You probably think you’re a pretty good “reader,” but the reading comprehension section of the LSAT catches many test-takers by surprise. It’s easy to feel rushed when reading long passages on dry material and to struggle with answering complex questions with the correct answers. And while these passages and question-types are similar to what you’ve seen and done before with other standardized tests, this familiarity may not translate into success on LSAT test day. Our guests caution students who overlook this section in test prep that they may be leaving valuable points on the table. Listen as our guests give you tips to help you maximize your speed and accuracy and increase your score.
- Noah Teitelbaum, Manhattan LSAT, Managing Director
- Glen Stohr, Kaplan Test Prep & Admissions, Senior Product Developer
- Matt Riley, Blueprint Test Prep, Founder & Instructor
- Ranika Morales, LSAT test-taker and student
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Diana Jordan.
The reading comp section of the LSAT may look familiar. The passages and question types are something you’ve probably seen and done before. Many students just assume this familiarity will translate into success on test day and, consequently, they don’t devote sufficient time to prepare and practice with this section of the test. But that’s probably the biggest mistake you can make, according to our guests in this show, about mastering the reading comprehension section of the LSAT. “In some sense, this is similar to the reading comprehension tests that you’ve taken since third or fourth grade. It’s the same, but on steroids.” That’s Noah Teitelbaum, the Managing Director of Manhattan LSAT, and one of our guest experts on today’s show.
We will also hear from Glen Stohr, Senior Product Developer for Kaplan Test Prep & Admissions, and Matthey Riley, Owner and LSAT Instructor with Blueprint Test Prep, as well as our student, Ranika Morales, who is a paralegal with a large law firm in LA. Morales wants to go to law school to build a career in corporate law. She got a 161 on her latest LSAT and plans to take the exam again. In this show, you’ll hear where you’re likely to lose points, why over confidence in your ability to ace this section will be your biggest enemy, and you’ll get tips to help with your timing. Plus, you’ll learn how taking on the questions not necessarily in the right order, might be one of your best strategies.
Our student, Ranika Morales, confirms that the reading comp section of the exam was deceptively difficult. “Reading comp was very, very difficult because it’s the section that I guess I was the most familiar with, or at least I thought I was, because it’s similar to other things that I have tested in the past. I was focused more on logic games for prep because it was something that I had no background in. So, in my prep, I didn’t emphasize it as well. So, when I encountered the RC on the exam, it threw me off a bit. The language of the passages was very difficult at that time, sometimes it’s very dense, and that was difficult for me to surmount.”
The founder of Blueprint Test Prep, Matthew Riley, says there are five multiple choice sections, each 35 minutes. Only four count. Of those, Riley says, reading comp is the most familiar. “Interestingly, the fact that it is the most familiar, it’s actually one of the big challenges for people, because people think that they’re so familiar with it that they don’t have to study it very much and that can be kind of dangerous. It’s normally the longest section. It’s about 27 or 28 questions, and it used to be the case that with the reading comp section, you got to do four passages in the 35 minutes. The normal traditional reading comp passage is about 60 lines long or so, followed by a set of questions, normally between five and eight questions. And they introduced something new in 2007, which is called comparative reading. So, now, instead of the four long traditional passages, you actually get three of those, and then one comparative reading passage, which is pretty similar to just two shorter passages, passage A and passage B, where they give you two different points of view, but they just ask you pretty similar questions on it.”
Glen Stohr, Senior Product Developer for Kaplan Test Prep, says reading comp is superficially the most familiar to students. “The LSAT doesn’t focus on the “what” of the passage. They don’t ask you factual questions. They focus on the author’s purpose in writing and sort of rhetorically how were examples used, how were arguments supported, how was something positioned within the passage. There are four passages; they’re 400 to 500 words long, so fairly short, but they are meaty topics from natural science, social science, law, or humanities topics. They can draw on any sort of academic subject matter within that, and there’s no advantage to students having outside knowledge because they’re not asked, what was Martha Washington’s maiden name? They’re asked, why does the author refer to Martha Washington’s maiden name? What is the purpose of that detail being included? How was it being deployed? And, so I think when students come to it, they think, “Oh, I’m a pretty good reader. I’m going to law school.” But, they’re taken aback by, first of all, they have to read quickly and very accurately in what feels like a short amount of time, but then they’re a bit taken aback because they’ve never been asked to read in this way.”
