Teachers in love.
I had been corresponding with Ty, an architect and math tutor based in Virginia, for a few months before we decided to meet up. Over the week he spent in New York, we had what resembled a single long conversation that digressed into philosophy, artificial intelligence, theory of mind, and, since we are both educators, test-taking. In case you need proof that GRE tutors sometimes like to really geek out over education: yes, I spent a good portion of what was essentially a first date talking about standardized tests.
Ty and I took practice GREs together, working side by side. (Please don’t use this scene in your romantic comedy about tutors in love; I am already writing one.) We would alternately agree and disagree, contest and concede to the other. Ty was particularly annoyed by a reading comprehension question whose answer was as follows:
The first is an explanation of how a biological theory is thought to work; the second is an example of research results that do not support this theory.
“That doesn’t fit ANY history-of-science definition of what a ‘theory’ is.”
“I know.” I conceded. “But it’s the right answer.”
Overwhelmingly, reading comprehension texts—for both the GRE and the GMAT—are cracked by identifying those answer choices best supported by specific words or phrases in the passage. For every answer you choose, you should be able to muster actual quotes and evidence, and this is true even for “big picture” questions about the passage’s overall tone or purpose. You may think the passage sounds optimistic “overall,” but there are nevertheless discrete and specific phrases that make you think so—and you need to identify which phrases those are.
But there is a companion skill you should be honing as you practice reading comprehension, which I call tuning your inner ear to the voice of a particular test. Every experienced test-taker has had moments of simply knowing the right answer, before or even without being able to explain why it’s right. This skill aids expert test-takers on difficult questions with more than one tempting answer, or no tempting answers at all. It also helps them answer easy and medium questions more quickly and with more confidence. This is one of the reasons why your primary source of practice material should always be previously administered tests released by the official test maker.
Ty and I started talking about computers, their comparatively recent mastery of the game of chess, and their persistent inability to master the game of Go (I know, GRE tutors go on the most riveting dates). Ty explained:
“You know how you teach a kid to play Go? You don’t teach them the rules; you don’t tell them the objective; you just start making shapes with the Go pieces. You say: this is a good shape. And this is a bad shape. Then you ask: can you make a good shape?”
Reading comprehension is a tiny bit like playing Go. To get a great reading comprehension score, you have to manage the task of researching answer choices and choosing those with the most compelling body of evidence. To get your very best reading score, you have to manage that task while being attuned to something subtle you may be unable to put into words.
And remember, if you need more help, get in touch with Cambridge Coaching. We have expert GRE and GMAT tutors available in NYC, Boston, and online. We can help you understand how the test works—and what you need to do to conquer it!
For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our GMAT and GRE tutors: The 4 Worst Errors People Make on the GMAT, The Best Free GMAT Materials, and What Happens When a GRE Tutor Takes the Test?.