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The following is an extract from “Reading Comprehension for the CAT” published by Pearson Education. Author, Sujit Kumar, is a faculty at CPLC, Mumbai.

The first thing to bear in mind while taking a Reading Comprehension test and while preparing for the test is that Reading Comprehension questions test your reading and comprehending skills. CAT especially, in these questions, tests your comprehension rigorously. Hence, whenever you are solving Reading Comprehension questions, make sure that you have:

  • adequate comprehension of the passage
  • adequate comprehension of the question
  • adequate comprehension of each option

The errors in Reading comprehension answers arise because we tend to compromise on the comprehension of one or the other factors mentioned above.

Comprehension of the Passage

The comprehension of the passage may be compromised because of vocabulary constraints, unfamiliar subject matter, the complexity of the sentences in the passage, or the complexity of the ideas.

When you solve RC passages in the CAT make sure that vocabulary constraints do not come in the way of the comprehension of the passage. Though it is likely that some of the words in the passage are unfamiliar to you, at least intelligently guess the meaning of those unfamiliar words by paying careful attention to the context in which they occur, and try to get a firm grip on the ideas presented in the passage. Through active reading, make an attempt to understand the structure of the passage and in what hierarchy the ideas are presented. An efficient reader would focus on the parts of the passage that are clearly understood, and then make educated guesses about the parts that are too complex to immediately understand. Make sure that the passage is thus adequately understood.

If the passage presents dense and complex sentence structure try to break those sentences into smaller idea units, and understand how those parts (idea units) are related to one another. This would help make even extremely complex structures easier to understand.

Unfamiliar ideas or subject matter would not pose a big problem if one has the reading habit. Hence, while you are preparing for an exam like the CAT, make sure that your efforts include regular reading. Also, try to read diverse subjects, although it is not necessary to master every subject under the sun. By reading widely and patiently on several subjects learn not to be intimidated by different subjects like philosophy, economics, politics, psychology, sociology, or science etc.

Unless the passage is sufficiently understood, attempts to answer questions can give negative results. This is of utmost importance during your practice.

Comprehension of the Question Asked

Sometimes, we go wrong in our answers because we do not pay sufficient attention to the exact nature of the question that is asked. For example, a question may ask: which of the following options makes the author’s thesis less supportable? Comprehension of this question would mean that you first define the author’s thesis in the passage. In this case, many of us tend to spend more time evaluating the options without clearly defining the thesis. As a result, we are confused by the options. Whenever you are confused by the options, you need to check whether it is your inadequate comprehension of either the passage or the question that is creating the confusion. Another question may ask you to identify ‘the real reason’ behind some aspect of the passage. We are baffled if all the options appear correct. But the question asks you to identify the real reason, which means you have to identify the motive rather than the reasons that may be stated in the passage and the options. In short, bear in mind that you have to take sufficient care to ensure that you have understood what exactly the question asks you to do. The close options then will not pose such a formidable challenge as some of us experience.

Comprehension of Each Option

Once the above stages of comprehension (of the passage and of the question) are adequately addressed, pay close attention to what each option means. More often than not, especially in the CAT, the incorrect options either subtly sidetrack the question, or generalise unnecessarily on the facts presented in the passage, or undervalue the facts presented in the passage, or intensify the facts in the passage, or make inferences that are not sustained by the passage. A few options may also be contrary to the passage.

Often, the options may also require you to reason with them. This makes the test a little more than a mere test of comprehension. The reasoning required is generally suggested by the question itself. For example: Which of the following is the prime purpose of the passage, and which of the following is the thematic highlight of the passage may appear similar but the former is asking you about why the passage is written and the latter merely asks you to identify the gist of what is written. In short, make sure that apart from trying to understand the option clearly, you also have to determine the line of reasoning to apply when you work with the options.

Questions First or Passage First?

Your task in the test is to score. For this purpose you may adopt one of the following techniques described below. If you are not sure which method you should use, experiment with the different methods and see which of the methods helps you score the maximum marks in the minimum time. You may want to experiment under test conditions (10 to 12 minutes per passage to answer 3 to 4 CAT level questions). Different people find different methods comfortable.

  • Read the entire passage and answer the questions referring back to the passage to ensure accuracy
  • Read part of the passage carefully (half the passage). Read all the questions and decide if a few can be answered. Answer those questions. Read the rest of the passage and answer the remaining questions
  • Skim through the entire passage. Skim through the questions and options. Read the entire passage. Answer the questions
  • Read all the questions. Identify what each question is asking. Read the entire passage, answering the questions as you go along

All the above are correct methods. Practice and decide on your method.

Use of a pacer and the habit of underlining

Some people trace their way through the passage using their finger or a pencil. Using a pacer helps avoid regression, enhances your focus on the text, and your concentration. It slows you down slightly, but it ensures that no word or idea is missed. To my mind, it is wise to use a pacer while doing Reading Comprehension. But, you be your own judge. Experiment and see if it is worth it. If you find it a waste of time, do without it.

Some people have the habit of underlining the key elements of the passage. Some students even make brief notes in the margin. I have also noticed that some students make underlining a substitute for comprehension – they are more interested in identifying and underlining the key elements than in learning those points. In such a case underlining is a waste of time.

Once the key elements are identified and assimilated, in order that recall of those key points becomes easier, they are highlighted by underlining. This is the true purpose of underlining. That the underlined key elements trigger back into your memory the important details surrounding that key element. Hence if properly done, underlining helps highlight the important points and enhance your comprehension and retention. Underlining is not a substitute for understanding.

Making notes, or summarising, in the margin goes a step beyond merely underlining, and can be very helpful in creating a mind map of the essay – the structure – as one reads along. Try it out and experience the benefits.

However, in a computer based tests, the use of a pacer is not possible. Get used to reading a lot on screen. You can switch to reading your daily newspaper on the computer (as a part of the practice for the CAT). Take several simulated tests on the screen.

How to Choose Passages to Attempt?

Your ability to choose the right passages to attempt can be the difference between success and failure in a competitive exam. If the paper allows you sufficient choice among passages, the passages to attempt should be chosen quite wisely. Skim through the entire passage as quickly as you can. Or read a couple of paragraphs somewhat carefully, but as fast as you can. Pay attention to the vocabulary used, the subject matter, the complexity of the argument, and the ideas presented. Judge whether you would like to continue studying this passage. If so, short list it as a likely passage to attempt. Do the same with the other passages. Remember to work fast in this process. At the end you may have short listed a couple of passages or more that you would be comfortable reading. After that apply the methodology most comfortable to you and work with those passages.

The selection of passages is completely based on the comfort that you experience with the passage. If you find a particular passage easy, you will be able to attempt the questions based on that passage comfortably. If you find a passage difficult, you are most likely to find even the questions difficult, though they are ‘easy’ questions. But if you find that a passage is easy to read and understand, you will be able to work with even the most difficult question set on it. Hence choose the passages that you are most comfortable reading.

If the paper, however, does not offer you the freedom to choose, you must try to do your best even in an uncomfortable passage without being intimidated by it.

Should I attempt all the questions in a passage or a limited number?

The immediate answer is: attempt a limited number of questions and ensure accuracy to them. However, if your overall attempts are far below the target you have set, it is necessary to attempt questions to meet that target. At all times, in a competitive exam with negative marking, your attempt should be to maximise your marks not merely by attempting the maximum number of questions possible, but also by minimising the negative.

Further, you will need to analyse your performance during practice to decide the number of attempts to maximize your score. Since different individuals have different accuracy percentages, the number of attempts and speed are specific to each individual in order to optimize the score.