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GMAT Exam Overview & Question Types: Reading Comprehension

GMAT Exam Overview & Question Types: Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is one of the three types of questions you will find in the verbal reasoning section of your GMAT exam, with the other two being critical reasoning and sentence correction. Always assume that you are going to see three to four passages of three to four questions each in every verbal section. On rare occasions, you may find five questions in a passage. Even then, that should be a cause for concern as the question structure remains the same in every circumstance.

While you might find the reading comprehension part of the GMAT exam might be intimidating at first, continuous practice builds confidence. That’s to help you know what to expect and how to prepare well for your exams, we’ve put together useful information in this article that could be a gamechanger for your scores.

Quick tips to handle GMAT reading comprehension

If you’re out to address the questions properly and maximize your scores in this section, it’s essential to allocate a minimum of five minutes per passage. In this section, you’ve got to engage with the passages to understand what the text is all about before answering any questions. Don’t rush, if you care about your scores. It’s essential to consider reading comprehension as a part of integrated reasoning multi-source reasoning questions. These are the ones that have multiple tabs and within those tabs, you will apply many of the techniques that will be discussed in this article. 

Strategic Implications

It’s recommended that you spend approximately 1 minute 45 seconds on each reading comprehension question. It’s the closest to the average time you’d spend on every question in the verbal reasoning section overall. Each question in the verbal section should take just about a minute and fifty seconds and in reading comprehension, you should stick to this pace.

In integrated reasoning, however, because the multi-source reasoning questions have so much information within the tabs, you can spend three minutes per question for the questions in this section.

Allocate a maximum of four minutes to complete a read of any passage. Take your time to understand what you are reading. For those individuals who need to understand the information fully upfront rather than reading on a targeted basis, take the time to do so. Take time to address the first question, and guarantee that you understand what the passage is all about.

As you read through the passages, take notes as you go to allow your understanding of one question potentially to assist with another. In most cases, the reading comprehension questions on the GMAT have more questions than you will see. This means that if you are looking at a passage you might see three or four questions, but they might be as many as seven or eight that can be seen for that passage. 

The flow of the reading comprehension questions

As part of its adaptivity function, the exam technique is savvy enough to decide whether you got a question right or wrong and if you got it wrong, it may ask you a question building on the one you just missed. Concurrently, if you got a question right, it may reward you a bit by allowing you to answer another question based on that area within the passage. It is therefore very important to take notes and potentially leverage those notes while answering another question from the same passage.

These questions tend to build on each other and you have to understand the passage in its entirety, therefore these are not the kind of questions you can afford to proactively skip. If you are behind time and you find yourself moving back and forth between two answer choices, you will need to eventually move on to maintain the pace of one minute forty-five seconds per question. But do not rush and cut corners on an entire passage because one incorrect answer in reading comprehension can easily lead to two, three, or four incorrect answers. If you are behind pace in the verbal section, you may skip some questions in critical reasoning, sentence correction, or even integrated reasoning because these are often independent questions that have no impact on any other question, but you cannot do the same with reading comprehension questions because it will aggravate the problem. 

How will Reading Comprehension Questions be Presented?

On the left-hand side of your screen, you will have a static reading comprehension passage, while on the right-hand side, you will have three to four rotating question tasks. On the GMAT, you are not told how many questions are tied to a passage upfront as this is unlikely for most standardized tests. Instead, you’ll have to read the passage’s first question to identify the subject and determine how much upfront reading may be needed. It’s worth noting that initial questions matter most both in the quantitative and verbal sections because of the adaptivity function of the exam. Therefore, it’s up to you to allocate a little more time at the start. Later on, and in a short passage, or where you have a first question referencing a specific term or location, target reading can be more effective and efficient.

The exam also rewards flexibility in approach. There are passages, you may need to understand in their entirety because maybe the first question is asking about the primary purpose, but others may only ask three or four questions about specific terms or location references. In the latter types, you may benefit from both pacing and an accuracy perspective if you work to identify the specific terms and locations that have been asked about. However, if you are going to do targeted reading, always read at least a full sentence below and above the term or location reference. This will ensure that you are getting the proper context. Lean on the side of a larger rather than a smaller window to make sure that you are getting all the information necessary to address the task.

Broad subject questions

These are questions about a passage overall. An example of a question in this category would be: “The primary purpose of the passage is to________.” When answering this type of question, your response should gravitate around the main aim of the author in writing the passage. You’ll have five choices A through E in that line. 

In cases whereby you’ve been asked about the passage overall, let’s see how you can engage a passage map in passage 1 below.

