GMAT Reading Comprehension, GMAT Verbal
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How to read a GMAT RC Passage

We have discussed all other question types in depth on this blog thus far with the exception of Reading Comprehension, which is hence pretty conspicuous by its absence. So this is the first in a series of posts that to fill that gap.

RC is perhaps the biggest roadblock

The GMAT is pretty long as a test in terms of duration and it is thus as much a test of test-taking stamina as it is of aptitude. One of the biggest challenges facing Indian test-takers is that the Verbal section, usually the Achilles heel for most, comes into play only after 2.5 hours of test-taking!

The biggest challenge once the Verbal section starts is the ability to read the RC passages; it is the single-most hated or rather least preferred question-type as far Indian test-takers are concerned (and this applies to all tests). Given this dislike it will pose the biggest challenge to most aspirants:

  • do they have the reading speed to finish the section 41 questions in 75 minutes
  • do they have enough in the tank at the end of 2.5 hours to maintain their concentration over the entire length of a passage and answer questions accurately?
  • do they have the ability to tackle passages across areas irrespective of content

Why RC is most crucial to crossing scaling the 700 on the GMAT?

To scale 700 one needs to score above 35 on the Verbal, unless of course scores a 50 or above on the Quant (you can read more on the GMAT Scoring here). Getting a scaled score of 35 on the Verbal would mean getting at least 28 out of the 41 questions right. No matter how good one is at SC & CR one will still make 6-7 mistakes over the 29-30 SC & CR questions that are posed. This means that one has a small margin of about 4-5 errors on RC.

Also, your Verbal section can start with RC and at any rate you will have at least one RC inside the first 10 questions — making it crucial in terms of being on the right side of the adaptive algorithm.

They have designed the test in such a way that in order to secure a score in the higher percentile ranges, you have to be above par on all the question types — PS, DS, CR, SC & RC.

So those aiming at a 700 and above need to ensure that they come out on top of the RC passages that the GMAT will throw their way. The next few posts will be geared towards that task.


How to approach a GMAT RC passage

The first question is how does read a GMAT RC passage? There are many questions that test-takers usually ask:

  • Does one read the question first and then the passage?
  • Does one read first lines and last lines only?
  • How much can one skim and skip?

What usually happens to test-takers while reading an RC?

Test-takers start reading with all seriousness, somewhere in the middle of the second paragraph they start getting restless and all the information starts overwhelming them, by the beginning of the last paragraph they are looking to race through to the end and start the questions renewed focus. Nothing could be more counter-productive!

The clue to reading GMAT RCs lies in the very nature of the passages. Unlike the passages on Indian tests, every GMAT RC passage has a problem statement/argument/question it is exploring.

GMAT RC passages are like PhD. theses, each one explores a specific problem and not an area in general. For example, while a PhD. area might be globalisation, a thesis will explore a very specific question related to it, for example, the effect of globalisation on income disparity in India. There can be many things about globalisation that can investigated and many effects of globalisation that can be studied by one thesis will typically focus on one specific question.

This means that GMAT RC passages are essentially like a set of linked CR passages.


How to read a GMAT RC Passage

Let us take a sample GMAT RC passage, deconstruct it and learn how to read it effectively.

How to tackle GMAT RC-1.jpg

Step # 1: Identify the topic of the passage

The first task before you is to identify the topic of the passage as soon as possible. In some cases you might be able to identify it in the first sentence itself in others it will take you the first paragraph but it will never go beyond the first paragraph. Let us take a few opening paragraphs and do this exercise. Please note that by topic I do not mean Central Idea or Primary Purpose of the passage (we will deal with them later).

In the paragraph above the first line itself indicates the topic of the passage. Which of the following phrases best captures the topic of the passage?

  • modern multinational corporations or
  • origin of modern multinational corporations

It is the second one since, as mentioned earlier, GMAT passages deal with specific thesis questions and not general areas. So when you identify the topic of the passage it has to be as specific as possible.

Can the correct option to the main purpose or central idea of the passage not contain the phrase “origin of multinationals”? Absolutely not!

This is your first step to increasing your accuracy on Main Purpose and Central Idea questions — the correct option has to contain the phrase that denotes topic of the passage

Let us take another first paragraph just to learn how the first sentence might not always hold a clue to the topic of the passage, it might become clear only after you read the entire first paragraph.

