GRE Passages: 2 Methods to Ace Reading Comprehension


After getting into college, you probably thought you were done with reading comprehension passages. But if you need to take the GRE, it’s time to face these questions again—but in a denser, dizzier, more advanced form.

Luckily, we’re here to break down everything you need to know about GRE passages. We’ll talk about what questions you can expect to see on the test, how to best approach GRE reading comprehension passages, and give you strategic tips for finding the right answer.


GRE Reading Comprehension Questions

GRE Verbal is made up of two thirty-minute, 20-question subsections. Each subsection includes 10 reading comprehension questions, for a total of about 20 reading comprehension questions on the entire Verbal section.

These reading comprehension questions ask you to read and answer questions about an associated passage. They are split into three question types:

  • Regular multiple choice—you’ll be asked a question about the passage and need to select the best answer out of five choices.
  • Multi-answer multiple choice—you’ll be presented with three statements about the passage and need to select all that apply.
  • Select-in-passage—you will need to select the sentence in the passage that best meets particular criteria.

These question types may seem different, but they’re all fundamentally about finding evidence in the passage and assessing what that evidence says. What is the passage saying, and what parts of the passage support or refute particular assertions or lines of argument?

In terms of the GRE passages you can expect to encounter, they will be dense, academic nonfiction passages on a variety of topics: science, art, sociology, history, and so on. Expect long, complex sentences and high-level vocabulary.


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One might even say GRE reading passages are labyrinthine.


How to Approach GRE Passages

When you take the GRE, it’s important to have a consistent approach to GRE Verbal passages. Having a system that you’ve developed during your prep will help you feel more comfortable with the density and variety of passages as you take the test. Furthermore, it will help you with time management.

There are, in general, three possible approaches you could take to GRE reading passages and questions. Two of them can work well, but I highly discourage one of them.


Recommended Approach 1: Skim the Passage First

In this approach, you’ll first quickly skim the GRE passage, thinking only about main ideas, themes, and base-level comprehension. You just need to get a general sense of what’s going on in the passage; you don’t need to strive to remember any granular detail.

Once you’ve made a quick pass through the passage, you’ll carefully read the question to determine what evidence you need to look for in the passage. Then, you’ll go back into the passage to find the evidence to answer the question. You may need to make a few quick checks between the evidence in the passage and the answers given to help you make the best choice; this is totally fine just so long as you don’t get stuck in your own head and waste too much time deliberating. (If you find yourself doing this, I advise you to simply move on from the question and come back later; answers that seem unclear are often obvious on a second pass-through).

This is a good, generally time-efficient approach because your quick read-through of the passage will help you find where to focus your attention in the passage to pick out the details you need to answer the question.


Skim right across the top, and then come back for the good stuff.


Recommended Approach 2: Read the Question First

In this approach, you’ll carefully read the question first to know what evidence you should be looking for when you read the passage. You could also read the answers at this point, but I advise against it, because it might muddle your impression of the passage. Then, you’ll read the passage, keeping an eye out for details relevant to the question. Finally, you’ll return to the question and select the best answer.

Some people who use this approach don’t even really read the entire GRE passage, just scan for relevant words and then closely read those segments. This can be a good strategy if you want to be as efficient as possible, but you definitely run the risk of making mistakes because there might be better information elsewhere in the passage that you didn’t really see.

Overall, reading the question first and then going back into the passage can be a risky strategy, but very effective (and efficient!) if deployed correctly. If you aren’t very familiar with GRE answer styles, I advise against reading the answer choices when you first read the question, because it can muddle your impression of the passage when you read it looking for the evidence. However, feel free to do some initial experimenting when you are trying to find the approach that works best for you.


Don’t Do This: Read Passage Closely First

In this approach, you’ll read the passage very closely first, then read and try to answer the question. You might even engage in so-called active reading strategies, interacting with the text as best you can without a paper copy and asking yourself questions about the main idea throughout. I do not advise this strategy at all because it wastes time.

You might be tempted by this intensive, detail-focused strategy because it’s how you were taught to read in high school and college. Marking the text, asking yourself questions, making diagrams—these are great strategies when you are reading for retention. But you don’t need to remember anything about any of the GRE passages longer than the couple minutes you spend working on the question. All you need is a baseline level of comprehension and an ability to find the necessary details for answering the question.

Trying to closely read the passage for detail is a waste of time because most details aren’t going to end up being relevant. And you are almost certainly going to have to look back at the passage again anyways when you’re trying to answer the question, so there’s no good reason to try to absorb every detail of the passage on your first pass.


You really don’t need to zoom in this close.


4 Tips for Answering Questions on GRE Passages

Here are my key tips for answering questions on GRE reading comprehension passages:


Look for the Evidence—Don’t Infer

The GRE will try to trick you by presenting you with answers that sound like they could be right, if you make assumptions beyond what’s actually in the passage. Don’t be fooled by this! The correct answer will always have direct evidence in the passage that you can point to. It might only be a few words, but the evidence will be there.


Don’t Be Afraid to Look Back at the GRE Passage

Some students feel like they should limit how many times they look back at the passage. While there’s not a whole lot of utility in poring over the passage a bunch of times, or in compulsively checking sentences you’ve already looked at, don’t stop yourself from glancing back at the passage if you feel like you need to. It’s not a memory test—it’s right there so you can use it!


Think of Your Own Answer First

If you find yourself getting confused by the answer choices, think of what you think the answer should be before you look at the answer choices. This should help you get some clarity on which answer choice is the best. At the very least, it should help you eliminate some obviously wrong answers if they are totally different from or contradict yours.


Move on If You Get Stuck

Lastly, if you feel stuck or lost, move on. Mark the question to return to later. All correct answers are worth the same amount of points. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to waste time agonizing over a question when there are still other, easier questions to tackle. Plus, chances are you will find things much clearer once you return to the question!


You can just move on when you get stuck—unlike this cat.


GRE Passages: Key Takeaways

You’ll face about 20 reading comprehension questions on the GRE Verbal section. They come in several slightly different formats, but they are all testing your ability to identify evidence in a passage to answer a question. The GRE reading passages will be dense, nonfiction excerpts on a variety of topics.

There are three main approaches to GRE passages: two recommended, and one that I advise against.

  • Recommended approach one is to skim the passage first, read the question, then go back into the passage looking for detail.
  • Recommended approach two is to read the question first, then read the passage looking for the answer.
  • Some students read the passage closely and in detail before reading the question. I advise against this because it wastes valuable time—most of the details in the passage won’t end up being relevant to any questions, so trying to absorb them all is totally unnecessary and inefficient!

Here are four important tips and strategies for approaching GRE reading comprehension passages and questions:

  • Look for evidence—don’t make assumptions or inferences.
  • Don’t stop yourself from looking back at the passage if you feel like you need to!
  • If you’re getting muddled up by the answer choices, think of your own answer before reading the choices.
  • Lastly, if you get stuck or confused, move on and come back!


What’s Next?

For more free resources for the GRE Verbal section, see our list of 357 essential GRE vocabulary words, our free GRE flash cards, and our expert GRE vocabulary PDFs. Also check out our collection of all the best GRE Verbal resources out there!

If you’re looking for more general GRE strategies, check out our 34 critical tips and strategies and our ultimate GRE study guide.

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Author: Ellen McCammon

Ellen is a public health graduate student and education expert. She has extensive experience mentoring students of all ages to reach their goals and in-depth knowledge on a variety of health topics.