Static Reading Comprehension Passage 1

Public health and economic efficiency approaches to choosing a role for the government often reach opposite conclusions. From a public health perspective, the potential for illness or injury is sufficient to justify government action; large numbers of deaths or illnesses are more compelling reasons for government action. The dollar value of benefits or costs derived from government programs does not necessarily enter the public health decision calculus. Alternatively, economic efficiency demands that proposed government programs clear two hurdles. First, there must be an efficiency problem for the government to solve. Second, a correction program must be worth the cost. 

So far economists have not reached a consensus on whether obesity raises economic efficiency problems. If obesity results from informed individuals’ willingly making diet and lifestyle choices, there is no way to argue for efficiency; we have to conclude that many are willing to accept the extra weight because the cost of diet and exercise is too high. On the other hand, arguments for intervention could be mounted based on imperfect information about the relationship between diet and health. Nevertheless, many in the public health community have proposed interventions, and taxing snack foods has been advocated frequently. But without a clear statement of the efficiency problem caused by overweight and obesity, we cannot say whether such taxes might increase or decrease economic efficiency- i.e., whether benefits exceed costs. 

Passage Mapping

  • Read a paragraph or ten lines of text. Read, understand, and stop to consider what you’ve read. Don’t take notes. Actively reflect upon the information. 
  • Take a brief note of the main subject in action in that paragraph or approximately ten lines, so that you know what you’ve read and you’ve summarised it. 
  • Maintain primary subjects and action from note to note as you read through the passage, every paragraph or say ten lines, to create an overall narrative from the passage. 
  • If the main subject or action changes unexpectedly, revisit your prior notes to make sure that you captured the correct actor or action. If you lost it, maybe it is only because they brought in some introductory background story before it took a right turn. 
  • Consider an overall summary, once you have written down your notes and read the whole passage as a prediction for your primary purpose or main idea question, or just to have it on standby for a later main idea question.  The main idea question will either appear first or last nine out of ten times.

In passage 1 above, this section is roughly ten lines or so:

Public health and economic efficiency approaches to choosing a role for the government often reach opposite conclusions. From a public health perspective, the potential for illness or injury is sufficient to justify government action; large numbers of deaths or illnesses are more compelling reasons for government action. The dollar value of benefits or costs derived from government programs does not necessarily enter the public health decision calculus.

We are seeing a transition of alternatives taking place as well so this is likely a good place to take a note:

  • PH (public health) and EE (economic efficiency) / opposite conclusions 
  • PH does not require cost/benefit analysis, just illness/injury

We can pick up reading from where we left off:

Alternatively, economic efficiency demands that proposed government programs clear two hurdles. First, there must be an efficiency problem for the government to solve. Second, a correction program must be worth the cost. 

Continue making notes building up what we started

  • EE requires government programs must solve efficiency problems and be worth the cost

The next bit:

So far economists have not reached a consensus on whether obesity raises economic efficiency problems. If obesity results from informed individuals’ willingly making diet and lifestyle choices, there is no way to argue for efficiency; we have to conclude that many are willing to accept the extra weight because the cost of diet and exercise is too high.

  • Economists/ no consensus on obesity raising EE problems, if obesity is from choice no EE issues

And finally the last bit. It starts with “on the other hand” so we know it’s going to be a contrast, and important to take note of.

On the other hand, arguments for intervention could be mounted based on imperfect information about the relationship between diet and health. Nevertheless, many in the public health community have proposed interventions, and taxing snack foods has been advocated frequently. But without a clear statement of the efficiency problem caused by overweight and obesity, we cannot say whether such taxes might increase or decrease economic efficiency- i.e., whether benefits exceed costs.

  • However, EE government intervention argument for obesity can be made from imperfect info, but without clear facts cannot determine EE outcome of such program

So now we have these ideas about public health and economic efficiency approaches to potentially having the government step in about obesity, and that functions as our main idea prediction.

  • Main idea prediction: Evaluate PH and EE needs to fight obesity

These notes will then hopefully help with the remaining questions. Let’s put down our main idea question concerning this passage

Q1. The primary purpose of the passage is to

Main idea prediction: Evaluate PH and EE needs to fight obesity

  1. advocate for a change in public health policy
  2. justify governmental action with economic evidence
  3. examine possible causes of public weight excess
  4. argue that health concerns supersede economic consensus
  5. consider variable impacting government decision making

Now we are going to compare these answer choices against this prediction while also seeking actions and descriptions that we know don’t match what we just read and mapped.

A. advocate for a change in public health policy.

The author is not making any sort of certain statements about what public health policy should be. The author is equivocating a lot. So we cannot say in that final sentence whether taxes on snack foods would be increased or decrease economic efficiency, which was part of the calculus. There is no change we can say is certainly being advocated for. So, eliminate choice A.

