How to stay focused during reading comprehension passages: tips for mindful reading

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.

Well, let’s get to our episode of the day, which is plain and simple: how to stay focused during the comprehension passages on the verbal section. All right, Orion? Let’s hear it.

Orion: All right, well, this is something that a lot of students struggle with. Let’s be honest, these passages can be really complex. They can also be really, really boring.

Davis: You said it.

Orion: Psychological research has revealed that it’s hard to pay attention when you’re bored. When the reading material makes it feel like your eyes are bleeding, it’s tough. So, these passages are known as vertical passages, which means they’re taken from actual academic journals and textbooks. However, they’re completely decontextualized. They can select these passages from any of dozens of academic disciplines, most of which you, the listener, are most likely going to be personally unfamiliar with. This can actually be an asset. Sometimes, knowing something about the subject matter, especially if you’re somewhat of an expert, can be a liability. You might end up relying on outside knowledge, which is a trap on the GRE. A lot of this information will be complex, decontextualized, and very, very boring. There’s a tendency to zone out and mind-wander during the 90 seconds that you’re reading these passages. If you’re not present to receive the information, it’s going to be very hard to act on it in the subsequent questions. So, we need to find ways to focus when reading these passages on the GRE. I have two little hacks. Neither one is a silver bullet, but we’re talking about increasing your focus for the 90 seconds it takes to read these passages.

Davis: So, first, a quick question. Is it the best strategy to read them front to back for these 90 seconds in a focused way? Or is it best to skim over?

Orion: Yeah, there are lots of different approaches to the passages. My general orientation is that it’s a good idea to read the passage casually first. Some people like to read the questions before reading the passage. I find that doesn’t quite work because I don’t think it’s possible to keep two, three, or four questions in your working memory simultaneously. So, students generally just remember the last question they read. This will probably increase the likelihood that they will find the textual evidence for that one question. However, it also makes it more likely that they will disregard information that doesn’t pertain to that specific question in their working memory. As a result, they will likely have to go back and read the passage multiple times.

Davis: So, in this episode, we’re specifically talking about staying focused and attentive during the casual read-through when you first read it, before looking for specific information.

Orion: That’s right. The key word there is “casually.” You want to read it like a newspaper article. You don’t read a newspaper article to understand and memorize every little detail. You read it to figure out what happened. You want to get a gist understanding of the passage. This approach will help you with passages, guide you through the questions, and orient you to where to go back and read for detail based on the questions you’re subsequently asked. You don’t need to understand the entire passage. In fact, the longer the passage, the fewer sentences actually matter in relation to the correct responses to the questions you’re subsequently asked.

Davis: That makes sense. It’s a ratio game; considering how many sentences there are and how few questions are posed, you’ll likely need to know fewer details. But with this casual approach, many people taking the test will feel pressure due to the time constraint and the desire to get a good score, especially knowing questions are forthcoming. For example, if I’m reading a 90-second passage and I’m 20-30 seconds in but don’t quite understand a sentence, I become anxious. I might then go back and reread that sentence or return to three sentences prior, and suddenly, I’m lost. Is that something we want to avoid? Specifically, if there’s a sentence you don’t quite understand, should you just continue reading it, as you said, like a newspaper article where you’re simply trying to grasp the general idea?

Orion: Yes, the biggest trap with reading comprehension passages is trying to comprehend every detail in the passages.

Davis: I mean, I’m glad you laughed. I was going for humor on that one. But it’s also true. Think about studying a foreign language. If you stopped to look up every single unfamiliar word, it would be completely tedious. So sometimes, you have to just keep reading and roll with it. Sometimes, subsequent context elucidates things that were previously unclear. I had a personal experience that’s 100% true.

Orion: So, we don’t want to reread. Rereading, in this case, is an emotional coping strategy. You’re feeling pressure, you’re feeling anxious. If there were no time limit, then seeking out more information for understanding would realistically mitigate your anxiety. But it’s not a worthwhile strategy here. Even if it works, it does so at the expense of your score. And I would submit that students would rather tolerate a modicum of anxiety and discomfort and get a better score on the test than feel better about getting a lower score.

Davis: That makes sense. So, part of staying focused in reading comprehension sections is to not seek full comprehension?

Orion: Absolutely. In order to stay focused throughout the whole 90 seconds and get that best top-down, bird’s eye view overview of the passage, it’s better not to hyper-focus and get sunk in the weeds at any point.

Davis: Absolutely.

Orion: Let me get into these two little hacks that I have to help increase focus. First of all, there are passages you’ll care about, and there are passages you won’t. I handle the hard science ones quite well. However, I struggle with the 19th-century Romantic literature ones; they make my eyes glaze over. But here’s the thing: my sister enjoys them. Most of the time, I appreciate my sister. So, when I come across a passage I’m not particularly fond of, I consider if there’s someone I care about who might. It’s a mental gymnastics of sorts, but I’ve effectively anchored my interest to my relationship with that person. Instead of engaging with the material for its own sake, I think, “I’m reading this for them.” I even imagine that after the test, I could call and say, “Did you know Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein?” And she’d respond, “Of course I did, you silly brother.” It provides a reason for me to connect with the passage beyond the mere content. Engage in some mental gymnastics; frame the passage in a way that evokes genuine motivation and excitement, even if the material seems dry.

Davis: That’s absolutely right.

Orion: And again, this isn’t a silver bullet, but it can help to increase focus and motivation for 90 seconds.

Davis: That’s great. So that’s one of the hacks, let’s hear the second.

Orion: The second hack is to utilize vocal self-talk. I like to read passages out loud. Now, obviously, if you’re in a testing center, you don’t want to do that audibly. As they say in voice, “You don’t aspirate,” but you can move your mouth and very quietly voice the words that you are reading within your own oral cavity. This strategy is beneficial for multiple reasons, one of which is that you’re taking in the information through multiple senses. Instead of just reading with your eyes silently, you’re also hearing yourself, and you’re kinesthetically engaging by moving your mouth and tongue. You’re less likely to miss something when using three senses than just one. But here’s the thing: you can modulate your reading so that you are more or less forced to pay attention. Attention, from a psychological perspective, is a novelty-seeking apparatus. It constantly scans our environment for what has changed or what is different because that could be a reward to approach or a threat to avoid. It’s the differences that naturally draw our attention and focus.

One way to do that with your voice is to modulate it, changing the rhythm, intensity, stress, and energy with which you approach the text. This is why some actors, like William Shatner or Christopher Walken, are so hypnotic: they have a unique way of talking that draws people in. You can’t help but pay attention to something that’s constantly changing. Television and TikTok capitalize on this by changing the image every couple of seconds. It’s hypnotic and very difficult to ignore. So, if you vary how you read, your attention is bound to persist. These are two strategies. They’re not perfect, but they can help you pay more attention during the 90 seconds you have to read those tedious passages.

Davis: That’s awesome. Well, you’ve heard it here first, these two strategies.

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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