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GRE Verbal Exam Prep

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Steven W. Dulan of Advantage Education provides you with useful strategies and techniques, an overview of the question types, and a breakdown of the critical reading skills that will be tested in the GRE Verbal Section.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

The GRE Verbal Section is designed to measure the skills required to carefully read and understand sentences and passages written in standard written English. A GRE Verbal Section includes 30 questions of the following four question types: Reading Comprehension, Antonym, Analogy, and Sentence Completion. The questions appear in random order, which means that you might first be given a Sentence Completion question, followed by two Analogy questions, followed by a passage and several Reading Comprehension questions, followed by three Antonym questions, and so on.

This chapter provides you with useful strategies and techniques, an overview of the question types, and a breakdown of the critical reading skills that will be tested. This chapter also includes some sample practice questions with explanations.

Reading Comprehension

The GRE Reading Comprehension questions are designed to measure your ability to read, understand, and analyze a written passage. Correctly answering a question requires you to recognize both what is stated and what is implied within the passage, and to establish the relationships and ideas expressed in the passage.

The computer adaptive GRE includes a balance of reading passages across different subject matter areas, such as humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Each passage ranges from approximately 150 to 500 words in length, and will be followed by two to five questions, each with five answer choices. You should select the best possible answer for each question.

Anatomy of a GRE Reading Comprehension Question

General Strategies for Reading Comprehension Questions

Probably the biggest mistake that you could make is to read these passages as though you are studying for a college exam. The "open-book" aspect of the passage-based Reading Comprehension sections means that you should read in a way that helps your brain to work through the information efficiently. You should not read slowly and carefully as though you will have to remember the information for a long period of time. You should read loosely and only dwell on information that you are sure is important because you need it to answer a question. This type of reading should be very goal-oriented; if the information you are looking at does not help to answer a question that the test writers find important, you should not linger over it.

Each of the passages has numbered lines. Some of the questions will refer to a particular line or lines. When you read a question that contains a line reference, locate those lines in the passage and make a note in the margin so that you know where to begin to find the answer to the question.

The best scores on this section are usually earned by students who possess two key skills: paraphrasing and skimming. These skills, along with techniques on how to determine the main idea, read and answer the questions, and use the process of elimination, are discussed in more detail in the following sections.

Determine the Main Idea

As you begin to read a passage, your first step should be determining the main idea. This technique will help you to answer the "big picture" questions, and assist you in locating information necessary to answer other question types. The main idea has three components:

  • Topic ("What is the passage about?")
  • Scope ("What aspect of the topic does the passage focus on?")
  • Purpose ("Why did the author write the passage?")

If you can answer these three questions, you understand the main idea. Consider the following scenarios:

  1. The world's tropical rain forests are being decimated at an alarming rate. Each day, thousands of acres of trees are destroyed in both developing and industrial countries. Nearly half of the world's species of plants and animals will be eliminated or severely threatened over the next 25 years due to this rapid deforestation. Clearly, it is imperative that something be done to curtail this rampant destruction of the rain forests.
  2. Tropical rain forests are crucial to the health and welfare of the planet. Experts indicate that over 20% of the world's oxygen is produced by the Amazon rain forest alone. In addition, more than half of the world's estimated 10 million species of plants, animals, and insects live in the tropical rain forests. These plants and animals of the rain forest provide us with food, fuel wood, shelter, jobs, and medicines. Indigenous humans also inhabit the tropical rain forests.

The topic of both passages is tropical rain forests. However, the scope of each passage is very different. The first passage discusses destruction of the tropical rain forests, whereas the second passage introduces the diversity of the rain forests and indicates why the rain forests are important. The purpose of the first passage is a call to action, while the second passage is primarily informative.

The introductory paragraph often indicates the topic or topics being discussed, the author's point of view, and exactly what the author is trying to prove. So, read a little more slowly at the beginning until you get a grip on the three components of the main idea and then you can shift to a higher gear and skim the rest of the passage.

