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How To Approach the Reading Comprehension Section

Every student thinks and learns differently, and one of my main focuses is tailoring the study approach to the student. Nevertheless, when it comes to the reading comprehension section, there is a process that seems optimal for almost everyone. Let's go through it and see how it works.

The approach:

  1. Read the questions through completely.

  2. After each question, write the gist of it down in 3 to 4 words.

  3. Highlight significant parts of what you wrote.

  4. Read the text. Whenever you come across a passage on which a question is based, stop reading and answer it.

Now that you have a gist of the strategy let's look a little more closely at each step of this process.

1. Read the questions before you start the text

There is one thing that many students don't realize: the vast majority of the text is, for our purposes, useless detail. Our ONLY goal is to answer as many questions correctly as possible, as quickly as possible. If no question references a particular part of the text, we don't care. Full stop.

Reading the questions before has two main benefits:

  • It tells you which parts of the text you should focus on and which to ignore.

  • It allows you to answer questions as you go through – instead of reading the entire text and only then starting to address the questions themselves.

Students often tell me that they “cannot afford” to spend minutes running through the questions. If that is your assumption, you may be approaching this in the wrong way. Spending just 5 minutes on the questions will save you 20 minutes on the text; it's an investment, not a cost.

Frankly, if you struggle with time management on the reading comprehension section – which most of us do - you can't afford NOT to read the questions

2. Write the gist of each question


Question: ‘As used in line 12, "perceptive" most nearly means:’ You summarize as: “l 12, perceptive”

Question:The passage suggests that the relationship between Mr. Richards and Professor Wright is best characterized as which of the following?’ You write: “relationship Richards, Professor Wright”

These few words are not intended to be a replacement for the question. Questions on the reading comprehension section are designed with a certain amount of nuance, and they should be read carefully. These synopses are only to indicate what parts of the text you should focus on and where you should stop.

Note: in the interest of doing this part of the process as quickly as possible, use shorthand. Replace the common words “line” with “l” and “paragraph” with “p.” Use common shorthand, like using “w” instead of “with.”

3. Highlight significant parts of the abridgment

It is easiest to divide up different parts of the text with additional color highlights to keep yourself organized. Highlight all references to locations in the text in one color. References to names, places, etc., should be highlighted in another color.

Examples of references to locations in text: l 24 p 3 24-28

Examples of references to names: “Dr. Brown” “Mayo Clinic” “London”

Highlighting things of significant importance will cause them to leap to the eye and make it easier for you to pause at significant places in the text.

4. Read the text. When you come across a passage on which a question is based, stop reading and answer the question

This method is a considerably faster process than reading the text and then answering the questions afterward. I say this from extensive personal and anecdotal experience.

  1. When reading the questions, there are two main things to keep in mind:

  • Always go back and read the original question – don't base your answer on the abridgment you wrote yourself.

  • You should almost always answer the question yourself before looking at the options they offer you. We'll discuss this more at length in an upcoming post.

2. After answering each question:

  • Cross it out on your paper so that it doesn't distract you in the future.

  • Take a glance at the other questions to remind yourself of what you should look out for.

Specifically, if there are text locations near your current text location, stay mindful of them. For example, you're in line 24, and there's a question about line 30. That is the question that should be at the forefront of your mind.


That's the whole process. Feel free to make as many tweaks as you think best for you. As I said previously, every student learns a little differently, and learning is not a “one size fits all” process.

But I would definitely recommend starting with this process as your baseline. It's considerably improved the results of almost every student I've ever worked with, and I'd be happy to think it was doing the same for you.

Happy learning!