence by itself—or even the last paragraph. You need to understand the context (what the author’s argument is) in order to correctly identify the implicit assumption at work here.
It’s hard to predict what exactly they’re looking for in this question, as there are many potential assumptions underlying that last sentence. So it doesn’t make sense in this particular question to try to come up with your own answer first. Let’s go straight to the answer choices instead:
(A) is a classic “supported by the passage but doesn’t answer the question” option. It restates something said explicitly in the passage, and it has to do with data that was discovered—not an underlying “assumption.” Eliminate it.
(B) brings in information that isn’t supported by the passage: we are never told about the state of the meteor, and even if we were, it wouldn’t seem to have any bearing on using time intervals between meteor shower bursts to measure the age of the stream. Eliminate it.
(C) takes a number that was brought up a few times—5,000 years—and misapplies it. 5,000 years was the projected period for the computer modeling experiment, not a prediction of how long a real comet stream “should” exist. Eliminate it.
(D) tests your understanding of how multiple theories compare and contrast in this passage. The conventional theory is that meteor streams will broaden and become denser at the center. The new experimental finding is that meteor streams will broaden and become a hollow, thick-walled pipe. Both of them agree on the broadening, just not on the specific shape. Thus, (D) intentionally misinterprets the experimental finding. Eliminate it.
(E) gives us some food for thought. The passage does imply—but never explicitly states—that the data from the real Geminid meteor showers supports the computer model’s findings. The computer model had predicted that if the stream were 5,000 years old, it would take earth 24 hours to pass through. It actually took earth 19 hours to pass through, which—according to the computer model—makes the stream about 3,000 years old.
“According to the computer model” is never stated; it’s exactly the assumption underlying the application of an age to the actual meteor stream. As in, the author has taken the meteor shower data as “proof” of the computer model’s validity, and then turned around and used the computer model to date the real thing. So (E) is correct.
According to the passage, why do the dust particles in a meteor stream eventually surround a comet’s original orbit?
(A) They are ejected by the comet at differing velocities.
(B) Their orbits are uncontrolled by planetary gravitational fields.
(C) They become part of the meteor stream at different times.
(D) Their velocity slows over time.
(E) Their ejection velocity is slower than that of the comet.
First, as always, let’s think about what the question is asking. It’s a details question, so we’ll have to find something explicitly stated in the passage.
Now, take a look at the answer options: they deal with words like “velocity,” “time,” and “gravity.” Where in the passage did they talk about these things? It was in the first paragraph. Let’s refer back to it, since the explanation of the physics of meteor dust was a bit tricky.
The passage states: “A meteor stream is composed of dust particles that have been ejected from a parent comet at a variety of velocities. These particles follow the same orbit as the parent comet, but due to their differing velocities they slowly gain on or fall behind the disintegrating comet until a shroud of dust surrounds the entire cometary orbit.”
“Due to their differing velocities”—or, in simpler words, traveling at initial speeds that differ from each other—is the key here. Because they break off from the comet at different speeds, they gain ahead or fall behind it differently, ultimately landing in a variety of orbital positions and forming a kind of cloud. Choice (A) nails it, but we should still make sure we can eliminate the other options.
(B) directly opposes what’s stated in the passage: they are “perturbed” by planetary gravitational fields eventually.
(C) is a misinterpretation of the text—we’re dealing with velocity, not time.
(D) does get at the fact that the differing velocities don’t continue on forever, as the particles do “slowly gain or fall behind” the comet itself, but it doesn’t answer why the particles form a shroud around the comet, so it doesn’t answer the question being asked.
(E) brings in information never stated in the passage. All we know for certain is that the ejection velocities of the particles differ from each other, not the comet itself. Plus, some of the particles do “gain on” the comet, which implies that they’re traveling faster than the comet itself. So this answer option is at best speculative and at worst contrary.
We can safely stick with (A), the correct answer.
It can be inferred from the passage that which of the following would most probably be observed during the Earth’s passage through a meteor stream if the conventional theories mentioned in line 18 were correct?
(A) Meteor activity would gradually increase to a single, intense peak, and then gradually decline.
(B) Meteor activity would be steady throughout the period of the meteor shower.
(C) Meteor activity would rise to a peak at the beginning and at the end of the meteor shower.
(D) Random bursts of very high meteor activity would be interspersed with periods of very little
(E) In years in which the Earth passed through only the outer areas of a meteor stream, meteor activity would be absent.
This is clearly an inference question. The author is asking us to hypothesize about what would happen if the conventional theories were true as opposed to the experimentally proven one. It’s not an out-of-context question, as it’s asking us about a situation within the passage, not outside of it.
So, given that the passage gives us the answer for the new theory, can we extrapolate from that what would happen for the conventional theory? First, we have to identify what the conventional theory really is. Here’s where that passage summary really comes in handy: We have distilled that the computer model (and ultimately supported) theory is the ‘hollow pipe’ theory, and that the conventional theory is the ‘centrally dense’ theory. If bursts happen when earth enters and exits the walls of the pipe, what would happen if earth passed through a centrally dense formation?
(A) makes perfect sense. The showers would gradually increase to a peak at the center, and then decrease again. All of the other answer options point to a different shape: (B) implies that the stream is uniform throughout; (C) reverses the pattern, matching more closely to the hollow “walls” theory than to the conventional theory; (D) implies a random shape; and (E) implies that there are no particles at all in the outer regions, rather than just a less-dense clustering of them.
GMAT Reading Comprehension: Key Takeaways
TL; DR? You’ll encounter roughly 9 to 16 reading comprehension questions on the GMAT. While the questions vary, they all essentially test your ability to understand an argument or identify the important ideas and information from a given passage. You should:
- Read the passage carefully.
- Look out for the main idea/main viewpoint, and for the interrelationship among sub-concepts/other viewpoints.
- Pay special attention to transition words, but gloss over jargon.
- Make a written or mental summary as you read.
- Attack the questions by using your summary and eliminating wrong answers strategically.
No matter what, the most important thing is to nail down the best mix of the above strategies and tactics for you well before you take the real GMAT. Don’t deviate from your plan on test day: sticking to the tried-and-true approaches will ensure that you do your best.
Now that you’re an expert on reading comprehension GMAT questions, check out these similar posts on the best strategies for sentence correction questions and critical reasoning questions. (coming soon)
Wondering about the best way to study for the GMAT? Check out these tips for designing your GMAT study plan. (coming soon)
Other than reading comprehension, are you familiar with the format and question types on the rest of the GMAT? Our guide to the full GMAT exam pattern has samples of each and every question type.
When you’re ready to start taking practice tests, read through our guide to the best 28 GMAT practice tests to help you prepare for the exam. Good luck!