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 one.
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 investment.
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 D.
Ready for the answer?
It’s Option D.
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.
About the Author:
Rajesh Balasubramanian runs 2IIM’s CAT program and handles more than half the classes for CAT preparation. He completed his Electrical engineering from IIT Madras in 2001 and PGDM from IIM Bangalore in 2003. He worked as an equity Research Analyst at Credit Suisse, London. This was an enriching experience, in a literal sense; and a soul-sapping experience otherwise. He finally quit his job in 2009 and joined 2IIM as director in 2010.