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Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners

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Experts’ Topic of the Week, May 22-26, 2017:


Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners


In our weekly Wednesday chats (join us!), one of the most common questions has been, “How can I improve on reading comprehension?”

I wish that there was a quick, easy answer to that question, but as is often the case on the GMAT, there are no magic bullets. Instead, here’s an honest, long(!), BS-free guide to getting started with GMAT RC.


Read for structure and purpose


Unless you’re totally new to the GMAT, you’ve probably noticed that the GMAT always asks contextual questions about each RC passage. You’ll always see main idea or primary purpose questions on your actual exam, and if you’re scoring at a relatively high level, even the “detail questions” aren’t solely about details on the GMAT. GMAT RC questions won’t, for example, ask you to repeat what line 27 says, but you might have to explain the role that line 27 plays in the author’s overall argument.

So what’s your first job when you read an RC passage? Understand the structure of the author’s overall argument, and WHY the author has written each part of the passage.

Here’s the basic structure that we recommend: stop at the end of each paragraph, and ask yourself WHY the author has written the paragraph. Your focus should be on the big picture: each paragraph’s purpose and how each paragraph connects with the previous paragraphs. If you’re crystal-clear about WHY the author has written every paragraph – and how they fit together – you’ll be in great shape for the contextual questions that you’ll inevitably see next.


Don’t obsess over details


Here’s one of the worst tactical errors you can make on RC: if you’re trying to memorize all of the facts, you’re both wasting your time and missing the point of reading comprehension. Or, to paraphrase Ron Purewal (see this thread), if you’re reading “as though the passages were just factfactfactfact”, you’re not going to succeed on RC.

Again: GMAT RC questions will always ask you to synthesize the author’s overall argument. You’ll rarely be asked to just regurgitate facts.

Just as importantly: the facts will always be on the screen when you need them. There’s no reason to memorize all of them, or obsess over them, or write them all down. And it’s completely fine if you miss a few details, as long as you can still comprehend the overall purpose behind each paragraph.

If you struggle to understand a few sentences here or there, check to see if you still understand how the paragraph connects with the author’s overall argument. If you still understand WHY the author wrote that paragraph – and how it fits in with the rest of the passage – then there’s no reason to obsess over a few difficult phrases or sentences.

In other words: if you can understand the purpose of the paragraph without catching every single detail of the nastiest sentences, you win.


Get engaged


But here’s the thing: no matter what, you have to be engaged and alert and attentive when you read. Many of you have solved thousands of algebra questions in your lives, and you might be able to solve a basic equation while literally half-asleep. That’s not how reading works: if you’re not awake, engaged, and conscious ALL of the time when you do RC, you’ll miss something important.

Many of you have heard this advice already: pretend that you’re interested whenever you read an RC passage. If that works for you, awesome.

Or maybe this one will work better: whenever you read an RC passage, pretend that a beautiful man or woman (whichever you prefer!) is reading the passage to you in a dimly lit bar. If that does the trick for you, great.

And if not? Well, maybe note-taking will help.


So what about note-taking?


I wish that I could tell you that there’s ONE correct way to take notes on GMAT RC. Unfortunately, that would be a lie. Everybody is different. Some people are much better at reading when they take tons of notes, because the physical act of writing something down helps them engage in the material (“kinesthetic learners”, if you like jargon). Other people disengage when they start taking notes, and they actually get worse at reading.

So there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. Different strokes for different folks.

The thing that matters: if you’re going to take notes, make sure that they’re rooted in the big picture of the passage. If you’re just writing "factfactfactfactfact" on your page, you’re probably missing the important things: WHY the has author written each paragraph, and how those paragraphs connect. Mindless, detail-oriented notes are probably not going to help you.

Most of my students end up taking minimal notes – roughly 8-12 words per paragraph – just to remind them to engage in the purpose of each paragraph. If you do better without taking notes, that’s great: just make sure that you’re focused on WHY the author has written each paragraph, and how the paragraphs connect.

And if you want to take more notes on RC, that’s OK, too. Just keep asking yourself: are these notes helping you comprehend the structure and purpose of the passage, or are you falling into the abyss of writing “factfactfactfactfactfactfact”?


No skimming, no gimmicks


There's some great test-taking advice out there for RC (see the links below), but please beware of silly, oversimplified RC “tricks.” Some people will suggest that you should skim the passages, or at least some parts of them. Please don’t do this. It’s true that you don't need to understand every single detail in the passage, but you’ll get absolutely nowhere if you skip random pieces of the passage. You won’t know which sections are important until you actually try to read them.