Noah Teitelbaum, Managing Director of Manhattan LSAT, says that the reading comp section tests the skills you use in law school and the skills you’ll use as a lawyer. “The LSAT is very predictive of your grades in law school, when you compare it to other standardized tests for other graduate programs. Now, what kind of reading are you going to do in law school? You are going to read hundreds and hundreds of cases, and when you’re reading cases, both in law school and as a lawyer, obviously, it’s very important to be somewhat detail oriented. Small details can influence the case. But, there’s something else that is specific to our type of law in the United States, which is that cases are argued based on precedent. Being able to read the case to find the important issue that then later gets used in other cases, is a very important skill as a lawyer and a very important skill as a law student. And these reading comp passages, by in large, have a case, so to speak, within it. Something where there are two sides of an issue and usually the author comes down on one, but not always, and it’s our job, at least in our strategy for this section, to read as if you’re reading a case. Find those two sides and start sort of parsing out the information. And there can be fake-outs, and lots of complications, and sometimes there’s only one side, but with that attitude and with their mind set, you can really get through this section with great timing and great accuracy.”
With between 26 and 28 questions, Kaplan’s Glen Stohr says that the reading comp section has more points available than any other section. So, there are a lot of questions you can get right or, leave on the table. “They leave those points on the table in two big ways. The first is, they run out of time. They mismanage their time because they either try to read for too much detail. They try to actually learn about the subject when what they should be doing is strategically focusing on the author’s purpose for writing and the organization, so that if a question refers them to a detail, they can easily pinpoint it in the passage and just research what did the passage say at that point. So, they can lose points by just simply losing control of time reading far too much detail and really trying to learn the subject. The other place that I think people lose the most points is that the test writes very, very difficult wrong answer choices.”
The experts tell us that it’s wise to debrief your test taking experience after the fact. “It’s almost like an athlete watching tape with the coach, like, ‘Okay, let’s take a look at your last tennis game. Now, see what you’re doing here. Here, you were really strong. You won four straight points. You see what’s different,’ and looking at your performance not just doing it again and hoping that you’ll get better, but doing it and then I like to call it reviewing tape of yourself.”
Our student, Ranika Morales, found that she lost points in her test taking strategy. “For me, I think I lost points due to focusing more on memorizing everything as opposed to memorizing the key areas where I can find certain pieces of information.”
Blueprint’s Matthew Riley says others lose points with timing and being able to finish the four passages in 35 minutes each. “When you sit down and you do a logic game for the first time, they’re very foreign, you never done them before, so you get why you should be studying them. But, when you do a reading comp passage, it just reminds you of the things you do in school. The stuff you use to do in the SATs, so I don’t think that people always give it an adequate amount of study time. And, since it’s a difficult section that’s getting harder, with a whole lot of questions, people can easily lose a lot of points, just by not studying and not practicing.”
The challenge of reading comp, Riley continues, is to see if you can read, absorb, and retain very big amounts of information. “To do well on a reading comp passage, you have to both be able to read the big picture stuff, be able to read for structure, see how the different viewpoints are pieced together, who thinks what, where’s the author, that kind of big picture stuff. But also, you have to still know some of the little details in the passage. It requires you to do these two different skills, where reading for big picture structure and still find the details, have a pretty good view of the minutiae in the passage. You have to do both at the same time.”
Usually, Riley says you are good at one or the other. So, it takes a lot of practice to be good at both. Riley says you just can’t fly through the reading. “Well, what you have to be able to do is you need to learn, to train yourself to be able to pull out and identify all the important information before you ever hit the questions. The questions are super repetitive. It’s not that they come up with different things all the time. There are certain skills, certain aspects of the passage that they always will test to see if you’re actually able to figure out. Things like the main point, the primary purpose, the author’s attitude, the organization, how all the different parts of the passage fit together. And, so if you know that you have to read for those things in the first place, you’ve got to train your brain to always pull those things out and anticipate the answers to those questions, then you can improve significantly.”
