In honor of “RC Week” we’ve got an article today on reading – specifically, what to do and look for during the initial few minutes after a reading comprehension passage pops up on the screen.
Note: this article doesn’t address how to answer reading comprehension questions; it focuses on the initial read-through and note-taking. If you do that well, though, then you’ll have the foundation in place to answer any kind of question.
Whenever we start a specific type of problem, we want to have certain goals in mind (depending, of course, on what that problem type is). Reading comprehension (RC) is no exception.
First, we have some timing goals. I aim to complete an initial read-through of an RC passage in 2 (shorter) to 3 (longer) minutes. This is not very much time – in fact, I’m not reading every last word or detail carefully. I’m just trying to get the main ideas (and, note, what we do for the GMAT is definitely not what we would want to do if we were reading something for school!).
I try to answer “general” questions (e.g., main idea) in about 1 minute and “specific” questions in about 1.5 minutes (up to 2 minutes for the longest ones).
Next, we have some goals for the initial read-through of the passage. Every passage has a topic and what I call The Point. The topic is what you would probably expect: the basic topic under discussion in the passage. The Point is the main reason the author is writing this specific passage (you can also think of The Point as the thesis statement). For instance, a passage topic might be the curious decline of bees in recent years (entire hives have been dying, losing the ability to find their way back to the hive, and so on). The Point might be that, out of three possible causes (all mentioned in the passage), a certain fungus is the most likely cause (according to the author). Back to our Goal: when I read the passage, I need to make sure I understand The Point, not just the topic.
Further, I also need to make sure I understand the purpose of each paragraph. These passages follow the same rules we’re supposed to use when we write an essay: each paragraph should have one distinct purpose or message. Often, that message is delivered via a topic sentence, usually the first or second sentence of the paragraph. (Note: there is one exception. Some passages consist of only one long paragraph. When this is the case, split the paragraph up into halves or thirds: for example, the first half explains the plight of the bees and the second half speculates that pesticides are the cause.)
Finally, as I alluded to earlier, I also need to make sure that I do NOT dive fully into all of the detail in each paragraph. That “NOT” was not a typo. I’m trying to read this passage in 2 to 3 minutes maximum; I don’t have time to try to fully understand, let alone remember, all of the detail. My goal is to have a very basic idea of the kind of detail and to know in which paragraph the different kinds of detail reside – that’s all.
Wait – I do NOT want to understand the detail?
Not much. This is where we can take advantage of the fact that the GMAT is a standardized test. An individual test-taker is given only some (3 or 4) of the questions that were written for that passage. That little piece of knowledge has major implications for how we conduct the initial read-through.
I know that I’m going to have to understand The Point, because that permeates the passage and all of the questions. I also know that I will not get asked about every detail on the screen, because I’m only going to see some of the questions that were written. So why learn all of that annoying detail unless I know that I’m going to get a question about it? I won’t know that until the question pops up on the screen. Ergo: I don’t want to learn all of the detail ahead of time.
Instead, as we discussed above, my goal for the detail is to know in which paragraph it resides. That way, if I do get a question about the chemical mechanism by which the pesticide affects a bee’s nervous system, I’ll immediately know that I can find that detail in paragraph 2. I won’t actually know how to answer the question yet; I’ll have to read that detail now to see whether I can figure it out.
Note: did you hit a tough word you don’t know? Skip it. (Later, if you need that word, you can try to figure it out from the context – but only if you actually need it.) Is some sentence really convoluted? If it’s the first sentence of a paragraph, use your SC knowledge to find the subject and verb, just to get a basic understanding of what it says. If it’s a “detail” sentence, skip it. (If you need that sentence later, you can try to work through it at that point – but, again, only if you actually need it.)
The Initial Read-through
Most of the time, The Point can be found in one discrete sentence somewhere in the passage (though sometimes we have to combine two sentences to get the full Point). Most often, The Point can be found in the first few or last few sentences of the entire passage, but it can show up anywhere.
So, a new passage pops up on the screen and we, naturally, start reading. Read the first sentence, then stop. Can you rephrase it it in your mind (put it into words that you can understand very easily)? Then do so and jot down a note. Do the same with the second sentence. If, after reading the first sentence, you can’t rephrase or aren’t sure what the passage is saying, try reading the second sentence. Keep reading, little by little, until you get enough of an idea of what’s going on to jot down a note.
Once you think you understand the purpose of that first paragraph, you can start skimming the rest of the paragraph. While you skim, you’re trying to make this distinction: is this information simply detail that goes along with or supports whatever I decided was the purpose of this paragraph? Or is this information something new: does it represent a new idea, a contradiction, or a change of direction? If it’s just detail, you may or may not decide to write something down (probably not). If it represents a new idea or change of direction, then pay a little more attention and, if appropriate, take some short notes.
Do the same with the other paragraphs, though you can be a bit more aggressive about skimming. If, for example, you think you understand the purpose of the second paragraph after reading only the first sentence, that’s fine. Start skimming (but take note of anything that represents a new direction).
When you’re done, take a moment to articulate The Point to yourself. Is that already in your notes? Put a star next to it. If it isn’t in your notes, jot it down.
Your notes should be heavily abbreviated – much more aggressively abbreviated than notes you would typically take at work or school. In fact, if I look at my notes for a passage a few days later, I should have a lot of trouble figuring out what they say (without using the passage as a reference).
How can we get away with abbreviating this heavily? Again, we’re taking advantage of the nature of this test. You’re going to spend perhaps 6 to 8 minutes with this passage and then you can forget about it forever. You don’t need to commit anything to long-term memory, nor do you need to take comprehensive notes from which you can study in a week (as you often have to do for school). Of course, if you’re just practicing, you are going to review your work later, but you should still practice as though it’s the real thing.
Analyzing your work
Everyone already knows that it’s important to review your work on the problems you do, but did you know that it’s also important to review how you read and take your notes? When you’re done with a passage and the associated questions, start your review with the passage itself. When you were done reading (but before you answered questions), what did you think The Point was? What did you think the purpose of each paragraph was? Did that knowledge or understanding change as you worked your way through the questions?
If you misunderstood something after the first read-through, why do you think you misunderstood it? Did you read too quickly and overlook something? Did you not take the time to rephrase what you read? Was the language too hard – were there words or idiomatic expressions that you didn’t know? How could you do this better next time?
Next, match your initial notes to your current knowledge of what information is contained in the passage. Were you able to find the right paragraph easily when answering a specific question? If not, why not? What should you have jotted down on the initial read-through to make that easier? Conversely, did you have too much information jotted down? Maybe you were able to answer a specific question just from your notes, or maybe you had a lot of detail written down that you never had to use. If so, you wrote down too much information and likely spent too much time on the initial read-through.
Could you have abbreviated even more? Write down what that might have looked like. In general, if you feel your notes were fairly far from your “ideal” for any reason, then re-write the notes the way you should have written them the first time.
- (1) You do NOT want to learn or comprehend every single thing that the passage says. (Note: this is not what to do once you actually do get to b-school. There, do try to understand everything clearly!)
- (2) Know your goals:
- (a) Find The Point
- (b) Find the purpose of each paragraph
- (c) Know where (in which paragraph) to find different kinds of detail
- (3) Practice sticking to your timing and practice abbreviating heavily.
- (4) When you review your work, also review how you read and took notes on the passage.
Ryan Jacobs | Manhattan GMAT Instructor | San Francisco
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