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Getting Through Brutally Difficult Reading Comp Passages About the Arts

  • by Ross Rinehart
  • Dec 16, 2019
  • LSAT

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If you’ve done any LSAT from the last five or so years, you’ve certainly realized that the Reading Comprehension section can be brutally difficult. The LSAT as a whole has gotten slightly more difficult in the last few years, but neither the Logical Reasoning nor Logic Games sections have become quite as fearsome as Reading Comprehension. And three types of passages almost always give their readers the most trouble: passages about science, the law, and the arts. Unfortunately for us all, basically every LSAT has at least one passage on science, at least one passage about the law, and at least one passage about the arts.

If you’ve been recently tearing out your hair as you attempt to read through dozens of these seemingly impenetrable passages, you’ve read enough lately, so I’ll just cut straight to the point: in a three-part series, we’re going to discuss what makes these passages so difficult, and what we can do to make them a little less formidable. We began this series by focusing on passages about science, and last week we discussed passages about the law. Today, we’re concluding this series by looking at passages about the arts, and offering some final advice about difficult passages in general.

We’ve discussed the reasons why science- and law-themed Reading Comp passages can be tough — most pre-law types don’t have a totally great understanding of how those things work. But why are passages about the arts supposedly difficult? I mean, most of us have at least a passing interest in some art, even if our aesthetic tastes don’t get much more refined than Netflix’s original content and the top songs on the music streaming platform of our choice. Plus, the arts are supposed to be enjoyed — we shouldn’t be suffering through these passages. And yet, the art-themed Reading Comp passages are among the most reviled on this test. What gives?

Well, if I may be blunt, the people who write these art passages seem to have a bit of an intellectual inferiority complex, so they’ll attempt to flex their knowledge and expertise by using big words to convey relatively simple ideas. (This, of course, is a favorite trick of those who write the Logical Reasoning questions as well.) So how can we deal with these over-written passages?

Try your best not to get lost in the big words. Don’t be scared off by them. Use context clues. Generally speaking, just knowing whether the author’s general opinion of the subject matter is positive or negative is all you need. (Though you should be dutifully looking up every word you don’t know when you’re reviewing these passages — expanding your vocabulary can only help you on the LSAT, law school, and your career.)

Still, if the morass of verbose, abstruse, recondite, or otherwise grandiloquent language still presents an issue for you, fret not. The art passages tend to reiterate the same themes. Historically, we’d get a ton of passages about some unconventional artist or group of artists doing something wacky with their painting, literature, music, sculpture … you name it. Nearly every time, the author would — as the online might say — stan the unconventional artists and the innovative thing they were doing.

In such passages, there were usually two crucial points you had to catch to answer most questions: what were the key characteristics of the art (and, on a related note, what made it unique or otherwise noteworthy) and what was the author’s opinions of that art. So to answer the questions on such passages, just make sure you have a very solid understanding of what the artists were doing and how their art was different from the conventional approach of their time (it can help to actually imagine what the art looks like) and what the author thinks about that art (again, the author is usually a fan).

More recently, however, these passages have focused on the nature of the art. Some passages have discussed different artistic media — such as the passage about the corruptibility of film in June 2019 — while others have discussed certain artistic genres — such as historical fiction/autobiography, 1930s musicals, opera, or, in a meta twist, what defines genres themselves. These passages are less about individual works of art or artists, and more about the formal characteristics or rules that define these genres, what artists operating within these genres must consider, or how to evaluate art produced within these genres.

These passages are less predictable than the older passages about unorthodox artists — yet another reason why Reading Comprehension has gotten more difficult in recent years, maddeningly — but tracking the author’s attitude is still incredibly important. The last five published exams all featured arts passages that discussed specific genres of art; of the thirty-six questions from these passages, twenty-one related to the author’s opinion in some way. We recommend keeping track of the author’s attitude by underlining the words that convey the author’s opinion as you read. The rest of the questions mostly asked about how the passage was structured. You can keep track of that by making brief notes about the role played by each paragraph in your provided scratch paper .

A Final Note

So these posts provided are our recommendations on how to endure the brutal passages about science, the law, and the arts. However, I must end with a caveat: I can’t guarantee that the science, legal, or art passage on your exam will all conform to the recent trends mentioned in these posts. Nor can I guarantee that the specific pointers included in these posts will apply to those passages on your exam.

But there is a strategy that I promise will help you on any passage, even the most brutally difficulty passages on science, the law, the arts, or whatever else. This strategy has a 100% success rate, and I can guarantee that it will be applicable on your exam. That strategy? Slow the hell down as you read the passage.

Now, I know advising you to not only slow down, but to slow the hell down, on a timed test may seem counterintuitive. It may even make me sound like I’m engaging in educational malpractice, and that I’m disqualified from offering any further advice on this test. But before dismissing this advice, let’s do some math related to the time you actually have on a Reading Comprehension section …

Most Reading Comprehension sections have about 4500 words in total, including the passages, the questions, and all the answer choices. The average adult’s reading speed is about 200 to 250 words per minute. But since you’re taking the LSAT, you are — statistically speaking, in all likelihood — a recent college graduate with a non-STEM major. Which means you read (or, at least, you were supposed to read) far more than the average adult. You’re also likely between the age of twenty-two and twenty-four, which means you’re functioning close to your cognitive peak, information processing- and short term memory-wise. It’s safe to say that your reading speed is at least 300 words per minute. (Congratulations, by the way, for possessing this exemplary skill — even if it’s based entirely on assumptions some blogger is making about you.)

If your reading speed is about 300 words per minute, and there are about 4500 words in this section, it should take you about fifteen minutes to read the entire Reading Comp section, cover to cover (well, the digital version of the test doesn’t technically have covers, but you get the point). You have thirty-five minutes to complete this section. Ergo, you have about twenty extra minutes you can use to … say it with me … slow the hell down.

The reason people experience timing issues on Reading Comp is not because they don’t have enough time to read or process the information. There’s plenty of time to do that, even if you read more slowly than the average adult. The reason people experience timing issues is because they don’t know the answers to the questions. Because they don’t know the answer when confronted with a question, they have to go back to the passage and re-read large swaths of it trying to locate the answer. That’s the real time suck. This is maybe an obvious point, but on Reading Comp, it’s a crucial one.

When people try to speed up on Reading Comp, the most common strategy is to read the passage more quickly. This is a misguided strategy. For one, it’s an attempt to fix a non-existent problem. Remember, we just did the math to prove you have plenty of time to read the passage and questions. Plus, whatever slight gains reading more quickly provides are more than offset by the extra time you have spend answering the questions, since the reading the passage more quickly means you won’t have as many answers to those questions. Finally, reading passages more quickly can only hamper your accuracy on the questions, which means you’ll likely lose points in the end.

The answers to the questions are invariably in the passage itself. So you should read that passage slowly and carefully. Try to use some of the tips in these posts on the inevitable science, law, and arts passages; odds are that at least some of them will help you. But most of all, take your time to make sure you understand the passage. It’ll pay off in the end.

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