How To Improve Your Reading Skills for Reading Comp

by on September 1st, 2010

studying hardStudents often ask for non-GMAT reading sources that they can use to improve their reading skills in general, for comprehension and for speed. Recently, some students have asked for more: how should they read such material? Is it the same as reading for work or for pleasure? (Not entirely, no.)

Reading Passages on the GMAT

Several circumstances separate GMAT reading from real-world reading (whether for business or pleasure). First, we’re severely time-constrained on the GMAT. It’s rare that your boss will toss some reading material at you, instruct you to read it and report back to her, and then add, “By the way, I want your report in 3 minutes.” (If this happens to you… maybe you need to find a new boss!)

Second, the material is often more dense than the kinds of things that we read in the real world. Third, the material is often excerpted or edited down from a longer work, so some of the transitions may be disjointed and the material may provide only bare-bones context.

Non-GMAT Reading Sources

For those who are learning English, and aren’t planning to take the GMAT for at least six months to a year, you may want to begin with business and science articles in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal or magazines such as The Economist. These sources are a bit too “casual” and easy to read compared to most GMAT material, but they can provide you with a good starting point if you feel you need it.

Sources that are closer to “GMAT-speak” include:

But it’s not enough just to read these the way that you read your regular news material.

How to Read from non-GMAT Sources

So what do we need to do to learn GMAT lessons from these non-GMAT reading sources? (Note: the things I’m going to recommend below are geared toward helping you prepare for the GMAT; I would recommend different strategies if you were looking for pure comprehension without artificial time limits.)

First, GMAT reading material rarely provides a long introductory section or much of a conclusion, but those features are quite common in news and magazine articles. Skip the first paragraph or two (possibly several) and dive in somewhere in the middle. Read approximately three to five paragraphs (depending upon the length: you want about 200 to 400 words), and give yourself a time limit. Give yourself 2 minutes for a shorter length and 3 minutes for a longer one.

Don’t expect to get 100% comprehension from the three to five paragraphs you read initially; after all, you aren’t actually reading the full text. Don’t give yourself extra time; stop when that buzzer buzzes. Part of your task is to become comfortable with reading quickly and actually not fully comprehending what you just read.

Then, try to articulate:

  • the main point of each individual paragraph
  • the main idea of the entire article (or at least of this section of the article) without having to go back to the introductory paragraph; don’t expect to get it exactly right, since you aren’t actually reading the entire article
  • “content” language (facts, historical information, processes, categories) and “judgment” language (opinions, hypotheses, comparisons)
  • any “changes in direction” in the text that you read: “however” language, two differing points of view, etc.

Then, go read more and gauge your accuracy. Read a couple of additional paragraphs. Does that change your answers to the above? How? Why? Read a bit more and do the same. Finally, read the entire article.

When you start to feel more comfortable with this type of reading, add another layer of complexity: what might they ask you about the details of the article? What can you infer for GMAT purposes? (That is, what is not stated but must be true based upon information given in the article?) Do you understand the detail well enough that you could summarize it for someone else, possibly using easier language?


To start, you might read articles that cover all kinds of content. GMAT Reading Comp passages come in one of four main categories: Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, Social Sciences, and Business. As you study, ask yourself: is your RC ability the same regardless of the type of content? Or do you tend to struggle more with certain kinds of content? If the latter is true, then start doing some more non-GMAT reading in those areas.

What do you do when you hit a particular sentence that makes you think, “What in the world does that mean?” You “unpack” the sentence into multiple simpler sentences. Use your grammar knowledge and find a noun that you understand. Look for actions that describe that noun (don’t worry about what parts of speech are used – just articulate the action). Make a short sentence: that noun plus that action (in the form of a verb).

Then, create a second sentence that uses some new piece of info from the original and that relates to your first new sentence. Keep the sentence simple: one subject, one verb. Often, you can start these sentences with this or these: for example, “this caused …” or “these theories were tested…” If there are technical terms that you don’t understand, abbreviate them to a single letter and don’t worry about the meaning; use the rest of the sentence to understand what’s going on. Keep going until you have “unpacked” the original sentence.

When studying, you may want to write out your “unpacking” of a sentence, but your goal is to get good enough that you don’t need to write it all out (because you certainly won’t have time to do that during the test!).


  1. If you are struggling with reading speed or comprehension, practice reading from non-GMAT sources. If necessary, build up from “lighter” sources, such as The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, to more GMAT-like material, such as scientific and university magazines.
  2. Answer certain questions about the material that you read: what’s the overall point? What’s the purpose of each paragraph? What are the main pieces of content and the judgments made? What changes of direction exist?
  3. If any specific content gives you trouble, practice that type more. Learn to “unpack” difficult sentences efficiently and effectively.


  • Nice Article. Thanks Stacy!!

  • Great advice...thanks very much..I am going to try and apply this right away!!

  • Good advice. Let me try it. I will get back to you with my results.

  • Some persons in recommend that we read fiction books. Do you have any idea or experience about this, Stacey?

    • That isn't a specific recommendation I have ever made, no. Fiction books tend to be quite different in structure and tone than GMAT-type passages, so if you feel comfortable enough in general with English but want more practice with material that's similar to the GMAT, then I don't think fiction books will do enough.

      If, however, you are trying to improve your English in general, then reading anything can help. :)

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