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How to approach a complex Reading Comprehension?

There are two kinds of Reading Comprehensions one is faced with:
a. Based on reading material that appears in newspapers (this is the easy kind)
b. Based on reading material from philosophy/psychology/sociology etc. books.

The crux of the matter is that the majority of CAT Reading Comprehensions fall in the latter category. Now we don’t read these subjects on an everyday basis, in fact, we just about never read them. For most of us, these subjects are alien and their content is esoteric and abstruse.

What is our response to these RCs in the exam?
Generally, most test-takers have predictable responses to these RCs: their system shuts down midway through the passage and the keep feeling that they cannot understand the passage. The brain continuously hammers a negative stimuli that it cannot understand the context of these passages, and it keeps telling you that either the passage is boring or too complex or beyond your reach. Your response to the situation? You either quit reading or go through the passage with half-hearted attention. The key question is how do we beat this brain mechanism and how do we trick ourselves into believing that the given text is approachable and solvable?

This is where RC note-making comes into the picture. How do you do it? To begin with, you do this exercise on a pen and paper, and as time goes on and you get used to it, you start doing it mentally. I totally accept that making notes while solving RCs takes time, but if you can master this skill, and ultimately learn to make mental notes of what you are reading, the time you save will be far greater than the time you waste in the first place.

Keeping this in mind, how shall be Reading Comprehension note-making be approached?
Well, a couple of simple steps for this simple exercise:

Step-1: For every paragraph, identify the subject (the what or who) of the paragraph.
Step-2: For every paragraph, identify the main point (the why or how) of the paragraph.

This way, you will be able to establish the main ideas and subject of every paragraph. Once you have done this, you can easily recall the paragraph-wise flow of the passage, and once that is done, you are ready to handle majority of the questions in the passage.

Which is the biggest benefit of this exercise?
Doing this exercise has one major positive: it keeps you switched on always and does not allow you to go to sleep while reading (our biggest enemy).

Does this exercise hurt to begin with?
Absolutely, you will curse me to begin with. You will think that the advice of the bald man is foolish and naïve, but as time passes, you would realize the virtue of following this simple method of memory enhancement and retention.

Why do the notes have to be written to begin with?
Simple answer: we are all lazy beings and we like to cut corners. If you have to write it down means you have to do it, and if you do it regularly means it becomes a habit. Once it becomes a habit, you stop writing the notes, and instead do the exercise mentally.

Is this relevant for CAT?
This is in fact super relevant for CAT. The level of abstraction in CAT passages means that such a thing is highly advisable. Take this as an exercise to build reading stamina.

Can I show you example of how this works?
Absolutely. Even better, let’s take a previous year CAT passage, and try to see whether we can use that for this exercise.

Sample Passage: CAT-2002
Extract from ‘A History of Western Philosophy’ by Bertrand Russell

Para 1: The conceptions of life and the world which we call ‘philosophical’ are a product of two factors: one inherited religious and ethical conceptions; the other, the sort of investigation which may be called ‘scientific’, using this word in its broadest sense. Individual philosophers have differed widely in regard to the proportions in which these two factors entered into their systems, but it is the presence of both, in some degree, that characterizes philosophy. ‘Philosophy’ is a word which has been used in many ways, some wider, some narrower. I propose to use it in a very wide sense, which I will now try to explain.

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Para-1 Subject: Philosophy
Para-1 Main Point: Thought philosophy (2 types, religious/scientific) is composed of.

Para 2: Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge so I should contend belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a ‘No Man’s Land’, exposed to attack from both sides; this ‘No Man’s Land’ is philosophy.

Para-2 Subject: Philosophy
Para-2 Main Point: No Man’s Land is philosophy, between religion/dogma and science

Para 3: Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. Is the world divided into mind and matter, and if so, what is mind and what is matter? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of carbon and water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly? To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory.

Para-3 Subject: Questions that interest the mind
Para-3 Main Point: Questions that interest the mind have no answer in the lab

Para 4: Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite; but their definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion. The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy. Why, then, you may ask, waste time on such insoluble problems? To this one may answer as a historian, or as an individual facing the terror of cosmic loneliness.

Para-4 Subject: Questions that interest the mind (continues from the last paragraph)
Para-4 Main Point: The answers of theology are too strong to be right, too deterministic.

Para 5: The answer of the historian, in so far as I am capable of giving it, will appear in the course of this work. Ever since men became capable of free speculation, their actions in innumerable important respects, have depended upon their theories as to the world and human life, as to what is good and what is evil. This is as true in the present day as at any former time. To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers. There is here a reciprocal causation: the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances.

Para-5 Subject: Historian (not in the traditional sense, one who observers society in general)
Para-5 Main Point: How the historian observes and understands, through philosophy, nations and its individuals

Para 6: There is also, however, a more personal answer. Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we may become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge, where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.

Para-6 Subject: Personal Answer to why spend time on philosophy
Para-6 Main Point: What can be learned by philosophy and how it plays a role in the life of an individual.

The above forms a paragraph-wise analysis of the above passage. This is what I take out of the passage, and how it leaves an impression on my brain. Were you able to carry out a similar analysis? If so, great. If not, keep working till you are able to develop this kind of comprehension ability.

Happy learning.

Do post your analysis and notes in the comments. Let’s have some discussions on this passage.

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