Real-World Prep for GRE Reading Comp & The Argument Essay

Verbal | GRE prep | Reading Comprehension | Analytical Writing

Real-world issues, Real-world reading, Real-world prep (Pictured: Person reading from tablet

A sizable chunk of the GRE requires you to think about arguments. Half of Analytical Writing is the Analyze an Argument task, and about half of Verbal Reasoning is Reading Comprehension, a question type that often uses argument-based passages.

Conveniently, you can prepare for Reading Comp and the Argument Task simultaneously using free (and modestly priced) practice material from ETS, maker of the exam. Other free, high-quality resources can sharpen your critical thinking skills, too. You just need to be open to supplementing your GRE prep materials with some real-world reading.

Three things you’ll do on the GRE to show off your critical thinking skills are:

  • Figure out an argument’s unstated assumptions
  • Identify evidence that strengthens an argument (supports the conclusion)
  • Identify evidence that weakens an argument (undercuts the conclusion)

About one-tenth of Reading Comp questions will ask you to do one of the above. Though only a small fraction of the Verbal section, these questions tend to be among the more difficult ones, so getting them right probably plays a part in getting ahead of the curve. Only two of the eight possible sets of instructions for the Argument Task plainly mention any of the above. But don’t be misled. The best Argument essays will expose assumptions and explore supporting and defeating evidence.

You know that prep books and practice tests and perhaps a prep course can help get you ready for GRE Verbal and Analytical Writing. You may also know that the official (very big, totally free) pool of GRE Argument topics can serve as practice passages for both Reading Comp and the Argument Essay. And if you’ve read any of the Argument topics, then you surely know that, like with some Reading Comp passages, the content is artificial and sometimes dull.

Fortunately, critical thinking is a real-world skill that you can apply to any topic. Controversial issues, in particular, challenge you to think critically and can be explored in a balanced, accessible format at some great websites. Two are ProCon.org and Debate Club at USNews.com.

ProCon.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit whose stated mission is “Promoting critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship by presenting controversial issues in a straightforward, nonpartisan, primarily pro-con format.” Let’s look at the entry on Social Networking.

The controversy takes the form of a question: Are social networking sites good for society? A list of pros suggests it is while a list of cons suggests it’s not. Further, each pro comes with supporting evidence and so does each con. This format makes it easy to construct and critique short arguments. For instance, you can take pro #1 and use it as a premise:

  1. Premise: Social networking sites spread information faster than any other media.
  2. Conclusion: Social networking sites are good for society.

Here’s an unstated assumption this argument likely requires:

  1. Unstated Assumption (Implicit Premise): Social networking sites enable the spread of reliable and true information.

If true, this claim strengthens the argument; if false, it weakens the argument. Worried you'd have trouble filling in this implicit premise? The list of cons offers a hint. Con #1 says “Social media enables the spread of unreliable and false information.”

Procon.org has more than 50 entries. Issues range from golf (sport or not?) to gun control (more or less?) and all entries follow the analysis-friendly pro-con format.

Debate Club is another site that helps you think critically about controversial topics. Run by US News & World Report, Debate Club selects a controversy that’s grabbing headlines and, like ProCon.org, turns it into a yes/no question. Researchers, politicians, and other qualified commentators submit brief responses, with some arguing “yes” and others “no,” so you get to think about opposing views, just as you do at ProCon.org. Past Debate Club topics include “Are College Rankings a Good Thing?” and “Should Consumers Be Worried About Genetically Modified Food?”

At either site, pick a conclusion and pair it with a premise or two. Then think about ways to strengthen or weaken the argument you’ve constructed. One way, as illustrated above, is to affirm or deny an unstated assumption. If you need help, try looking for premises that defend a contrary conclusion. Explore both sides of the debate. Being ready to take either a pro (strengthen) or a con (weaken) position will make you better at both Reading Comp and the Argument Essay. Become ready by thinking critically about real issues, not just GRE practice exercises.