What is Reading Comprehension Really About?
When it comes to cracking the verbal
section, the only skill that really matters is critical reading. This is just a
fancy way of saying: "Be alert when you read, and understand what the
writer is trying to say." You might think this is self-evident - Isn't
that what reading is about, you might ask yourself. But when you're reading
under pressure, it's not always easy to act on this advice. Especially when you
have to read continuously for six to eight minutes for RC.
Reading Comprehension is really two things.
The first is the actual reading part - this is what requires comprehension or
understanding (and is actually the more significant part of RC). The second
part is answering questions, which is more reflection than comprehension - this
is where you relate back to the ideas that the passage has talked about and
think about what impact those ideas have on the question posed. Understanding
what RC is, is the first step to forming an effective strategy for it.
Unfortunately, so many students have such a warped idea of what RC is from all
the bad mocks they've taken, they come to view RC with extreme distaste, which
is entirely unjustified. Deliberately choosing an absurdly worded passage is a
cheap way of increasing difficulty - only mock providers do this, the CAT never
does. Reading Comprehension is not an efficient tool of torture that the IIMs
have come up with to see you squirm in pain or frustration (even if it appears
that way to you right now).
Reading Comprehension is the examiner's way
of testing alertness, patience, and your capacity to receive new ideas. The
pattern is designed to test how well you can relate to the ideas in a passage,
and not to see if you are a literature major who can dissect somebody's PhD
thesis. For this reason, the CAT chooses passages that are very easy to read. I
would go one step further - I would say the CAT chooses passages that are quite
interesting and engaging to read, if not actually entertaining. The examiners
don't want to throw off a candidate with writing that has been artificially
inflated in difficulty. The passage won't be on some obscure form of philosophy
that no one cares about. It won't use words that have died out and should have
been put to rest a few centuries back. As I've grown fond of saying, if you're
looking for something to occupy your mind while you're having a cup of coffee,
you could do worse than pick up an RC passage from the CAT.
No, I'm not peddling some New Age reverse
psychology trick designed to help you fool yourself into liking RC. This is not
a scheme where you convince yourself that the cabbage that you're eating for
breakfast, lunch and dinner in a bid to lose weight is actually Margherita
pizza. Anyone who's had a serious attempt at the CAT will readily tell you more
or less the same thing - they might have been under pressure when they were
reading the passages, but there won't be very many who'll tell you the passages
were boring or even difficult to read. Because they're neither of those things.
Once you understand why the examiners
insist on keeping this wonderfully useful pattern in the exam, your attitude
towards it will change. Just remember, RC is designed to test two skills -
whether you can receive new ideas through reading, and whether you can relate
to them in answering the questions. The examiners are not interested in making
the first part hard - that'll be like asking someone to run after beating them
very hard on their knees. They won't make it difficult for you to understand
the ideas in a passage by choosing a passage that is neigh incomprehensible
(don't you hate it when a writer makes it harder to understand what he's saying
just for the heck of it?).
No, the difficulty from this pattern always
comes in making you relate to the ideas in the passage. No, not the questions.
The answer options. Making the question hard to understand is another cheap
trick that the CAT does not resort to. The difficulty (in all verbal ability
questions, not just RC) will be in the way the answer options are framed.
Usually, you will come down to two similar, but distinguishable answer options
that differ from each other for a very specific reason. If you understood what
the writer was really trying to say, then you'll be able to figure out what the
difference between the two options is, and you'll be able to mark the better
Let's look at an example of what I'm
talking about. The paragraph below presents an interesting take on corruption.
It's not difficult to read (it doesn't use extinct language) and its main idea
is actually quite entertaining:
"Paradoxically, a little bit of
corruption can actually end up helping the government. A company that wants to
build a new automobile factory knows that corruption is inevitable. But it also
knows that by lining a local bureaucrat's pocket, say an official who has to
issue a clearance for the factory to be built, with a hefty bribe it can expect
that its factory will be cleared and it can commence operations within a
reasonable timeframe. A tolerable amount of corruption can be written off as a
business cost no different from paying taxes, so long as the company can expect
results from the machinery. Corruption can help cut the red tape and make it
easier for a company to set up shop in a country and therefore act for the
benefit of the country's economy."
Now, a question from this paragraph could
be along these lines:
"What is the main point of this
paragraph?” and the answer choices could be:
A. A country shouldn't be too harsh on
corruption, because it can actually help economic growth by attracting
B. Corruption increases predictability in
business operations and helps companies grease the government machinery.
C. Corruption is a necessary evil if a
company is to do business in the world today.
D. Ironically, corruption might have
positive side-effects for a country's economy by helping businesses overcome
its cumbersome red-tape.
If you really understood the paragraph, you
should be able to eliminate choices A and C. The paragraph has nothing to say
about a country cracking down on corruption, so the writer doesn't appear to be
defending corruption from attack. C puts a negative spin on corruption, saying
something along the lines of "we've got to live with it." The writer
observes a positive consequence of corruption for a country's economy; he
doesn't say it's evil, or even that it is necessary.
Now, between B and D, which would you think
is the main idea of the paragraph? What is the writer really trying to say? If
you pause to ask yourself this, you will recognise the difference between B and
The writer isn't interested in only saying
that corruption helps a business, which is what option B does. He goes further
than that - he argues that because corruption helps a business, it can help the
government too. Once you understand the difference between the two options, it
becomes obvious that D is the answer.
What shortcut did you need to solve this
question? What mystical knowledge helps the expert solve this question? Nothing
more than simply realising that RC is not designed to torture you. It’s
designed to test whether you can understand ideas and reflect on them. Reflect
on them to use them to relate to the answer options. That’s all.
Now I say that’s what the examiners want to
test, but what they’re also testing is to see if you have a reading habit.
That’s because this is a pressure exam, and the two things that we’ve seen:
Comprehension and Reflection, they’re skills that you pick up if you have a
reading habit. Specifically, they’re skills that you can call to action in an
exam setting, where the clock is ticking, if you practice them by reading every
day. But more on that in another article on how to prepare for RC.