General Strategy for Reading Comprehension
For some, the Reading Comp section can be a walk in the park, and for others, it can be a nightmare. The good news is that the skills needed to ace this section are totally learnable, and with the right practice you’ll get better over time. This brief guide will walk you through what your general strategy should be for each reading passage. If you practice and get good at working through reading passages in this way, you should eventually be able to perfect your score on this section.
- How you should read the passage
Your first order of business is to read through the passage. Your two goals should be 1) to understand and digest all of the information as you read it, and 2) to commit the overall structure of the passage to memory.
This means you’re not simply skimming the passage, but it also means you’re not memorizing small details, names, and examples. Just read through everything and make sure you generally understand what you’re reading.
The reason it’s pointless to try to memorize details is that that’s the stuff you’ll have to check back for anyway as your answering the questions. The main thing is to remember where everything was in the passage so that you’ll know where to check back when you’re asked about something specific. In other words, know what each paragraph was about. That way, when you’re asked about, say, the benefits of nuclear power over solar power, you’ll know to check back to paragraph 3, and so on.
In general, it’s best not to worry about the clock until you’ve mastered the test. However, just so you have a ballpark for what your ultimate goal should be, it should eventually take about 3-3.5 minutes to read a passage this way. That’s enough time to understand everything and memorize the overall structure (what the main points of each paragraph were). Your memory works better when you shelve things off – having a different shelf in your memory for each paragraph will enable you remember the unique points of each one more easily.
- Be sparing with marking up the passage
Don’t take too many notes, if any at all. Writing things down is somewhat pointless since the passage is all right there so you’re just wasting time rewriting stuff that’s already on the page. The most it could ever make sense to do would be to sum up each paragraph in one or two words or an abbreviation (ex. “Tom’s research”, “berries vs. melons”), but truthfully, even this is unnecessary if you get good at memorizing what each paragraph’s main point was, as stated above (you’re essentially doing this in your head instead of on the page).
The only thing I recommend is underlining key words to help enforce your visual memory of the passage. Also, underlining doesn’t take any extra time since you can do it as you’re reading. It can help to underline main points, or transitional words/phrases like “moreover” and “on the other hand”, in order to break up the passage and see where all the main points were made.
Sometimes, I find it also useful to use parentheses around parts of the passage that were brought as examples, or were otherwise supplementary. Often, the only novel point in a paragraph is made in the first sentence, and the rest of the paragraph is just examples illustrating that main point. It could be helpful to underline that main point, and then put each of the supplementary examples in a separate set of parentheses, in order to be able clearly see the structure of the paragraph when you’re checking back in order to answer questions.
- Why you should read the passage first
Some people think that it makes sense to look at the questions first, figure out what they’re asking and only then read through the passage, looking specifically for the answers to them. I’m opposed to this for a couple of reasons.
First of all, whenever possible, I prefer doing the LSAT as organically as possible – do things in the order they appear on the page without getting too creative. Keeping things simple allows you to divert all of your mental energy towards answering the questions correctly without thinking about skipping ahead, coming back, etc. Each passage has a handful of questions – that’s a lot of things to keep in your mind as you’re reading the passage. You’ll likely forget what one or two of them were, look back at the questions, take a second to find your place again in the passage… why not just keep it simple and do things in order?
The other thing is that it won’t always be obvious what info you’ll need to answer a question until you’ve read and understood the whole passage. Sometimes the evidence for the answer to a question will come from more than one place in the passage. It’s much more effective to first have a big-picture, “macro” understanding of the passage, and then check back for the details necessary to answer the questions.
- Don’t be afraid of science-related stuff
Many people get freaked out by scientific passages. For me, scientific passages are somewhat relieving because I’ve noticed that when the concepts are very technical, the authors of the test seem to compensate by making the logical structure of the passage simpler, and the logical structure of the passage is really all that matters.
The thing to remember here is that you only need to understand things to the extent they are presented to you. So, if a passage mentions photosynthesis as the way that plants convert CO2 into food, then all you need to know about photosynthesis is that it’s the way plants convert CO2 into food. You don’t need to understand exactly how it works (unless the passage describes how it happens). You just need to understand, very generally and superficially, what photosynthesis is, and how it was relevant to the passage.
Some of my students get hung up trying to make sense of complicated concepts that were mentioned in the passage but not fully explained. Remember – if something is not fully explained, you only need to understand it to the extent that it is explained. You can ace an entire passage even if there was a point made within it that you don’t fully understand, as long as you understand why it was made and how it played into the overall logical progression of the passage.
- Remember: the answer to each question is in there somewhere, in black and white
After you read the passage in the way described above, answering the questions should be easy, since you should know roughly where each of the various topics were in the passage, so whatever a question asks you, you should think “OK, this topic was discussed in the first half of paragraph 2, so that’s where I have to check back for the answer”.
The key here is that the proof for the answer is in there somewhere. More so than on the other sections, Reading Comprehension questions can often seem murky and subjective. Often, a question can seem as if more than one of the answers are possible, especially when the questions ask you to infer something from the passage. For example, “It can be inferred that the author of the passage would agree with which one of the following statements?” can have you thinking “I don’t know the author personally – how on earth should I know?”
However, there is always evidence in the passage proving whatever the right answer is, and it can usually be traced to a specific sentence or phrase. You just have to hunt for where that sentence or phrase is (and because of your structural memorization of the passage that should be easy). Maybe the author chose a particular word at one point that proves that he/she agrees or disagrees with a point of view. The point is – the proof is in there somewhere. And more importantly, that proof is not there for the 4 wrong answer choices. So don’t go with your gut – look for the actual proof and go with the definitively correct answer.
- Comparative reading passages are no different
Comparative reading passages, which present you with two short passages instead of one longer one, started appearing on the LSAT in 2007, and should be treated in exactly the same way. Read through the passages one at a time, understand all of the main points, commit their structures to memory, and then work through the questions. (You’ll probably automatically notice the places where the two authors agree or disagree with each other, and it can help to take note of that.)
Personally, I find the comparative reading passages easier than the longer individual passages, since even though there are two of them, they are shorter and tend to be more bite-size and one-dimensional, with simpler logical structures. Remember, as stated above, logical structure is what matters most on this section.
So there you have it – this is how you should approach every reading comp passage you ever see. If you keep working through more and more passages like this, and practice your speed-reading, you’ll perfect this section and eventually be able to confidently find the answer to every question.
Also, in order to have full clarity on very tough reading comp passages, check out my LSAT Course.