Should I / How do I take notes on GRE reading passages?

Whether or not you should take notes while reading GRE RC passages is a divisive subject. If you're struggling to hold the salient points of a passage in your mind, we recommend taking notes primarily as a tool to learn how to read actively.

In this blog post, Chris imagines note-taking as training wheels or crutches — that is, taking notes can be initially useful, but, in the end, it's not as efficient a method as active reading is.

Let's assume you want to take notes before taking the training wheels off. How should you do so?


1. Take notes at the end of each paragraph

Pause at the end of each paragraph to quickly write down the main point from that paragraph.  The idea is to have brief notes that you can reference from the passage.

2. Keep it brief

Try to limit your note to just a few words. The longer your notes, the more time you're using and the less you're training yourself to remember in your mind, rather than having to write it down. In terms of moving toward being able to read actively — and, eventually, to stop taking notes entirely — keeping your notes brief is very important.

3. Review your notes to see the main idea of the passage

After you have read the entire passage, look at your notes and ask yourself, "why did the author write this?" This is the main idea. 

Take this passage as an example. I read this passage and at the end of every paragraph asked myself, 'what am I reading?'  These are my notes (in 'shorthand' — remember, only you have to understand your notes):

  • P1: N.H. got attention from fem critics for short time 
  • P2: Pre-fem critics of N.H.=same ideas as fem. critics
  • P3: Pre-fem and fem critics agree: lit. women=authors values
  • Main idea: pre-fem and fem critics=similar ideas on N.H. (for the main idea, I looked at my three points and asked myself, "why did the author write this passage?)

Now, no matter what type of question I get after this passage, I can look at my notes to help me answer it. If the question is asking about a specific detail, these notes will help me to find the detail in the passage. If the question is asking about the tone or main idea, I can use these notes to help me answer the question in my own words before looking at the answer choices. 

But remember: ideally, you should work toward being able to remember these main paragraph ideas without writing anything down. That's active reading.

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