How to Approach Reading Comp on the Digital LSAT

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Earlier this week, we talked about how to take advantage of online resources at your disposal to get prepared to take the digital LSAT. But we didn’t address how you might have to change up your approach to any of the exam’s sections to account for the digital interface. And that’s because — for the most part — you don’t have to. You’re going to get the same types of questions, games, and passages on the digital LSAT that you got on the traditional LSAT. And it is all-but-certain you’ll see more of the test’s favorite concepts, like conditional statements and causation and common logical fallacies.

So whatever approach has been developed for the traditional paper-and-pencil test will work for the digital test — again, for the most part. Even with the relatively limited features included on the digital LSAT exam interface, you’ll still be able to underline important things like the conclusions of arguments and highlight key words, such as conditional terms or words that express causation. As long as you get some experience taking exams in a digital format, you’ll be fine for test day — once more, for the most part.

The one area that you may have to change up your approach for is Reading Comprehension, which has maintained an impressive thirty-year run as everyone’s third-favorite LSAT section. On Reading Comp, most test prep methodologies encourage their students to be an active reader. They tell you to engage with the text. And not just by underlining or highlighting “the important parts.” Definitely not just underlining or highlighting “the important parts.” You give an aspiring attorney a highlighter and passage, and you’ll invariably get a very colorful passage back. We’re pretty bad at processing information and determining whether it’s “important” or “unimportant,” especially on a difficult, timed test on the LSAT. So most people default to assuming that basically everything is important, and end up underlining or highlighting nearly the entire passage. Which makes it pretty hard to find the actually important details, when it comes time to answer the questions.

So rather than highlighting or underlining exclusively, we encouraged our students to annotate the passage as they read it. Basically, we told them to write short descriptions of the functions each paragraph plays, right next to that paragraph. We called these short descriptions “tags.” I was a big fan of tags — I wrote a 1500-word encomium on tags on this very blog. These tags were helpful in locating the important details, and basically answered questions relating to the organization of the passage or the role played by certain paragraphs. And tags kept test takers from doing totally unhelpful things like, say, underlining the entire passage. For many students, increasing their accuracy, speed, and confidence on Reading Comp was just a matter at getting better at making tags.

But when the digital LSAT interface was unveiled earlier this year, there was no feature in Reading Comprehension that would allow a test taker to make these “tags” next to the paragraphs of the passage. While there are some helpful features to the digital RC interface — like how the system automatically highlights the relevant part of the passage when a question makes a direct reference to a quotation (which, incidentally, is only occasionally helpful, since the statements in the passage that provides the answer to such questions rarely surround the direct quotation) — tagging is not one of them. They’re just letting you (virtually) underline or highlight the passage. Which means that many people may revert to their earlier inclination to just underline and highlight everything in the passage.

So let’s talk about how you can switch up our approach to Reading Comp a little bit, so we can get all the benefits of tagging without being able to, you know, actually tag the passage. And let’s talk about how to limit the amount of underlining and highlighting you do as you read the passage. So here are our tips for tackling Reading Comp in this new digital age.

1. Read the passage in “Passage Only” view

This is less about tagging and underlining — just a practical tip I gleaned when I tried to take a digital LSAT. For each Reading Comp passage, you have the option to either read the passage in “Passage Only” mode, which will remove the questions from your view and allow you to view the entire passage at once, or “Passage with Question” mode, which displays one question next to the passage and forces you to scroll through the passage as you read.

When reading the passage, make sure to do so in “Passage Only” mode. You’ve spent enough of your life scrolling though Instagram to know how time-consuming scrolling can be. It’ll be easier to cross-reference certain parts of a passage if the entire passage is displayed at once, saving you valuable time.

2. Write a short description of each paragraph on your scratch paper

Now, for the (more important tagging) part. Although the digital interface doesn’t allow you to write down, those who take the digital LSAT will be given scratch paper. Most of the suckers surrounding you will only use the scratch paper for the Logic Games section and maybe some Logical Reasoning questions — they’ll be underlining and highlighting way too much stuff in the passage — but you’re not like them. You’ll use the scratch paper during Reading Comp, too.

So instead of writing your tags on the test booklet, write you tags on the scratch paper. Number each paragraph, and write a brief description of what that paragraph is all about. This description should be no longer than a sentence. Think about it like making a title, or a header, for each paragraph. You definitely don’t need a lengthy description of each and every detail. Here’s how I would write out the tags for the first passage from the December 2014 exam (or Prep Test 74, which you can now access on LSAC’s digital familiarization site), about why perfumes are not considered art.

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We definitely want to make sure that we’re tagging whenever new viewpoints are introduced. In that perfume passage, the author poses a question in the first paragraph, asking why perfume isn’t considered as an art form. So I included that in the tag.

