How to quickly eliminate reading comprehension answer choices: mastering the GRE

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

So, we’ve talked a lot about quantitative and recently about time, and then the pressures for time. So okay, what happens? How do you manage? What’s one of the time-efficient strategies? How do you manage it when you have these reading comprehension sections? We have, like, two to four paragraphs, and you have two to four questions. And that’s a big time sink that could potentially be an area for me, at least, as a big time sink. So what are the ways to eliminate wasted time? Are there shortcuts to getting the answers?

Orion: Sure. Yeah, reading comprehension questions make up about 45 to 50% of the verbal sections. You’re going to have a lot of them, nine to 10 of them. And they can be extremely time-consuming, almost by definition, because you’re going to have to attend to the text at some point. I don’t think that you can safely ignore the text entirely and expect to get all those questions right. You probably could get some of them, but you probably couldn’t get all of them. And the time you’re spending reading, you’re not spending solving, and solving is where you get points. You don’t get points for reading.

So, the first thing that you need to keep in mind with respect to efficiency on reading comprehension is you can’t spend too much time understanding or comprehending the text. I know they’re called reading comprehension questions, but the idea that you have to comprehend that text in full is probably a belief that is killing your efficiency on these questions. We can get more into that on a future episode. But it’s a good idea to kind of read the passage casually first. The keyword here is casually, like you would a newspaper article. When you read a newspaper article, you want to know what happened, so that you can summarize the event to a friend in one or two sentences. You don’t have to know all the specific dates, numbers, and statistics; you just need to know the gist of it. So that’s what we’re going for when we read the text of a reading comprehension question. Just understanding.

Davis: So, you still do read it first. You don’t jump to the questions first?

Orion: Yeah, people have different minds about this. But I’m a big fan of reading the passage casually first before attending to the questions. The reason for that is, if I were to look at the questions, two to four questions before going to the text, I’m not able to keep all four of those questions in my mind simultaneously. I’ll probably only remember the last one that I read. And then I’m actually more likely to find an answer to that one question. But I will also more likely ignore relevant information for some of the other questions because I can’t keep them in my working memory at that time. So, I’ll probably end up reading the passage multiple times because I’m looking for specific things, versus just wanting to understand what happened in this passage, with the expectation that I will go back to read parts of it, not the whole thing, but parts of it for detail, based on the questions that are subsequently asked. Okay, so I think it’s a little more efficient to do it this way. That makes sense too because maybe there are some tricky or baited answers that are honing in on easily misunderstood sections of the reading; it’s possible. And so, but then just to say that some of the answers that you might read could be red flags or red herrings, like false.

Davis: Awesome.

Orion: So, yeah, so this is a big thing about the reading comprehension. Besides the time it takes to understand the passages, the answer choices can be very difficult to decipher; some of them seem functionally identical to one another. A lot of times, students are trying to debate with themselves about which answer choice is slightly better or slightly less bad than one of the other ones. And there, it takes some time to kind of filter or parse through the answer choices themselves. And so I do have some strategies for getting through the answer choices of reading comprehension questions more effectively and efficiently.

So, once you’ve done a casual read-through, are there strategies where you can just process elimination? Just say, “Oh, that’s not an answer.” Yeah, if you read the passage first, then you can always eliminate answer choices that are what I call just bad, stupid, or wrong. Like, you’re reading this choice, and you’re like, “I just read the passage. This isn’t in there at all.” That’s a bad, stupid, wrong answer choice. So you’re going to use your common sense and your understanding to be able to eliminate things that have nothing to do with what you just read. And that’s probably going to be one or two answer choices. But there are three other ways that you can eliminate answer choices. On reading comprehension questions that have nothing to do with the text themselves, actually very little. And what I do is I filter all the answer choices through these three sieves. After I eliminate choices that are bad, stupid, or wrong, often there’s only one answer choice left, so this is very efficient. The first sieve that I filter reading comprehension question choices through is, are there any spoilers in this answer choice?

Davis: So what’s a spoiler?

Orion: So a spoiler is a small word. It’s usually an adjective or an adverb, like a modifier, that makes an otherwise defensible answer choice too extreme and therefore wrong. So, the thing about spoilers is that they’re going to be in answer choices that are like 90% right. Now, if you come into an option in real life that’s 90% good, like that’s a good option for you. But on the GRE, something that is 90% right is 100% wrong because that 10% spoils the rest of the 90%.

Davis: So that’s what we mean by a spoiler—exactly that 10%. If it weren’t for this word, this would be a perfectly accurate answer choice, but that one word screws everything up; it spoils it and exaggerates some element.