And Teitelbaum, with Manhattan LSAT, recommends that you do not read the questions before you read the passage. “Reading a passage really well is much more important. The questions will then become much easier. The questions in general are pretty standard and consistent, nothing outrageous with the wording. There can be some complications in terms of whose opinion, for example, they’re asking for. Often, there’s an author commenting on someone else’s opinion. So, you want to be careful not to just assume you know what the questions asking, which I think is often a pretty safe bet for like high school and even college reading comp tests, because you get so used to what they’re asking. The LSAT can sort of switch it up a little bit. I would say then, the questions kind of break down into two categories in terms of whether you should do some homework before you look at the answer choices or not. Some questions will ask something like, ‘which of the following will the author most likely agree with?’ Now, there’s nothing for you to think about before you start looking at the answer to it. But, then are questions like, ‘what is the main point of this passage?’ And for that kind of question, you should have a general answer in your head before you look the answer choices because the LSAT is really, really good at writing tempting wrong answers, so you want to ground yourself on what you’re generally looking for, so you that you can work wrong to right.
Kaplan’s Glen Stohr suggests you be careful of the tricks. “Predict what the right answer must mean, before you read the answer choices and then pick the one that matches your prediction. Don’t read the answer choice and then start of going, ‘Uhmm, is A right? Well, let me read the passage again. Is B right? Let me read the passage again,’ because that opens you up to falling into the traps that are very well designed for you to fall into.” Stohr says you’re not taking the LSAT to learn about the content, the humanities, or sciences used in the questions. “What they’re doing is rewarding you for being a strategic reader. What do I need to answer LSAT questions about this passage, not can I learn everything that’s here, not can I become conversant in this topic. Can I pinpoint exactly the types of uses of language and exactly the types of structural things and intentions on the author’s part that the LSAT is going to reward. Because that’s setting you up to be – I think in your first year of law school – a very good strategic reader as well. Can I discern the issue, the rule, the application out of this case and not get overwhelmed in a bunch of subject matter that just happens to be there in this instance but isn’t that the heart of what my law professor’s really is going to want to know.”
And Stohr says, the best strategy is to be methodical in your reading. Also, he says you should watch for key words. “The facts makes no difference to the LSAT answer at all. It’s that linking word. Is it ‘therefore’ or ‘nevertheless?’ Because that’s what allows you to see the author’s purpose in using the fact.” There is common wording and phrasing in the questions says Stohr. “There are global questions which ask for the main idea or primary purpose of the author in writing the passage. There are inference questions, those that ask, based on the passage ‘which are the following must be true?’ or ‘based on what was written in the passage, what would the author likely agree with?,’ and there are some logic questions that say the author refers to blah, blah, blah fact in order to or for what purpose.”
Riley says that it may not be that you are a slow reader or that you just don’t get it. Instead, he says, begin slowly to retrain you brain. “If you want to get faster, what you have to do is you’ve got to anticipate the questions better. You have to not be searching back through the passage every time that you’re evaluating an answer choice, and so if you slow down a little bit when you first start practicing then you train your brain and then pull out those vital pieces of information, if you can always track the structure of the passage, what the author thinks, that stuff. And, then what will naturally happen is, you’re already anticipating the answer choices. You don’t spend as much time. You don’t burn as many minutes when you’re actually going through the question. So, general advice on timing is, slow down a little bit in the beginning, so you’ve trained your brain to read the passages in the correct way and identify structure and all those important things. And then eventually over time, once you kind of learn how to do it correctly, speeding up shouldn’t be that big of an obstacle.”
Student and paralegal Morales found ways to practice in sometimes untraditional ways. “Reading dense material on a daily basis, in magazines, or periodicals, or newspapers, just to get you familiar with memorizing dense materials — is really, really helpful. Actually, I started reading a few magazines, such as The Week, which has a lot of short passages that are really dense, that have opinions, and it sort of allows me to practice and isolate arguments. So, I think that’s the most efficient method to prepare, and just practice lots and lots of drilling of the sections over and over again until you gain familiarity.”