B. justify government action with economic evidence.

No governmental action has been justified, there was no governmental action that was known to be necessary or supported. This is too strong a statement for a rather ambiguous passage. Rules out choice B.

C. examine possible causes of public weight excess.

The passage doesn’t examine any causes of public weight excess. We know there are some concerns about obesity and people being overweight in society,  but we don’t know what the cause is so we can rule out choice C.

D. argue that health concerns supersede economic consensus

The author does not argue anything. The author just states some facts and then says that we don’t know what to do with it. That leaves us with the choice of E.

E. consider variables impacting government decision making

We have a lot of variables being considered throughout this passage. Even though the answer does not use our key terms, such as efficiency or economics, it is still certainly true. 

This is how you can work through broad subject primary purpose questions using a passage map.

Next, let us consider a specific subject question.

Q2. The author most likely mentions taxing snack foods to 

  1. recommend a course of action for raising government revenue
  2. site a policy that is likely to reduce public obesity
  3. Propose an alternative health intervention
  4. identity a method of diet improvement that has support
  5. defend the economists’ lack of consensus

Often in the GMAT, they will highlight the phrase or location they’re referring to. For this article, it has been underlined. We need to go at least a sentence below and above. In this case, the sentence above starts with “on the other hand”, so to get the context better we can go further up and start reading from,

If obesity results from informed individuals’ willingly making diet and lifestyle choices, there is no way to argue for efficiency; we have to conclude that many are willing to accept the extra weight because the cost of diet and exercise is too high. On the other hand, arguments for intervention could be mounted based on imperfect information about the relationship between diet and health. Nevertheless, many in the public health community have proposed interventions, and taxing snack foods has been advocated frequently. But without a clear statement of efficiency problem caused by overweight and obesity, we cannot say whether such taxes might increase or decrease economic efficiency i.e., whether benefits exceed costs.”

A possible prediction from the excerpt above would be:

Prediction: Cite a possible PH government obesity intervention.

Then we go back to our answer choices 

A. and recommend a course of action for raising government revenue 

The passage is not recommending any course of action, nor does it mention anything about raising government revenue. Beware of bringing outside information or bias into your reading comprehension.

B. site a policy that is likely to reduce public obesity

We do not know that such policies are likely to reduce public obesity, we just know that it has been advocated frequently.

C. Propose an alternative health intervention 

The author is not proposing any alternative health intervention. It is not mentioned in the passage. So we can rule out choice C.

D. identity a method of diet improvement that has support

That matches our prediction because the public health community is the support, and taxing snack foods is a method of diet improvement. While it is a relatively bland answer, it unassailably matches our prediction and is supported as it is the reason the author introduces the idea of taxing snack foods.

E. defend the economists’ lack of consensus

The author has no position. Even though there is no consensus, there is no defense for it.

This is how we go about all rotating reading comprehension questions.

The Process of Reading Comprehension

Step1: Identify the question task

Read each question as you go to determine the subject and task in question. Is it targeted, or is it a broad question asking about the passage overall? And what are you being asked to do?

Step 2: Read what you need to address in that subject and task

If it is a broad subject and/or the first question of the test, consider a full upfront read and notes. 

On the other hand, if it’s a specific subject and/or not the first question, do the targeted reading. Only do passage mapping for question one if you elect to do one, rather than in subsequent questions.

Step 3: Prediction

Predict on your own to avoid being tricked by appealing answer choices that are there purposefully to confuse you.

Step 4: Elimination

Focus on actions and descriptions for objective reasons to eliminate. If you are down to two answer choices, default to selecting options with fewer direct references from the passage and a less absolute claim. By default, pick a choice that is more or less bland.

Reading Comprehension Questions Examples

Possibly the most critical factor in the Hubble Space Telescope’s success has to do with how it is operated. Hubble is a public facility observatory, open for use by any astronomer from around the world. Each year an announcement goes out to the worldwide community soliciting research proposals for use of Hubble and its instruments. That instrumentation is a complementary set of cameras, spectrographs, and other more specialized devices such as stellar coronagraphs, and interferometers. It is extremely versatile and covers a wide range of performance characteristics such as sensitivity, resolution, and wavelength coverage. Taken together, the Hubble instruments provide essentially a complete toolbox for astronomers to utilize in attacking almost any problem in modern optical astronomy.