So here’s the bad news: yes, you really do have to read the whole passage. You don't have to understand every single detail, but skipping random pieces of the passage definitely won’t help.

I’ve also heard that it’s a good idea to read the question before reading the passage, and I don’t think that’s going to help much, either: each RC passage has three or four questions, but you can only see the first one. I’ve never really understood how reading just ONE of the questions can possibly make you more accurate at comprehending the passage.

There’s a seemingly endless supply of these RC gimmicks. One test-prep company once claimed that (D) is much more likely to be the answer than other answer choices. Sorry, that’s not true. I occasionally meet people who think that they can read just the first and last sentences of each paragraph. Sorry, that’s not going to work, either.

The bottom line: if an RC “trick” sounds too good to be true, it certainly is.


Don’t fall in love


Whenever you do anything on the GMAT verbal section, you should always look for four wrong answers – not one right answer. If you try to take shortcuts with this process, I can promise that you’ll make mistakes, especially on relatively difficult questions.

The easiest mistake to make on GMAT RC (or CR!) is this: you read the question, and an answer pops into your head. You immediately notice that, say, answer choice (B) sounds an awful lot like what you were thinking. So you choose (B), and you don’t really read (C), (D), or (E).

Meanwhile, there’s some little tiny modifier in (B) that makes it wrong. One word can completely change the meaning of an answer choice, right? But if you fall in love with (B) immediately – and fail to use process of elimination – you can easily make a careless error. And careless errors on easy questions can quickly ruin your day on an adaptive test.

So don’t fall in love. Instead, always make sure that you’ve found four wrong answers, not one right answer. Unfortunately, this means that you’ll have to read every answer choice if you want to eliminate four of them. But on an adaptive test, that’s an investment that you absolutely need to make, on every single verbal question.


Stick with official RC passages


We have endless respect for our friends in the test-prep world who do their very best to write good, “non-official” questions, but we strongly recommend relying primarily on official questions for your RC practice. Many of you have heard this already, but the GMAT spends between $1500 and $3000 developing each official GMAT question, and even the very best test-prep companies can’t compete. (Including, of course, the two-man empire known as GMAT Ninja. We write our own questions, too. We think we’re good at it. You still shouldn't rely on them too heavily.)

On RC, official passages are loaded with subtle little twists of language, and your task is to get used to catching those subtleties. Non-official passages simply aren’t the same thing. So use the official GMAT materials wisely, and if you need extra RC practice, you might consider trying some LSAT questions.


Improving your fundamental reading skills


So you might be thinking: “Um, Ninja guy, I’m already doing basically everything you recommend. It’s not helping. I’m still unhappy with my scores. What should I do?”

The bad news: the real reason you’re struggling MIGHT be that your reading skills simply aren’t as strong as you’d like them to be. You can follow every test-prep guru in the world and execute on every strategy that we have to offer. But if you’re struggling to understand the precise meaning of the passages and answer choices, all of the strategy guides in the world might not help.

If this applies to you, that’s OK: turn your attention to improving your fundamental reading skills in English. The best way to do that is to read challenging stuff. Every day. This thread contains plenty of book recommendations, and this one lists some worthwhile periodicals. Almost any high-quality reading material is fine, as long as the language is sophisticated enough to push your boundaries as a reader – so no comic books, I guess. :|

The other piece of bad news is that doing a lot of reading is a long-run strategy: if you’re 10 days away from your GMAT exam, reading a few magazines at night isn’t going to immediately cure your problems. But over the long haul, the best way to get better at reading is to read more.

If it helps, think of it this way: college-educated native speakers have generally had at least 14 years of formal reading and literature instruction (in the U.S., English coursework is required from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and generally in the first year of university). So if you need six months or a year to improve your reading skills, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?


Extra hope for non-native speakers!


I know: spending months or years improving your reading skills isn’t easy. But for whatever it’s worth, if you haven’t been exposed to many GMAT-style texts in English, you probably have some room to improve relatively quickly.

I’m the first to admit that it can be really difficult to improve on the GMAT verbal section, but I’ve met countless test-takers over the years who have managed to gain 10+ points on the verbal section. And the overwhelming majority of them are non-native speakers. And that’s the silver lining to taking this nasty exam in a foreign language: you might still have plenty of room to improve.

So keep at it! And if you need more resources, GMAT Club has your back:


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Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners [#permalink]

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Very well crafted. Thank you GMATNinja ! Very useful.

