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In theory, Reading Comprehension is an easy section. You read a passage and answer questions about it. For the vast majority of questions, the correct answer is given to you, even if it is buried in the passage a bit.
In practice, however, it’s hard. The passages are convoluted, and the information is buried in places where you don’t always expect it. The correct answers paraphrase, making you second-guess yourself. The trap answers are phrased similarly to the correct ones, with small term shifts or degree issues invalidating them. And you only have 35 minutes to read four passages and answer 27 questions.
How can we manage to do that?
As with most things on the LSAT, it’s all about knowing your strategies.
So what Reading Comprehension strategies and tools do we have?
Reading Comprehension Tools
There are three primary tools to help you answer questions.
1) The Passage Itself
The words provided to you are the first tool to help you answer questions. For the vast majority of questions, the correct answers are written on the page (yes, even for Inference questions). Even for the question types that don’t have direct answers provided (Strengthen/Weaken; Analogy/Application), the correct answers are based on information in the passage. While you shouldn’t be going back to the passage for each question, you should definitely be going back to the passage for some questions.
2) The Scale
While reading the passage, you have two goals. One of them is to determine the scale. This is the big picture debate that underscores the passage (or the central argument, if there isn’t a debate). Getting a sense for what the viewpoints are and how they relate is the most important part of reading the passage, and this, by itself, should help you with nearly half of the questions.
3) Passage Map
All of your notes taken while reading make up your passage map. Don’t go overboard and note every detail (most won’t show up in the questions), but definitely tag each paragraph so that you can find relevant information as needed. The passage map is there to help you answer Organization and Purpose questions, while helping you find the specific details you need to answer other questions.
Reading Comprehension Strategies
The tools are what you’re going to use, but the Reading Comprehension strategies are how you’re going to use them. In general, there are three approaches to answering an RC question:
1) Prephrase Based on Your Scale
Main Point question? Primary Purpose question? You should be answering these based on your scale—your big-picture understanding of what happened in the passage. Sure, you’ll occasionally need to head back to the passage itself to confirm a detail in an answer choice. But for the majority of these questions, you should be answering based on this understanding instead of by heading back to the passage.
Some questions will require you to head back to the passage to reread the section in question. Is there a line citation or a specific topic the question is asking you about? If so, head back to the line, or use your passage map to find the relevant section. Reread it, prephrase an answer, and then go to the answer choices.
3) Eliminate, Then Research
For questions that ask about a specific viewpoint and provide answers that are based on details, but don’t provide guidance as to what the question itself is asking about (e.g., Which one of the following would the author of the passage be most likely to agree?), eliminate first, then research.
By this, we mean identify the big picture of what’s being asked. If the question is an Author’s-Attitude question, for example, prephrase the author’s side of the scale. Then, eliminate answers that don’t align with that viewpoint. This will occasionally get you to the correct answer. If it doesn’t, however, use your passage map to research the remaining answers.
The Answers Themselves
One final note. The answers themselves are a tool you can use to help answer questions. Answers that are weaker, more wishy-washy, and reflect a scale are more likely to be correct. Bold, strong answers are less likely. While this shouldn’t be your guiding light, it should be something you consider. If you’re getting bogged down in a question and can’t choose between the last two, pick the weaker one and move on.
Reading Comprehension is difficult because you have to switch between a variety of strategies while juggling a lot of information provided to you in a passage that isn’t always laid out in a clear manner. If you can seamlessly switch between the above Reading Comprehension strategies, however, it’s a much smoother process. ?
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Matt Shinners is a Manhattan Prep instructor and jdMission Senior Consultant based in New York City. After receiving a degree in Biochemistry from Boston College, Matt scored a 180 on his LSAT and enrolled in Harvard Law School. There’s nothing that makes him happier than seeing his students receive the scores they want to get into the schools of their choice. Check out Matt’s upcoming LSAT courses here!