Blueprint’s Riley says it’s possible to practice too much and, by the way, you can’t cram for the LSAT like you did in the college. “Rather, it’s really a skill-based test designed to see if you can think in a certain way, if you can process information quickly. What I always tell my students is that it’s just as important that you be very sharp on the day of the test as that you’ve studied your butt off for the last three months. So in terms of studying too much, if you ever are putting in full days for weeks at a time, what you’re really doing is you’re just going to wear yourself down. I always make an analogy to sports. If you got the big game, you’re not going to play a scrimmage before you have to go into the game. So, I always give my students the advice, that they should never really study for longer than the test takes. Doing the actual LSAT takes about four hours, so if you’re ever studying for more than four hours in any day, you’re definitely going to get some diminishing returns there. And, I urge them to definitely let up a little bit in the few days, even the week before the LSAT, because they’re just kind of have to relax and get a good mental space so that they’re sharp and quick and they’ll be able to pick up on the stuff on the day of the test.”
Another key component to doing well on reading comp is to train yourself to read faster, Teitelbaum, with Manhattan LSAT says there are two things to do. “Hey, speed up buddy. The other thing is, on the easier passages, that’s when you should read faster. So, there are four passages. They generally get more difficult, but not always, and sometimes, maybe the science one is not your cup of tea or maybe you are science major, so it is the one that’s easier for you, whatever it is. Two of the passages should be easier for you than the other two. Those are the passages you want to read faster on. I think what happens to some people is they get to a passage, they understand it, and they want to slow down and enjoy it. It’s going to be like, ‘Oh, this is so good. I’m getting this. Let me really get it.’ If you’re getting it, push the pace, so that you get time for the one that you’re not getting. My last thought on this, is people are often freaking out about timing and accuracy at the same time. It’s hard to work on both at the same time. So, you want to focus on your timing and you’re going to move it faster and you’re accuracy might dip a little bit, or maybe, it’ll stay the same, great. The ideal is your timing improves while your accuracy remains the same, and then you stay at a certain pace, and then you increase your accuracy. So, it’s kind of like a seesaw of improvement.”
Teitelbaum has suggestions for speeding up your reading. “You want to start by doing it un-timed, to force yourself into a new way of reading. So, part of that is looking for the scale, the two sides of the arguments, so to speak. Another part is pausing after you read a paragraph and evaluating what you’ve read. What was important? What do I think is coming next? That sort of stuff. And so, get that to be part of how you read and then bring in the timing. And then, you should be doing multi-passage practice. So, just do a full section timed. After a while, you have to stop doing un-timed. You’ve got to put the timer on to push it.”
Stohr says, don’t circle everything and write massive notes or make no marks. Circle and extract what’s helpful and you can navigate. Stohr says you have enough time to do the test. You don’t have to read faster. You have to read fewer times. “What happens is students read the passage but they haven’t extracted what’s helpful. So, they go to the question. They go, ‘Oh.’ So, they go back and read part of the passage and they’re going to answer A. And, they go, ‘Oh.’ And then, they go back to the passage and then they answer B, or maybe, check the passage. By the time they do that, what’s happening is they’re reading that passage not once but four or five times per question, and that, you do not have time to do. But, if you learn to read strategically, so that in one read, you don’t have to try to be lightning fast, you have to be diligent, go through it, read strategically. Extract what’s helpful, and then, you don’t have to reread over and over and over again for every question. You can answer many of the questions based on the big picture view you have of the author’s purpose and point of view and main idea. And, the other questions where you need to target a specific detail, you know right where in the passage to go back and research. Not reread, research what the passage said about that detail. That’s what’s going to make you faster.”
Morales discovered she didn’t have to do each passage in order. “Depending on what your comfort level is, you can either start with the passage that looks the least taxing or mentally taxing for you or you can start off by doing the passage with the most amounts of questions and then tapering downward. I think that helped me a lot. Also, setting my watch and sort of keeping an eye on how much time I spend on reading the actual passage which I tried to keep to only three or four minutes. It’ll allow you to sort of balance how much time you spent actually answering the questions, which is where you want to focus all of your energy as opposed to input, taking in the material and understanding what you’re dealing with in terms of the passage.”
