Increase Your Speed on Reading Comprehension GMAT Questions

One common complaint that people have when finishing the GMAT is that they are mentally exhausted. Indeed the exam is a marathon that tests your overall endurance, but also your time management skills. You have about two minutes per question in the math section, and slightly less than that on the verbal part.  Since timing is such an integral part of the exam, it’s important not to lose too much time on any specific question type on the exam. It’s perfectly natural to be more at ease with certain question types and thus process them faster than others, but you don’t want to have entire categories of questions you’re trying to avoid (or at least, not too many of them).

Last week, I discussed timing issues on a quantitative question, and many of the concepts covered are applicable to the verbal section as well. Maintaining a good pace and avoiding spending undue time on perplexing questions are fundamental elements of a good GMAT score. However, I wanted to delve further into a particular type of question that often causes timing issues on the exam. Particularly when exhausted near the end of the test, students often dread coming across protracted Reading Comprehension passages.

Reading Comprehension (or RC for friends and family) poses a unique challenge on the GMAT. Every quantitative question and every other type of verbal question is entirely self-contained. A question will ask you about something, and then the following problem will be a completely different question about a completely different topic. Reading Comprehension questions ask you three, four and even five questions about the same prompt, and the prompts can be dozens of lines. Indeed, the first question on Reading Comprehension expects you to read through the entire passage, creating an inherent timing concern. Surely you can’t be expected to read through the entire passage in 2 minutes? (You are expected to do so, and don’t call me Shirley.)

Indeed, you can read through the passage in about two minutes, but you’re unlikely to be able to both read the passage and answer the (first) question posed during that span. For RC questions, I often find the best strategy is to separate the passage from the questions. If you read the question first, you risk skewing the analysis of the passage towards the question you have in mind, so it’s best to read the passage first without reading the question on the opposite side of the screen. The goal of this initial reading is to be able to identify the main idea of each paragraph and the primary purpose of the passage as a whole. You can read the passage in about 2 minutes and then spend about 1.5 minutes on each question, yielding a total of 8 minutes for 4 questions, roughly what you’d expect to spend holistically.

Let’s try this approach on a GMAT Reading Comprehension passage. At the end of each paragraph, try to summarize the main idea in about 3-5 words. You can even write these words down if you want, but it should be sufficient to think about the ideas.

Biologists have advanced two theories to explain why schooling of fish occurs in so many fish species. Because schooling is particularly widespread among species of small fish, both theories assume that schooling offers the advantage of some protection from predators. Proponents of theory A dispute the assumption that a school of thousands of fish is highly visible. Experiments have shown that any fish can be seen, even in very clear water, only within a sphere of 200 meters in diameter. When fish are in a compact group, the spheres of visibility overlap. Thus the chance of a predator finding the school is only slightly greater than the chance of the predator finding a single fish swimming alone. Schooling is advantageous to the individual fish because a predator’s chance of finding any particular fish swimming in the school is much smaller than its chance of finding at least one of the same group of fish if the fish were dispersed throughout an area.

However, critics of theory A point out that some fish form schools even in areas where predators are abundant and thus little possibility of escaping detection exists. They argue that the school continues to be of value to its members even after detection. They advocate theory B, the “confusion effect,” which can be explained in two different ways. Sometimes, proponents argue, predators simply cannot decide which fish to attack. This indecision supposedly results from a predator’s preference for striking prey that is distinct from the rest of the school in appearance. In many schools the fish are almost identical in appearance, making it difficult for a predator to select one. The second explanation for the “confusion effect” has to do with the sensory confusion caused by a large number of prey moving around the predator. Even if the predator makes the decision to attack a particular fish, the movement of other prey in the school can be distracting. The predator’s difficulty can be compared to that of a tennis player trying to hit a tennis ball when two are approaching simultaneously.

According to one explanation of the “confusion effect,” a fish that swims in a school will have greater advantages for survival if it

(A)   tends to be visible for no more than 200 meters.

(B)   stays near either the front or the rear of a school.

(C)   is part of a small school rather than a large school.

(D)   is very similar in appearance to the other fish in the school.

(E)    is medium-sized.

This passage only has two main paragraphs, and really each one is mostly about a theory as to why fish form schools (theory C: to get business degrees). We can summarize the first paragraph as the evasion theory and the second paragraph as the confusion theory. Overall the passage is primarily concerned with differing theories as to why fish tend to regroup in many disparate situations.

Looking over the question, it is specifically concerned with the “confusion effect”, which was theory B in the second paragraph. We can now focus our attention on the second paragraph to answer the question about survival. Rereading the passage, nothing was mentioned about the front or back of a school, as well as the size of the school, which eliminates answer choices B and C. Answer choice E similarly makes decisions based on the size of the fish, which was only discussed in terms of small fish. We can fairly quickly eliminate this choice as being a medium sized fish was never even mentioned.

Only answer choices A and D remain. Answer choice A is mentioned in the general sense for all fish in schools, and so would be a dubious choice as a great advantage since it applies to all fish in a given school. This is equivalent to saying we should promote Bob because he breathes oxygen. Answer choice D offers a logical choice, which is almost verbatim in the middle of the second paragraph “In many schools the fish are almost identical in appearance, making it difficult for a predator to select one.” This answer lines up with the text and we’ve eliminated the other four choices, making D an easy selection (also possibly recalling memorable moments from Disney’s Finding Nemo).

The questions on Reading Comprehension tend to be somewhat less tricky than the other verbal sections (Sentence Correction and Critical Reasoning). This difference is somewhat due to the fact that reading through passages takes time and inherently contributes to the difficulty of the question. The trouble isn’t just finding the right answer, it’s reading through 300 words of drivel without falling asleep and then isolating the important aspect to answer the given question. Especially since the verbal section is the last section of this test, it’s important not to waste too much time and get mentally fatigued. A good timing strategy is crucial to getting the best possible result on your GMAT.

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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.