The Secret To GMAT Verbal: Reading!

gmat verbal advice

Verbal in the dumps? Test preparation may not be the best option for you.

For some people the GMAT verbal is a piece of cake. These folks waltz through the section with confidence and panache, unworried, unhurried and with a meaty 15 minutes left on the clock nail a 40+ score (90th percentile).  And that’s without any preparation.

Many others start with a verbal score in the mid 20’s, and, regardless of what sort of test preparation hell they put themselves through, stagnate in the swampy high 20’s/low 30’s seriously limiting their potential composite scores and MBA options (It’s not possible to hit the average GMAT scores at many elite programs without scoring in the 80th percentile or at least a 36 on the verbal). For these GMAT hopefuls, the reading comprehension and critical reasoning skills tend to be weak with the result that the performance on those question types is erratic.

Are you a part of this second group? Are you interested in applying to a competitive MBA program that requires a stellar GMAT score? It is likely that improving your verbal score will be a long term project. One measured in months and likely not 1-3 months but more on the order of 6-12 months. Being realistic about the process will make your verbal preparation as efficient as possible, help you avoid burning out, save you money, and make it as likely as possible that you’ll achieve the big gains that you want.


You might be wondering: what the heck should I be doing for those 6-12 months? Tons of test prep questions!  Just kidding. That’s probably not what you should do.

Running through hundreds of GMAT questions won’t necessarily boost your reading ability, especially if you’re reading below a certain level.  Also consider that you have a limited amount of official GMAT material. You might want to get your reading straight before blasting it.

Rather than stepping right into GMAT lockdown put the preparation materials aside and just work on your reading. How? By reading challenging periodicals and novels. You’ll find the work less stressful and perhaps even enjoyable. This way you’ll be improving your verbal and not spinning your wheels on the test prep treadmill.

I’m sold on this reading thing! What now?

Start slow. Read one challenging article per day. Focus on being an active reader. Take as much time as you need to soak in the meaning of the text. I’d avoid daily periodicals as they tend to be less dense than their more seldom released counterparts. The Economist is a great option as the depth of the articles matches that of GMAT passages. Here’s a detailed breakdown of using the Economist to improve GMAT reading comprehension. It also has some tips on active reading.  After a few weeks of these articles mix in a novel. This could be fiction or non-fiction. Start with one chapter in the evening. Again, be active in your reading! Along with this work it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to meet with an English teacher or a reading teacher to talk through what you have read. These tutors are generally way cheaper than GMAT tutors. GMAT tutoring is great but an expensive tool for this purpose.

Reading for Sentence Correction

As you build up some steam, start thinking about the reading in terms of sentence correction. Go ahead and break down sentences. Think about subject verb agreement. Match pronouns to nouns. Match modifiers to nouns. Think about lists and parallelism. Look up any unknown vocabulary words and keep a list of these words so that you can review them on a regular basis.

It’s just a matter of time (sometimes)

Will this be quick? Probably not. It will take some time to improve your fundamental verbal skills. This student took 12 months to hit a 700+ GMAT score. In my experience, you’re better off accepting that reality and doing the things necessary rather than diving into XYZ test prep system which is not going to focus on your basic reading issues. Also keep in mind that in your daily routine at work or just reading the news you should avoid skimming/passive/brain dead reading.  This lack of engagement is counter-productive. Active reading (and thinking) in your regular life = active reading and thinking on your GMAT.

 I’ve put in a solid six months and am devouring the classics. Now what?

Awesome! Keep it up. Next stop: LSAT. The amount of Official GMAT material is limited, especially on the difficult side. If you’re really serious about this verbal score put in two months of LSAT critical reasoning and reading comprehension work. It’s going to be very challenging but the LSAT questions will provide you with an edge in your GMAT preparation. There are a few things to consider in doing this LSAT work so here’s an article on using the the LSAT for GMAT preparation.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Now your GMAT preparation begins. You’re ready to make use of official GMAT materials and perhaps some test preparation to work on GMAT specific strategies. From here I’d plan 8-9 weeks of consistent work before taking an official GMAT. Don’t stress the first test! If you’ve got a big goal tackle it in stages (although this depends on the score range, think 50 or so points at a time). I hope that this will help some GMAT folks out there get on the right track!

There’s a ton to dig into here so feel free to comment with any questions. Also, I’m sure book suggestions would be greatly appreciated so fire away with them!

Andrew Geller of Atlantic GMAT

Andrew Geller is founder of Atlantic GMAT.  He’s a GMAT expert who scored an impressive 770 on the exam. He has been teaching since 2002 and throughout the past decade has worked for various big and small test prep companies helping people succeed on the GMAT, LSAT, SAT, ACT, and GRE. Throughout his career he has successfully taught people from many different backgrounds, countries, and starting scores.