Teitelbaum says you should approach the LSAT like an Olympic diver imagines every step of the move. “Studies showed that doing that actually engages the parts of your brain that you’re going to use, and it reinforces the pattern that you want to execute. I recommend that we do the same thing for taking this test. You should imagine how you’re going to do it. Imagine what you’re going to do when you face a difficult question. Imagine your pacing, imagine your attitude; so that when you get in there, you’re executing something you’ve already thought about.”
Stay engaged on test day, Teitelbaum says, and walk in all ready to go. “One thing I recommend is doing a warm up before you go in to the testing center. Bring a passage or game or whatever it is, or maybe a little bit of each of the section. Do it outside of the testing center to get your brain warmed up. You don’t want to use the first section of the test as your warm up. If you’re finding yourself getting anxious, which definitely happens to me when I take the test, I dive into the material. I ask myself questions, what is this about? What are they talking about? What’s the point here? And, I start writing on the test. I start underlining more. Actually, I’m not a big underliner, I do a little bit more of note taking. So, I just bring myself more into the material, I get into it. One thing I hear from some students is, ‘My God, this stuff is so boring.’ That kind of attitude doesn’t help. It actually hinders your success. If you are into the material, if you’re enjoying it, you tend to be more successful. So, I’d practice, making yourself enjoy the stuff. ‘Oh wow, I get to learn about African art centers in the mid 19th century. Great, I never really learned about that.’ That’s the attitude we want on this test, to almost, in some sense, forget that you’re taking a test and just get into it.”
Riley says the way you practice plays into how you perform on the actual test day. “So, the first one is motivation or concentration. People will always tell me that when they’re practicing reading comp at home, they get bored or they space out and start thinking about other things. It’s hard to concentrate for the whole passage. That is never actually an issue on the real test. And, I think it’s just because when you know you’re taking the real LSAT and your law school dreams ride in the balance and everything, you’re not really going to catch yourself daydreaming. So, concentration isn’t a huge obstacle on the real test, although it is an obstacle when you’re practicing. Anxiety, however, is a humongous obstacle on the day of the test. A lot of people practice in a way that I don’t think it’s conducive for getting them ready for the actual day of the test. For instance, students will just take practice tests sitting at home in their bedroom or they’ll do it at the library where they’ve studied for the last four years, or they’ll have a friend time them who helps them out. But, what I tell my students is that you should actually study and practice in ways that are more prone to leading to anxiety than the actual test. You want the practice to be harder than the real thing, so I urge my students to take practice tests outside or take them at Starbucks or take it in a busy library that they’ve never been to. Put yourself in some sort of foreign environment, so that when you actually go in the day of the test, you won’t feel so odd, because you’ve been practicing in a very similar way in the weeks leading up to the test. And, another thing with the anxiety is I always find it amusing that people are surprised by the fact they’re nervous on the day of LSAT. So, what I actually tell them is, don’t be surprised, of course you’re going to be nervous. But, as soon as you open the test booklet and you do the first question and you realize, ‘wait, I know how to do this stuff. I’ve been practicing for months.’ At that point, you should be able to kind of wipe away at least a little bit of the nerves and get back to just doing the LSAT as long as you’ve put enough practice in.”
To deal with test day anxiety, Stohr says consider this. “Probably, the thing we fear most subconsciously as humans is the unexpected or the unknown. The source of anxiety is really like, ‘I don’t know what’s coming. I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ And, if you practice this test, it is a standardized test. That word standardized should carry some resonance for us. If you’ve practiced it with real released exams, you practiced it with a good coach or good book or good support, you will not be surprised and you will not see anything you haven’t done before.”
Teitelbaum says don’t glue yourself to anyone’s style of taking the reading comp section. Be flexible. “So, for instance, if it’s an easy passage, I don’t write a thing on it. I run through it, grab it, and go to the question. If it’s a tough passage, I take notes. If it’s a passage where there’s a lot of switching of sides, maybe I’ll start numbering the sides of the different points. So, it’s a flexible approach. If the questions are really easy, I might pull the trigger once I see the right answer. If it’s really hard, I’ll work long to write. If I see that I have an extra time, I’ll go back. If it’s really a hard question, I’ll mark it with a star and leave it, guess, and move on. So, it’s a flexible approach versus this is the way I do this section, no matter what happens.”
