The Definitive Guide to Conquer GRE Reading Comprehension Questions

The GRE Reading Comprehension section is undoubtedly the most important part of the GRE. Approximately half of the questions, i.e. 20 out of 40, in the GRE Verbal Section will be based on Reading Comprehension. Getting this section right will set you up for a high Verbal Score. The good news is that cracking these questions can actually be easier than cracking Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions. That’s because unlike the other two types of questions, Reading Comprehension Questions are purely based on a certain skillset rather than external knowledge (i.e. you don’t need any extra knowledge like a wide vocabulary). Even better, this skill set can easily be acquired. Just follow this guide and you’ll be on your way to success!



Passage Structure

In the GRE, each Reading Comprehension will be between 1 – 5 paragraphs in length and will have between 1 to 6 questions each. You will approximately face 10 such passages – the majority of which will be one paragraph long while only one or two will be several paragraphs long. These passages will be based on the physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, business, arts, humanities and everyday topics. Such topics can be found in books and periodicals – both academic and nonacademic. Note that students need not have prior knowledge of these topics and questions asked will strictly be based only on the information provided in the passage.


Though GRE passages are based on several topics, fortunately, their structure more or less remains the same. Each passage that you face in the GRE will contain some or all of the components given below:


Introduction: The first few lines / first paragraph will introduce the candidate to the topic / idea that will be discussed.


The Central Idea: The central idea is usually the author’s point of view on the topic that’s discussed. A critical step to Reading Comprehension success is to read the passage and identify what the central idea is.


Support for the Central Idea: Once the central idea is introduced, the author will provide support for their point of view by citing evidence and/or anecdotal examples. Students should be able to identify the support provided by the author.

Inferences: After the central idea is established with facts and examples, the author will typically arrive at inferences by extrapolating the idea. Students should note any implicit assumptions that the author might have made to arrive at their inferences.


Conclusion: Authors will at times end the passage by summarizing / reiterating their idea. However, it is entirely possible that the author leaves out the conclusion and ends at the inferences.



Question Types

You will be asked questions belonging to one of the following categories:


Multiple Choice – Select One Answer Choice: These are traditional multiple-choice questions with five answer choices. You must select the correct answer choice i.e. the answer choice that most accurately and most completely answers the question posed. Be careful not to be misled by choices that are only partially true or that only partially answer the question.


Multiple Choice – Select One or More Answer Choices: These questions provide three answer choices and ask you to select all that are correct – one, two or all three of the choices may be correct. To get marks for these, you must select all the correct answers – and only those. No marks are given for partially correct answers.


Select in Passage Questions: These questions require students to select the sentence in the passage that meets a certain description. You can click on any word in the sentence or select the sentence with the keyboard. In longer passages, the question will usually apply to only one or two specified paragraphs and you won’t be able to select a sentence elsewhere in the passage. The correct answer choice will accurately match the description given in the question. Do not select a sentence if any part of the description does not apply to it. However, note that the question need not fully describe all aspects of the sentence.



Skills Tested

Reading Comprehension questions are designed to test a wide range of skills that are required in order to read and understand the kinds of text commonly encountered in graduate school. Those skills include:


  • Summarizing a passage
  • Understanding the meaning of individual words, sentences, paragraphs and larger bodies of text
  • Distinguishing between major and minor points
  • Understanding how parts of the text relate to one another
  • Identifying the author’s assumptions and perspective
  • Identifying strengths and weaknesses of a position
  • Drawing conclusions from information given
  • Developing and considering alternative explanations
  • Reasoning from incomplete data to infer missing information


These skills are tested through the following types of questions:

Question Type Example Questions
Central Idea Questions ·   What might be an appropriate title for the passage?
·   In the text given, what is the author primarily concerned with?
Tone of the Author Questions ·   What is the author’s outlook towards the steady state theory of the universe?
Specific Detail Questions ·   As per the information in the passage, proponents of the big bang theory considered the steady state theory to be…?
·   The author refers to Darwin’s theory of evolution in line 20 primarily to..?
Inference Questions ·   The author implies that the best method for gun control would be…?
·   The author would most probably disagree with which of the following statements?
Structural Questions ·   From the options given below, which describes the organization of lines 6 through 12 best?
·   Which of the following is the most appropriate description of the passage’s structure?
Extrapolation Questions ·   Which of the following situations is most alike the situation described in the 3rd paragraph?
Exception or Negative Questions ·   The author believes in Darwin’s theory of evolution for all of the following reasons except?
Contextual Questions ·   The word “placid”, used in line 13 refers to?



The Process to Approach Reading Comprehensions

While there’s not one single method to approach passages, we believe that students will be served well if they follow the steps given below when approaching Reading Comprehension questions:



Skim through questions: Before you read the passage, quickly skim through the questions. Why? Because this will give you a sense of what’s asked and therefore inform you of what you need to pay special attention to when reading the passage.


