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7 Ways to Handle Dense Science Passages on GMAT RC

Posted in Test Prep on May 26, 2011 by

Tricky science passages on the GMAT may be the bane of your existence, but they don’t have to be. Here are 7 expert tips to help you conquer your science fears.

1. Recognize that you don’t need to know any outside information.

It may not seem like it when you’re slogging through esoteric scientific terms, but you really are not required to have any specialized knowledge of science (or any other topic!) to tackle GMAT Reading Comprehension passages. The passages are made obscure, non-intuitive (and sometimes even sleep-inducing) on purpose: knowledge or lack of knowledge about the subject in question is not supposed to affect your ability to comprehend the passage and answer the questions.

2. Practice reading other science passages.

Though you shouldn’t worry about memorizing the periodic table, you can confront your science fears head-on simply by reading more scientific material. Try Popular Science for articles that will work out your science-reading muscles.

To make the most of your reading practice, try to get comfortable:

A) visualizing descriptive passages (understanding the spatial relationships between entities)
B) grappling with new terminology and jargon that is defined on the spot
C) absorbing logical relationships between entities

3. Focus on logical relationships.

Let’s take a look at a sample excerpt from a GMAT passage:

Electromagnetic radiation, such as infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma ray, is referred to in terms of a spectrum which is divided according to the way each radiation type interacts with matter. Radio waves oscillate in material, near-infrared waves vibrate at the molecular level, ultraviolet rays display excited electrons, x-rays eject core electrons, and gamma rays create particle and anti-particle pairs when encountering matter. Anti-particles have the same mass, spin, average lifetime, and physical appearance as the ordinary corresponding particle but the opposite value for its electric charge. While the classification scheme for radiation type is neatly ordered, there is a slight overlap in properties between adjacent types of electromagnetic radiation.

Try to think of GMAT passages like this one as “verbal puzzles.” Don’t distract yourself by thinking about your previous knowledge of electromagnetic radiation or worrying about the fact that you have no idea what “electromagnetic” means. Instead, forget the fancy vocabulary and focus on figuring out how each entity in the passage is related to every other entity. So, in the above passage, you must grasp that there are 5 types of electromagnetic radiation mentioned, and that the properties of those types overlap. Don’t get caught up in the jargon; if you get confused, imagine that the passage is talking about something familiar — 5 different types of apples, for example, with distinct but overlapping properties. Once you’ve gotten the logical relationships down, then you can focus on the specific terms being discussed if necessary.

4. Grasp the skeleton of the ideas presented.

Understand the conceptual skeleton of the passage or how ideas are related to each other. In other words, grasp the “main idea,” the “support of the main idea,” and the “support of the support” as displayed here:

5. Paraphrase/visualize in your mind.

Visualizing the material is one of the special difficulties involved in reading a science passage. For example, take a look at the above passage. It might be tough for you to imagine “oscillating radio waves,” “vibrating infrared waves,” and x-rays that “eject” core electrons (what does that even mean?).

Because these phrases don’t translate readily or intuitively into visual images, they may be difficult to grasp. But whatever you do, don’t let the words wash over you and don’t try to just memorize the wording (it won’t work). Instead, make the language mean something. At the very least, grasp that the sentence describes 5 different types of electromagnetic radiation that are distinguished by the way they interact with matter. Once you understand this, get a mental image for how each of these types interact with matter. Yes, do your best to imagine what “vibrating infrared waves” might look like. It doesn’t matter if it’s not entirely accurate; the point is that you digest the text instead of reading it at the surface level only.

6. Interact with the text and anticipate questions.

With the above passage, a natural reaction might be: “I have no idea what that even means… I can’t even imagine waves vibrating…” Instead, try to have these kinds of thoughts: “Okay, so there are different types of electromagnetic radiation… and their properties overlap… so I might be asked whether a wavelength with given properties can possibly be a certain type of radiation or not…” Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by big vocabulary words or unfamiliar concepts.

7. Embrace the challenge.

Above all, you should enter the passage with the right mindset. Make the GMAT “fun”: approach the test as a kind of puzzle or game.  One metaphor which I find helpful is to think of GMAT reading as mastering a set of moguls on a ski mountain — as opposed to leisurely floating down a river.

Unless you’re paralyzed by it, a healthy dose of perfectionism is not a bad ingredient to add to your GMAT prep. If you enter with the mentality that you dislike reading comp and just want to get a “few right” to “minimize damage,” you could end up missing an entire series of questions. Better to have an optimistic mentality and bring focus and intensity to each question. Visualize success!