Tips for Success on the Reading Section

All standardized tests have reading passages and questions. Often these passages do not look like the ones that students regularly read. They tend to be a bit dense, at a higher reading level, about esoteric topics, and sometimes, they are downright boring. But this has been done for a reason. For one, this is what you can expect from the next level of academia. Obfuscation tends to be the name of the game for university professors. Two, the test makers want to really test you and see what you can do under rigorous circumstances. They pull you out of your comfort zone and see if you can perform.

To avoid the pitfalls that they hope you fall into, follow the tips below and you will be on track for success.


Be active—not passive

Most of the reading you do now is passive. Don’t feel bad. I do it to. Passive reading is casual and relaxing—the type of reading you do Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in hand, perusing articles in the newspaper, reading the first couple paragraphs of an article, skipping over ones that don’t appeal to your interests, maybe remembering parts of the article, not too focused on getting information out of the text. Although pleasurable, this type of reading will be your doom on the SAT or GRE.

When reading on the test, you need to attack the passage. Actively engage with the words in front of you. Read with focus and purpose. All other recommendations flow from this one; every tip below is aimed at engaging your mind and making you an active reader. So no sitting around passively—you are an attack dog devouring information.


Don’t get bogged down in details

Students often think they need to understand everything in the passage to answer the questions. But this ignores the fact that writers value information differently. Some of the sentences they write are of primary importance and others are of secondary or tertiary importance.

So stay out of details. Make note of where certain details are in the passage, but don’t stop to understand them all. This will be a waste of your time. Only focus on details when a question directs you to one. Ultimately, you should be looking at the big picture, determining what the whole passage is about when you first start reading.


Take notes

The easiest way to become an active reader is to pick up a pencil and jot down notes. This gives your reading purpose. With pencil in hand, you have something to do besides read. You are trying to extract meaning, synthesize it in your mind, and then shorten and summarize it on paper. Nothing could be better for reading comprehension.

Do not get caught up in writing long notes, though. Note taking can easily hinder your ability to be efficient on test day. So practice writing short symbolic notes: up arrows, plus and equal signs, abbreviations and single letters to represent ideas in the passage, and bullet points and numbers for passage structure.


Identify the main idea and author’s purpose

Not only will there be questions about the main idea and the author’s purpose on the test, making these important to identify when you first read through a passage, but also these are two crucial aspects to understanding anything that you read. Without knowing the main idea, you will not understand the examples, the connection of ideas, or the point of the passage. Without knowing the author’s purpose, you won’t be able to judge the authenticity of the information in the passage, what to do with the information presented, or to know whether or not it is trustworthy.

Take notes on the main idea and author’s purpose. For the author’s purpose, try to determine if she is trying to persuade you of something or merely describing or informing you about something. This is usually all that you need for answering questions about the author’s purpose.


Understand the structure

The structure tells you about the connection of ideas. You will understand the flow of the passage, know when an example is presented to support a point or a counterpoint. You won’t know where the passage is going without paying attention to the structure. The structure holds the passage together and tells you how one paragraph relates to another paragraph. Crucially, knowing the structure of the passage will allow you to navigate the passage quickly when answering a question.

Determine the purpose of each paragraph. Pay attention to structure words. And the structure will reveal itself to you.


 It’s Not All About You—Avoid First Person

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Do you enjoy hearing people talk all about themselves? “Me this and me that. I went here. I’ve been there. I know what we should do. Look what I just bought. Well, I think that…” On and on and on they go completely unaware that a conversation involves listening—oblivious to the eye rolls and disinterested sighs of their cornered interlocutors.

Writing is no different. Your reader doesn’t want to constantly hear you talking about yourself, making reference to yourself, or driving home your opinion. Readers want balance and honesty. They want a compelling style and a humble narrator.

Take this paragraph as an example:

I find it hard to focus when I know that there are so many problems in the world. Sometimes I can’t even get through my day when I think about the disease and war and starvation that plagues our world that we see constantly because of our instantaneous consumptive media world. But should I be worried? Should I try to push these ideas from my mind to focus on my life? Theses issues are so vast and huge and complex, I don’t think there is anything I can do. But maybe there is something I can do, however small and insignificant it may seem.

