LSAT Reading Comprehension can be both a blessing and a curse for LSAT takers.
On the blessing side, LSAT Reading Comprehension is recognizable. Many LSAT takers have never had to identify a flaw in reasoning as they must in the Logical Reasoning section. Almost none have had to assign plumbers to plumbing jobs as they might in a Logic Game! Virtually everyone, on the other hand, has experience with the primary task of the LSAT Reading Comprehension section. Read a passage and answer questions about it? Done.
On the curse side, students tend to come to LSAT Reading Comprehension with baggage. The way we read, how fast we read, what we think is important: all this stuff is established long before we begin our LSAT journey. And, unfortunately, that may not serve us on LSAT Reading Comprehension, or, for that matter, in law school.
For that reason, one of my favorite LSAT Reading Comprehension tips—indeed, one of the first RC tips I share with all my students—is to think of the Reading Comp section not as a hurdle you have to jump to get to law school, but as part of your essential preparation for law school.
Okay, let’s get down to it!
Because the LSAT measures your ability to perform well in law school, LSAT Reading Comprehension tests the kind of reading skills necessary to read well as a law student. What are those skills? A quick look at any law school syllabus can give you some clues.
LSAT Reading Comprehension Tests Efficiency
If you look at a law school syllabus, you’ll probably notice the sheer volume of reading. What does that tell us? That law students have to be able to read efficiently! The LSAT Reading Comprehension section tests your ability to read efficiently by presenting you with 4 passages and 27 questions. That’s a lot of work for 35 minutes! If you read the passages at the pace that you’d read, say, a novel for your Comparative Lit class, looking for subtleties and subtext and insight with which to wow your classmates, you’re not going to finish the section.
But speed alone isn’t the endgame here. If you read the passages at the pace that you’d read, say, an article to see if its relevant to a paper you’re writing, skimming for key topics and relevant details, you’re also not going to finish the section. All the time you save by skimming the passages will get eaten up on the questions because without a solid foundation, you’ll have to go back and reread frequently.
LSAT Reading Comprehension Tips for Mastering Efficiency
- Count the time you spend reading the passages and make that time count! Use your stopwatch to figure out your average read time, then consider the tips below.
- If you’re spending four minutes or more just reading a passage, you’re probably taking too deep of a dive.
- Are you writing out long notes, stopping to ponder an unfamiliar term, or reading and rereading a particularly dense portion of a paragraph? If so, stop it! That’s not efficient!
- Limit your notes to a few words, use shorthand, and push through unknown terms or confusing lines. If the term isn’t defined, you probably don’t need to know its definition. And the densest, hardest lines are often just sand traps that purposefully slow you down. At most, they might house the answer to one question, but frequently they won’t impact your score at all.
- If, on the other hand, you’re spending less than two minutes per passage, you’re probably skimming more than you’re reading. That’s not efficient either. The kind of comprehension you need to answer the questions correctly won’t come from a skim.
- Do you find you struggle with main point, primary purpose, and author agreement questions? If so, you need to pump the breaks on your read. The minutes you spend skimming a passage are minutes wasted if you can’t retain the information to answer big-picture questions.
- For most test takers, the sweet spot is between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half minutes per passage.
LSAT Reading Comprehension Tests Prioritization
If you look at a law school syllabus, you’ll also notice a ton of case brief assignments. A case brief is essentially an outline of a case that you create to help digest the most important information and remember it later. What is the most important information?
- What was the issue in dispute?
- Who are the interested parties?
- What was the judicial opinion?
- What was the rationale for that opinion?
The components of a good case brief directly inform what you should prioritize reading for on LSAT Reading Comprehension.
LSAT Reading Comprehension Tips for Mastering Prioritization
- Separate the wheat from the chaff. You cannot possibly memorize all the cases you read in law school, nor can you memorize the passages you read in the LSAT Reading Comprehension section. For both, prioritize certain types of information, rely on outlining as a tool to organize your thoughts, and don’t get lost slogging through the details.
- On the LSAT, always identify the issue in dispute: we call that the scale because it is often two sides of a debate, but if that imagery doesn’t seem to fit a particular passage, just think of it as the central issue.
- Always identify the interested parties. On LSAT Reading Comprehension, those will be the author, the subject, any theorist(s) cited, and any critics of positions expressed. Note which parts of the passage are dedicated to which party. That will help you relocate information to answer questions down the road.
- While there won’t always be a judicial opinion, most passages on the LSAT Reading Comprehension section will have an opinionated author. Always note whether and how the author weighs in on the central issue.
- Always think about the rationale—in other words, the why behind the passage. What is the evidence that each side uses to support their case? Why is each paragraph there? Leave yourself short notes about the function of each passage, which we call a passage map. This outline of the passage will help you relocate information you need to answer topic-specific questions and will help you answer questions about the role the paragraphs play.
