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How to Tackle Brutal Reading Comp Passages


You’ve been practicing your reading every day for the past two months, reading every “Warning: Slippery Floor” sign and nutritional label at the grocery store, but lo and behold, test day comes, and you get a reading passage with difficult subject matter. It’s something science-y, where every other word in the first paragraph is followed by a comma and its definition. (For you science and engineering nerds, you’ll have hit jackpot, but, odds are, if you’re thinking of going to law school, that general area is…not your forte.) What do you do?

1. Don’ts

First, some things not to do:

a. Lose your mind. A nasty passage is to be expected. You will have confronted this situation before in homework and in practice exams, and you should be expecting it. You can only be hurt by getting thrown off your game.

b. Read as fast as you can, have no clue what you’re reading, and, oh, thank God, you’re on the next reading passage—can we just forget the previous passage ever happened? While this approach will perhaps free up time to work on the other three passages, you might as well just not spend any time reading the passage and guess on all the questions, because you’ll get just as many answers right.

c. Read very, very carefully, and try to memorize every definition, so you can have some clue what is going on. Focusing on understanding everything seems like a good idea, but it’s not. By test day, a major skill you should have is picking out the items that will likely get questions and not wasting precious brainwaves on the other stuff.

2. Maintain composure. This is very closely related to item 1(a) above, but let’s just look at it in a positive light. You’re going to beat that reading passage by—I pulled the following from a shirt, by the way—Keeping Calm and Reading On (the way you’d do with any other passage). Remember: you’re reading a passage that’s designed for LSAT-takers and not for those registered in Bio 432 or whatever advanced Hard Subject Matter you didn’t take.

3. Read, as you always do, primarily for argument structure. You don’t need to understand the mechanics of the complicated thingamabobs—you just need to understand the argument the author is making. How to dissect the structure of an argument is the same regardless of how incomprehensible the subject matter may seem. Go forth and pull out the subject matter, author viewpoint, and tag as you would any other reading passage.

4. Find and note definitions of difficult words and concepts. What about those key words that just make no sense? It’s impossible to do a reading passage if you struggle over half the words, right? The writers behind the LSAT know this, so they define those pesky words, and this is when tagging and marking comes in. Make sure to tag new words when they first appear. The LSAT writers love throwing in a question or two on the meaning of a difficult term. Plus, you can go back to the definition whenever the word pops up again in the passage.

It might still be hard to keep track of all of those definitions when you’re trying to describe an author’s viewpoint or the main point of the passage. Just remember that the LSAT writers aren’t going to throw you viewpoints and main points way out of left field just because it’s a difficult subject matter. The author will still usually be for or against something, agreeing/disagreeing with someone, arguing that the old/new way is better—you get the idea. Don’t let the terminology and subject matter throw you off. The key to tackling a reading passage with difficult subject matter is to accept that you won’t fully understand the subject matter after reading it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to master the reading passage.