LSAT Tutorial — How to Optimize Your Reading-Comprehension Performance
This Q&A-style LSAT tutorial first examines the Reading Comprehension format (including question types). It then explores strategies for optimizing your Reading Comprehension performance. Here you'll learn how to recognize various wrong-answer types, what to look for when you read the passages, and how to pace yourself and allocate your time.
Q: What is the overall structure of a Reading Comprehension section?
A: An LSAT Reading Comprehension section consists of four discrete groups, or sets, of questions. Each set is based on a different passage of text, except that one of the four question sets is based on two shorter passages instead of one long one. The two passages in this set are always related to each other, and their combined length is about the same as that of a longer passage: 400-550 words (about one column of text on a two-column page in the test booklet).
The total number of questions on a Reading Comprehension section is either 27 or 28. The number of questions per set can vary, but seven is the average number.
Q: What types of reading passages can I expect to find on the LSAT?
A: LSAT reading passages are drawn from a variety of academic disciplines within the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. A typical Reading Comprehension section includes one passage from each of these broad knowledge areas, along with a cross-disciplinary passage.
The test makers intentionally draw from an eclectic array of subject matter to avoid undue bias in favor of test takers familiar with any one subject area. Moreover, the test makers carefully craft the questions so that they can be answered based solely on the passage information and without prior knowledge of the subject at hand.
As for their style, LSAT reading passages are, in a word, dense. The test makers will edit a passage's source material extensively in order to pack it tightly with the sort of detailed information and ideas needed for crafting a complete set of LSAT questions.
Q: How are Reading Comprehension passages and questions presented in the test booklet?
A: Each discrete Reading Comprehension set is contained within two facing pages of the test booklet. The passage begins on the left-facing page and is followed by the questions, which continue to the right-facing page. As a result, you won't need to turn pages when working back and forth between the passage and questions.
Every fifth line of each passage is numbered: 5, 10, and so forth. Some questions will reference a specific part of the passage by line number(s) in order to help you locate that part.
Q: What types of Reading Comprehension questions can I expect to encounter on the test?
A: LSAT Reading Comprehension questions fall into rather predictable types based on the various cognitive abilities under the "reading comprehension" rubric. Here's one way to categorize them:
- Central idea and primary purpose. These questions test whether you understand the passage's main point, central idea, or overall thesis — in other words, whether you can see the proverbial forest from the trees.
- Specific recall. These questions test simply on whether you recall specific, detailed information contained in the passage.
- Inference. These questions test whether you understand what a particular part of the passage suggests but does not explicitly state, as determined by the context in which that part appears.
- Author agreement. These questions gauge (1) your understanding of the author's perspective, point of view, or position on the topic at hand, and (2) your ability to distinguish that position from others discussed in the passage.
- Specific function. These questions test your understanding of the author's reason or purpose in mentioning specific facts or in providing specific information, as determined by the context in which the facts or information appears.
- Method and structure. These questions focus either on the author's method of argumentation or on how the author organizes and presents his or her ideas.
The question types listed above are in descending order of frequency in which they appear on the LSAT. On your exam you might encounter slight variations on these questions types, but nothing radically different from what's listed here.
Q: Are some types of LSAT Reading Comprehension questions inherently more difficult than others?
A: The only questions that are inherently easier than others are specific-recall questions, which simply gauge your memory and your ability to "look up" information — two comparatively low-level skills. Otherwise, LSAT Reading Comprehension is not about memorizing or remembering what you read. Rather, it's about understanding the author's ideas and about following the author's train of thought or line of reasoning.
Except for specific-recall questions, no type of Reading Comprehension question is inherently more difficult than another. A question of any type can be designed to be either easy or difficult. Creating a challenging question is primarily a matter of drafting "runner-up" answer choices that have significant merit but are not as good as the best choice.
Q: Doesn't the term "runner-up" suggest that there might be more than one viable answer choice for a Reading Comprehension question? If so, how can I distinguish between the correct answer and a runner-up?
A: Consider a question that asks you to recognize the passage's central idea. A runner-up answer choice might incorporate the passage's central idea but go further to embrace an idea that's too broad — one that's beyond the passage's scope. By the same token, another runner-up choice might be a bit too narrow in scope.
In nearly any Reading Comprehension question there's a qualitative difference between the best answer choice and the others — and that difference can be subtle. This feature doesn't mean, however, that the test makers are asking you to split hairs or play semantic games. That's not what Reading Comprehension — or the LSAT in general — is about. What this feature does suggest, however, is one very important bit of advice: always read all the answer choices before selecting one.
Q: It seems that all of the LSAT prep books go into great detail about how to spot wrong-answer choices. Is this advice useful?