As you read the passage for the main idea, and particularly the author's purpose, avoid arguing with the author. If you disagree with any viewpoints expressed in a passage, do not let your personal opinions interfere with your selection of answer choices. In addition, you should not rely on any prior knowledge you might have about a particular topic. The questions will ask about information that is stated or implied in the passage, not information that you might recall about the topic being discussed.

The Reading Comprehension questions are not meant to test your knowledge about a particular subject. You should answer questions based only on the information presented in the passage, and not on any prior knowledge that you might have of the subject. You might be asked to draw a conclusion or make an inference, but you should do so based only on what the writer's words actually state or imply.

Skim the Passage

Don't use context clues to help you determine the meaning of any unfamiliar terms the first time that you skim through a passage. When you come to a word or phrase that is unfamiliar, just read past it. There is a strong chance that you won't need to determine exactly what that one word or phrase means to answer the bulk of the questions that accompany the passage. If you waste some of your precious time, you'll never get it back. With perseverance and practice, you will start to get comfortable with a less-than-perfect understanding of the passage.

While reading through paragraphs, follow these tips to help you gather information more effectively:

  • Try to determine the subtopic for each paragraph quickly.
  • Focus on the general content of each paragraph.
  • Determine the purpose of each paragraph.

Be sure to read actively. That is, think about things such as the tone and the purpose of the passage. This technique will help you to stay focused on the material, and, ultimately, will allow you to select the best answer to the questions.

The goal at this stage is to get a general understanding of the structure of the passage so that you can find what you are looking for when you refer back to the passage. Keep moving through the material.

Read and Answer the Questions

Follow these tips as you read and answer the questions in the Reading Comprehension section:

  • Read the question and make sure that you understand it, paraphrasing if you need to. Use the structure of the passage to lead you to the correct answer. Go back to the part of the passage that relates to the question, and that part will probably contain the answer to your question.
  • After you read the questions, take a moment to mentally summarize the main idea and the structure of the passage.
  • Some of the questions on the GRE ask you to draw conclusions based on the information that you read. However, even these questions should be answered based on the information in the passage. There are always some strong hints, or evidence, that will lead you to an answer.
  • Some of the questions contain references to specific lines of the passage. The trick for these question types is to read a little before and a little after the specific line that is mentioned. Remember that you must answer the questions based on the context of the passage, so be sure that you fully understand what that context is. At a minimum, read the entire sentence that contains the line that is referenced.
  • Some of the questions might not tell you where to look for the answer, or they might question the passage as a whole. In situations like this, think about what you learned about the passage overall while you were skimming it. Note the subtopics for the paragraphs and let them guide you to the part of the passage that contains the information that you are looking for.

One of the important skills rewarded by the GRE is the ability to sift through text and find the word or concept that you are looking for. This skill improves with practice.

Apply Logic

It is important that you know the difference between information that is stated directly in the passage, and inferences and assumptions. You might be asked questions based on factual information found in the reading passages. The reading passages might also include information about which you will be asked to make an inference.

  • Inferences—An inference is a conclusion based on what is stated in the passage. You can infer something about a person, place, or thing by reasoning through the descriptive language contained in the reading passage. In other words, the author's language implies that something is probably true.
  • Assumptions—An assumption, on the other hand, is unstated evidence. It is the missing links in an author's argument. Refer to Chapter 5, "Introduction to GRE Logic," for an overview of inferences and assumptions.

Paraphrase the Questions and Predict an Answer

After you have found the information in the passage that will provide the answer that you are looking for, try to answer the question in your mind. Put the question in your own words so that it makes more sense to you. Try to predict an answer for the question, and then skim the choices presented and look for your answer. You might have to be a little flexible to recognize it. Your answer might be there dressed up in different words. If you can recognize a paraphrase of your predicted answer, select it. Developing this skill will help you to become more time-efficient and will lead you to the correct answer more often than not.

Use the Process of Elimination

Elimination is the process most test-takers use when answering exam questions. It is reliable, but slow. However, it is still useful as a backup strategy for questions where you cannot predict an answer or when you find that your prediction is not a choice.

