Reading Comprehension - Natural/Sciences


Reading comprehension has always been considered to be one of the most important sections of the CAT exam. It is one of the key areas of CAT Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension (VARC) section. These RCs consist of 2-3 paragraphs with a word limit of 500-900 words depending upon the management entrance exam. 4 to 5 questions will be given at the end based on the passage and candidate needs to solve them based on how they understand the passage. There are different genres in RCs, such as science, history, geography, current affairs, economics, humanities, etc. In this section, we focus on RCs based on Natural Sciences. That means, topics related to the sciences in the physical world, e.g. physics, chemistry, geology, biology.

Importance Of Reading Comprehension

Every single entrance exam related to management has a Reading Comprehension section, be it CAT, GMAT, XAT, NMAT, CET or SNAP. And these RC based questions usually constitute 24% of the total marks – which is almost one-fourth of the entire paper. For example, in CAT, there are 24 questions of RCs out of 34 questions in VARC i.e. having 70% weightage. Although the level of difficulty of the passages and the questions thereof vary from one exam to another – RC importance to a candidates’ overall performance in any management exam cannot be underestimated. Hence, the aspirants need to prepare well for this section as it takes time and constant practice to develop speed reading, understanding the context, and then correctly answer RC questions. 

Let’s see some more details in the table given below:


ExamYearNo. of RCsNo. of Rc
based RCs
No. of Questions in
based RCs
Level of
CAT2019 Slot 152415Difficult
CAT2019 Slot 252415Moderate
CAT2018 Slot 1524210Moderate
CAT2018 Slot 2524210Difficult
CAT2017 Slot 152429Moderate
CAT2017 Slot 252416Difficult

List of Concepts

There are no specific concepts or written rules to answer the questions correctly for an RC passage. The most important skill is the candidates’ reading speed and understanding of the content. But still, we can use different strategies while practising and check which one works.

  • Active Reading: Reading with concentration helps the reader engage with the content and understand it better
  • Speed of reading: We all read at our own pace. But in competitive exams, time is one of the factors we need to beat. Reading more will eventually help in increasing your reading speed
  • Skimming: This is a reading technique that can be very useful if used correctly. In the first read, it is usually advisable to skim through the passage, especially the numbers mentioned
  • Elimination method: Once you are done reading the passage, it’s time to deal with the questions. The questions can have 4 or 5 options depending upon the exam. You can eliminate options if those are too narrow, too broad, factually incorrect (as per the passage), or are not at all related to the idea of the passage
  • Natural Sciences:
Passages on natural sciences can include topics related to physics, chemistry, biology, or zoology (zoology related topic was asked in CAT 2019 Slot 1) among many other physical sciences. The Reading Comprehensions from the natural science topics mentioned above in CAT question paper are usually filled with either facts or numbers or sometimes, both.
It is always advisable to skim through the passage in the first chance to understand the basic story-line of the passage. One might skip the data and values given in this chance. The next reading, when one is comfortable with the passage length and basic idea, should be the in-depth one. 
Reading the questions before reading the passage will help the student to find the correct answers quickly and efficiently.

Some Questions from Previous Papers

CAT 2019 Slot 1

Scientists recently discovered that Emperor Penguins—one of Antarctica’s most celebrated species—employ a particularly unusual technique for surviving the daily chill. As detailed in an article published today in the journal Biology Letters, the birds minimize heat loss by keeping the outer surface of their plumage below the temperature of the surrounding air. At the same time, the penguins’ thick plumage insulates their body and keeps them toasty.

The researchers analyzed thermographic images taken over roughly a month during June 2008. During that period, the average air temperature was 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit. At the same time, the majority of the plumage covering the penguins’ bodies was even colder: the surface of their warmest body part, their feet, was an average 1.76 degrees Fahrenheit, but the plumage on their heads, chests, and backs were -1.84, -7.24 and -9.76 degrees Fahrenheit respectively. Overall, nearly the entire outer surface of the penguins’ bodies was below freezing at all times, except for their eyes and beaks. The scientists also used a computer simulation to determine how much heat was lost or gained from each part of the body—and discovered that by keeping their outer surface below the air temperature, the birds might paradoxically be able to draw very slight amounts of heat from the air around them. The key to their trick is the difference between two different types of heat transfer: radiation and convection.

The penguins do lose internal body heat to the surrounding air through thermal radiation, just as our bodies do on a cold day. Because their bodies (but not surface plumage) are warmer than the surrounding air, heat gradually radiates outward over time, moving from a warmer material to a colder one. To maintain body temperature while losing heat, penguins, like all warm-blooded animals, rely on the metabolism of food. The Penguins, though, have an additional strategy. Since their outer plumage is even colder than the air, the simulation showed that they might gain back a little of this heat through thermal convection—the transfer of heat via the movement of a fluid (in this case, the air). As the cold Antarctic air cycles around their bodies, slightly warmer air comes into contact with the plumage and donates minute amounts of heat back to the penguins, then cycles away at a slightly colder temperature. 

Most of this heat, the researchers note, probably doesn’t make it all the way through the plumage and back to the penguins’ bodies, but it could make a slight difference. At the very least, the method by which a penguin’s plumage wicks heat from the bitterly cold air that surrounds it helps to cancel out some of the heat that’s radiating from its interior. And given the Emperors’ unusually demanding breeding cycle, every bit of warmth counts… Since [penguins trek as far as 75 miles to the coast to breed and male penguins] don’t eat anything during [the incubation period of 64 days], conserving calories by giving up as little heat as possible is crucial. 