A: To a point. Knowing how the test makers draft wrong-answer choices helps you recognize wrong answers when you see them. The test makers use two particular wrong-answer ploys especially often.
The first such ploy is to bait you with an answer choice that is unsupported by the passage — one that brings in information not mentioned or ideas not suggested in the passage. This ploy can be quite insidious, because as you read the choice your initial reaction might be that you missed something when you read the passage. You'll then waste time re-reading it to find information that isn't there. Test takers most likely to fall for this ploy are those who lack confidence in their reading skills and those who skim the passages or read them too quickly.
The second of the test makers' favorite wrong-answer ploys is to tempt you with an answer choice that is supported by the passage but doesn't respond to the question. This type of answer choice can be tempting because on its face it looks credible. As you read it, you might think "Yes, I remember reading that" and select that choice as a result.
Q: What do these wrong-answer ploys suggest in terms of test-taking strategy?
A: There are two lessons here. First, read the entire passage straight through; as you read, jot down some notes that capture its main ideas and main supporting points. By properly assimilating the passage information you can easily spot and confidently eliminate any answer choice that introduces new information or provides an unsupported assertion.
Second, after reading a question stem (the question itself, apart from the answer choices) take a few seconds to formulate your own response to it. Try to predict, or predetermine, what sort of "best" answer you're looking for among the choices. This technique will help you avoid falling prey to wrong-answer ploys and help you zero-in on the one or two most viable choices.
Q: Can you be more specific about the sort of note-taking that might be useful for responding to the questions, and why?
A: Jot down key points as you read them — for example, key names, and the events or ideas associated with them, reasons that support a major point in the passage — that sort of thing. Organize your notes by paragraph. When you've finished reading the passage, review your notes and formulate your own brief thesis statement for the passage, then jot down that statement.
This note-taking process compels you to read actively, to anticipate the sorts of questions you already know you'll be asked, by continually asking yourself as you read the passage:
Based on what I've read so far, how would I express the central idea, or thesis, of this passage in one sentence?
What is the author's purpose in mentioning this particular point in the passage? How does this point relate to the passage's central idea?
What is the author's point of view on this topic vis-a-vis other viewpoints presented in the passage?
Also, if you need to go back to the passage to respond to a particular question, your notes will help you identify where to look.
Q: What about pacing yourself during a Reading Comprehension question set? How much time should test takers devote to each question?
A: Answering 27-28 questions in 35 minutes means devoting an average of 75 seconds to each question. But much of your time will be spent reading the passages, and so pacing yourself at a per-question rate isn't entirely appropriate. Instead, plan to allocate 8 minutes to each question set. Following this schedule will leave at least a few minutes at the end for you to reconsider some of your answers.
Of course, you might spend less time on a set that provides a relatively short passage or relatively few questions. But don't count on it; the set with the shortest passage or fewest questions may very well turn out to be the most challenging one and hence just as time consuming as the others.
Q: What about techniques such as speed-reading and skimming? Would you recommend these techniques?
A: To "speed read" a passage is to read it in full but at a quicker pace than normal. To "skim" a passage is to read only selected portions, such as the first and last sentences of each paragraph. If you're running out of time, by all means use whichever method you prefer. With either method you'll get the gist of the passage, which will suffice to make reasoned guesses for at least some of the remaining questions — especially central-idea, primary-purpose, and author-agreement questions.
Otherwise, don't use either technique. Either one takes time that could be better spent reading the passage with due care and making judicious notes.
Q: Assuming a test taker has at least a few weeks until exam day, what's the best way to prepare for LSAT Reading Comprehension?
A: Practice pushing your reading pace. Most people read at a far slower pace than optimal. Work on increasing your reading pace by taking practice sets — the ones you'll find in LSAT prep books. Most people find that their overall comprehension actually improves as they quicken their reading pace, at least up to a point. That's because keeping yourself moving helps you see how the ideas flow from one to the next.
Q: Finally, what is the single most important advice every test taker should keep in mind when tackling Reading Comprehension sets on the LSAT?
A: As you read any Reading Comprehension passage, think thesis. Remember: The majority of the Reading Comprehension questions will test your understanding of the passage's central idea and the major points that support that idea. If you're not careful, you can easily get bogged down in the detailed information and lose sight of the main gist.
By focusing on thesis, you'll also have a compass by which to analyze every question in the set. In other words, regardless of the question, you can confidently eliminate any answer choice that runs contrary to the passage's thesis and major supporting ideas. This is the most useful way of ferreting out wrong-answer choices and making reasoned guesses — and hence optimizing your Reading Comprehension performance.