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CAT Preparation: Strategies to Solving Reading Comprehension

The below article is brought to you by SDA Bocconi Asia Center and written by Dr Shashank Prabhuto help aspirants in their test prep. He is a CAT 100 percentiler, CET Rank 1, IIFT 100 percentile. He had a scaled score of 249/360 in NMAT BY GMAC 2016 and 99 percentile in each of the sections and overall score. SDA Bocconi Asia Center accepts CAT, NMAT, GMAT, GRE for its International Master in Business.

Over the last few years, when it comes to the Verbal Ability section of the CAT, the focus seems to have shifted from a balanced split to a lopsided one in favour of reading comprehension passages. With more than 70 percent of the section being focused on reading comprehension passages, it would be practically impossible to do well at the test if one neglects this part.
Another reason to especially focus on this area is the fact that reading comprehension passages have been getting easier and no longer rely on abstract concepts and dense theories to shatter an aspirant’s confidence. The contribution to the final sectional score from the reading comprehension part is more than 80 percent in most cases and so, it is a good way of ensuring that you score well in the verbal ability section.
The biggest question that aspirants who are not that good at reading comprehension is the manner in which, they should read the passage so as to maximize comprehension. Broadly, there are a few things one could potentially do when it comes to solving reading comprehension passages:

  • a. Read the passage first, understand it completely and then go for the questions: This strategy expects the candidate to retain the entire passage (in other words, if you forget the first line of the passage by the time you reach the last line of the passage, this won’t work for you), understand the author’s intent and then answer the questions through that ‘acquired knowledge’ without referring back too much to the passage. A lot of good candidates have good reading habits, can grasp the tone very quickly and retain a page of content easily. It’s like reading a novel albeit at a smaller scale. Reading one line will not give you any understanding of the overall context and you are supposed to read a few paragraphs to understand the macro flow. In my opinion, it is the best strategy as it is the least distracting and can help you stay focused for longer periods of time
  • b. Read the questions and the options first, then go to the passage: While this works in case of fact-checking based questions, it is too dangerous in case of inferential passages. The major drawback of this strategy is that, you might tend to form an opinion about the author/subject matter even before you read the passage. This could lead to a conflict between your views and those of the author thereby leading to incorrect comprehension. Considering that the CAT passages are almost always inferential, it might not be the best idea to use this strategy (unless you are desperate for attempts and there is very little time to do that)
  • c. Read the passage casually, then the questions and come back to specific instances in the passage: This is the one that is usually followed by a lot of students. Given that it is difficult to retain acutely gained knowledge and the reduced attention span, it makes the most sense to most. But, this leads to a lot of back and forth between the question and the passage which is not a healthy way to look at problems (to digress, this is one of the attributes that makes a good manager: ability to comprehend and address the situation in its entirety and not just a few things here and there)

So, the best way to tackle reading comprehension passages is to understand the passage first and then look at the questions. There are a few things that you could do to improve comprehension while reading the passage:

  • a. Notes: However weird that sounds, making notes helps if you are not a regular reader and often go wrong while answering inferential questions. Now, these need not be elaborate notes and definitely not focused on the factual part of it. It just needs to be an understanding of the underlying emotion. So, if the passage goes something like this (CAT 2004) “The painter is now free to paint anything he chooses. They are scarcely any forbidden subjects, and today everybody is prepared to admit that a painting of some fruit can be as important as a painting of a hero dying. The Impressionists did as much as anybody to win this previously unheard-of freedom for the artist. Yet, by the next generation, painters began to abandon the subject altogether, and began to paint abstract pictures. Today the majority of pictures painted are abstract.”, you will have to note that the paragraph talks about a liberation in terms of the core subject of a painting and how it led to a restriction instead because painters tended towards making more abstract paintings than relevant ones. So, if you are able to take away that bit from the passage, you should be okay. If you are stuck in the whole confusion of who the Impressionists were and what does abstractness mean, you would miss out on the central picture of the passage
  • b. Hyperbole: Exaggeration has often been linked to a superior memory and it holds true in case of reading comprehension passages as well. If you have trouble picking up fresh topics, try it out while going through some articles from uncomfortable areas (psychology, economics, history, philosophy). Typically, you will have a concept/study being explained in simpler words so as to make you understand the theoretical nuances and create a conflict. You have to simply try to agree with whatever the author says in an exaggerated manner (in case of the above paragraph, it could be something on the lines of yes, the author is right because the artists nowadays are stupid and draw all kind of dull stuff whereas they could have done much more)
  • c. Adjectives and adverbs: Generally, we tend to understand the terms and associated names when it comes to learning subject matter. However, in CAT passages, the focus needs to be more on the qualifiers, adjectives and adverbs. This again, comes through an extensive reading habit and unless you are not enjoying what you are reading, you will not be able to relate to the topic. Treat the passage as more of a learning experience instead of a math problem data set and you should do fine

To sum it up, it requires a reading habit to get better at reading comprehension. Contrary to what is commonly believed by the aspirants, reading speed has got little to do with success in solving reading comprehension questions and it is more a function of how well can one understand what the author is trying to say. So, if you keep to your strategy, read from as diverse a set of topics as you can and solve questions from good sources (GMAT, LSAT practice tests, past CAT papers), you should be good to go.

SDA Bocconi Asia Center, like other Top b schools in India, offers International Master in Business for freshers and young executives. The program is taught by international faculty from SDA Bococni, a top ranked business school in Italy. It includes 4 months Milan semester, Diploma by SDA Bocconi in Italy and access to the Bocconi Alumni Network making it a top post graduate program in Mumbai.

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