Tips and Challenges for Reading and Responding to GRE Passages

Posted by Jedd on 11/16/16 5:25 PM


Map to Remember

GRE passages can be dense and academic like the kind of materials you may encounter in graduate school. These passages place you in the middle of a scholarly conversation, and your role is get your bearings quickly, without getting distracted by details you don’t need to fully grasp. In most passages, the beginning typically provides the background for an idea, explanation, or debate, the middle of the passage provides support or development, and the most important idea comes at the end. (A minority of the passages give away the main idea right at the beginning.)

I suggest that students map all but the shortest passages, which means writing down a few words, abbreviations or symbols for each paragraph or big idea. Err on the side of thoroughness at the beginning of the passage, when you’re getting oriented, and write down less for the subsequent paragraphs. I emphasize stopping at the end of a chunk of text to synthesize, rather than stream-of-consciousness note-taking (as you might do in a lecture). This way, the note-taking helps you synthesize and internalize the complex content you’ve just read, which is the biggest value of mapping. You’ll rarely need to actually refer back to your written notes; the content will have made it into your head by way of the note-taking process. Hopefully you’ll remember from the SAT not to get distracted by unknown words and instead infer general meaning from context. The overall structure of the argument matters more than literal understanding of every word or even sentence.

Common Challenges

Academic Language

Let me present some medium and hard-level passages (as designated by ETS in their Official Guide to the GRE, 2nd Edition) to highlight some common challenges and practical insights for the Reading Comp section. In the passage below about A Dream of Light and Shadow (Official Guide, p. 63), the abstract language in the second-to-last sentence tends to confuse readers who don’t have a background in the humanities, but the key words accessible to anyone in this sentence are “self-consciousness,” “critical,” and “self-awareness.” These words are enough to choose (A) and (C) in response to the following “select all” question. 

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Multiple Perspectives

In the following passage about Jacksonian America (Official Guide, p. 65), the biggest challenge is the number of different viewpoints: those of Tocqueville versus Pessen versus the passage’s author. Only by using the signpost, “Although,” and the context clue “overestimates” in the final sentence to make this distinction can we choose answer choice E over A, below.

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Keep Your Inferences Boring, Not Bold

In its third sentence, the passage below (Official Guide, p. 73) about Wuthering Heights briefly contrasts this novel’s construction with the novels of Henry James. While an enthusiastic reader might be tempted to connect “authorial awareness” to unifying “all of the novel’s heterogenous parts” and select answer choices D or E, this inference is not precisely supported by the text. Instead, the GRE is asking you to read more literally: “authorial awareness of novelistic construction” simply means “aware of the details of novelistic construction,” or choice B. Inferences are simply restatements of the text, never bold leaps or creative associations.

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Graduate school will give you plenty of opportunities for open-ended, creative problem-solving, but the Reading Comprehension section asks you to focus your thinking in very specific ways: map the passage, use structural clues to avoid getting lost in the jargon, and stick to what’s already stated in the text. Calm and careful wins this race.

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