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.


 Sentence Equivalence: Find a Partner


Square Dance circa 1944

“Grab your partner…swing them ‘round…do-si-do then promendo…‘til you’re back at the start for another roun’.”

Squaring dancing is a style of dance that appeared around the 17th century in Europe in which four partners (or eight dancers) organize themselves into a square with everyone facing the middle. When squaring dancing reached the shores of America and was bathed in the warm, romanticized image of American cowboys, it became known round the world. Sentence equivalence questions on the GRE and square dancing may appear as dissimilar as Kim Jung-un and the moons of Saturn. But they do share one important parallel–you need to find a partner to be successful in both.

With some questions, the test makers don’t use direct synonyms for answers. The direct synonyms might be placed as traps for the sleepy, bored, and distracted test takers. Instead, the two answers to pick are “partners,” not synonyms and not directly similar, but words with similar connotations. They are partners for special occasions, like a square dance.

Consider this sentence from the article, “Neutron Star And White Dwarf Confirm Einstein’s Theory of Gravity,” about testing Einstein’s theory:

“Some researchers previously believed that under conditions like these, the equations of General Relativity would not prove ________ in determining the level of gravitational radiation.”

Now what word would complete this sentence? The original word used in the sentence was “accurate.” So, we could place direct synonyms into the sentence, like “correct,” “precise,” or “factual.” I would not consider these partners; rather, these are more like brothers and sisters in the same family. Partners are close friends with no blood ties.

A good partner for “accurate” would be one that completes the sentence such that it conveys the same idea. Basically, we want a sentence that says, “Some situations were thought to exist where General Relativity would break down.” So what word should we place in the blank? What about the word “relevant?”

“Relevant” is not a synonym of “accurate,” but both these words do lead to analogous sentences. So “relevant” and “accurate” I would consider partners.

Let’s look at an example question from the ETS paper-based practice test:

From ETS paper-based practice, Section 4

In this sample question, we have some clues for determining what word should be in the blank. Anytime you see a colon in a sentence, pay attention to the information after it. Colons are punctuation marks telling you that something is being defined or elaborated on (Read article on colon usage for more information).

Since the blank comes before the colon, I know that what follows the colon will tell me about the blank: “each refrained…if the other doubted…” Here we find that the journalistic pair work together in reading each other’s pieces and advising each other on whether the articles are ready for publication. Each journalist seems to respect the other’s opinion.

Looking to the answer choices, I see some direct synonyms (“apologist” and “advocate”), but these are not the answers you are looking for. These words don’t contain the idea of trusted advisor that we are looking for—a person who gives a thumbs up or thumbs down rating.

But are there any other direct synonyms? “Intermediary” and “impediment” are fairly different, neither synonyms nor partners. Thus we are left with “check” and “brake.” Now these words are not obvious synonyms. “Check” means “to examine” and “brake” means “to curb or slow down.” However, both these words do contain the sense that we are looking for in this sentence—someone who gives advice on whether or not to proceed. Both of these words lead to two sentences that convey the same idea. In this way, “check” and “break” are partners.

So when you are do-si-doing with sentence equivalence questions, and promenading with the answers, don’t always look for direct synonyms to complete the sentence—you might need to find partners, instead, to complete the dance.



 Grammar Tuesday: Subject-Verb Agreement



Dr. Sarabhai and Dr. Paine Sign a Satellite Agreement

"Dr. Vikram A. Sarabhai, (left) Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and head of India's Department of Atomic Energy and Dr. Thomas O. Paine, NASA Administrator, sign an agreement to cooperate in an unprecedented experiment using a space satellite to bring instructional television programs to some 5,000 Indian villages. The Applications Technology Satellite 6 (ATS 6)satellite launched May 30, 1974, became available to the ISRO for one year on August 1, 1975. ATS 6 acted as a broadcasting station in space, sending health and educational television programs to inexpensive ground stations in remote villages of India." --By NASA Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, subject-verb agreement is not the same as the type of agreement made between Dr. Sarabhai and Dr. Paine involving rockets, space, satellites, and television. But without subject-verb agreement, the cooperation between India and the U.S. would’ve been unthinkable. Without consistency between subject and verb, they would have found it hard to reach any agreement.

When testmakers test for grammar on the GRE, GMAT, and SAT, they build questions based on a limited number of common grammar mistakes. One mistake, in particular, they like to test for is subject-verb agreement. This grammar point is commonly tested because the general population commonly commits this error. As such, testmakers can take a random selection of students and rank them based on the results of targeted grammar question. Then they merely compare the student’s results with what they already know about the general population. Also, subtleties in this grammar point allow the testmakers to vary question difficulty based on these exceptions and ambiguities.


I. Singular = Singular, Plural = Plural

If a sentence has a singular subject, use a singular verb; if it has a plural subject, use a plural verb. In most cases, the verb will be the base form (e.g., give, love, meditate). Only when you encounter third-person singular (e.g. he, she, it, Jamie, etc.), will the verb ending change.

  • He loves ice cream.
  • They love ice cream.


