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GMAT RC Tip: Simplify for Better Comprehension

GMAT Reading ComprehensionUnderstanding GMAT reading comprehension passages can be difficult because the subject matter is often dense and uninteresting while the writing style and sentence structure the authors use is often complex and difficult to wade through. So, what to do about this? You can’t make excuses. Complaining about the passage topics doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day, it’s your job on the GMAT to understand what you’re reading and answer questions accordingly.

So how can you better understand what you’re reading? How can you break through some of the opaque language and get at the heart of what the author is trying to express?

Consider using The Bracketing Technique.

The Bracketing Technique is a strategy we teach on GMAT Sentence Corrections to help you isolate the points of English grammar being tested in a particular sentence. It is particularly effective at helping to reveal subject-verb agreement and idiom errors, but it has other applications as well. The idea is simple: If you mentally “bracket out” the superfluous information in a sentence to break it down into its most basic elements, it’s easier to see what’s truly going on in the sentence and see any grammatical errors that may exist. Some of the things it makes sense to “bracket out” are parenthetical thoughts and modifying phrases that add color to the sentence but aren’t particularly helpful in terms of understanding its core message.

For more on the Bracketing Technique, watch the video at the bottom of this article.

So, what does this have to do with GMAT reading comprehension? How might the Bracketing Technique help you to perform better on the GMAT verbal section?

Consider this intro sentence from the sample GMAT reading comprehension passage on p.380 of the GMAT Review Official Guide, 13th ed.:

“Current feminist theory, in validating women’s own stories of their experience, has encouraged scholars of women’s history to view the use of women’s oral narratives as the methodology, next to the use of women’s written autobiography, that brings historians closest to the “reality” of women’s lives.”

It’s no wonder that so many students struggle with reading comp! What in the heck does that mean? It’s a crucial sentence for understanding the overall passage and being able to answer “main idea” types of questions, but it’s incredibly dense and difficult to make heads or tails of.

Let’s take a quick step back and talk more generally about GMAT reading comprehension. Remember that the best way to read the passages is to read for what we call “Big Picture” understanding. A majority of questions that the GMAT test makers will ask about a particular passage will address big-picture concepts; for those few questions that ask about specific details, you can always go back to the text to find the answers. It’s an open book test, after all.

What does this mean for you? It means that when you see a dense sentence like the one above, there’s a lot of stuff in that sentence that is irrelevant to you understanding what the author is trying to say. If you’re going to have to answer a question like “The passage is primarily conderned with….,” for example, you need to wade through all the superfluous gibberish in the sentence and get to the core of what the author is trying to say.

In short, you can apply The Bracketing Technique to reading comprehension passages the same way you can apply it to sentence correction sentences. Let’s take a look at how we might do that.

When you look at the sample sentence above, what information is extraneous? What parenthetical thoughts does the author use? What words are simply garnishment to make the author sound smart, and what words are central to the foundational meaning of the sentence?

Here’s the sentence again, with the “unnecessary” parts of the sentence in red:

“Current feminist theory, in validating women’s own stories of their experience, has encouraged scholars of women’s history to view the use of women’s oral narratives as the methodology, next to the use of women’s written autobiography, that brings historians closest to the “reality” of women’s lives.”

Let’s re-write the sentence getting rid of everything in red:

“Current feminist theory has encouraged scholars to view the use of women’s oral narratives as the methodology that brings historians closest to the “reality” of women’s lives.”

Now can you understand the meaning of the sentence? Is the Big Picture message of the sentence more obvious now? Absolutely! It makes perfect sense now. In fact, we can go a step further and put it into our own words to make it crystal clear that we understand what the author is trying to say:

“Current feminist theory says scholars should use women’s oral narratives to truly understand their lives.”

Or something like that.

Either way, the point is that reading comprehension becomes much easier if you train yourself to focus only on what’s truly important to figure out the big picture “point” of the passage, to recognize its logical structure, and to remember enough about what’s discussed in the passage to be able to go back and find specific details if necessary. Believe it or not, you don’t have to read every single word of a GMAT reading comprehension passage to get a whole lot of right answers. It takes practice to be sure, but once you master this approach — and the Bracketing Technique can help! — you’ll look forward to reading comprehension on the GMAT a whole lot more than you probably do now!

For more on the Bracketing Technique, check out this video: