When we’re helping students prepare for the GMAT, we tend to find that the most stressed out students are those that are really struggling with the quant section. But paradoxically, those that are truly lacking math skills can be the easiest students to help. Why?
It’s because the quantitative portion of the GMAT is much easier to teach. You can document what concepts must be understood, facts and formulas to know, question types that are used, techniques to use to speed up calculations, etc., and methodically teach what needs to be taught. Progress can actually be made quite quickly, as long as the student lets go of any “I’m just not a math person” misconceptions that might be causing a mental block. If this seems like you, check out our article on adopting a growth mindset.
However, reading comprehension is a different animal. Being good at reading comprehension requires a strong command of the English language and how to reason with it. Skills or scenarios that help a person do well on GMAT reading comprehension questions include: being a native English speaker, having a reasonably large vocabulary, strong logical reasoning skills, flexible, critical thinking capabilities, creativity, sense for the “tone” of the author, intuition for what parts of a passage are irrelevant vs. what is going to be used to support an argument or make a point, and more generally, a passion and interest in reading. Tutors often describe the futility of trying to help someone build these types of skills in short amounts of time. Reading comprehension and verbal reasoning skills are built slowly over time. They depend, in large part, on the amount, complexity, and nature of the reading and writing you’ve done since middle school.
As Senior MyGuru tutor and founder of Jedi Prep John Easter, whose thinking significantly informed this blog article, writes –
“Reading and comprehending are as fundamental as it gets. Math is a skill you acquired through education. Someone taught you how to count, add, subtract, multiply, divide…verbal skills on the other hand just appeared out of thin air between 12 and 18 months after you were born. Or course, you had to learn to read, but this can and does happen incredible fast. Soon after you learn basic phonics you can “sound out” new words and build your vocabulary without any assistance…in all probability, you were reading books with extended, complex plots and multiple characters at about the same time you were struggling to learn a 12x12 multiplication table…
…we can teach you any math you once learned and have not forgotten. We can even teach you a lot of math that you never learned in the first place. Unfortunately, we cannot re-teach you how to read and comprehend.”
John Easter, 770 GMAT scorer, senior MyGuru GMAT tutor, and founder of Jedi Prep
However, this doesn’t mean you can’t build your reading comprehension skills to improve your performance on the GMAT reading comprehension section. It just means that, unlike other portions of the GMAT, it may be very difficult for a class or tutor to “teach” you these skills. You are best positioned to build your reading comprehension ability through self-study and practice.
So, how do you go about doing this? You engage in what we call focused GMAT reading comprehension practice.
Our reading comprehension improvement receipt calls for a healthy dose of focused practice, which includes the following steps, applied to reading comprehension practice problems in the official guide to the GMAT.
1. Don’t worry about the time, and don’t underline. Read at a normal pace.
Underlining has, perhaps surprisingly, been shown to offer little to no benefit in helping students comprehend and remember information. Plus, on the GMAT CAT, you can’t underline the computer screen
2. Read one paragraph at a time, and then pause and write a 1 sentence summary.
In time, as your skills build, you can stop writing the summary, and do it in your head
Make the summary as short as you possible can. Get to the essence of the paragraph.
3. Repeat this process with each paragraph, and then attempt to summarize the summaries, and summarize the entire passage in one sentence. This is hard to do.
Some passage have just one paragraph, and then you’re lucky; steps 2-3 collapse into one step
4. Read the question, pre-phrase an answer, and then use process of elimination
Read and decide if the question is general or specific
Then, based on your summaries, try to answer the question without focusing on the actual answers – this is called pre-phrasing an answer
Finally, use process of elimination on the actual answer choices, eliminating clearly incorrect answers, to hone in on the correct answer
Keep practicing, documenting missed questions, until it becomes automatic. Review what you’ve missed, identify patterns, and invest more time working on types of questions (i.e., questions that ask about general themes vs. specific facts, etc.) you miss more often.
About the Authors
Mark Skoskiewicz is MyGuru’s founder. He holds an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and earned his B.S. in Finance from Indiana University in Bloomington, where he was an economics tutor. He’s been studying effective test prep and, more generally, learning strategies for the past several years, and has completed “growth mindset” training as well as the course Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects, a Coursera course offered by the University of California – San Diego.
John Easter is a senior MyGuru GMAT tutor in Chicago. He holds a B.A. in English and a B.A. in Math from Indiana University, and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT, SAT, GRE, and GMAT. He’s worked for many test prep companies, was a high school math teacher, and earned a M.A. in Mathematics from UIC while enrolled in the PhD program in Mathematics for several years. He founded Jedi Prep, which is developing online programming for building math skills specifically for the ACT, SAT, GRE, and GMAT.