This article was written by Sean Murphy. For more expert GMAT prep advice, check out the Knewton GMAT blog.
Sometimes, even as a GMAT teacher, it can be easy to be cynical about Reading Comprehension. “Why bother spending much time teaching Reading Comprehension?” I ask myself in those moments of despair. After all, it’s just reading and answering questions about a passage. It doesn’t have the diverse question types of Critical Reasoning or the grammar rules and “tells” of Sentence Correction. Compared to CR and SC, it sometimes seems that there’s little a GMAT teacher can do to improve his students’ performance on RC.
Of course, this isn’t actually true. The vast majority of my students do improve on Reading Comprehension, thanks in large part to strategies like making passage M.A.P.S. -- that is, sketching out the the Main idea, Attitude of the author, Purpose of the passage, and Structure of the passage (try it if you haven’t!).
But what about other strategies for dealing with RC questions? There’s one technique, often overlooked, that can really help students do better on Reading Comprehension questions. In my last post, I noted how on Critical Reasoning Inference questions, answer choices that contain weaker language are more likely to be right. The same is true for the vast majority of RC questions.
Whether it is a main point, primary purpose, structure, or detail question, a correct answer must always be supported by the passage. Therefore (unless the passage itself contains very forceful opinions or language) an answer choice that contains strong language should be treated with extreme caution. Only the rare weakening or strengthening question is an exception.
It’s not only the extreme modifiers (such as “always” or “never”) that can make a tempting answer wrong. Sometimes the GMAT likes to insert in a difficult word to throw us off. In my years as a GMAT teacher, I noticed that one particular word, “methodology” kept popping up in wrong answer after wrong answer in Reading Comp questions. I decided to conduct my own study, and found that, in Volumes 11 and 12 of the Official Guide to the GMAT, “methodology” appeared in 20 answer choices, and only ONCE was correct!
As it turns out, “methodology”, which simply means the methods used in a particular field of study, is one of those words that tempts students because it sounds smart. So the GMAT puts it in a whole lot of wrong answer choices. Let’s say that we have a GMAT passage about the extinction of the dinosaurs. The passage describes how at one time scientists thought a meteorite was responsible for the mass extinction, but, on the basis of a mineral recently found in many dinosaur fossils, scientists now think that a massive volcanic eruption was the cause. We come to this question:
The passage is primarily concerned with
A) showing how recently discovered evidence has led many scientists to advocate a new theory.
B) describing how poor methodology led many scientists to advocate an erroneous theory.
Let's look at the difference between these two answer choices. A is correct, but many students would be drawn to B. After all, maybe it was poor methodology that led scientists to a mistaken belief. B MIGHT be true. But it could also be the case that there was nothing wrong with the scientists’ methodology, that they reached the best possible conclusion given the evidence they had. Also, A is superior because it doesn’t go so far as to claim that the new theory is correct, just that it is believed by many scientists.
As with Inference questions in Critical Reasoning, be skeptical of strong language in Reading Comprehension questions. And be on the lookout for words, like “methodology,” which sound smart and sophisticated but are more often than not in incorrect answer choices.