The Reading Comprehension (RC) section has been the bête noire of CAT candidates for long now. Simply because the length of the passage has varied every year, the type of questions asked has also varied and there is no tutorial/technique that one can use to prepare for the various types of passages. All one can do is simply practice as many RCs as possible and hope that on the D-day some of this practice might come handy.
With the CAT exam going online the RC section has underwent significant changes and in this post I talk of the types of passages and the different strategies that one can use to perform better in the RC section.
One of the first things to note is that the passages have become shorter, practically throwing all skimming techniques out of the window. It now makes more sense to read the complete passage in detail. The RC passages can be categorised broadly under three categories: Analytical, Descriptive and Data- Driven (statistical).
The analytical passages generally deal with the analysis of ideas/issues/events and are the most difficult in terms of the questions that follow. Most of the questions are implicit in nature (‘central theme’, ‘what would the author do in a particular situation’, ‘what is the author implying when he says this..’ etc.) Additionally the passages can be about any issue/topic/idea that is not from one’s area of interest or is one is not comfortable with. For example, I was always very comfortable with the passages dealing with science/environment/wildlife/history. But bring in philosophy/religion/psychology and the engineer in me used to start sending out warning signals to skip the passage right away.
Analytical passages would require you to gain a significant understanding of the ideas that the author had in mind while writing the piece. This is required for questions like 'apprpriate title for the passage' or 'the author would have written this passage for a journal/a newspaper etc....'
A good way to do this is the ‘RC coordinate system’. When you read the passage, write down on your scratch sheet the main ideas/idea changes that you observe over the course of your reading along with the coordinates - here the first coordinate represents the paragraph number and the second coordinate is for the line number. For example: (3, 6) - 'need for religion in human society'. This means that paragraph 3 line 6, talks of/introduces/elaborates on the need for religion in human society.
By the time you are done reading the passage, you would have an 'idea map' that would help you figure out the author’s thought process as well as the kind of questions that can be asked from the passage. The questions that can be asked here will be about the tone and style of the passage, the purpose, author's background and his behaviour, etc. Also if you can identify the central idea of each paragraph, it would help you later when you are looking for answers to implicit questions and also to assign a central theme to the entire passage. I have observed that assigning a central idea to each paragraph is easier as compared to figuring out the central theme of the passage. But once you have an idea map and a central idea for each paragraph your task becomes that much more easier.
Another important thing to note is that analytical passages usually have an 'open ended' 'style – they analyse the central idea from all angles and perspectives. To prepare for such passages it would help if you read books/articles/blogs that deal with subjects/areas outside your comfort zone. Reading editorials, reading news/op-eds that deal with varied subjects will give you good exposure to various ideas and would make sure that during the actual exam you are able to assimilate ideas easily and answer questions quickly.
You can also form groups of 3-4 people and form idea maps for articles that you read and then compare your idea maps. This would be a good exercise in passage analysis and would also keep you motivated. Please make sure that you read short articles. Books/novels are lengthy and the development of the central theme and ideas is gradual - something that is not in context with the CAT exam (where passages are 400-500 words in length).
Descriptive passages generally describe an event/a person/a place, etc. The difference here is that these passages contain a lot of factual descriptions and in some cases some opinions/judgements but absolutely no inferences. With descriptive passages the strategy is only slightly different. Figuring out the main purpose of the passage is easier here. Also the description of particular instances can be easily figured out with a quick reading of the passage. However the questions might be tricky at times asking you to draw inferences based on the author's description. Again, reading all kinds of sports articles would help (description of matches, opinions based in that and some things left for the readers' inference).
In the case of a data driven passages, the best way forward is to look for specific data. Such passages have a lot of numbers/percentages/fractions thrown around along with the author’s opinions on them. While dealing with such passages it is best to read the questions first so that you have an exact idea of what exactly you are looking for – otherwise it is very easy to get lost under heaps of data. Most of the questions in the case of descriptive and data driven passages will be explicit questions that would deal with main idea, correct/incorrect description, facts, vocabulary based questions, writing structure and opinions of the author. These questions are relatively easy to answer provided one knows where to look for the answers.
To conclude, Reading Comprehension is a lot like the data interpretation section - you have strategies but there are no fixed and limited concepts as such. To fine-tune your strategy, it is important that you do rigorous practice. Do not overdo the RCs if you are not scoring well. Instead, rework your strategies, see if you are analysing the passage correctly and look where you are going wrong. Post test analysis is very important to for improving your performance in the RC section.
(The author Deepak Nanwani is the co-founder of One52.com. An alumnus of IIT Guwahati and IIM Bangalore, he is a master strategist for all competitive exams. One52.com is an online adaptive solution for GMAT, MBA and UG exams.)