Please help me improve my reading comprehension on the GRE
March 24, 2009 4:59 PM   Subscribe

I need some advice on how to do better on reading comprehension questions in the verbal section of the GRE.

There have been a number of GRE askme questions, but I'm looking for some help on a specific area.

The reading comprehension portion of the GRE verbal gives me the most difficulty. I'm able to comprehend passages, but I have two problems. First, I'm a slower reader, and the GRE is a time sensitive test. Second, my mind tends to wander when I'm nervous. This creates a situation in which I have to read more quickly, my mind will wander, and I will finish up going, what did I just read?

I've taken the GRE once and did okay, but I would like to do better. This is easily my weak spot.

I've heard that the best way to do better in this area is simply to do a lot of reading (which I do), but I'd also be interested in directed practice scenarios that will help me get better at this, as well as tricks or general perspective that will help me focus and retain information better. I have GRE practice books, but the amount of material for this type of question is limited, and obviously not helpful for using more than once.

So any advice on the two issues I mentioned above (slow reading and mind wandering), as well as any helpful practice advice, would be most welcome.
posted by SpacemanStix to Education (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For me, reading the questions that follow before reading the passage itself is a huge help. It keeps my mind from wandering because I have specific targets in mind while digesting the passage. The time allotted definitely makes it tough for slower readers, but if you approach each passage with questions in mind before you tackle it, it can make one slow read a lot more effective than two quick ones.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:11 PM on March 24, 2009

Seconding reading the questions first--that's a classic test-taking strategy.

I've never taken the GREs, so perhaps this is not possible, but: can you write on the test booklet? Underlining and jotting key words as you read might help a lot, as you can go back and see at a glance what the main concepts that jumped out at you were.
posted by hippugeek at 5:19 PM on March 24, 2009

It's a computer adaptive test, so there is no booklet. You do get scratch paper, but writing things out might be more of a time sink than it's worth.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:43 PM on March 24, 2009

It might help to skim the passage before reading the questions, to get a bare-bones outline of the passage in your head, which can help you figure out where the answer to a particular question might be. It's not often necessary to have read the entire passage in depth to answer most of the questions, so don't feel as though you should.
posted by estherbester at 6:38 PM on March 24, 2009

I'm basing this advice on helping my a friend study for the GRE, I've never actually taken it, so this may be wrong, but I think the main thing to think about with these SAT-style reading comprehension tests is that they are in no way tests of your reading comprehension. Just forget about that part and try to get the answers right. I don't want this to sound specious, I think it reframes the goal in a useful way. The questions basically come in a few patterns, and you just need to find the slug of text that confirms the answer. I honestly believe with practice, people could get 100% of the questions right on these _without actually reading the passage_, and with no comprehension.

Like if you google up "GRE example reading comprehension question", this is the first one I got:

"According to the passage, the two antithetical ideals of photography differ primarily in the...[choose one of the following]"

Now before I even look at the choices, I glance at the top of the passage. "antithetical ideals" is probably going to occur in it because thats an insane way to ask a question (in reality I hit CTRL-F 'antithetical'). Oh, what do you know? It's right where you'd expect some kind of thesisy topicy sentence would be!

"That is, photography has two antithetical ideals: in the
first, photography is about the world, and the photogra-
pher is a mere observer who counts for little; but in the
(10) second, photography is the instrument of intrepid,
questing subjectivity and the photographer is all. "

Ok so something about one is "world important", other is "photographer important". Again, skim-level undertsanding of this, its something about world vs. photographer. Who cares.

Ok, what are the choices?

" - value that each places on the beauty of the finished product
- emphasis that each places on the emotional impact of the finished product
- degree of technical knowledge that each requires of the photographer
- extent of the power that each requires of the photographer's equipment
- way in which each defines the role of the photographer"

The first four have like, no words in common with that sentence, so bag them. Last one, sure, yeah, sounds ok. Done.

Notice with this method, we still have no idea what this stupid passage is about really, or even what the question is about, but we've got the right answer. We've done very little reading and no comprehending.

I think if you do enough practices where you learn the like 8 types of questions they ask, you can use this as more of a "skim for the correct answer in maximum speed" test rather than making any attempt to focus on these insanely boring passages. This also helps you concentrate and stay on task, since each question leads to the next, and it only has a few possible choices, and it gives you a concrete goal ("find the bit about 'two antithetical ideals'"). That way you don't sit there reading the passage and being like " Observer...schroedinger's cat...i wonder what the deal with physics is anyway?"

That is the main thing about SATs and their ilk: its way easier to do well on them if you think of them as question-answering challenges and disregard the notion that they test anything you know about anything. Like on the math section, its not a test of how good you are at math, its a competition to see if you can choose the right answer out of four or five choices. Knowing the math is irrelevant half the time, and doing the math is very frequently the slowest way to get the answer.
posted by jeb at 7:05 PM on March 24, 2009

First, I'm a slower reader, and the GRE is a time sensitive test. Second, my mind tends to wander when I'm nervous.

Practice reading without subvocalizing. That is, do not say the words inside your head while you are reading. Force yourself to move your eyes quickly enough and keep your attention focused on the meaning.

If you subvocalize --- if you say the words inside your head while you are reading --- your mind will go on autopilot and begin to wander. Your eyes and a very small portion of your brain will continue to engage in the words, but for the most part you will not really be reading. Do not do that.

You may think that your comprehension will increase by reading very carefully and repeating each word to yourself. The opposite is true. If you read more quickly your comprehension can go up. Do not focus on the words. Keep your focused attached to the meaning. Take it in. Hold on to that, and move your eyes as quickly as you can to feed that greater comprehension of the meaning.
posted by alms at 7:26 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is the process I remember going through a few years ago (I got a 780 V):

1. Read the first question; skim its answers.
2. Begin quickly reading the text from the beginning, only looking for the answer to the first question.
3. Answer the first question after locating the relevant text.
4. Read the second question; skim its answers.
5. Begin reading the text from the place where I left off, looking only for the answer to the second question.

The bits you need to answer the questions seem to always be in order, unless they've changed things. Occasionally there is a question that requires you to synthesize rather than looking up a piece of information (and paying attention to the wording around it, of course) -- those always seemed to come at the end, and half the time I didn't need to reread to answer them.
posted by ecsh at 10:09 PM on March 24, 2009

These are some great suggestions. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful responses.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:34 AM on March 25, 2009

The test is over, and it went great. Practice makes perfect.

Thanks again for all the good advice (if anyone happens to stumble upon this again).
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:03 PM on December 29, 2009

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