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How To Do Reading Comprehension

Reading Comp doesn’t have to look like this.

That’s a big promise up there in the title of this post. I will deliver on that promise in just a moment, but let me just make clear what I’m not promising. I’m not about to give you “two weird tricks to ace Reading Comp.” I’m not “the guy the makers of the LSAT hate.” What I’m going to give you is a broad understanding of what you’re being asked to understand — and, just as importantly, what you’re not being asked to understand — in a Reading Comp passage.

It’s all about argument structure. Three quarters of the exam — Reading Comprehension and the two Logical Reasonings sections — test exactly one thing. They test your understanding of argumentation. They come at that concept in a number of different ways, but this makes perfect sense because law school and the practice of law focus almost exclusively on making one’s own arguments and undermining the arguments of one’s opponent.

Reading Comprehension passages are analogues to judicial opinions, which will be the primary instrument with which your professors torture you. In a judicial opinion, it’s most often the case that the judge (really, the judge’s clerk, but who’s keeping track?) will lay out the arguments of plaintiff(s) and defendant(s), and usually the judge will accept one argument and reject the other. That’s why the most common passage type, by far, is what we here at Blueprint call an Antithesis passage. There are two points of view that are at odds with one another, even though those points of view rarely involve legal issues. Usually there is what we call a present author, meaning that the author decides that one of those two points of view is correct.

That’s the big picture stuff, but the slightly smaller picture is understanding how arguments work. An argument really consists of just two parts: a conclusion, which is a thing someone is trying to prove, and at least one premise, which is support for a conclusion. A very brief argument might look like this:

Conclusion: Smoking causes cancer.
Premise: Several studies showed higher rates of cancer among smokers than among nonsmokers.

Obviously, it will be more complicated than this in a Reading Comprehension passage, but that’s what you need to keep your eye on. Answer these three questions, and you’ve got Reading Comp in the bag:

(1) What conclusions are asserted?
(2) What is the support for each?
(3) Which conclusion, if any, does the author agree with.

It’s NOT about subject matter. Passages range from the hunting habits of the duck-billed Platypus to the writing style of Willa Cather to the effect of the Cultural Revolution on Chinese art. None of these are related in the least to one another, nor are they related to the practice of law. So don’t get caught up in the details. That is to say, a significant portion of most passages is background on the subject matter of the passage. While you certainly need to understand what’s being said subject matter-wise to understand the arguments, that background takes a backseat to the arguments being made.

Knowing what the makers of the LSAT do and don’t care about will help you anticipate the questions coming at you, as well as their answers, which will help you answer questions accurately and, perhaps even more importantly, answer them quickly.