Free GRE Course > Reading Comp > The Five Steps > 1. Passage Classification

1. Classify the Passage
Is this passage persuasive or descriptive? Is it about science, business or humanities?

Passage Topics

The GRE doesn’t want to favor anyone with a specific undergraduate degree, so it provides a mix of topics.

1. Science

These passages deal with such topics as chemistry and astronomy and a raging debate relating to a certain scientific issue. Note that science issues often involve cause-and-effect relationships (and the essay questions will revolve around this purported relationship). We covered cause-and-effect relationships in our Critical Reasoning Course.  You might get strengthen/weaken style questions as well.

Example Passage: Discussion in an engineering magazine on a new plan for solar energy.

Science is often subjective. We tend to think of scientific facts as being static and of the scientists themselves as clear and logical, like Spock on Star Trek. In reality, science is full of controversy and conflicting ideas. Science essays on the GRE will often foray into controversy and it’s your job as the reader to see the different points of view, the biases, and the conflict.

2. Law

These essays may also be jargon intensive. While you may already have some background knowledge – it is usually beneficial if you do as it makes the passage easier to read – just remember that specific, outside knowledge will never be strictly necessary to answer an essay question. All the answers you need can be found in the essay itself.

Example Passage: Yale Law Review evaluation of modern labor law and its impact on productivity.

3. Cultural Studies

A large number of these essays focus on historically oppressed groups (their art, culture, and history). The passage’s tone will generally be sympathetic.

Example Passage: Commentary on the political achievements of the Iroquois Confederacy.

4. Society

These essays will discuss public policy-related issues. Any viewpoint won’t be terribly radical. It will adopt a tone and style that you would expect in a typical American law school.

What if you’re more woke than the GRE?
If your personal understanding or view of an issue happens to contradict that of the author, arguing with it could inhibit comprehension of the author’s point of view. Leave your opinions out and try to understand the author’s point of view.

Passage Structures


The author has an opinion and this is expressed in the essay. Often the author advocates a particular position, often against another point of view. Think of this author as an idea salesman who wants you to become a True Believer and reject opposing opinions.


These essays have two different points of view that often clash in a debate-style. The two points of view are argued forcefully. This is common with the dual-passage format (which features two passages instead of a longer one). You need to grasp the two opposing points of view and the areas of disagreement.


In this type of essay, there are generally two different points of view that spawn a third one, which combines elements of the original two.

Presentation Styles


A riddle wrapped up inside a mystery inside an enigma — These questions will pose a question (a paradox or unexplained phenomenon) and then present possible answers/explanations. The controversy in the passage will revolve around the explanation (and so will the questions). The main point will be easy to spot: It’s the answer to the question.

Case Study

These passages will revolve around an event or an example or something happening, with a discussion of what it means or what can be discerned from it.

Cause and Effect

In the passages you’ll see a structure revolving around something causing something else and explanations for this causal relationship. Cause and Effect is a major topic in the Critical Reasoning section, as well. It’s covered in this section.
Similarly, you will find questions often related to Cause and Effect on the Reading Comprehension, such as Strengthening and Weakening. Reading Comprehension is mostly just Critical Reasoning with a longer attention span.


These passages will revolve around the classification of something. Either it can be classified in one category, or another.

The basic unit of every passage is the paragraph. We’ll review how to deconstruct them in the next lesson.

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