A2A: How to prepare for Reading Comprehension in CAT ?

In this series, A2A (Asked to Answer), get answers to the most often asked questions by CAT and other MBA entrance exam aspirants.

With inputs from Vanita Sanjay (Chief Mentor, IMS Andheri), Vinaya Rao (Lead Mentor – IMS Vashi) and Abhishek Narayan (Lead Mentor – IMS Thane)

Reading Comprehension is tested in every MBA entrance exam, be it CAT, GMAT, XAT, NMAT, IIFT, SNAP or CET. In CAT, Reading comprehension questions constitute 24% of the total marks – that is approximately one fourth of the entire paper. While the complexity or level of difficulty of the passages and the questions thereof vary from exam to exam – the importance of doing well in this section of the test cannot be underestimated.

If you have a problem with RCs, then you:

  1. have never read earlier(not talking about studies) OR
  2. have an immense dislike for reading OR
  3. have average reading habits /are very selective (technology/sport /self-help etc)

Furthermore, your ability to comprehend what you read (however little it may be) may also vary from being poor to average to fabulous.

Whatever the category you may belong to right now, you need to start work towards becoming an avid and diverse reader with a great understanding ability. Read on to know the steps you should be taking to significantly improve your performance in RCs across MBA entrance exams.

The challenges

Students usually find it tough to tackle RC passages in MBA entrance exams because of one of the following reasons:

  • “Not used to reading” syndrome: For a whole lot of students the only reading they do is when they are busy on the various social media platforms. Unfortunately these activities do not contribute much to developing your reading skills (in fact they destroy whatever little skills you may have had before). And then there are students who have immense dislike for reading. The result is that these students find it very difficult to do any reading – be it for entrance exams or otherwise.

The solution: Get started, pick up a book . Start with simple stories that interest you. Read e-paper and e-magazine articles based on your areas of interest – like sports or technology or politics.  Gradually move on to read editorials of newspapers – at least one editorial a day. Use good sources like The Hindu, The Guardian, etc., to get a feel of the language and content. Force yourself to read for at least 30 minutes everyday – and keep forcing yourself till it becomes a habit.

  • “Heaviness” of the passage: The passages that appear in these tests maybe based on current affairs, history, sociology, philosophy, science, sports, politics, economics, fiction/non-fiction – basically any topic under the sun. If you only read fiction – you will never get used to reading other genres and will always find those topics “heavy”. If one is not comfortable reading certain topics, their choice will be limited by the mix of topics assessed in the test.

The solution: Inculcate a diverse reading habit. Read novels of various genres (science and technology, religion, abstract, philosophy, etc.) to ensure exposure to a variety of writing styles depending on the subject matter. More the genres that you read, more will be the comfort to read the topics that appear in CAT and other entrance exams. Make a list of at least 10 books (across genres) that you will read, decide the sequence in which you will read them and last but not the least – read them. Ensure that you read each book within a specific time(ideally 10-15 days per book).

  • “Readability” of the passage: Depending on the level of vocabulary used, one finds some passages to be more easy to read than others. If a student has a limited vocabulary then a heavily worded RC is akin to a highway with speed-breakers at regular intervals – you simply can’t go fast!! So a passage will be more readable than another if the words used are a part of your vocabulary.

The solution: Reading more is the only shortcut to build your vocabulary. The more your read, the more you will come across words that are outside your knowledge. Make a note of these words, find their meaning and understand the context in which they are used. Practice guessing the meaning of unknown words based on context – a good way is to use keywords to predict what sort of content would follow. For example, if we say “I am a talented chef; however, I am a _____ footballer”, then we can predict that the word in the blank has to be negative, because of ‘however’. If you master this, you will not need to stop in the middle of an RC when faced with an unfamiliar word – you will develop the knack to predict and push through.

  • Speed v/s Comprehension: A few years back CAT used to have passages that were more than a 1000 words long (IIFT still has) – more recently the length of CAT passages has varied from 450 to 550 words. A longer passage would mean a longer time to read, more content to assimilate and remember before your start answering the questions. A lot of students would do considerably better in the RC section, if there were no time constraints while taking the test. These students usually find it difficult to balance their reading speed with comprehension – if they would be allowed to read at a comfortable pace, they would answer many more questions accurately.

The solution: To improve on your reading skills, you need to work on both your reading speed as well as your comprehension ability. It is important to note that one cannot sacrifice comprehension for speed. If you read a passage in 5 minutes and get 4 answers wrong, it doesn’t make sense. Instead take 8 minutes and get most of them, if not all, right. In other words, first improve your ability to comprehend correctly – speed will come with practice over a longer period of time. To test your comprehension at a given speed, you can develop habit of writing a summary of each paragraph that you have read immediately after completing the passage – if you do this accurately enough passage after passage you can rest assured that your speed and comprehension have struck the right balance – and you are now ready to take your speed a notch higher.

Tips for improving your reading speed:

    1. As an amateur reader, you will tend to sub-vocalize or speak the words in your mind as your read – while this may help you concentrate and understand better, it significantly reduces your reading speed.
    2. Avoid the tendency to go back and read earlier words or lines – this often happens when you have failed to understand the content. If this need recurs frequently while reading a passage, it probably means that you are reading too fast or you aren’t concentrating well enough.
    3. Practice to read and process a group of words at a time rather than reading one word at a time. For example, try reading a passage in chunks of three words at a glance and then check if you were able to complete the passage sooner. Note that you are still able to process and comprehend what you read, but spend far less time doing it.
    4. Time yourself every time you read a passage – measure your speed in terms of words per minute. While some studies say 200 to 250 words per minute is a good reading speed, there are readers who can even read 500 words a minute or much more. Set a daily or weekly goal in terms of words per minute, and treat yourself when you reach it. Keep challenging yourself, and you’ll be able to increase your reading speed sooner rather than later! Note that a speed of 200 to 250 wpm is enough to help you solve all the 34 questions in the CAT VA-RC section.
  • Nature of questions: While a few entrance exams still have questions that are directly based on the passage, most questions in CAT (if not, ALL) are inferential in nature. (eg. What is the main idea etc). Direct questions can be answered by just skimming through the passages – to answer inferential questions you need to thoroughly comprehend the passage.

The solution: The need to comprehend does not end with the passage – you need to comprehend both the question as well as the options if you want to improve your accuracy while solving RC questions – especially the inferential ones. Spend enough time to understand the essence of the question. The key is to ELIMINATE INCORRECT options (and not choose the RIGHT option) based on your understanding of the passage and an evaluation of whether it answers the question. The most common mistake students make is to choose an option because they have read something similar in the passage without bothering to assess if it answers the question on hand. Practice this method for every RC question that you solve henceforth and you will see a drastic improvement in your accuracy.

To summarize: The solution to improve your performance in Reading Comprehension is to Read, Read and Read. In words of Scrabbler (the ten time CAT 100 percentiler): “Read good English every day – ideally 30 min of fiction/non-fiction; one good article and one good editorial; 10-5 min of vocab building and most important from June onward solve 1-2 passages daily. When reading an article or editorial, make a habit of writing a 100-150 word summary afterwards.”

All the best!!

Keep reading…

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