Reading Comprehension questions are more familiar to most people than the other verbal questions on the GMAT. Part of it is that most people have encountered them before on the SAT or ACT, and part of it is that the task of reading a passage and answering questions about it is more familiar than the tasks of fixing the grammar of sentences and analyzing the logic of arguments. But there are still plenty of ways to go wrong in Reading Comprehension. The following are five common mistakes people make that prevent them from maximizing their performance on Reading Comprehension.
1) Reading the passage in too much detail the first time
Clearly, you need to know something about the passage before you tackle the questions. You don’t need to know everything, though. One of the biggest mistakes people make with Reading Comprehension is reading the passage slowly and in great detail the first time through. These passages are dense with information and most of it is not important, because the test will only ask 3 or 4 questions about each passage. Trying to absorb everything is a waste of time. You get no points for reading; you only get points for answering questions correctly. Therefore, the first time through the passage you want to read quickly, paying attention to the following two questions: 1) What is the general idea (topic, purpose, author’s tone)? 2) What is the structure of the passage (organization, location of details)?
2) Not clarifying the question
After reading the question you’re ready to go back and find the answer, right? Well, hold on. Are you certain you know what you’re looking for? Be sure to take a moment to clarify what the question is asking. What is the actual task? For example, some questions more or less ask you to retrieve information from the passage. “According to the passage, which of the following is one of the mating rituals of the moth?” That’s a straightforward question that requires you to find out what the passage said. But what about, “The author mentions the mating rituals of the moth in order to”? That’s a little different. That’s a question that isn’t interested in what was said, but rather why it was said. It’s a question about purpose and intention, and you have to think about the context of the passage to answer it. Or how about, “Which of the following can be inferred about the mating rituals of the moth?” Here we’re looking for something that wasn’t explicitly stated, but must still be true based on the text of the passage. In order to answer questions successfully, you need to know what information you’re reading for in the first place, which means you need to know exactly what the question is asking.
3) Failing to go back to the text to prove your answer
One consequence of spending too much time initially reading the passage (see point 1) is that you’re tempted to answer questions from memory rather than go back to the passage and read closely to find the necessary information. Reading Comprehension is like an open-book test. Everything you need is there in the passage — it’s just a matter of finding it. One of the main reasons you don’t need to read the whole passage carefully the first time is that you should be going back to the passage later anyway to read the important sections when it’s time to answer specific questions. Reading Comprehension answer choices can turn on tiny details in the passage, and it’s unlikely you’ll know them by heart. Train yourself to find the text in the passage that proves the answer choice you pick.
4) Turning to the answer choices too soon
You’ve read the paragraph that the question asked about. Time to hit the answer choices, right? Not so fast. There’s a big difference between reading and understanding. Reading is a mechanical skill, but comprehension is not. Everyone has experienced this at some time. You’re reading something, reading along, reading along, and it suddenly occurs to you that you have no idea what you’re reading anymore. Your eyes are still processing the words but the part of your brain that actually understands the words checked out a few paragraphs back. The point is that after you read the relevant text from the passage, you need to give yourself a moment to process that information before you turn to the answer choices. Think about what you’ve just read and what it means, especially in light of the question you’re trying to answer. The clearer of an idea you have about what you’re looking for, the easier it will be to work with the answer choices.
5) Looking only for good stuff in the answer choices
Most people examine answer choices with one question in mind: Is there anything here that I like? If there’s something about an answer choice that you like, it stays. If you don’t like anything about it, it goes. Ideally, you find one that you like the best and pick it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and sometimes it’s all you need. But too often it’s not enough, particularly when you like more than one answer choice or you don’t like any of them. What too many people never develop is the ability to spin their perspective 180 degrees and look for flaws in answer choices. You need to think like a prosecutor. “What is the strongest case I can make against this answer choice?” The human brain is wired in many ways to focus on one thing at a time. If I’m looking for reasons to choose an answer, it’s harder for me to see reasons to eliminate it. There are parts of answer choices that you literally will not even notice unless you are specifically looking for flaws. Ultimately, this is just one example of a larger principle that has resonance across the whole GMAT — it’s very hard to find certain things unless you are specifically looking for them.