Notice how the paragraph changes when first person is removed. No longer is the focus on the writer; the focus is on the larger picture. The points are more concise and compelling freed from a subjective experience.

The world is full of problems. Disease and war and starvation plague the world and are more visible in our instantaneous consumptive media world. Should people react with concern? Should they try to push these ideas from their mind to focus on their lives? Theses issues are so vast and huge and complex, some may think there is nothing to be done. But there is always something that can be done, however small and insignificant it may seem.


Now this doesn’t mean you can’t use first person and reference yourself, but this should be done occasionally and thoughtfully, and it should generally not be in the form of “I think,” or “I believe,” or “I feel.” Good authors don’t do this because they take the time to craft sentences and paragraphs that make it clear how they feel. And the really good writers make it subtle, couching their opinion in structure and adjectives, letting the reader decipher their opinion. And the reason for doing this? To let the reader make their own decision. No one wants to be told what to believe. Readers are people and want to decide for themselves. Aim to empower your reader—not pontificate at them.

For example, this sentence is too much:

I believe that chocolate ice cream is the best type of ice cream ever created.

The whole thing is one big opinion. When a writer uses words like “the best” or “ever created,” objectivity has been subsumed in subjectivity. Assume that your reader is smart enough to realize this and remove “I believe” from your sentence because ultimately it’s redundant.

Chocolate ice cream is the best type of ice cream ever created.


The acceptable times to use “I” are when you want to remind your reader that you are like them, that you too are human, are passionate and compassionate, or are trying to commiserate with the reader. Notice the subtle use of “I” to allow the writer to connect with the reader.

The recent discovery of U.S. spying, and especially with the cooperation of large tech companies like Facebook and Google, has reignited questions of privacy on the Internet. This is an important conversation to have, and one that I am glad to engage in, since it involves not only protection of privacy, but also the trade off between rights and security. A fundamental question that we all must grapple with. How much do I want to give up in order to be safe? The answer to this question will be different for each person, but after 9/11, and more recently Boston, everyone agrees that some of our privacy should be sacrificed for protection—we just need to decide how much.


If you are writing a letter to a friend, a personal email, a note to your mom, or a love poem, feel free to use first person. These are the appropriate times to use “I” in your writing. But do so sparingly. It will improve your style. Ultimately, the recommendations in this post are for more formal settings, like papers for school, work emails, and timed essays for tests.



 @adamrab720: #GRE Vocabulary does pay off



@adamrab702, this is a great piece of news that really needs to be shared with more people studying for the GRE. And other tests for that matter.

So often students complain about the words on the GRE and SAT: “They are useless outside of the tests.” Many grumble, “They are only important to a small group of ‘nerdy’ people.” “The words are strange,” they say. “I’ll never use them again,” or “I never see these words.”

But these students miss the point.

For one, by taking these tests, students desire a higher level of learning and understanding. Receiving a masters degree is a big deal—students become the masters of a subject. Stop and think about that—a master. And I think that part of this advancement in learning and knowledge is also an advancement in consciousness, an advancement in perception. And one very important way to do this is by learning new words.

A rich vocabulary is like having a more precise ruler for measuring length. It’s an optical sensor that reveals all the wave lengths of light, not just the narrow band of color that human eyes perceive. With a breadth of words to use at different times, the subtleties of life, of human experience, of relationships shine brightly on our minds. What once was “interesting” becomes something more precise: “absorbing, engrossing, fascinating, riveting, gripping, compelling, compulsive, captivating, engaging, enthralling, attractive, amusing, entertaining, stimulating, thought-provoking, diverting, intriguing.” So when students complain about words being too esoteric and only for a small group of people, they forget that getting a master’s degree is about joining that elite club.

Lastly, students don’t see these words because they don’t know them. Humans are really good at ignoring things that don’t fit into our beliefs and perceptions of the world. Most likely, these students have seen these words, but have ignored them, glazed past them, and blocked them from their consciousness. Unless a student is dedicated to looking up words they do not know when reading, they won’t remember these words. They are actually non-existent. And let’s back up, if students aren’t dedicated to challenging themselves by reading outside of their comfort zone and above their reading level, then they won’t be learning anything new.