Orion: Yeah, these are the words that you hate when your partner uses them in a fight. So it’s like “you always,” “you never,” “exclusively,” “primarily,” “solely,” “most,” “least,” “more,” “less.” Comparatives are not necessarily extreme, but “most,” “least” are superlatives. Anything that’s really, really extreme. These are generally spoilers because they make that sentence more fragile. Like, it’s, if I were to say something like “all swans are white.” That’s actually a very fragile statement. Right? We just need one non-white swan in the history of swandom to disprove that statement. So it feels strong, “all swans are white,” but it’s actually a very weak statement. Right?

Davis: Right.

Orion: So a much stronger statement academically would be something like “most swans are somewhat white-ish.” But that’s also doesn’t contain a lot of information either, right? So it’s truer, but it’s not more useful. So that’s kind of interesting. So the line that academia walks all the time.

Davis: Okay, so spoilers—that 10%—that would just exaggerate it and make a statement weaker or less defensible.

Orion: Correct. In general, we want the blandest, vaguest answer choice because that’s the hardest one to disprove.

Davis: Yeah, that makes sense.

Orion: Okay. Number two is offensive language. Okay, now, I don’t mean swear words. GSA is not that exciting. What I mean is that we live in a very politically correct, litigious society. So if this answer choice, taken out of context, could be potentially offensive to any subgroup of humanity, it’s not going to be the correct answer.

Davis: Can you imagine the public relations disaster?

Orion: Yeah, it’s like ETS makes the GRE think this is true about this type of people. Now, you’re not going to find these answer choices on, let’s say, more hard science passages about quarks and fossils. I guess people can still get offended about those things. But it’s harder, right? So you’re gonna find them in the softer ones, right? Literature, history, texts, arts, humanities, in general.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And I’m not talking about like, very, sometimes it has to do with very clearly identifiable groups of people. But sometimes it’s like plumbers from Phoenix, you know what I’m saying? Or school teachers in the 18th century. So it doesn’t mean you’re generalizing or lumping a whole group of people. And you’re saying that this group of people is or is not a certain way; there’s going to be somebody out there who is going to be offended at that statement. And so it’s better to just write that one off and not go down that road.

Davis: So spoilers, things that exaggerate, make it weak, offensive language, meaning that if you could take this sentence or a response out of context, and any group of people would be offended by it, be really sensitive, like read them to be offended.

Orion: Yeah. And then third, thirdly, is copy and paste, which means like what it sounds like it means. This means that a word or usually a phrase has been copied directly out of the text and pasted right into the answer choice, like word for word, letter by letter. And the reason why this is a trap, is because if that answer choice were correct, it would actually cease to be a reading comprehension quiz. It would be an eye exam, right? Like, I wouldn’t even need to be able to read English. I could say these symbols in this paragraph here look like these exact symbols in this answer choice. Therefore, there’s some kind of textual basis for this answer choice—click. So the way that copy and paste traps work is they generally involve sticky words or phrases, sticky words or phrases, or words or phrases that you don’t see or hear or read every day. So they’re going to stand out in your memory. You know, you read something about that in there. So then you just think, “Oh, I know I read that,” because you didn’t necessarily like understand it.

Davis: Correct.

Orion: Maybe you didn’t understand it, or you’re running short on time, or the other answer choices don’t look so good. So you know that there’s something about that in there. And this mostly looks like the text. So why not go for it? The issue is that generally, if you look at that answer choice more closely, they’ve changed one or two small words to create a significant deviation in meaning from the actual text. So we don’t really want an answer choice that looks like the text; we want an answer choice that means the same thing as the text but doesn’t look like it. So it’s like if we took that line, Google translated it into Swahili, and then translated it back into English. So all the words are different, but it should have more or less the same meaning.

Davis: Yeah. So, is that 100% true? In your experience, that any answer choice that has cut-and-paste sections from the text will be an incorrect answer?

Orion: I’m loath to say never because that’s a spoiler. Okay, but so there actually are some cases where spoilers are correct, or copying and pastes are correct. And those are “not” questions.

So sometimes you’ll get a reading comprehension question that’s like, “Which of the following would the author not agree with?” or “This passage does not provide evidence?”

Davis: Oh, I see what you’re saying. And then they do the copy and paste, but they change one of the qualifiers before or after. So if you have a not problem, you actually want to choose the problematic answer choice. So you would be attracted to the spoiler, that offensive language, or the copy and paste in that very specific example.

Orion: So there are always exceptions to the rules, generally.

Davis: Yeah. All right. Well, that helps.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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