II. Compound Subjects Joined by “and”

When two nouns are used as subjects of a sentence and are joined by the conjunction “and,” use a plural verb.

  • Franco and Starbuck love ice cream.
  • The Hungarians and the Austrians love ice cream.


III. Subjects joined by “or” and “nor”

When two nouns are used as subjects in a sentence, and are joined by the conjunctions “or” and “nor,” use a verb that agrees with the last noun in the compound subject. In the first example, friends is the last noun, so the base form of the verb (plural form) is used. But, switch the order of the nouns, and the verb will change.

  • Zaarf nor his alien friends love ice cream.
  • His alien friends nor Zaarf loves ice cream.


IV. Indefinite Pronouns

When an indefinite pronoun (anything, anybody, anyone, everything, everybody, everyone, something, someone, each, other, either, neither, none, no, and no one) is used as a subject, use a singular verb.

  • Everyone screams for ice cream.

Exceptions: Some indefinite pronouns (all, any, and some) may be singular or plural depending on the noun or pronoun they refer to. In the first example, all is replacing the singular noun ice cream, and in the second example, all replaces the plural noun scoops.

  • All of the ice cream is delicious.
  • All of the scoops of ice cream are delicious.


V. Collective Nouns

Remember, a collective noun names a number of things or individuals grouped together in one unit. More often than not, collective nouns are treated as singular subjects unless the meaning obviously implies a plural meaning.

  • The ice cream club meets to discuss new ice cream flavors.
  • The ice cream club argue the merits of new ice cream flavors.

The last sentence is a little awkward and could be improved, and actually, should be improved, for clarity to include the word members: “The members of the ice cream club argue the merits of new ice cream flavors.”

Example of Collective Nouns: jury, committee, party, majority, audience, crowd, class, troop, family, and couple.

VI. What to do with “who,” “which,” and “that”

The antecedent of the pronoun will tell you the verb form to use. “Who,” “which,” and “that” are relative pronouns and, like all pronouns, are controlled by the nouns that they replace.

  • The ice cream bowls, which are pre-chilled and perfectly crafted to enhance flavor, are gone.
  • The ice cream that is made here is consumed here.

Exceptions: Some confusion can occur when deciding what verb to use with “one of the” and “only one of the.” Consider “one of the” as plural and “only one of the” as singular.

VII. Looks Plural but it’s Singular

Some words in our language have the characteristics of plural nouns, but through usage, are paired with singular verbs. For example, athletics, economics, mathematics, physics, news, and measles all appear to be plural, but in common usage they are paired with singular verbs.

  • Mathematics is a language.

Exceptions: Just like with collective nouns, there are situations in which these words will need a plural verb. If the noun describes separate entities, use a plural verb.

  • Mathematics are useful in a number of applications.


Traps on the Test

In my experience, the following list of exceptions and constructions are common ways to trap, trick, or otherwise befuddle students:

  1. Subject and verb separated by a prepositional phrase
  2. Subject and verb are far, far apart usually separated by a phrase or an appositive
  3. Collective Nouns
  4. Subject appears after the verb

 Calling All Non-Native English Speakers: You Can Improve Your Vocabulary!

  1. Cut index cards up and make flashcards.
  2. Fold a piece of paper hot dog-style and use one side for the word and the other for the definition.
  3. Download an app on your phone that lets you review vocabulary while you’re on a crowded bus.

If you think about it, simply memorizing words is a somewhat easy—I do say this with caution—task. You’re smart and probably still relatively young so you have the brain capacity to memorize a vast number of words. But really now—I highly doubt that this is all you’ll need to do in order to get a tantalizingly awesome Verbal score on the GRE or GMAT.

There are far too many non-native English speakers who still think that they only way to learn more words for your test is to just memorize lists of possible words that may show up. This is just how they were taught to study English vocabulary. From my experience of doing this (I admit that I did it too and I’m a native English speaker), I was very disappointed to see that maybe five of the words I memorized actually showed up on the test. All that memorization of words I’d never seen or used before just proved to be a failed attempt to improve my vocabulary.

So what words did show up on the test? To be quite honest, they were words I recognized from books I’ve read, magazines articles I’ve dog-eared, blogs I follow, TV shows I watch, angry Facebook statuses that show up in my News Feed, conversations with and between friends, and professors’ lectures. Do you see where this is going? Yes, actually opening up a dictionary and looking up definitions and reviewing different synonyms are very important—you can’t always expect to know the exact meaning of a word without ever looking it up. But the key to being able to answer questions on the GRE and GMAT Verbal sections is knowing how words are used in context. A dictionary may give you a sentence or two using the word, but it’ll never provide a conversation that shows the different ways the word can be used.

Studying vocabulary doesn’t always have to be a serious and dreadful obligation; it can be fun and should be interactive. Make an effort to gradually build your vocabulary through tasks that you enjoy. The world is filled with words—why limit your resources to just flashcards? Take what you hear, pay attention to how it’s being used, look up the literal meaning, use it on your own, and play around with it even. You’d be surprised as to how much you learn by just opening your eyes and ears a little more.