The greatest moment as a teacher is to have a student carp about the vocabulary words, and then later in the semester they come to class with a grin on their face, radiating because they used one of the words correctly in a situation that stumped people. My international students especially love this moment because they get to turn to a native speaker and tell them to look the word up. Or they beam accomplishment because they just read an article in The Economist and a couple of the vocabulary words popped up.

I find it hard to convince students that these words are useful, edifying, and even fun to use. They have to figure that out on their own. So, it was great to hear that you have reached that moment, @adamrab720. I hope that your story can help others to keep studying those vocabulary words, not just because they have a high frequency on the tests, but because they will get to use them in the future, get to expand their minds by knowing them, and enter into a small elite group of linguistic acrobats.


 Write in Active Voice—Avoid Passive Voice Answers



Which picture do you find more compelling? The player driving to the basket for a layup? Or a ball going through a basket? I assume that nearly everyone is more interested in the picture on the left than the one on the right. We are social animals, compelled by human stories and drama. To have a player scoring is far more interesting than a ball falling through the net because we don’t know who scored the point or how hard they strived to score.

Writing in active voice is the picture on the left; writing in passive voice is the picture on the right.


What is it?

In active voice the actor does the action. In passive voice the actor receives the action. It’s the difference between creating a sentence that tells the reader who did what, and in that order, or creating a sentence that tells us what was done by whom.

The basic structure of an English sentence follows the pattern subject-verb-object. In active voice the actor is in the subject position of the sentence. In passive voice the actor is absent or placed in the object position of the sentence.

Active Voice: The player drives to the basket.
Passive Voice: The basketball was shot. 

All passive voice contains a be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being). But not every sentence with a be verb is passive. The previous sentence is not passive because the be verb links an adjective (passive) to a noun (sentence).

Passive sentences may also have a prepositional phrase at the end to indicate who the actor is:

Passive VoiceThe basketball was shot by a player.

But if this sentence is about the picture at the top, then it infers who that actor is since no one is present in the picture. Yet another problem.


Write in Active Voice!

The difference between active and passive voice is simple really—the difference between putting the actor at the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence. But the effects on your writing are dramatic.

Take a mundane sentence as an example: Ice cream was reimagined by Ben and Jerry.

The actors sit at the back of the sentence. What normally would sit in the object position of the sentence after the verb (ice cream) finds itself in the spotlight at the beginning of the sentence. Extra words crowd the sentence (by and was). Also, the compelling verb (reimagined) loses its punch in the passive voice. The -ed crumbles the word into a phantom of its true self.

What about this instead? Ben and Jerry reimagined ice cream.

This sentence has umph and power. It’s forceful and compels the reader forward. The actors sit at the front of the sentence and act out the action of the sentence. The verb sings now.

Also, passive voice should be avoid because it is not emphatic and often a sign of an author who doesn’t know what to say. Or, sometimes people want to hide responsibility for some action or veil their lack of knowledge and so turn to passive voice to do so. Don’t come off as an indecisive writer shirking responsibility. Change your passive voice.

Put the actor at the beginning of the sentence. Activate your verbs. Eliminate the extra words. Passive voice will weigh down your sentences.


Choose answers that are in active voice

Test makers love to foil students with passive voice answer choices. Once you add this to your checklist of possible errors on the test, it will be easy to notice and easy to narrow down your choices. Whether you are dealing with GMAT Sentence Corrections or SAT Improving Sentences, testmakers will definitely test this skill, so be on the look out. Eliminate all answer choices in passive voice. You will start getting more answers correct if you do.


But don’t hate passive voice–sometimes it’s appropriate

Passive voice tends to get a bad rap. Yes, it does add extra words to sentences. Yes, it does make verbs less compelling. Yes, it does arrest the forward movement of sentences. And yes, it does result in tentative sentences.

Yet sometimes we need passive voice.

For one, sometimes we actually don’t know who the actor is. When an action has taken place, and we want to talk about it, then we need to use passive voice. For example:

The ball was thrown through the glass window.

At times, we would rather emphasize the action and not the actor or to emphasize the receiver of the action. This is a time to use passive voice:

The houses, the cars, the trees, the entire small town was demolished by the storm.