The process of elimination is a good tool. It just shouldn't be the only tool in your box. It can be hard to break the habit of always applying the process of elimination. You have likely developed this habit because on past exams you have been given too much time to answer questions. On the GRE, you will need to be more time-efficient, which is why you should use the process of elimination only when other strategies fail to yield an answer.

Eliminate any answer choices that are clearly incorrect, including answer choices that are outside the scope of the passage. Answer choices that fall outside the scope of the passage are very common in this section. For example, an answer choice might be too specific, too general, or have no relation to the content of the passage itself or for the question being asked.

Finally, always consider all of the choices before you confirm your answer, even if your predicted answer is among the choices. The difference between the best answer and the second best answer is sometimes very subtle.

Reading Comprehension Question Types

The following subsections discuss the types of questions you are likely to encounter on the GRE. Specific approaches to each question type are also included. You will begin to recognize the different question types as you work through the sample questions and practice exams. The most common question types include the following:

  • Main idea/primary purpose
  • Specific detail
  • Purpose of detail
  • Conclusion/inference
  • Extrapolation
  • Structure
  • Weakening

Main Idea/Primary Purpose

These questions can ask about the main idea of the whole passage or of a specific paragraph. They also often ask about the author's point of view or perspective and the intended audience. These questions might also ask you to determine the best title for the passage.

Strategy: Answer these questions according to your understanding of the three components of the main idea, which were mentioned previously (topic, scope, and purpose). It is also worth noting that the incorrect choices are usually either too broad or too narrow. You should eliminate the answer choices that focus on a specific part of the passage and also eliminate the answer choices that are too general and could describe other passages besides the one on which you are working.

Specific Detail

These questions can be as basic as asking you about some fact that is easily found in the passage. Some questions even provide specific line references or text from the passage.

Questions that begin "According to the author" or "According to the passage" might be specific detail questions.

Strategy: When you skim the passage, make sure that you establish the structure of the passage and the purpose of each paragraph. If you have a clear idea of how the passage is organized, you should be able to refer quickly to the portion of the passage that contains the answer. Otherwise, use the line or paragraph references in the questions, if they are given. Sometimes the answer choices are paraphrased, so don't just select the answers that contain words that appear in the passage. Make sure that the choice you select is responsive to the question being asked.

Purpose of Detail

These questions ask you to determine the author's purpose in mentioning certain details, as well as how details contained within the passage might support the main idea.

Questions that begin "The author mentions __ probably in order to" are most likely purpose of detail questions.

Strategy: Making a connection between the supporting details and the main idea of the passage helps you to answer these questions correctly. Think of the details as the building blocks of the author's thesis. This should provide you with some insight into why the author included these details in the passage. Refer specifically to any line references given in the questions.


These questions require you to put together information in the passage and use it as evidence for a conclusion. You have to find language in the passage that leads you to the inference that the question demands.

Questions that begin "According to the author" or "It can be inferred from the passage" might require you to locate clues or evidence that lead you to the answer.

Strategy: Understanding the main idea of the passage or paragraph, and particularly the author's tone, is key for these types of questions. Although you have to do a bit of thinking for these questions, you should be able to find very strong evidence for your answers. If you find yourself creating a long chain of reasoning and including information from outside the passage, stop and reconsider your selection.


These questions ask you to go beyond the passage itself and find answers that are probably true based on what you know from the passage. They can be based on the author's tone or on detailed information in the passage. You are often required to reason by analogy or to discern relationships between a situation presented in the passage and other situations that might parallel those in the passage.

These questions might begin with "The author anticipates" or "Which of the following best exemplifies ___ as it is presented in the passage."

Strategy: You need to be sensitive to any clues about the author's tone or attitude and any clues about how the characters in the passage feel. Eliminate any choices that are outside the scope of the passage. As with the inference questions, the GRE rewards short, strong connections between the passage and the correct answers.


