How to Use Your Time Wisely on Reading Comprehension GMAT Questions

On the verbal section of the GMAT, students invariably spend more time on Reading Comprehension questions than on either Sentence Correction or Critical Reasoning problems. In fact, I’ve seen score reports where people spent more time on Reading Comprehension than on the other two question types combined! Students spend a lot of time on these passages because they are consistently packed with pointless information, run-on sentences and dense technical jargon. Attempting to untangle these passages can lead to a lot of frustration for test takers (Fortunately, there’s an app for that).

One reason people spend a lot of time on these questions is that they try to read the entire passage thoroughly. This is normal because this is how most reading is done, be it in newspapers or periodicals or novels. However, on the GMAT, speed is the name of the game. If I were doing a book report on Shakespeare’s works, then I would read the text multiple times, looking for nuance and symbolism. The goal on the GMAT is quite different: you have roughly eight minutes to read a passage and then answer four questions about it. That isn’t much time, but it can work if you’re question-focused.

Why be question focused? (Rhetorical question) A typical passage may have 300-400 words, and you could be asked 20-30 different questions about the information contained within it. In reality, you will only be asked 3-4-5 questions about this text, so becoming an expert on the minutiae contained within seems like a complete waste of time. In fact, considering that you only have ~2 minutes per question, it is not only a waste of time but a distraction that will waste precious time and lower your score. The vast majority of questions will require you to go back to the passage and reread the relevant portion, so your initial read is only there to give you a general sense of the text. After the initial read, you should be able to answer broad, universal questions. However, for questions that deal in specifics, you’ll have to go back to the text.

Specific questions deal with (drum roll please) specific elements of the passage. At first glance, you wouldn’t necessarily recall such minute details, but if you know where to go back in the text, it becomes a trivial case of rereading until you find it. As an example, you might not remember what Luke Skywalker was wearing on Tatooine when he first meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, but you could just rewatch the first act of Star Wars and see for yourself. There is no need to memorize every minor detail, as long as you know where to find the answer, you can just look it up.

Let’s look at a GMAT passage and answer a question that deals with a specific element of the passage (note: this is the same passage I used in October for a function question).

Nearly all the workers of the Lowell textile mills of Massachusetts were unmarried daughters from farm families. Some of the workers were as young as ten. Since many people in the 1820s were disturbed by the idea of working females, the company provided well-kept dormitories and boarding-houses. The meals were decent and church attendance was mandatory. Compared to other factories of the time, the Lowell mills were clean and safe, and there was even a journal, The Lowell Offering, which contained poems and other material written by the workers, and which became known beyond New England. Ironically, it was at the Lowell Mills that dissatisfaction with working conditions brought about the first organization of working women.

The mills were highly mechanized, and were in fact considered a model of efficiency by others in the textile industry. The work was difficult, however, and the high level of standardization made it tedious. When wages were cut, the workers organized the Factory Girls Association. 15,000 women decided to “turn out”, or walk off the job. The Offering, meant as a pleasant creative outlet, gave the women a voice that could be heard by sympathetic people elsewhere in the country, and even in Europe. However, the ability of the women to demand changes was severely circumscribed by an inability to go for long without wages with which to support themselves and help support their families. The same limitation hampered the effectiveness of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA), organized in 1844.

No specific reform can be directly attributed to the Lowell workers, but their legacy is unquestionable. The LFLRA’s founder, Sarah Bagley, became a national figure, testifying before the Massachusetts House of Representatives. When the New England Labor Reform League was formed, three of the eight board members were women. Other mill workers took note of the Lowell strikes, and were successful in getting better pay, shorter hours, and safer working conditions. Even some existing child labor laws can be traced back to efforts first set in motion by the Lowell Mill Women.

According to the passage, which of the following contributed to the inability of the workers at Lowell to have their demands met?
(A) The very young age of some of the workers made political organization impractical.
(B) Social attitudes of the time pressured women into not making demands.
(C) The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association was not organized until 1844.
(D) Their families depended on the workers to send some of their wages home.
(E) The people who were most sympathetic to the workers lived outside of New England.

If you’ve been following the Veritas technique on Reading Comprehension, then you should have spent about two minutes reading through the passage and summarizing each paragraph in a couple of words. If you didn’t do this, feel free to go back and do it now. Once completed, your summaries of each paragraph should be something like:
1) Lowell Mills and context
2) Labor strife and consequences
3) Legacy of Lowell Mills

Your exact wording may vary, but you want to keep it at about 3-5 words or so. This should give enough of a framework so you know where to go in every question. If we look at the question at hand, it asks why were the workers at Lowell unable to have their demands met. This has to be in the second paragraph, as that was the part that dealt with the actual worker strife.

Rereading this paragraph, we go through a description of what prompted the strike and then how many people participated. Directly following this is the line: “However, the ability of the women to demand changes was severely circumscribed by an inability to go for long without wages with which to support themselves and help support their families”. This was their downfall: they needed money to support themselves and their loved ones (unsurprisingly the downfall of most strikes). The wording used may be somewhat obtuse, but the context makes it quite clear that the issue was money. Going through the answer choices, D is the only option that is remotely close to what we want, and is therefore the correct answer.

On Reading Comprehension questions, it’s very easy to experience information overload (TL;DR for the new generation). A lot of information is contained in each passage, and this is not an accident. The test is designed to try and waste your time with frivolous sentences, so your goal is to read for overarching intent and know that you’ll have to revisit the text on most questions. Specific questions tend to ask about something minor, or possibly tangential, and therefore usually require you to reread the passage. Practice Reading Comprehension timing and you will find that you can answer these specific questions faster.

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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.