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LSAT Test Prep: Tips for Pacing Yourself through the Reading Questions

You have a little over a minute to answer each reading question on the LSAT, and that includes the time you spend reading the passage. Generally, you shouldn’t spend more than about two minutes on a passage before you answer its questions, so you have to read efficiently. You need a plan for getting through the passage in a way that allows you to answer questions correctly and quickly.

What to read for

When you read a passage, focus on the following elements:

  • The passage’s general theme

  • The author’s tone

  • The way the author organizes the passage

Don’t spend time trying to figure out the passage’s minutiae while you’re reading it. If you encounter a question about a little detail, you can go back and reread the relevant section.

Getting the main point

Generally, people write passages to inform or persuade. Passages on the LSAT are often argumentative; they advance a particular opinion. For those, the main purpose may be to attack, criticize, or advocate a position. But some passages present a neutral, objective tone. Their purpose may be nothing more than to explain, describe, or explore a theory, law, or phenomenon.

Because most authors present the main theme in the first paragraph or two, you’ll probably figure it out in the first few seconds of your reading. If the main idea isn’t clear in the first paragraphs, it probably appears in the last paragraph, when the author sums up the ideas.

After you figure out the author’s overall theme, quickly jot down next to the passage a word or two to help you remember it. For a passage that describes the differences between the flight patterns of houseflies and horseflies, you could write down compare flighthouse/horse. Your notation gives you something to refer to when you’re asked the inevitable big-picture questions.

Absorbing the author’s tone

In addition to understanding the author’s point, you need to know how the author feels about the issue to help you answer inference questions. You get clues to the author’s tone or mood by noticing the words he or she uses. LSAT passages either inform the reader about something or try to persuade the reader to adopt the author’s viewpoint.

Informative passages are often more objective than persuasive ones, so the author’s tone is usually neutral. Authors of persuasive passages may exhibit more emotion.

Regardless of the author’s mood, don’t let your personal opinions about a passage’s subject matter influence your answer choices. Getting emotionally involved with the passage’s content can cloud your judgment and may cause you to subconsciously rely on your opinions as you answer questions.

The passage’s outline

Knowing the passage’s structure is much more important than understanding its details. You only have two minutes to absorb the passage’s information, so instead of trying to comprehend everything the author says, focus on how the author lays out the information. That way, when you’re asked a question about a particular topic, you’ll know where to go to answer it.

Standard essay format includes an introduction with a thesis, two or three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. Many LSAT passages are excerpts from larger works, so they may not exhibit precise five-paragraph essay form, but they will contain evidence of all three elements.

You may find it helpful to construct a mini-outline of the passage as you read it. Beside each paragraph, jot down a word or two that describes the type of information it contains. Although you may not understand all the fascinating details of the author’s account, you know where to go in the passage if you have to answer a detail question.

Building an outline as you skim helps you know where in the passage you can find answers to questions about particular details.

Read with an active pencil

When you start reading, start marking stuff. Circle important words. Underline key statements, especially ones that look like the passage’s main point. Mark any obvious statements of opinion and clear transitions. If you notice any kind of obvious structure, mark it so you can see it clearly. Doing so helps you spot key ideas when you need them.

Here are some things you’re trying to find:

  • The author’s main idea

  • The author’s purpose

  • The author’s attitudes and opinions

  • The passage’s structure

  • Transition words, such as for example, nevertheless, or in sum

  • Pieces of evidence that the author uses

  • Anything that stands out as an answer to one of the questions

Spotting transition words can really help you identify the passage’s structure. These words serve as kind of a road map for the passage; if you underline them and ignore the rest of the content, you should still have a good idea of the passage’s direction. Look for transitions such as moreover, for example, in contrast, however, but, furthermore, and therefore.

Whatever you do, don’t underline or circle too much!

Decide whether to work in or out of order

No one says you have to work the reading comprehension section in order. If you want to spend half a minute or so at the beginning of the section flipping pages and ranking the passages from your favorite to your most detested, go right ahead. If you prefer to save that half a minute and work the section from start to finish, that’s great, too.

As with analytical reasoning, if you choose to work the passages out of order, your best criterion for ranking them is the number of answers attached to them. If you anticipate running out of time, concentrate on the passages with a large number of questions first. So if one passage has eight questions and another has only six, choose the one with eight questions first.

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