How To Read GMAT Science Passages

You should follow me on Twitter. While you're at it, take a moment to subscribe to GMAT Hacks via RSS or Email.

 

There's nothing on the Verbal portion of the GMAT that scares test-takers more than Reading Comprehension passages dealing with science. If you have a science background, you probably aren't worried about them (and rightly so); if you don't, my guess is that you tense up a little bit upon the first reference to molecules, chromosomes, or alluvial deposits.

It doesn't have to be that way. There are two main reasons why you have nothing to fear from science passages:

  1. They are structured exactly the same way as non-science passages. (One chapter of my Total GMAT Verbal is devoted to explaining common passage structures.)
  2. They are short. The scientific detail is superficial; in other words, you don't really have to understand it.

A Sample Passage

To illustrate my point, let's look at an example: the passage on page 382 of The Official Guide for GMAT Review. If you prefer the humanities, the first paragraph alone contains enough to give you pause:

According to a recent theory, Archean-age gold-quartz vein systems were formed more than two billion years ago from magmatic fluids that originated from molten granite-like bodies deep beneath the surface of the Earth. This theory is contrary to the widely held view that the system were deposited from metamorphic fluids, that is, from fluids that formed during the dehydration of wet sedimentary rocks.

It's a mouthful, alright. The phrases I've bolded are the ones that tend to pop out at the science-phobic. In order to answer some questions, you'll need to know where to find those details, but you won't need much in the way of understanding. Rather than focusing on what you don't immediately grasp, turn your attention to what you've seen before:

According to a recent theory, Archean-age gold-quartz vein systems were formed more than two billion years ago from magmatic fluids that originated from molten granite-like bodies deep beneath the surface of the Earth. This theory is contrary to the widely held view that the systems were deposited from metamorphic fluids, that is, from fluids that formed during the dehydration of wet sedimentary rocks.

The key thing to write down in your scratch work is this: "Two competing theories." Better still would be "Two competing theories about origin of gold-quartz vein systems," but let's keep things simple for now.

Reading the Rest of the Passage

GMAT passages very reliably signpost their intentions: often you can determine the outline of the passage just from the first paragraph. That isn't quite the case in this example, but half of the questions that follow the passage try to determine, at least in part, whether you picked up on the distinction between the two theories.

In other words, you've already done much of the grunt work. From here, you can expect to see lots of details, like this bear of a sentence:

Methods widely used today include analysis of aerial images that yield a broad geological overview; geophysical techniques that provide data on the magnetic, electrical, and mineralogical properties of the rocks being investigated; and sensitive chemical tests that are able to detect the subtle chemical halos that often envelop mineralization.

Two of three of the questions following the passage expect that you read that sentence. But again, understanding is largely irrelevant. There are some keywords, and you need to be able to associate them with the topic of paragraph three: "The challenge in explorationů."

The Takeaway

Now that you have a better idea what to read for in GMAT science passages, how will you manage your time? You should expect to spend three to four minutes reading each passage (not including answering questions). Some of that variation is going to depend on length. Don't fall into the trap, however, of spending every last second of those four minutes (or more) trying to memorize details in a difficult passage.

In fact, the best approach is precisely the contrary. The more difficult the details of a passage, the less time you should spend on them. If you don't grasp the idea by the second reading or so, you're not going to grasp it in another two passes. Better to make sure you understand the structure of the passage and return to the difficult sections if and only if a question forces you to.

This isn't the SAT--you can't read the questions before you read the passage--but a similar principle applies: if the GMAT doesn't ask you about it, it doesn't matter. Don't sweat the details until you need to. Often, by the time you're asked, you won't see the need to sweat at all. It's a matter of matching keywords to their context, regardless of their content.

 

 

About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

Total GMAT Verbal

The comprehensive guide to the GMAT Verbal section. Recognize, dissect, and master every question type you'll face on the test. Everything you need, all in one place, including 100+ realistic practice questions.
Click to read more.