The reading comprehension section on the GRE contains four written passages (each between 200 - 500 words long) followed by a series of questions. Passages can be about any subject, but the most common themes are politics, history, science, business and the humanities. Most readers find the passages difficult because the subject matter is dry and obscure. Many are written in the passive voice and contain unpronouncable words. By design, no academic background offers an "edge" or greater likelihood of success in this section of the test. The material is purposely selected to test your reading comprehension, rather than your understanding of a specific subject area. This ensures:
a) the passages do not require the reader to have any specialized knowledge in the subject area
b) everything you need to answer the questions is presented in the passage
The passages always use a formal, compact style. They are excerpted from academic journal articles, but are not printed verbatim. The original article is heavily edited to just one-quarter to one-third of its original length, retaining the formal style of the piece, but removing the introductory material, fillers and transitional phrases. Worse, passages are untitled and often start in the middle of an explanation or discussion, so the reader must jump in with no clear point of reference.
The purpose of the section is to determine if you can quickly identify the structure, objective and logic of a long, difficult passage and apply the author's premise to new situations. To succeed in the rigid timeframe (35 minutes), students must read with a different mindset than they use in most traditional coursework.
Here are the exact directions used on the exam:
Directions: Each selection in this test is followed by several questions. After reading the selection, choose the best response to each question and mark it on your answer sheet. Your replies are to be based on what is stated or implied in the selection.
Reading styles are subjective, as what works for one person may not work for another. Success with these passages depends on your individual style. We can't recommend speed reading, which is designed for ordinary, non-technical material. Because passages are so dense, you can not skim over a single sentence without missing key information. You should read faster than normally, but not to the point that your comprehension suffers. Experiment to find your optimum pace. Some guides recommend that you read the questions first, then go back and read the passage. Sadly, few students will have enough time for that approach. In some cases, the questions and answer choices are longer than the actual passage!
We recommend that you take a few seconds at the beginning of the section and scope out the passages. Read the first line of each and determine which will be easiest for you and which will be hardest. Do the easiest one first. Don't waste precious time on a dense, difficult passage. Rack up as many "easy" points as possible first, then return to the hardest questions.