How to read long GRE passages

Verbal | GRE prep


Repeat after me: "There's no quick and easy shortcut."

As you begin each Verbal section, you should expect to see approximately ten Reading Comprehension passages, only one or two of which will be longer than a single paragraph. These long passages can be both overwhelming and time consuming, so let’s take a moment to consider the proper approach for tackling multi-paragraph passages.

First, be sure to read each passage at your normal reading speed. Reading too slowly will prevent you from having adequate time to answer all of the questions. Reading too quickly will cause you to miss much of the detailed information presented in the passage and will force you to reread portions of the passage, something that will also prevent you from answering all the questions. Do not skim the paragraphs. Skimming will not effectively prepare you to answer all the questions.

Remember that your primary goal while reading is to find the main point of the passage. Although in the majority of passages the main point is stated in the first paragraph, it is not always the case that the main point appears in the first or second sentence. The main point of many passages has appeared in the final sentence of the first paragraph or in the first sentence of the second paragraph. On average, about 30% of the questions deal directly with the main idea.

As you read, attempt to identify the underlying logical structure of the passage. This will help you quickly find information once you begin to answer the questions. For example, many passages open by stating the background of a thesis that will be challenged later in the passage. In the following paragraphs the author will present an alternative viewpoint to the thesis and perhaps specific counterexamples which provide support for the alternative view. Awareness of this general structure will allow you to reduce the time you spend searching for information when you need to refer back to the passage.

Keep in mind that it is neither possible nor necessary for you to know every detail of a passage. For many questions you should return to the passage to confirm what you remember from your first reading of the passage.

Once you have finished reading the passage, take a moment to focus on the main point and the arguments that support the main point. Many students get so caught up in absorbing the information presented in a passage that they fail to take the time to mentally organize that information. If you are having difficulty remembering the main point of the passage, take a moment after reading the passage to write down the main point in a short, simple sentence.

Refrain from making a significant number of notes about the passage. This wastes entirely too much time. Instead, limit what you write (if anything) to noting where the author makes a major point or changes the course of his or her argument.

Pay attention to the language the author uses in the passage. The following word lists can help identify the direction the author is taking with his or her argument:

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Your state of mind when approaching these passages is extremely important, as well. Make sure that you take a positive, energetic attitude to the passages. Many long passages discuss conflicts between different viewpoints, and this can make the content inherently more interesting. Getting involved in the argument will make the passage more enjoyable for you and will also allow you to focus more clearly on the material.