How to tackle GMAT RC -2.jpg

What is the topic of the passage?

  • women’s labour in the United States
  • historians and study of women’s labour
  • women labour and industrialisation
  • gender-based discrimination and industrialisation

All passages need not reveal their cards about their intended topic right at the outset. Think of it like story, it might start with once upon a time there was a king who was loved by his people, but we all know that is not going to be be topic!

Similarly, historians are just a gateway to the topic they chose to study — factory work — since they felt industrialisation would be gender-blind but unfortunately it did not turn out to be so.

So the topic must-have two phrases — gender-based discrimination and industrialisation.

Step #2: Identify the thesis argument of the passage

As discussed earlier, GMAT RC passages are very similar to PhD. theses in that every passage pursues a specific argument.

What is the difference between topic and thesis argument?

  • Topic refers to only the key phrases or components of the thesis argument not the logic of the argument.

In all cases you will be able to identify the thesis argument in the first paragraph itself.

When we read the rest of the paragraph below what do we get?

  • The origin of the modern multinationals is thought to be the 19th century firms, 16th century firms are considered to be irrelevant due to their small scale.

The topic is origin of multinationals, the thesis argument being explored is that the origin lies in the 19th century firms and not the 16th century firms.

So at the end of the first paragraph you need to have identified the topic and the thesis argument the passage is going to explore.

Step #3: Put a label on each paragraph with respect to the thesis argument

Once you have identified the topic and the thesis argument being explored you need to read every succeeding paragraph in relation to that, like series of linked CR arguments and put a label on each paragraph.

Each succeeding paragraph is going to explore and debate the thesis argument that the passage seeks to explore. Every paragraph that follows will be adding an argument FOR or AGAINST or ABOUT this idea while evaluating it.

Let us look at the second paragraph of one of the passages discussed above.

How to tackle GMAT RC-3

The main thesis topic/idea being explored is

  • The origin of the modern multinationals is thought to be the 19th century firms and 16th century firms are considered to be irrelevant due to their small scale.

What does the main idea/argument of the second paragraph in relation to the first?

  • 16th century firms in fact had fairly large operations, had large volumes and had hierarchical management systems.

So how is the author extending the main idea?

Is not the second paragraph the answer to which of the following would most weaken the main idea presented in the preceding paragraph?

He is presenting evidence to counter the thesis argument being explored by giving examples of large volumes of transactions, international scale of operations and hierarchical management systems.

What you need to do is label each paragraph in relation to the thesis argument. For example, para 2 counters the argument.

So you have pause after each paragraph, evaluate its relationship with the thesis argument being explored, which is the whole purpose of dividing the passage into paragraphs!

This has to be done with every paragraph that follows. On the long passages you usually have three to four paragraphs.

The direction which each paragraph will take with respect to the thesis argument is usually stated in the first sentence of the paragraph. This does not mean that you only read the first sentence of each paragraph, it only means that you read them in the context of the passage as a whole. The rest of the sentences you read in the context of that paragraph.

Step #4: Identify the Main Idea of the passage

This passage has only three paragraphs so the last one will be concluding paragraph.

The last paragraph of a GMAT RC passage is usually the most crucial in since it will have the author’s main argument or idea.

How to tackle GMAT RC-4

What have been the arguments so far?

  • The origin of the modern multinationals is thought to be the 19th century firms and 16th century firms are considered to be irrelevant due to their small scale.
  • 16th century firms in fact had fairly large operations, had large volumes and had hierarchical management systems.

How does the last paragraph deal with these ideas?

The author is also strengthening the main argument by saying — 16th century firms did differ from modern MNCs

The author then takes both the strengthening and the weakening evidence to put forth his main idea — early trading companies deserve to be studied and not ignored in the study of the origin of modern MNCs.

Usually the reading concentration of test-takers tapers off as they reach the last paragraph. They are already in a hurry to start doing the questions with increased concentration. But it is exactly in the last paragraph, at the bottom of the pit, usually the last sentence, that the gold — the author’s main argument lies!

By now you will easily be able to identify the main idea of the passage since it is explicitly stated in the last sentence of the paragraph — 16th & 17th century companies cannot be dismissed as being irrelevant to the origins of the modern MNC, they deserve to be studied more.