Read the passage: The next step is to read the passage in detail. Do not make the mistake of reading the passage hurriedly to save time. This will backfire since you won’t capture the essential details and nuances needed to answer the questions and will eventually have to re-read the passage thereby wasting precious time.


Take notes: When reading the passage, taking notes helps because: (1) It forces you to think and imbibe the subtleties of the passage and (2) It becomes a good for quick reference when answering the questions of the passage. Be cautious to note down only points that are important / relevant to the questions asked and avoid jotting down unnecessary detail.


Start answering questions: Finally, start answering questions. A common mistake that students make is to take too long to read the passage and leave too little time for solving the questions. This can happen due to two reasons: (1) slow reading speed or (2) re-reading lines from the passage too many times due to lack of confidence / concentration.


Now that you know the process to approach Reading Comprehensions, it is time to go through a few strategies to prepare for them.



Preparation Strategies

Practice reading similar material: Since the GRE Reading Comprehension tests for skills are commonly used to analyze graduate school prose; it is a good idea to get acquainted to this writing style. Fortunately, such texts can be found in several sources like The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Scientific American and the London Review of Books. Reading articles frequently from such sources will help you gain familiarity with what you will face in the exam and will go a long way in: (1) Increasing Confidence and (2) Enhancing Your Reading Speed.


Visualize what you read: Once you finish reading a paragraph, visualize the sequence of arguments in it. This is a useful tip because visualizing what you read forces you to think about every detail mentioned in the passage. Additionally, this technique helps you remember the sequence of arguments in the text and specific facts / evidence used to support the central idea. When practiced, this technique will save you the effort of having to continuously refer back to the passage to answer questions and will save you time as well.


Paraphrase extensively: When practicing reading, get into the habit of summarizing the main idea of the text and re-wording the author’s logic in your own words. Practicing this will help you convert complex text into simple language – a skill that greatly simplifies the process of finding the right answers for Reading Comprehension Questions.


Practice in timed settings: Initially, you can practice these types of questions without timing yourself to focus on getting the right answers. However, overtime, get into the habit of practicing with a stop watch. On average it should take you no more than half a minute to read 1 paragraph, another half minute to take notes, reflect on the important points from that paragraph and then 1 minute to solve each question on that paragraph. A common mistake made by students is to not practice in a timed setting. Ultimately, such students struggle to keep up with the pace of the GRE on test day and land a sub-par score.


Analyze errors: Keep a track of all the errors you made. For each Reading Comprehension paragraph, record the type of each question asked (refer the table in the section “Skills Tested”) and track if you got it right or wrong. Over time, you’ll see patterns emerging. For example: you might find out that your accuracy rate in Inference type questions is much lower than other types. Then, take corrective action by finding out why you’re struggling with particular question types and practice those more often. Do this consistently and you’ll see your Reading Comprehension score improve over time.


Get detail oriented: Biologically, we’re wired to miss out on details. Consider the following sentences:


“It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”


We bet you could read that garbled paragraph! That’s because your brain doesn’t actually need to read every letter in a word. It just reads the first and last letters and guesses what the word is. Now while this helps you read quickly, the tradeoff is that you’re likely to miss out on details. This happens to be something that the GRE test makers know – and they exploit it. Very often, in a bid to finish reading the paragraph quickly, students miss out on key information in the passage. And more often than not, questions are based on that information. Now that you know this, be extra careful to read each word properly and force yourself to read each word in a sentence. This in itself will improve your accuracy on the Reading Comprehension questions.


Common Answer Option Traps to Avoid

Often the GRE will throw at you answer options at you that seem very close to being correct, but are actually wrong. Such answers have a few defining characteristics and knowing these can go a long way in enhancing your final score. Avoid the following types of answers options in the GRE:


Controversial answer options: Since it’s an international exam taken by hundreds of thousands of students each year, the GRE is an exam that is closely watched by millions of people a year. Consequently, answer options that make shocking or offensive claims on sensitive issues like race, gender, politics etc. are unlikely to be true.


Answer options using extreme words: A closer look at the GRE passages makes evident the fact that the text avoids using extreme words. Authors typically do not use words like every, always, only, never etc. to convey their opinion on a topic. It thus follows that answer options that use such words will not be correct in most circumstances.


Answer options that are outside the passage’s scope: Answer options that come tantalizingly close to being right are those that are logically correct, but which use information or assume things not mentioned in the passage at all. What makes such answers particularly tempting is that the assumptions used in answer choice are more often than not correct in real life but are not ALWAYS true. This is a subtle distinction and it takes practice to recognize such options.


Answer options which use in-accurate information: At times, answer options will use information from the passage with minor changes. These answer options cannot be correct since a prerequisite for a choice to be the right one is for it to use information EXACTLY as it appears in the passage.


That was our guide to cracking the GRE Reading Comprehension section. If you have any suggestions that you think will help students, do mention those in the comments below!


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Good luck for the GRE!