Blueprint’s Matt Riley has five tips to getting a great score in the reading comp section of the LSAT. “Number one would be, read for structure. If it’s a reading comp passage about mitochondria, I would urge students to realize that the LSAT doesn’t care if you understand what mitochondria is. Rather the LSAT just wants to know if you can figure out what the author thinks about mitochondria, and that really relates to the structure of the passage. The second tip that I would give people for reading comp is, you need to actively read through the passages so that you know when things are slipping away from you. There’s this terrible habit of just continuing to read, they just keep forging ahead because maybe the questions will be easy. And, the questions are never easy. So, when you’re losing it, if you didn’t understand the last sentence, you just got to go back and read it again, because if you lose one sentence and you lose another one, you’ll quickly lose the whole passage. Number three, I would say is anticipation. Students will always get to the end of the passage and then, their natural reaction is just go straight to the questions, because they’re rushing and there’s the clock ticking and everything. But, what you should always do is give yourself a second where when you finish the passage, you actually think to yourself. You anticipate the answers to the big question. You can always say things like what’s the main point of the passage. What’s the primary purpose? Where are the specific questions going to come from? What does the author think? Number four, when you don’t understand a word, look it up. The LSAT is notorious for using the same vocabulary over and over and over again. And then, the fifth big tip I would say is just start slow before you learn to speed up. Adopt a strategy, get an approach for dealing with passages and take the clock off yourself while you’re practicing that strategy, and then, eventually, once you’ve actually become more accurate in answering the questions, then it’s time to kind of force yourself to do it a little bit faster.”
Manhattan LSAT’s Noah Teitelbaum has five tips. “The first thing I would say is to focus on how you read before you focus on the question. So, a good read makes the questions a lot easier. The second, you can read faster. Just move your little eyes a bit down faster. The third, and it sort of relates to the first thing is, don’t read the questions first. You really got to read the passage first. I hear a bunch of people say they’ll go and read the questions, so they know what to look for. That just distracts you. The fourth, I would push people to understand what they’re reading as they’re reading. Dumb it down. What I do is, sort of crazy self-talk and I kind of regurgitate the passage to myself as I’m reading, so that I’m not reading it like a supermarket novel. I’m reading it until I understand it and I won’t get to the end of the paragraph and go, ‘What?’ And finally, I would push working long to write when you’re approaching questions. The LSAT is very good at writing tricky answers.”
And, Kaplan’s Glen Stohr has advice for you on the reading comp section. “The number one thing that I would say about reading comp, especially speaking to someone who hasn’t started preparation yet, is don’t over look it. Don’t ignore it. Don’t take it lightly. So many students, because they feel more comfortable with its format, they really ignore the opportunity to improve their score dramatically because they think, ‘Ah, it’s reading. How can it be different? What can I learn there? And, the fact of the matter is LSAT reading is so strategic and it is so different, but students leave those potential points on the table because they don’t realize how much they can do to impact their score by focusing on reading comprehension.”
Our experts tell us that it is all too common for law school candidates to burn through the reading comp section of the LSAT during practice times and not study much for it, believing it’s the easy section. Not necessarily so. What sets the 170 test-taker apart from the candidate with the 151 is the ability to read dense materials without getting bogged down. Reading comp is the longest section. So, take in all our experts’ tips about timing, for example, not working consecutively, not taking copious notes; and remember, it’s a skill day’s test designed to see if you can process information quickly. But, the secret to success is not to just read fast, but to learn what to read for. The goal is to understand the structure of the question, identify the central issue in the passage, and to anticipate questions about supporting details on both sides of an argument, and there’s no shortcut to success. For most students, you’re performance on test day will reflect your practice and preparation.
For more information, a transcript of the show, or the sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit www.lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. I’m Diana Jordan with Law School Podcaster. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.