GRE Test Prep: Reading Comprehension and Discrete Questions: Challenges & Tips

So, you are preparing for the GRE test. You know that the Verbal section is going to be demanding. What are the big challenges in the Verbal section of the Revised General GRE?

Challenge #1: Reading Comprehension Passages

Screenshot of a Reading Comprehension question in the Revised General GRE
Reading Comprehension Question

First, a bit of good bit of news: the Reading Comprehension passages on the Revised GRE test are short. A Verbal section generally contains 5 Reading Comprehension passages, most which are 20-25 lines long; and one of them may be as short as 3-5 lines. The longest passages are of about 40 lines or so. (See ETS’s introduction to reading comprehension, sample questions and tips)

But Reading Comprehension is never very easy. Firstly, the passages cover a wide variety of topics, most of which are very unfamiliar. Here are some topics that have appeared in the past:

  • wave motion
  • the magnetic compass sense of birds
  • the contribution of a musician to the development of a certain musical genre
  • volcanic hotspots in the earth’s crust
  • the divergent novelistic impulses in the works of a writer are some of the topics that have previously appeared.

In other words the chances are that you will get topics in the exam which you have never come across before. The unfamiliarity of the topics, the complexity of the sentence structure and the fact that the passages pack a lot of information into very little space make the passages a challenge to comprehend.

Challenge #2: Reading Comprehension Questions

Then, there are the questions – between one and three on every reading comprehension passage. Whether the questions require you to select one option out of five or, all the correct options out of three, they all require you to make out whether the statements in the options are equivalent to the statements in the relevant part of the passage. This is difficult since the phrasing in the options and also in the passage can be quite complicated. Further, choosing between close options requires the ability to spot subtle differences between the two.

Challenge 3#: Discrete (Sentence Completion-Type) Questions

Triple Blank Text Completion Question
Triple-Blank Text Completion Question

The Discrete questions are so-called since, unlike the Reading Comprehension questions, they do not come in sets on a passage. Discrete questions require the test–taker to complete one or more sentences with one or more blanks in them. One type, the Sentence Equivalence questions, requires you to complete the given sentence by selecting two synonyms out of the six options provided (see ETS’s sample sentence equivalence questions, introduction and tips). Others, called the Text Completion Questions can have up to 5 sentences and between 2-5 blanks (see ETS’s sample questions, introduction and tips)

Sentence Equivalence Question
Sentence Equivalence Question

The discrete questions require you to have a good understanding of sentence structure and of what words imply in a certain context. Since the words used in the options are often unfamiliar or are familiar words used in an unfamiliar way, discrete questions also demand that you have a good vocabulary.

Tips for Preparing for the Verbal Section

  • Learn the vocabulary – knowledge of high-level vocabulary is still essential for the Discrete and Sentence Equivalence questions. Don’t believe anyone who tells you it isn’t. It is also useful for Reading Comprehension passages. So:
    1. Find one of the standard GRE vocabulary lists available and start learning well in advance. The lists generally contain 4,000 words and will take around 3 months to learn.
    2. Explore various methods of learning, because there are many methods and it might take a combination of methods to help you remember the words – and the combination of methods that works for one person may not work for another
    3. Revising is of utmost importance. Remember, if you don’t keep revising, you are bound to forget the words.
  • Build up your exposure to areas outside the topics you normally read on – read articles from sources like the op-eds (editorials) of the New York Times (look for the ‘opinion’ heading in the top right corner). Such articles will be on a variety of topics and the kind of vocabulary and sentence structure is similar to what you have on the GRE. So, they provide excellent reading practice, especially if you keep referring to a dictionary.
  • Get used to reading passages on-screen – reading on paper and on a computer screen are two entirely different things. Even if you have had a lot of practice reading on paper, reading on the screen can be quite a difficult exercise; when you are answering questions on a tough reading comprehension exercise, all the scrolling up and scrolling down can be pretty confusing. The remedy? Lot’s of practice.

Related Links

ETS’s sample questions of all three types

GRE Overview:

GRE Practical Details:

GRE Maths Tips
GRE Tips From Top-Scoring Students

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