One of the most important things to realize about GRE reading comp – nay, the most important thing – is that the details don’t matter. As you read each paragraph of a passage, you need concern yourself with one thing, and one thing only: What the author’s purpose was in writing each paragraph, and his purpose in writing the passage.
You need to take notes while reading passages, but not the type of notes that you’re accustomed to taking – your goal is to make a bare-bones outline that sums up each paragraph in two phrases or fewer.
Here’s a sample passage, one paragraph at a time, and our map of it:
After you read the first sentence, make a quick note about the broad subject matter of the passage:
Topic: Egalia’s Daughters
And once you get to the last sentence or two of the first paragraph, make a note about the passage’s scope –this is just a narrower version of the topic, that tells you what about it specifically interests the author:
Scope: Book’s ending not supported by research
And to sum up the key points from paragraph 1:
¶1 – Book reverses gender roles; ending not based upon research
Now, as you read paragraph two, stop after just the first sentence and predict what the overall paragraph is going to be about:
¶2 – SJT: Even people who are oppressed by a society generally support it
As you scan the rest of the paragraph, did any keywords jump out at you to tell you that the author was doing anything other than explaining this theory? Nope – our note is sufficient, and we can move on to the final paragraph.
Apply the same exercise to the third paragraph: Make a note about what the paragraph’s overall topic seems to be after you’ve read only the first sentence:
¶3 – What if normally-advantaged group made disadvantaged? Impossible to know.
Does the rest of the paragraph serve any function other than to prove its leading sentence? You only need to do a quick scan for any new keywords to realize that no, it does not.
Once you’ve read the entire passage, make a note of the author’s primary objective in writing the passage – chances are that you’ll get a question about it. In this case, if we look at our three paragraphs in order, we can see that the author was trying to prove the point that he made about Egalia’s Daughters in the first paragraph:
Purpose: To explain why book’s ending not supported by research.
Now (and not any earlier than now!) we’re ready to go the questions - having read strategically, we’ve noted information that will allow us to answer virtually every question efficiently. Happy “mapping”, and stay tuned for more reading comp best practices in next week’s entry!
When I say “GRE vocabulary,” you might think I mean words like panacea and moribund. But in the past year, I’ve discovered that (aherm) esoteric words aren’t the only ones to give my students headaches. Seemingly (cough) innocuous words like “some,” “many,” and “most” instigate no end of consternation on the new GRE‘s logic-based reading comp problems.
Have a look at what I’m talking about:
Most of Bob’s students are graduate students, and most graduate students at Bob’s university are in a PhD program. Bob owns a hamster, as do many of his students, and most of Bob’s students think he’s a great teacher.
If the statements above are true, which of the following must also be true? Select all that apply.
A) Most of Bob’s students are in a PhD program.
B) Some hamster-owning students think Bob is a great teacher.
C) Some graduate students think Bob is a great teacher.
Let’s examine these statements one by one. First, is it true that most of Bob’s students are in a PhD program? The relevant information is this:
- Most of Bob’s students are grad students
- Most grad students are PhD students
If your intuition is confused, you can pick numbers to make sense of the situation, even though this is a verbal problem!
Suppose that Bob has 5 students. On the GRE (and, for that matter, in real life), the word “most” means “more than half.” So, at minimum 3 of Bob’s students are grad students. Now suppose that there are 1,000 grad students. If “most” of them are getting a PhD, that means there are at least 501 PhD-chasers. This leaves up to 499 students who AREN’T getting a PhD — and Bob’s 3 grad students could easily be among them.
So, no: choice (A) doesn’t have to be true. It could be true, sure, but it doesn’t have to be. Avoid the GRE’s “could be true” answers on “must be true” questions!
Next, check out (B): Some hamster-owning students think Bob is a great teacher. The relevant information this time is this:
- Most of Bob’s students think he’s great
- Many of his students own a hamster
This is cake if you know what “many” means. For some reason, many (cough!) of you think it means “most,” perhaps because both words are four letters long and start with “m.” Not so! “Many” is actually a synonym for “some:” it means, for the precise purposes of the GRE, “at least one.”
(Side note: if you don’t think that’s true — if you think that “many” means “a lot more than one” or some such — consider that “many” is a subjective word that hangs on context. One hair on my head isn’t very many at all, but one cockroach in my soup, I think you’ll agree, is already too “many!”)
So all we’ve got from the stimulus is that at least one of Bob’s students owns a hamster. And that one hamster-owning student could easily be among the few who think Bob sucks. This is another choice that could be true but doesn’t have to be.
On Test Day, there will always be at least one right choice on an “all that apply” question, so if you ever cross out (A) and (B), you know that (C) is right without even checking it. For practice’s sake here, though, let’s give it a look: Some graduate students think Bob is a great teacher.
Well. You know that most of Bob’s students think he’s a great teacher, and you also know that most of Bob’s students are grad students. If Bob has 5 students, that means there has to be a minimum of 3 in each category. Here’s what that could look like:
Student 1: Grad Student
Student 2: Grad Student
Student 3: Grad Student, Thinks Bob is Great
Student 4: Thinks Bob is Great
Student 5: Thinks Bob is Great
Notice that despite my best effort to avoid overlap, some overlap was unavoidable: with 3 grad students, 3 fans of Bob, and only 5 total students, at least one student had to be both. So yes: “some” (i.e., at least one) students are both grad students AND think Bob is great.
These problems don’t just test your ability to make good deductions. They also test your ability to not make bad deductions. On Test Day, think everything through, picking numbers if you have to — and before Test Day, ask us in the comments if you’re confused about these or other examples you’ve encountered!