Reading comprehension can be a pain. Students frequently report that it is the single hardest section of the LSAT to improve on. I know this was true for me. I mastered logical reasoning and the games after a couple months, but my reading comprehension scores were consistently bad. It took me a long time to finally figure out what I was doing wrong, but I did eventually improve. And on test day I walked away feeling confident and scored a 175 overall.
So here are 10 reading comprehension tips I wish someone had given me early in my LSAT prep.
1. Don’t skim the passage.
This a surprisingly tempting vice. It doesn’t make any sense to simply skim a complicated passage on a topic you know nothing about before answering a series of difficult questions designed to test your comprehension of that passage. Yet when the clock is ticking, students often do just that.
You have to change that habit. When it comes to the LSAT, critical reading is key. But you cannot read critically while skimming a passage and jumping straight to questions. Take the time up front to read the passage correctly and waste less having to reread later. This strategy will help you answer the questions correctly in a short span of time.
2. Mentally paraphrase the passage as you read.
When reading the passage, stop every so often and think about what you just read. Put the passage in your own words. “Okay, so what the author is saying is….” Paraphrase the author. Ask yourself, what the author is saying, why she is saying it, and how it relates to the other stuff you just read. This may seem time consuming, but it is actually a shortcut to reading critically. Master the art of mental paraphrasing, and you’ll see your scores increase.
And if you are anything like me, mental paraphrasing will make a huge impact on your reading comprehension scores.
I should warn you though, this is not an easy habit to get into. Mentally paraphrase a sentence sounds easy, but doing it over and over again while reading dense passages can get tiring. And you need to paraphrase quickly and frequently for this tactic to really make a difference. You will need to build up endurance before effectively using the method on an entire reading comprehension section. But if you are anything like me, the effort will be worth it.
3. Note the purpose of each paragraph.
After you read each paragraph, think “Why did the author write this? What was the point?” The author wrote each paragraph for a reason, and understanding what that reason is will help you properly understand the passage as a whole. Some people like to actually write out the purpose of the paragraph and others (like me) prefer just to make a mental note. Either way, make this a habit.
This tactic is similar to the mental paraphrasing tip given above. Both tactics involve some form of paraphrasing, and both think about authorial intent. But the difference here is that the paragraph notation deals with overall passage structure (instead of the individual sentences). And good understanding of the passage structure will help you prephrase the main point of the passage (which is one of the most popular LSAT reading comprehension questions).
4. Watch out for attitude.
What is the author’s attitude? This question comes up a lot in reading comprehension, and I learned to love it. Attitude is easy if you are paying attention. Is the author angry at a group? Is she hopeful about a change? Remember, the passage was written by a person for a reason long before it appeared on the LSAT. How did that person feel about the topic she wrote about?
You should never have to refer back to the passage for attitude questions. Answer with your gut after the first critical reading.
5. Treat the questions like a puzzle.
The answers to reading comprehension questions should never contradict each other. So if you are confident that the author is cautiously opposed to the proposal he is writing about, then do not later answer that the purpose of the passage is “to encourage unbridled opposition against a totalitarian proposal.” Your answers need to fit together. So if you notice a discrepancy in your answers, something is wrong.
6. Don’t ignore your gut.
This is a mistake I used to make frequently. I would look at the answer choices, instinctively want to pick one answer, talk myself out of it, and regret my decision later. If you have been prepping for the LSAT for an extended period of time, your brain is likely beginning to notice patterns that you are not consciously aware of. Consider that when you take your next prep test.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that you blindly trust your gut instincts without any further consideration. You need to think before answering. But you should take your instinctive reactions into account. And if you are having trouble narrowing your answers down, just go with your gut and move on.
7. Read tough passages every day.
This tip is simple. Read every day, preferably in the morning. Most tutors suggest The Economist. I think this will work just fine. You can also get some benefit from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. The point is to force yourself to read critically (exactly as you should be reading the LSAT passages). Your brain will adapt, and that will help your score.
8. Don’t let yourself get bored.
It is easy to get bored when working through reading comprehension passages. All LSAT students have noticed their brains wandering occasionally when they ought be concentrating on the passages. This tendency must be avoided. When it comes to LSAT reading comprehension, distraction is death.
The best way to keep yourself focused on a passage is to stay interested. Boredom is the enemy; resist it at all costs. You are being exposed to information about law, science, social science, and the humanities. This is your chance to become a more informed person about the world, so take advantage of it!
And if that doesn’t work, slap yourself in the face. I am completely serious. You need to stay fully awake and focused. Bite yourself; pinch yourself; do whatever you need to do (without distracting your fellow test-takers). But do not let your mind wander.
9. Prephrase when you can.
Prephrasing is thinking of the answer to a question before reading the answer choices. This allows you to keep yourself from getting tricked by tempting (but incorrect) answer choices. This is a tough habit to get into; the eye just likes to go straight to the answer choices. But if you can start using this technique, you’ll likely see your scores increase a bit.
For me, prephrasing also helped with timing. I spend much less time debating two answer choices if I prephrase first. This advantage alone may make this technique worth consideration for you.
10. Be patient.
Reading comprehension scores can take a long time to improve, and the process can be frustrating. There are some shortcuts you can take, but you probably will not see an immediate 15 point jump in your scores after reading this article. Keep working at it; keep reading; keep drilling. You will improve. It just takes time.