A few weeks back, I gave you five tips – some quick hacks, some hard work – for raising your score on the Logical Reasoning portion of the LSAT. That was a great place to start because Logical Reasoning takes up two of the four scored sections of the exam, and the skills useful in Logical Reasoning can be applied to the other two section types, Reading Comprehension and Logic Games.
This week, we’re going to tackle LSAT Reading Comprehension. Well, there’s good news and bad news, but let’s get the bad news out of the way first: Reading Comprehension is the least hackable (is that a word?) section of the exam. For the most part, you’re going to have to grind it out. The good news about Reading Comprehension is that it presents a familiar face to humanities and liberal arts majors. If you count yourself among their ranks – and most aspiring lawyers do – then you spent your time as an undergraduate reading a lot of dense, scholarly tracts and answering questions about those tracts. That will come in handy.
So, let’s look at five tips for improving your score.
1. Read for argument structure.
LSAT Reading Comprehension primarily tests your ability to read judicial opinions. You may wonder just how they’re doing that when you’re in the fifth snooze-worthy paragraph of a passage detailing the relationship between seed pod analysis and the history of the Irish countryside, but, trust me, that’s what’s going on. When you read a judicial opinion, you have to understand the arguments made by the plaintiff and the defendant.
An argument has two basic parts: (1) the conclusion, which is the thing someone is trying to prove, and (2) premises, which provide support for the conclusion. Your most important job in tackling a Reading Comprehension passage is to identify all the conclusions – there are usually two, but there can be anywhere between one and three conclusions in a passage – as well as all the support for each conclusion. If you do this one thing, you’ll be prepared for most of the questions that will get thrown at you, and we’re not even at tip #2 yet!
2. Track the author’s opinion and attitude.
Again, you’re being tested on your ability to read a judicial opinion, and, in a judicial opinion, not all arguments are created equal. In fact, the judge will outline the positions of both parties, and then – and this is important! – the judge chooses one side. That’s how disputes are resolved, i.e. by determining that one party is right and the other is wrong.
It’s very rare in Reading Comprehension passages that they author uses “I” or “me” or “my” or announces her opinion explicitly. Instead, any opinion that is not assigned to another party is automatically the author’s opinion. A passage might detail the position of a particular set of physicists and then say that those physicists are wrong. That last part – the physicists are wrong – is the author’s opinion. In almost every Reading Comprehension passage, the first question asks what the main point of passage is. The author’s opinion – the argument conclusion that the author agrees with – is the main point of the passage. Track this, and that’s four questions you’ve got in the bag.
You also need to track the author’s attitude. If the author feels strongly about something – a particular situation is fair or unfair or something is good or bad – you are virtually guaranteed to get a question on it. So stop and note it, and that inevitable question is yours for the answering.
3. Knock out wrong answer choices intelligently.
You know what’s just as good as getting the right answer? Eliminating four wrong answers. Most questions – although there are a few exceptions – are asking you about the passage, and an overwhelming number of answers are wrong because they mischaracterize what was said in the passage, sometimes very subtly and sometimes less so. If an answer choice is even slightly different than the passage, then it’s not right.
Look for strong claims with words like “all” or “most,” and be wary of those answers. If a passage, for instance, gives you a situation in which one particular type of frog reproduces asexually and an answer choice talks about most frogs or some other type of frog, it’s unsupported, and you can get rid of it.
Here’s a caveat: There are questions that aren’t actually asking about what happened in the passage. A very popular one will ask you to apply the reasoning from the passage to a different situation. We call these parallel questions. Using this method for knocking out answer choices is inappropriate in such a situation.
4. Know when to cry uncle.
Time is a challenge on all of the LSAT section types, but that’s especially true when it comes to Reading Comprehension. You’ll have 35 minutes to read four passages (five, if you count both passages in the comparative reading portion as its own entity) and answer between 26 and 28 questions.
A point is a point is a point. If you find that you’ve dumped ninety seconds into a question and you’re not able to answer it, cross off all the wrong answers you can and guess. There’s no guessing penalty. If you have time, you can come back to it. If you don’t have time, then just be thankful you bailed at ninety seconds rather than five minutes.
5. As you approach test day, develop a game plan.
This sounds vague as far as tips go. Well, it is, and it isn’t. You’ll spend the majority of your time learning how to answer questions correctly, but the trick is to do that under time pressure in a stressful environment. You may find, as many of my students do, that you’ll just never be able to complete all of the passages and all of the questions in 35 minutes.
That doesn’t mean you’re going to tank the Reading Comprehension section of the LSAT. What it means is that you must have a plan to maximize your performance in spite of that. It may well be that your game plan includes attempting three out of the four passages and taking a hit on the fourth passage. If you’re crushing the first three passages, and able to pull out a point or two on the last one, you may still walk away with a T-14 score.
The larger point is that you must diagnose your weaknesses with a few weeks left before the exam, and then try different strategies on practice exams, sticking with what works and tossing what doesn’t.
In a few weeks I’ll be back with tips and tricks for LSAT Logic Games, a section that practically screams out, “Hack me!”
This article is written by Branden Frankel, a veteran instructor at Blueprint LSAT Preparation, 2010 graduate of UCLA School of Law, and a guy who just happened to score a 175 on the June 2006 LSAT.