Hubble observations have yielded major advances in virtually every area of astronomy and astrophysics. The mechanism by which this is achieved is the open proposal solicitation, peer-review, and a selection process that brings in the Hubble research program observers from the entire international astronomical community. The demand for Hubble observing time is enormous, five or six times as much observation time is requested than is available. It is a typical proposal cycle, many extremely worthy research proposals are rejected each cycle, simply because there is not nearly enough time on the telescope to go around. Only the very best scientific ideas put forward by the community find their way into Hubble’s observing schedule.

Q1. The author is primarily concerned with

Solution

Always read the question first. In this case, we are being asked again what the author is primarily concerned about. You can look at this as an opportunity to take an upfront passage map of the passage. We can look at the first paragraph or about ten lines.

  1. publicizing an exploratory resource
  2. marketing the Hubble Space Telescope
  3. explaining the utility and uses of a tool
  4. identifying valid space research
  5. rejecting galactic research proposals

HST passage map

P1) HST(Hubble Space Telescope) – is used by the whole world and is a near-total astronomy tool.

P2) HST is so in demand that many worthy proposals don’t get to use.

Prediction: Describe HST  benefits and how/who gets to use them.

Then we compare this with our answer choices for elimination.

A. publicizing an exploratory resource

We can hold choice A. It is not perfect but it is vaguely similar to our prediction. It doesn’t talk about the benefits and how/who gets to use it, and we don’t know about publicizing specifically but, it is vaguely in that area.

B. marketing the Hubble Space Telescope

To say “marketing the Hubble Space Telescope” is a bit extreme, the author is not trying to market Hubble or its tools. The word “marketing” is the same as “publicizing” as used in choice A. When you have two answer choices that say the same thing, they both have to be wrong. On that ground, we can eliminate both choices A and B.

C. explaining the utility and uses of a tool

The tool being Hubble seems like a pretty good choice so we can hold on to it for now.

D. identifying valid space research

We don’t say valid space research in the passage, so that seems a little extreme. While we know that some good research doesn’t get to use the Hubble, saying that the author knows what is valid space research is an overstatement. So choice D can be eliminated.

E. rejecting galactic research proposals

While we do know that some proposals get rejected, the author himself/herself doesn’t reject these proposals. So we eliminate this choice too and we are left with choice C as the correct answer.

Q2. According to the passage which one of the following is a consideration in selecting a project to use the Hubble Space Telescope?

  1. Proof that similar experimentation has already yielded major astronomical advances.
  2. Validation of a project’s worthiness by disinterested contemporary scientists.
  3. Governmental sponsorship identifying a special public needs to be addressed.
  4. Affirmation of plans to use a limited amount of the Telescope’s resources.
  5. Project rejection in a prior Hubble Space Telescope’s proposal cycle.

So we go back to the passage to identify where consideration in selecting a project is mentioned. It is in paragraph 2. For this article, it is underlined. We will read a sentence above and below so that we can get all the relevant information,

Hubble observations have yielded major advances in virtually every area of astronomy and astrophysics. The mechanism by which this is achieved is the open proposal solicitation, peer-review, and selection process that brings in the Hubble research program observers from the entire international astronomical community. The demand for Hubble observing time is huge. It is a typical proposal cycle, five or six times as much observation time is requested than is available.”

Prediction: Open solicitation, peer-review, and observers from the international astronomical community. Wide demand.

A. Proof that similar experimentation has already yielded major astronomical advances.

We are not comparing similar experimentation,  and the phrase ” yielded major astronomical advances.” Is a trap. It just hoping that you remember it from the passage and select it even though we don’t need proof that similar experimentation has already yielded major astronomical advances. A is eliminated.

B. Validation of a project’s worthiness by disinterested contemporary scientists. 

Validation would be a review. The project’s worthiness would be determined by peer review, and disinterested does not mean not interested, but without bias. Contemporary scientists are those from the international astronomical community. So even though this choice seems bland and not interesting, it matches our prediction pretty nicely.

C. Governmental sponsorship identifying a special public need to be addressed.

We are not talking about governmental sponsorship or a public need. Neither of those matches our prediction so this choice can be eliminated.

D. Affirmation of plans to use a limited amount of the Telescope’s resources.

This is not a match for what we are looking for.

E. Project rejection in a prior Hubble Space Telescope’s proposal cycle.

Many projects get rejected, and we do not know if that rejection leads to acceptance in a future cycle. So choice E can also be eliminated. So our correct answer choice is B. 

Both these questions show how you want to engage with reading comprehension questions on the actual GMAT. 

 Now that you’ve got a glimpse of what the reading comprehension section looks like, it’s time to go and do some more practice. We’ve got lots of study resources for these types of questions that can help you prepare adequately for your exams. Grab a package as you work on your confidence. 



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