LSAT Reading Comprehension Tests Flexibility
The cases you’ll read in law school will cover a wide range of subject matter, as will the passages on the LSAT. LSAT Reading Comprehension passages fall into four subject categories: humanities, social science, law, and everyone’s favorite, natural sciences. Each LSAT will have a passage from each category. While you don’t need any actual background in these fields, it can help students who feel uncomfortable with any of those areas of study to get a little more familiar.
LSAT Reading Comprehension Tips for Mastering Flexibility
- Broaden your horizons. If you’ve spent your life as a student tinkering with test tubes and petri dishes, you might want to spend a couple of Sundays reading the Arts and Culture section of your favorite newspaper.
- If, on the other hand, Lit Crit is your thing and you haven’t thought about science since high school, expose yourself to publications like Popular Science magazine.
- Feeling like you could use a refresher in all those areas of study? Never fear: we have a collection of articles to get you there.
LSAT Reading Comprehension Tests Pattern Recognition
As important as the differences between cases are in law school, the similarities between them are even more important because they allow the law to be applied. Every passage on LSAT Reading Comprehension is about a different topic. So in order to standardize the passages, LSAT Reading Comprehension writers inject similarities in the form of passage structures. Recognizing the common passage structures will help you find familiarity in passages with unfamiliar subjects and prioritize the information the questions are likely to test. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never heard of the artist the passage is about when you recognize that the passage exhibits the common structure of defending that artist from criticism by reframing their work.
LSAT Reading Comprehension Tips for Mastering Pattern Recognition
- Predict as you read. Look for telltale signs of the passage patterns listed below. When you encounter one, predict the direction the passage is likely to take.
- This list isn’t exhaustive, but here are some common passage structures to look out for:
- A problem is presented and resolutions are explored.
- A debate is presented and the author takes a side.
- A debate is presented and the author reconciles the two sides.
- A debate is presented and the author remains neutral.
- A theory is supported with an extended example.
- Someone is defended from criticism, often by the reframing of their work.
- The importance of someone’s work is argued for.
- An old theory or approach is challenged by a new theory or approach.
LSAT Reading Comprehension Tests Logic
Finally, like any law school curriculum, the LSAT Reading Comprehension section tests your sense of logic. Most of the questions on the section are dedicated to inferring information about the arguments presented, synthesizing information to come up with the main point and primary purpose, or identifying the role that information played. Some questions even mimic those from the Logical Reasoning section, asking you to strengthen or weaken an argument, find a matching argument, or apply the logic of the argument to another situation.
LSAT Reading Comprehension Tips for Mastering Logic
- Keep your eye on the prize. The LSAT is all about arguments, so keep track of who made what argument and where they made it. Highlighting the name of the party in the passage can help you return there to answer questions if need be, and marking certain features of their argument, such as examples, comparisons, predictions, and recommendations, will help you remember how their argument was built so you can answer questions about it without re-reading.
- You also need to know where each party stands on the central issue. If the central issue is a scale, which side does each party fall on?
- Finally, when answering questions, use the same toolkit you would in Logical Reasoning. For Inference questions, rule out answers that are too extreme. Treat Analogy questions like Matching questions. Start by identifying the features that will need to match up, then eliminate answers with mismatches.
LSAT Reading Comprehension: Bringing It All Together
The LSAT is an excellent predictor of how students will perform in law school, in part because the LSAT Reading Comprehension Section draws so heavily on the skills you need to read successfully as a law student. These are skills that most students must build during their LSAT prep, so don’t skimp on practice, and even more importantly, practice with intent! Changing how efficiently you read, what information you prioritize, your flexibility across subject matter and your ability to recognize patterns takes a lot of hard work and it doesn’t happen overnight.
Final LSAT Reading Comprehension Tips
- Choose one or two tips from this blog to focus on during each study session.
- Don’t be afraid to ditch your timer for a while. It takes time to unpack your baggage and learn to read a different way!
- Get excited about the passages. They’re all drawn from real articles, so get curious to help yourself stay focused.
- Pause briefly after each paragraph to recap what you read. Predict where you think the passage will go from there. That will keep you from zoning out or rushing and keep you actively engaged with the passage.
- When analyzing answer choices, rely on process of elimination. Reading an answer and asking yourself “Could this be right?” makes it more likely that you’ll end up with a bunch of answers you like. On the other hand, asking yourself “Can I find a concrete reason this answer is wrong?” makes you more likely to eliminate wrong answers and narrow it down to the right one.
Laura Damone is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in San Francisco, CA. She fell for the LSAT while getting her undergrad degree. She’s now taught LSAT classes at more than 20 universities around the country. When she’s not teaching, learning, or publishing her work, she can be found frolicking in the redwoods and exploring the Pacific coast. Check out Laura’s upcoming LSAT courses here!