These questions might ask you to describe the structure of the passage or how a particular detail or paragraph functions within the passage as a whole.

Questions that begin "The last paragraph performs which function" or "Which of the following describes the organization of the passage" are structure questions.

Strategy: You need to recognize the author's purpose in writing the passage and determine how the author develops the main thesis or argument. If the passage is purely informational, for example, the author might simply make a statement followed by some supporting details. On the other hand, the author might offer comparisons between two different theories in order to persuade the reader that one theory is better. Pay attention to both the language and the connotation.


These questions require you to select the answer choice that weakens the author's argument. Weakening does not necessarily mean to disprove completely; it merely means to make the conclusion of the argument somewhat less likely.

These questions take the form of "Which of the following, if true, would most weaken the author's argument in lines..."

Strategy: The best approach to answering these questions correctly is to first make sure that you understand the author's argument or main point. To weaken the author's argument, you should usually attack the author's assumptions (unstated evidence). In some cases, the correct answer actually contradicts a statement made in the passage.


These question are often phrased as follows: "The author probably believes all of the following "EXCEPT," or "All of the following are listed in the passage as examples of biodiversity EXCEPT."

Strategy: The best answer in these instances includes information that is not directly stated in the passage or cannot be inferred from information stated in the passage. In addition, in the first sample question—"The author probably believes all of the following EXCEPT,"—the incorrect answer choices would all be something that the passage would suggest that the author does believe. Likewise, in the second sample question—"All of the following are listed in the passage as examples of biodiversity EXCEPT"—the incorrect answer choices would likely be stated explicitly in the passage as examples of biodiversity.

Practice Reading Comprehension Questions

Directions: The passage below is followed by several questions. The questions correspond to information that is stated or implied in the passage. Read the passage and choose the best answer for each question.

Line       According to many scholars, Johan Gutenberg's mid-15th century invention of the
      movable-type printing press fueled the scientific and cultural revolution today known as
      the European Renaissance. With their unique combination of easy and accurate repro-
      duction, printed books quickly became the repository of Western knowledge, replacing
(5)   laboriously produced, handwritten manuscripts. Early works, known as incunabula, often
      married the two traditions. Texts could be printed with spaces left for scribes and illustrators
      to add the illuminated capitals and intricate artwork expected by wealthy patrons.
      Often religious texts, these volumes were designed to move believers with rich colors,
      florid imagery, and precious materials. Indeed, the resultant product was very much like
(10)  its predecessor, the illuminated manuscript, a book whose text was adorned with painted
      initials, borders, and illustrations. Today, a few treasured 15th century incunabula survive
      in libraries and museums, a testament to their robust construction and the care of their
      Despite the luxury exhibited in some incunabula texts, movable-type print can be
(15)  argued to have been a powerful democratizing force. While running the press was not
      without its own expense and toil, a work printed on paper could be made available for
      one fifth that of a scribal text on vellum or parchment. The availability of scientific,
      political, and religious texts simply exploded. Nevertheless, many historians would
      quickly point out that Renaissance Europe was not the resplendent cultural and scien
(20)  tific center of the world envisioned in modern populist media. While exact rates of
      literacy are extremely controversial, it is generally agreed that the vast majority of
      Europeans in the 15th century were uneducated and wholly disenfranchised. The lofty
      realms of philosophy, science, and the arts were the preoccupation of society's elite.
      Hence, the printed word frequently reflected the aspirations of the aristocracy or the
(25)  interests of affluent landowners and merchants, all of whom were still the primary
      market for books. In this way, the perspective of the common citizen, what we may term
      the "working class," is all but absent in the profusion of communication that is the
      Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, to whom the term "Renaissance" is attributed,
(30)  makes no claim for increased equity in the authorship, publication, or ownership of 
      printed manuscripts in 15th-century Europe. He asserts, however, that the Italian
      Renaissance—an intellectual movement begun a full century before the invention of the
      printing press—was the fall of the notion of birthright: "And as time went on, the
      greater the influence of humanism on the Italian mind, the firmer and more widespread
(35)  became the conviction that birth decides nothing as to the goodness or badness of a
      man." While the idea of social fairness may have taken hold in the Renaissance, spread
      by the proliferation of ideas and texts, real economic justice was slower to develop. Just
      as incunabula bridged the transition from hand-written manuscript to fully-printed text,
      the Renaissance revolution held a middle ground between Medieval feudalism and
(40)  Enlightenment democracy.
  1. The author is primarily concerned with
    1. describing how movable-print type revolutionized production of the written word
    2. explaining how Johan Gutenberg's invention of the printing press revolutionized the production of written texts, laying the groundwork for social democracy
    3. arguing that printed books were shoddy replacements for resplendent illuminated manuscripts
    4. examining how the European Renaissance resulted in significantly increased social equity due to the invention of the printing press
    5. denying that social justice always precedes economic justice in the evolution of human civilizations

