How to Comprehend Reading Comprehension Passages on the GMAT

The most common complaint I hear from students about Reading Comprehension is that the text is mind-numbingly boring. This is due to two common factors. First, the texts are frequently mind-numbingly boring! Second, even if they’re somewhat interesting, the fact that you’ve been staring at a computer screen for about three straight hours (not counting the two eight-minute breaks) means you’re likely not completely focused on the task at hand. In fact, many a student has confided in me that by this part of the test they were already dreaming of lunch at McDonalds (okay this may have just been my personal experience).

So what are you supposed to do when you read a 300-word text, get to the end, and don’t recall a single thing about the text? You can reread it, but the same thing is likely to happen again, all while the time ticks silently away in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen. Luckily, there’s an app for that! (or at least a strategy you can employ). You can change your focus from what’s being written to how it’s being written. In other words, you’re reading for the organization of the text.

Reading for organization is a great way to get through a horrendous text that seems like it was commissioned as a cure for insomnia. If you focus on the signal words that indicate when transitions will be made, you can slog through a passage just looking for directions such as “moreover” or “however” that can signal that the text is continuing in one direction (#HarryStyles) or elaborating on the flip side of the argument. Particularly because many GMAT questions will require you to read through the passage again, having a rough roadmap of the passage will help save time.

Let’s look at a GMAT passage and answer a question using the organization of the passage (note: this is the same passage I used in May and August for scope and tone, respectively):

Young Enterprise Services (YES) is a federal program created to encourage entrepreneurship in 14-18 year olds who have already shown a clear aptitude for starting business ventures. The program, started in 2002, has provided loans, grants, and counseling – in the form of workshops and individual meetings with established entrepreneurs – to over 7,500 young people. The future of YES, however, is now in jeopardy. A number of damaging criticisms have been leveled at the program, and members of the Congressional agency that provides the funding have suggested that YES may be scaled down or even dismantled entirely.

One complaint is that the funds that YES distributes have disproportionally gone to young people from economically disadvantaged families, despite the program’s stated goal of being blind to any criteria besides merit. Though no one has claimed that any of the recipients of YES funds have been undeserving, several families have brought lawsuits claiming that their requests for funding were rejected because of the families’ relatively high levels of income. The resulting publicity was an embarrassment to the YES administrators, one of whom resigned.

Another challenge has been the admittedly difficult task of ensuring that a young person, not his or her family, is truly the driving force behind the venture. The rules state that the business plan must be created by the youth, and that any profits in excess of $1,000 be placed in an escrow account that can only be used for education, investment in the venture, and little else, for a period that is determined by the age of the recipient. Despite this, several grants had to be returned after it was discovered that parents – or in one case, a neighbor – were misusing YES funds to promote their own business ideas. To make matters worse, the story of the returned monies was at first denied by a YES spokesperson who then had to retract the denial, leading to more bad press.

In truth, YES has had some real success stories. A 14-year old girl in Texas used the knowledge and funding she received through the program to connect with a distributor who now carries her line of custom-designed cell phone covers. Two brothers in Alaska have developed an online travel advisory service for young people vacationing with their families. Both of these ventures are profitable, and both companies have gained a striking amount of brand recognition in a very short time. However, YES has been pitifully lax in trumpeting these encouraging stories. Local press notwithstanding, these and other successes have received little media coverage. This is a shame, but one that can be remedied. The administrators of YES should heed the advice given in one of the program’s own publications: “No business venture, whatever its appeal, will succeed for long without an active approach to public relations.”

All of the following are discussed in the passage except _______

(A)   The resignation of some YES administrators

(B)   Bad press resulting from financial improprieties

(C)   Lawsuits against YES

(D)   The YES program’s stated goals

(E)    Current levels of YES funding

This type of question can be difficult as it requires you to find four elements in the text, not just one. This is more a process of elimination than anything else in finding which aspect hasn’t been talked about. Let’s consult our handy road map of the passage:

If you remember what we outlined in previous blogs, the best strategy is to summarize each paragraph in a ~5 word blurb at the end of each paragraph. You don’t have to write these down but you can if your shorthand will help you. The first paragraph dealt with the concept of the YES program, the 2nd and 3rd elaborated on problems the program has had and the 4th is about some of the successes and how to play them up.

Knowing this, we can look for answer choice A in one of the middle paragraphs, and we can find it as the last line of paragraph two.

Answer choice B is also about mismanagement, and should be in the same paragraphs, and again it is the last line of a paragraph, but in this case of the third one.

Answer choice C is also about problems (they’re really not having a good run, eh!). Paragraph two again discusses how certain families have brought lawsuits against YES.

Answer choice D is actually about the program, so we should look for that in paragraph one. Indeed, we see that the very first line discusses the stated goals of the YES program.

Logically it must now be answer choice E, as we’ve found the other four. A cursory scan of the first paragraph quickly reveals that nothing about their current levels of funding was discussed. The only mention is that the program may be dismantled, but the current budget could be 200$ or 200,000$. This is the correct answer choice, and it’s made simple by having a good understanding of the organization of the text.

Reading for organization helps determine what the passage looks like and gives you a good structure to focus on when you simply can’t engage with a passage. Hopefully knowing where to look in the passage will help you answer questions faster and make fewer mistakes. After all, it’s never bad to be organized.

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Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you weekly advice for success on your exam.  After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.

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