The way in which each succeeding paragraph is related to the main thesis argument will help you identify the main idea of the passage.


GMAT RC TIP: Do not try to remember the entire passage, just follow the main argument

One of the big mistakes that test-takers keen to do really well on RC make is that they try really hard to remember everything sentence they read; something that is next to impossible!

All sentences in an RC are not equally important. Some sentences, especially the first and last sentences,since

– they deal exclusively with the main argument that the passage seeks to explore by
– countering, strengthening or elaborating on the same in successive paragraphs

 

The image on the left indicates who the passage is presented to you. The image on the right indicates how you should process it with the parts in straight brackets indicating the main sentences or sentences exploring the main idea. All other sentences play a supporting role.

For example in the second paragraph of this passage, all sentences after the first one are supporting the argument that 16th & 17th century firms did not have a small scale of operations.

So you need not force yourself to remember each and every example of large scale of operations. You can speed read that part, letting only names/phrases register, so that you know which paragraph ton come back to incase of a specific question. For example, you know that for a question about Hudson Bay or about hierarchical management systems you can revisit that part of the passage.

We discussed at the beginning that you need to approach an RC passage like a series of linked CR passages. You need to just link the argument of each CR passage!


The Main Idea Question

The Main Idea question, is the first question that follows the passage.

GMAT Main Idea Question 1GMAT Main Idea Question 2

Firstly, the topic of the passage — origin of modern multi-nationals — should be part of the correct option.

What do you get if you put together all the sentences in brackets together?

– Those studying origin of modern MNCs trace it 19th century companies
– 16th & 17th century companies are considered irrelevant since they are small in scale
– But their scale was not small at all
– They differ considerably from modern MNCs
– But they should at least be studied and should not be considered irrelevant to the origins of the modern MNC

The above sentences clearly indicate of the Main Idea of the passage — Option C.

The only option that can come close is option A but it is incorrect since the author is not saying that early trading companies are the where the origins of the modern MNC lie, the author is only arguing that they should be studied more.

What is a good first reading of a GMAT RC?

At the end of a good first reading you should be able to

  • Identify the Primary/Main Purpose of the passage
  • Identify the Main/Central Idea of the passage
  • Know which part of the passage you need to go to find answer to specific questions

If you wish to get better at solving GMAT RCs, be ready to invest time in a lot of practice. It is a skill that you need to develop and not information that you have to regurgitate and like all skills even RC takes a lot of time.

The section of the OG that on average will be least completed is usually the RC section but it is the one question-type that usually stands between Indian test-takers and a 700!

In the next posts we will take up:

  • What is the difference between Main Idea and Primary Purpose?
  • How to tackle other RC question types?

Until then keep reading, keep comprehending!

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9 Comments

  1. Pratik says

    Great post! This post really helped me in understanding how to comprehend maximum in the first read rather than just concentrating on few keywords.
    I had a question though? Do you suggest taking notes while reading a passage? If yes can you dwell into that a bit?

    Thanks,
    Pratik

    Like

  2. Hi Pratik, Glad you found it useful. To start with you can take notes but slowly you should try to move away from it and the process should become mental. Else your speed on the Verbal will always be an issue.

    Like

  3. Taking notes ends up becoming time consuming. For starters you can do that so that the process is right. Over a period of time you should just be pausing after each para and making a mental note of the main idea by just verbalizing it for yourself. Glad you found it helpful, would a few more of such exercises with different passages be of help?

    Like

  4. Pingback: GMAT RC: Guided Practice Set 2 | The GMAT Blogger

  5. Doobster says

    Hey Tony
    Yes, it was really helpful and more of such exercises will definitely help.

    Like

  6. I was a little bit disappointed because I failed to notice this amazing Blog much early :(..This article is fantastic.. Wow !! What you say are good Strategies. Before reading your blog about RC’s, I was exactly doing it in the wrong way that you have pointed out. I usually land up with 50 to 60% accuracy. I am sure that after applying your systemic approach will give fruitful results. Will share my feedback after practicing it. Awaiting more from you Tony 🙂

    Like

  7. Pingback: How to improve your accuracy on GMAT RC – 2 | The GMAT Blogger

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