Mastering Reading Comprehension
Step into the test makers’ shoes for a moment. The LSAT contains a section called “Reading Comprehension.” What, as the test maker, do you intend to test here?
Are you looking to examine an applicant’s command of logic and argumentation? No, you do that on Logical Reasoning.
Are you looking to examine an applicant’s ability to solve complex systems of variables and rules? Do you want to see whether they’re willing to practice arcane puzzles for weeks, months, or years until they achieve mastery? No, you’ve got Logic Games for that.
Reading Comprehension tests an applicant’s ability to understand what they’ve read. Stop looking for gimmicks and shortcuts, and start focusing on genuinely understanding the passage. Here’s what you need to know about going deeper on Reading Comprehension.
Figure Out the Main Point
Passages generally are either persuasive or informative. The author’s overarching purpose, that is, will be either to persuade you of their argument or to provide you with information on a certain topic.
When you reach the end of the passage, figure out whether the passage is primarily persuasive or informative, then restate its main point in your own words, in plain English. This is your main point prediction. Do this before jumping into the answer choices.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to glean the passage’s main point: Why is the author wasting your time with this passage? What is the author trying to sell you? What’s the key takeaway that the author would like you to walk away with?
You want a one-sentence summary that captures the gist of what the author is trying to convey. Students often go wrong on Main Point predictions in one of two ways: Either their prediction is too detailed, or it’s too broad. To illustrate how to strike a correct balance, consider the following examples:
Bad: This passage is about chipmunks. (Too broad.)
Bad: In this passage, the author starts by giving background information on how chipmunks breed, then explains two famous scientists are wrong about chipmunk mating theory because one of them ignores chipmunks’ familial relationships and the other doesn’t realize that chipmunks don’t all follow the same breeding patterns. The author uses this refutation of these two scientists’ work to argue in favor of the author’s theory of chipmunk mating behavior, which is actually much simpler than those two scientists thought. Finally, the author responds to some objections. (Too detailed.)
Better: The author argues that chipmunks’ mating behavior is much simpler than two famous scientists previously thought.
All Reading Comprehension Questions are “Must Be Trues”
You never have to “read between the lines” on Reading Comprehension. The correct answers always have direct support from the passage. In other words, the correct answers must be true given what was stated in the passage.
Test writers get bored asking, “Which one of these five does the passage say?” So instead, they write questions like these:
- Which one of the following most accurately expresses the main point of the passage?
- Which one of the following is most analogous to the literary achievements that the author attributes to Dove?
- According to the passage, in the U.S. there is a widely held view that…
- The author’s attitude toward the deep rift between poetry and fiction in the U.S. can be most accurately described as one of…
- In the passage, the author conjectures that a cause of the deep rift between fiction and poetry in the United States may be that…
- It can be inferred from the passage that the author would be most likely to believe which one of the following?
- If this passage had been excerpted from a longer text, which one of the following predictions about the near future of U.S. literature would be most likely to appear in that text?
Are all of these questions Must Be Trues? Well, consider them one at a time:
- Yep. Main Point questions are a subset of Must Be True. The correct answer here has to come straight out of the passage. It can use synonyms, of course, but the correct answer has to be something that the passage actually says, or else it’s automatically wrong.
- Tricky, but yes. If you’re looking for something “analogous” to what the author says about Dove’s literary achievements, start with asking yourself, “What does the author say about Dove’s literary achievements?” Maybe the passage says that Dove was able to write books while also being named after a brand of chocolate. If that’s what it says in the passage, then something analogous to that might be, “Hershey wrote a book of poetry” or, “Toblerone wrote a treatise on tort law.” Start with what the passage actually says, then we find something analogous to that.
- For sure. Note the first three words here: “according to the passage.” If they’re looking for something that’s “according to the passage,” then you must pick an answer taken directly from the passage. The test is literal.
- Yep. The author’s attitude is not something you can imagine or invent. Before looking at the answer choices, paraphrase what the author says about the rift between fiction and poetry in the US. If the author says the rift is “unfortunate,” then the correct answer has to say that—or a similarly negative synonym. If the author says the rift is “beneficial,” then the correct answer has to say exactly that—or something similarly positive. If the author says the rift is “mysterious” or “widening” or “deep,” then that’s what the correct answer will also say.
- Yes. Here, the test maker is getting fancy with the verb “conjectures,” but all they really mean by that is “says.” They want to know whether you understand the passage. The correct answer must come straight from the passage.
- Yes, yes, yes! This formulation of a Reading Comprehension question is particularly vexing to LSAT novices, who take the phrases “it can be inferred” and “would be most likely to believe” as invitations to speculate. But speculation on the LSAT is always a mistake. “It can be inferred” means “it must be true,” and “most likely to believe” means “they say this.” The most important part of this question is the three-word phrase that novices tend to ignore: “from the passage.” They’re not looking for you to read tea leaves here. They want you to answer the question based on what it actually says in the passage.
- This is another weird one—but upon closer examination, it’s also a Must Be True. They aren’t asking you to magically invent parts of a “longer text” that you haven’t read and that might not even exist. Rather, they want to know whether you understand the parts that you have read. What does the author say about the current state of U.S. literature? How is it currently changing? The correct answer, if you’re making a prediction about the “near future,” is going to be the present state of U.S. literature, modified by whatever current changes are already happening, as described by the passage. That’s it.
Yes, the test makers do throw in an explicit Strengthen or Weaken question from time to time. But when they’re asking for the main point, primary purpose, author’s attitude, or any of the various quirky questions posed above, they’re really just testing whether you understand the passage on the page in front of you.
When in doubt: Must Be True.
The correct answer is correct because it’s what it says in the damn passage. The correct answer is predictable half the time (if not more) if you stop and think about each question before blundering ahead into the answer choices.
If you narrow it down to two answer choices—which shouldn’t be happening very often, because the right answers are very right and each wrong answer is very wrong, often for multiple reasons—lean toward answers that are boring, obvious, vague, and/or conservatively stated. Those answers are easier to prove and, therefore, more likely to be correct. Be extra suspicious of answers that are too specific or strongly worded or that add anything new, different, or extra. Those answers are harder to prove and thus almost always wrong.