The best answer is B. Only answer choice B covers the full scope of the passage. Although answer choice A states a point clearly made in the passage, it does not include the social and political concerns of the author. The other choices are either too broad or are inaccurate.

  1. Which one of the following most accurately describes the author's attitude toward "social fairness" (line 36)?
    1. "Social fairness" is a false academic construction and is impossible to achieve in "real world" conditions.
    2. "Social fairness" is a by-product of the Medieval period carried over to the Enlightenment.
    3. "Social fairness" is a modern term and, therefore, irrelevant to any discussion of the Renaissance.
    4. "Social fairness" is the ultimate goal of the human condition and is a necessary component of modern civilization.
    5. "Social fairness" is a desirable human condition that began to be realized in 15th century Europe as a product of the Renaissance.

The best answer is E. Although academic, the author's tone in the passage is mildly argumentative and favorable toward social reform, as indicated in answer choice E. Although the author promotes the idea of "social fairness," the tone in answer choice D is too strong and the language too absolute. Likewise, the other answer choices are not supported by the passage.

  1. According to the author, which of the following would be the most accurate description of the incunabula?
    1. The intricate artwork added to printed books in order to make them more appealing to the masses
    2. Public funds dedicated to publishing scientific books
    3. Imaginary demons supposed to descend upon sleeping persons
    4. Cheap Renaissance paperbacks
    5. Early printed works that often combined printing with elements of illuminated manuscripts

The best answer is E. As defined in the first paragraph, incunabula are early printed works that often combined printing with elements of illuminated manuscripts. They are not the artwork added to the texts, so answer choice A is incorrect. Answer choice C is incorrect because it defines an incubus.

  1. According to the passage, the statement made in line 22 ("uneducated and wholly disenfranchised") regarding most 15th century Europeans serves to
    1. preview the rise of Rousseauean pedagogic techniques in the Enlightenment
    2. reveal the prejudices of late 15th century book dealers
    3. reinforce the idea that the Renaissance was primarily an intellectual movement of and for the upper classes
    4. counter the descriptions usually given by academics
    5. explain why incunabula were frequently less expensive than handwritten manuscripts

The best answer is C. Despite the introduction of mass-produced books, the book market was still primarily comprised of the upper classes. The lower classes are implied to lack the academic and political education to take advantage of the newly available books. Answer choice D is incorrect because the statement counters the descriptions ascribed to "populist media," not to academics.

  1. Which of the following, if true, would most weaken the argument that the printing press enabled a Renaissance strictly for the upper classes?
    1. Most printed bibles (the most commonly printed book) were purchased by working class people.
    2. Johan Gutenberg frequently refused to print cookbooks or herbals.
    3. The advent of paper books led to a serious reduction in the price of vellum.
    4. The cheapest printed books often cost as much as a year's salary for a day laborer.
    5. William Caxton, a prolific English printer, often printed historical texts.

The best answer is A. If working class people were discovered to have owned large numbers of printed books, it would suggest that book ownership was more equitable than the author believes, and that Renaissance ideals were, in fact, reaching the masses. The other choices either strengthen the argument or are irrelevant.

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