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These notes (which I have taken to calling “Bliffnotes” — a portmanteau of Blueprint and Cliffnotes that literally everyone else refuses to use) will help you out in a few different ways. If you need to answer a question about a specific detail from the passage, these notes can serve as a table of contents that can help you identify where that detail is likely located. If I got a question about “painting” for the above passage, I’d look to these notes, infer that the support for that question is likely in the second paragraph, and check there for something I highlighted (see Step 4).

Further, many questions will ask you about the organization of the passage. For those, just look for an answer that resembles each point in those notes. Something like, “The first paragraph poses a question, the middle paragraphs present a case that helps to justify the posing of that question, and the final paragraph presents a possible answer to the question.” And if a question ever asks about a role played by a given paragraph, you have that answer in the notes.

I was initially a little bit upset that the digital LSAT wouldn’t allow test takers to tag the passage; in helping people prepare for the digital LSAT, however, I’ve found that the scratch paper often helps people make better “tags.” When tagging the passage on the traditional LSAT, many would get into the unfortunate habit of tagging the passage as they read. That would not only break up the flow of reading the passage, which making processing the information more difficult, but it would also result in over-tagging the passage — the unhelpful sibling to over-underlining the passage. By forcing people to write their tags on a separate piece of paper, it seems like the digital LSAT is leading people to make more minimal and structural notes, which ultimately help a lot more than a ton of sloppy notes in the margins of a passage.

3. Limit your underlining to the words and phrases that express the author’s attitude

We have the tagging down, so let’s move our attention to marking up the passage. Remember, you only want to underline the important stuff, but as you read a passage, a lot of it is going to seem important. So what should you underline?

Well, on Reading Comp, what the author thinks is of paramount importance. Now, yes, every passage has some nameless author who wrote down everything in the passage, so technically it’s true that the author thought about everything in the passage. But some passages have author that take an active role in the passage — they actually advance one of the arguments in the passage, and express a ton of thoughts and opinions in the process. Other passages have authors that take a very passive role in the passage — they neutrally describe other peoples’ arguments, and don’t express many, if any, thoughts or opinions.

When you have a very active author, you want to know what that author thinks. That’s a topic that will get tested extensively in the questions. The most important words in those passages, then, are those words and phrases the express that author’s attitude. If we want to underline the most important parts of the passages, we should underline those words. So if the author uses strong adjectives or adverbs — if they say something is “interesting” or “compelling” or “beyond doubt” or “notable” or, in the case of the perfume passage, they say something “seems odd” or they call something a “masterpiece,” go ahead and underline that.

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We should also underline the author’s conclusions. Since the author’s conclusion in the passage and the main point of the passage are essentially the same thing. So look out for common conclusion indicator words, like “thus” or “clearly” or “so,” or what we call “shift words,” like “but,” “however,” “nevertheless,” and “although,” which frequently introduce conclusions.

4. Highlight the secondary structures and definitions

So save the underlining function for the author’s attitude and conclusions, and put the highlighting function to use on the important details in the passage. But again, you might have trouble determining which details are important as you read a passage. Fortunately for you, we’ve already figured that out for you. No, we don’t have any special Reading Comprehension-based clairvoyance that will allow us to predict which details from your passages will show up on the questions. But we did read a lot of passages, and realized the details that get tested most consistently are those that are conveyed via what we refer to as “secondary structures.”

Secondary structures are just common rhetorical devices authors use to make their point. Things like cause and effect relationships, examples, lists, and questions and answers. When you see any of these things in a passage, go ahead and highlight them. Those are the important details. They’ll almost certainly be the ones that help you answer the questions.

If you get a detail-based questions, use your scratch paper notes to help determine which paragraph that detail is probably located, then quickly scan the stuff you highlighted in that passage. If you highlighted that passage correctly, you’ll probably be able to find your answer quickly and effectively.

You can also highlight definitions in the passage. Definitions will almost never directly answer any questions, but they can help you understand the passage … which is still pretty important. A passage may define a concept early on, and then not refer to that concept again until the end of the passage. If you highlighted the definition, you’d be able to quickly reference that, remind yourself what that concept’s all about, and then better understand the end of the passage.

By the way, the digital LSAT will allow you to highlight in three different colors. If you want to highlight the different secondary structures in different colors, knock yourself out. Or if you want to highlight your secondary structures in one color and your definitions in another color, have a ball. And if you just want to highlight everything the same color, that’s cool too. The important thing is that you are highlighting the significant details in the passage; we’ll leave choosing the color up to you.

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So, just a few adjustments to your approach can help you succeed on Reading Comprehension on the digital LSAT. Just make sure you get some practice implementing these approaches, whether you’re using the practice tests on LSAC’s digital familiarization page or elsewhere.

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