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Q.1. In the last sentence of paragraph 3, “slightly warmer air” and“at a slightly colder temperature” refer to AND respectively: 

1. The cold Antarctic air which becomes warmer because of the heat radiated out from penguins’ bodies AND the fall in temperature of the surrounding air after thermal convection 

2. The cold Antarctic air whose temperature is higher than that of the plumage AND the fall in temperature of the Antarctic air after it has transmitted some heat to the plumage. 

3. The air trapped in the plumage which is warmer than the Antarctic air AND the fall in temperature of the trapped plumage air after it radiates out some heat. 

4. The air inside penguins’ bodies kept warm because of the metabolism of food AND the fall in temperature of the body air after it transfers some heat to the plumage.


Answer: Option 2


Answer Explanation: If we read paragraph 3, we can see that “slightly warmer air” refers to the cold Antarctic air whose temperature is higher than that of the plumage and “at a slightly colder temperature” refers to the fall in temperature of the Antarctic air after it has transferred some heat to the plumage of the emperor penguins. Therefore, option 2 is the correct answer.


Q.2. Which of the following best explains the purpose of the word “paradoxically” as used by the author? 

1. Keeping their body colder helps penguins keep their plumage warmer. 

2. Heat loss through radiation happens despite the heat gain through convection. 

3. Keeping a part of their body colder helps penguins keep their bodies warmer. 

4. Heat gain through radiation happens despite the heat loss through convection 


Answer: Option 3

Answer Explanation: Any statement that is contradictory to the actual events described in the passage is known as a paradoxical statement. If we refer to paragraph 3, we see that Emperor penguins keep their outer plumage colder than the surrounding air to keep their bodies warmer. The heat that they lose through thermal radiation is more than made up slightly through convection. But since option 3 talks about the exact opposite, it is paradoxical. Therefore, it is the correct answer.


Q.3. Which of the following can be responsible for Emperor Penguins losing body heat? 

1. Thermal convection

2. Plumage

3. Reproduction process

4. Food metabolism


Answer: Option 3

Answer Explanation: In paragraph 4 it is written that “And given the Emperors’ unusually demanding breeding cycle, every bit of warmth counts….. Since [penguins trek as far as 75 miles to the coast to breed and male penguins] don’t eat anything during [the incubation period of 64 days], conserving calories by giving up as little heat as possible is crucial”. This clearly shows that the emperor penguins lose heat during the reproduction process. Therefore, option 3 is the correct answer.


Q.4. All of the following, if true, would negate the findings of the study reported in the passage EXCEPT: 

1. the penguins’ plumage were made of a material that did not allow any heat transfer through convection or radiation. 

2. the temperature of the plumage on the penguins’ heads, chests, and backs were found to be 1.84, 7.24, and 9.76 degrees Fahrenheit respectively 

3. the average temperature of the feet of penguins in June 2008 was found to be 2.76 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. the average air temperature recorded during June 2008 in the area of study was –10 degrees Fahrenheit.


Answer: Option 3

Answer Explanation: The question asks us to choose the option that is true according to the passage. The double negatives: negate and EXCEPT cancel themselves out. The following extract from paragraph 2, “The researchers analyzed thermographic images . . . taken over roughly a month during June 2008. During that period, the average air temperature was 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit. At the same time, the majority of the plumage covering the penguins’ bodies was even colder: the surface of their warmest body part, their feet, was an average 1.76 degrees Fahrenheit, but the plumage on their heads, chests and backs were – 1.84, -7.24 and -9.76 degrees Fahrenheit respectively” contains all the information required to be able to answer this question. Option 1 cannot be said to be true according to the passage. The material of the penguins’ plumage has not been discussed in the passage. In option 2, the temperatures of the plumage on the penguins’ heads, chests and backs should have read -1.84, -7.24 and -9.76 degrees Fahrenheit respectively. Thus, option 2 is also untrue and is eliminated. Option 3 is correct and true and is borne out by the extract given above. Option 4 is not true. The extract given above gives the average air temperature recorded during the month of June 2008 in the area of study to be 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit. Hence, the correct answer is option 3 


How to deal with that topic preparation

Level 1

  • The basic step towards mastering RC is reading. Read as much as you can. You can start by reading something that you are interested in. It can be a newspaper, novel, non-fiction, magazine, etc.
  • After reading, start forming a summary of it and try understanding the idea behind what you have read
  • Make a habit of reading and summarizing 1-2 RC passages a day. The more you read, your ability to skim through unimportant or lengthy descriptions will increase and you will concentrate more and more on the facts relevant to answering the questions

Level 2:

  • Once you have developed a reading habit, start reading topics specific to the ones that could be asked in the CAT paper
  • Reading the editorials of the newspapers can help the student to familiarize with the concepts on which the passages could be based
  • Students should also time themselves to check how many words they can read per minute. A score of 300 words per minute is good but understanding while reading is also of prime importance and should not be neglected

Level 3:

  • Once the students cross above two levels, they are ready to solve the CAT question papers from the previous years
  • Also, it is very important to solve different types of passages i.e. around different topics. Some passages would be of moderate difficulty and others might be extremely difficult. Hence, the more a student practices, the more will be his chances of scoring high
  • Try using the elimination strategy as explained in the question above to go around the question and solve it effectively