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GRE Reading Comprehension Passage Patterns

Do you really understand the passage?

Many GRE students often find themselves at sea on the Reading Comp passage. It is not that they do not practice, but they always feel they are floundering about the passage, trying to get to the questions. Once they get to the questions, things tend to get worse. At times, students feel that they are choosing at random, because all answers work. Other times, two answers seem equally valid.

The truth is GRE RC is very difficult. And it does take practice. However, it takes the right kind of practice. Unless you are doing the following, you are not optimizing your approach to RC, and in all likelihood you are floundering about both the passage and the questions.

Below is an exercise that will help you become very skilled at the Reading Comprehension section.


Fleshing out the skeleton

The good news about the GRE is many passages tend to have a similar structure. A theory is introduced, a phenomenon is explained, a theory is questioned, and a new theory is introduced.

Think of this structure as the skeleton. As you read, you are fleshing out, so to speak, the different parts of the skeleton. Specifically, you want to pay attention to the following:

Main idea

Every passage is trying to make a point. What is that point, that idea that holds the entire passage together? That’s the main idea.

Function of each paragraph

Understanding what the point of each paragraph is will help you better understand the passage.

Supporting Details

Big ideas have supporting details. So if the author makes a claim, he or she is likely to provide details to back up that claim.

Competing Theories

Many passages have more than one theory. Know which theory the author agrees with and which one he doesn’t agree with. Understanding the supporting details will also be helpful here.


Putting Method into Practice

A great exercise is to spend about 3 to 4 minutes reading the passage (time yourself!). As soon as you are done force yourself, on paper, to come up with an outline of the passage, mentioning the main ideas, supporting details, etc.

Whatever you do, do not refer to the passage. Your outline must be based on the info. in your head. Again, this is an exercise—it is to help you process the passage at a deeper level. This not a strategy you should employ test day.

Below I have included a link to a real LSAT test. Head to section 4 and try out the following technique on the first passage (the one on Rita Dove). The reason I have chosen an LSAT, which Reading Comp.-wise is very similar to the GRE, is because this material will be completely fresh.

Also, in a follow-up blog post, I will include another passage outline, in addition to the Rita Dove passage. You can compare your outlines. If you notice that you are coming up with very little, then it is clear that you are not processing much of what you read. Indeed, that is expected. This is a skill that takes lots of practice. But don’t worry—you can put it to use on anything from an LSAT/GRE passage to a difficult article in .

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