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Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners [#permalink]

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Thank you GMATNinja for this .. I will let you know if my accuracy improved in RC.
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Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners [#permalink]

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Thank you, keats! And yes, please do keep me posted, mynamegoeson. And whenever you take your test, feel free to tag me in your debrief -- always excited to see if any of this helps. :)
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Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners [#permalink]

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New post 25 May 2017, 20:27
Awesome Post as always GMATNinja. Could you please post similarly to CR(Strengthen, Weaken, Assumption etc). Characteristics of a correct answers. Which would be irrelevant, out of scope.(Might be a part of next week topic)
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Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners [#permalink]

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Thank you, NandishSS! I'm working on a general CR post (similar to this one), and I'll have that ready within a couple of weeks. Most of the specific CR question types will deserve their own, separate posts, though -- but we'll get to them all eventually... :)
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Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners [#permalink]

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Hello Mr. Ninja,

That is a wonderful article. I need some good push for improving my RC, and I think this one is helping for quiet sometime.

Thanks a lot, cheers :)
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Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners [#permalink]

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New post 13 Jun 2017, 10:18
Great post GMAT Ninja.

For improving reading skills, how are Mein Kampf and books by Amish Tripathi?
What is the difference if we read articles vs books?
Thanks.......
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Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners [#permalink]

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Post subject: Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners Posted: Jun 13, 2017 11:18 am
Great post GMAT Ninja.

For improving reading skills, how are Mein Kampf and books by Amish Tripathi?
What is the difference if we read articles vs books?
Thanks.......


Thank you, Shiv2016! I can't say I've ever read anything by Tripathi or Hitler, but the really important thing is to make sure that you're reading something that you find challenging, but still engaging. If articles work best for you, great! If you prefer novels or the memoirs of 20th-century dictators, that's great, too. :) Just as long as it's hard enough to give you a workout, but interesting enough that you don't have to worry about burnout.
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New post 16 Jun 2017, 02:25
I am a non native, I often have difficulty reading long sentences on RC passages. to address this problem, practice reading a few sentences per day. when you read you have to realize grammatical role of each phrase, grammatical role of tense and the idioms with preposition. we have to see the grammar points in the sentences you read.

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This is Awesome. These tips ACTUALLY help and improved my accuracy big time!!

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multilingualIndian wrote:
GMATNinja

This is Awesome. These tips ACTUALLY help and improved my accuracy big time!!

Thank you so much, multilingualIndian. And welcome to GMAT Club!!!
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Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners [#permalink]

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Thank you very much GMATNinja for including an abridged ultimate RC guide. These strategies are helpful not only for beginners but also for someone who been in the lane for a while. Now everyone has ninja moves to beat the RC. :-D
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Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners [#permalink]

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New post 03 Aug 2017, 10:42
GMATNinja I totally agree with you on everything you said. But what if Someone has just a month left to improve on the RC.

What should be done in that case?
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Prashant10692 wrote:
GMATNinja I totally agree with you on everything you said. But what if Someone has just a month left to improve on the RC.

What should be done in that case?

Sadly, there really aren't any magical shortcuts, though I'm sure that somebody out there would be happy to try to sell you one for a small fee. It's possible that a month is all you need to build strong habits on RC, especially if your fundamental reading skills are already really good. But if your reading skills are the biggest thing holding you back, then a month probably won't be enough.

So you might be fine! But if your reading skills aren't good enough to achieve your goals yet, be honest with yourself about it, and consider moving your test date if you aren't in a good position to achieve your score goals.

Good luck with your studies!
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Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners [#permalink]

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New post 25 Aug 2017, 00:59
Really a wonderful article !!

I can really appreciate the details you have provided here because all the other techniques that I have used like reading only first sentence of each paragraph and skimming rest of these , all these works in non - official Gmat question but to be true it has not worked in Official one, even a small paragraph having 3 questions,I tried with these technique got me 2 wrong out of 3, the reason is some how we miss small details in a para and blunder happens


I am preparing f for RC and it is my weakest of all Gmat sections,the reason is detail question in Rc,still my accuracy is bad in Rc question, I need help in solving detail questions. I read the RC carefully first time but when I see the detailed question I could not able to locate in paragraph instantly, thus I take long time to locate and then re-read which in turn waste time and my performance degrades. I take notes but only structured not so much detailed

Please help with any approach you have, or you can direct me to any other article where i can get something.

I really appreciate all the article s written here in this forum , I have gained so much here, my sentence correction is now up to mark, I started with 30 -40 % accuracy now i have more than 90%, once my RC accuracy improves i am ready to give GMAT to get my Expected score.

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Re: Experts' Topic of the Week, 5/22/17: Ultimate RC Guide for Beginners   [#permalink] 25 Aug 2017, 00:59
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