To prepare for the questions, here are the 5 steps you should take while reading a passage.

  1. Classify the Passage. Is it science or humanities? Is this a persuasive essay or a descriptive one?
  2. Break Down Each Paragraph. Look for the tone, main idea, and transitions.
  3. See the Organization. Make a road map of the essay and/or draw out a map structure on your scratch paper.
  4. Find the Big Idea. Pay more attention to first and last paragraphs. Look for unusual language that makes an important point.
  5. Diagnose the Author’s Purpose. Look for intention in the essay.

Passage Classification

Most passages fall into one of three categories: Science, Business/Law and Cultural Studies.

A. Science

These passages deal with such topics as chemistry and astronomy. These passages are often straightforward and thus manageable. You are not likely to see any inference questions here. Instead, you will likely see several factual questions that can be answered by direct, accurate reading of the passage. So long as you don’t allow yourself to be buried by jargon, science passages should make for easy reading comprehension questions.

Example Passage: Discussion in an engineering magazine on a new plan for solar energy.

Science is often subjective. We tend to think of scientific facts as being static and of the scientists themselves as clear and logical, like Spock on Star Trek. In reality, science is full of controversy and conflicting ideas. Science essays on the LSAT will often foray into controversy and it’s your job as the reader to see the different points of view, the biases, and the conflict.

B. Business/Law

These essays may also be jargon intensive. While you may already have some background knowledge – it is usually beneficial if you do as it makes the passage easier to read – just remember that specific, outside knowledge will never be strictly necessary to answer an essay question. All the answers you need can be found in the essay itself.

Example Passage: Yale Law Review evaluation of modern labor law and its impact on productivity.

C. Cultural Studies

A large number of these essays focus on historically oppressed groups (their art, culture, and history). From the standpoint of test-taking strategy, be assured that any essay about a historically oppressed group will have a positive and sympathetic tone. The author’s purpose will always present the group’s cultural contribution in a favorable manner.

Example Passage: Commentary on the political achievements of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Identify the Purpose of the Passage

Most passages fall into one of three categories of purpose: describe, evaluate, and persuade.

A. Describe

The author’s main purpose is to convey information and clearly present a situation or idea. These essays present themselves as being objective, but often inject some opinion and bias as well.

Example Author: Newspaper Reporter

B. Evaluate

The author describes a phenomenon, situation, viewpoint, or theory and analyzes it. The author is giving you the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses of the topic in a methodical, detached manner.

Example Author: Researcher/ Academic

C. Persuade

The author advocates a particular position, often against another point of view. Think of this author as an idea salesman who wants you to become a True Believer and reject opposing opinions.

Example Author: Debater, Politician

Don’t argue with the essay. Maybe you don’t think Peruvian weaving is as nice as the author thinks it is. If your personal understanding or view of the issue happens to contradict that of the author in a Persuasive essay, arguing with them could inhibit your ability to show your comprehension of the author’s point of view. Leave your opinions out and try to understand the point of view as the author even if you disagree.

Breaking Down Each Passage

Each paragraph is the basic unit of the essay. By breaking down an unwieldy and cumbersome essay into smaller pieces, it is easier to comprehend ideas and intentions and to follow the organizational structure.

When reading a paragraph and after finishing it, make a mental note or write down three things to help you answer the questions that follow:

A. Main Idea of Each Paragraph

The first sentence in a paragraph will often be a topic sentence or transition sentence. It should tell you the main idea of the paragraph or the paragraph’s relation to the preceding one.

B. Tone of Each Paragraph

Recognizing an author’s tone is very important to understanding the structure and purpose of an essay. Having a strong grasp on the author’s tone will go a long way in answering main idea and author purpose questions.

common-tones

Here’s the last paragraph from a passage about artistic concepts. See if you can cue in to the author’s tone to more easily discern his point:

The ‘mimetic’ theory holds that art reproduces reality, but although amateurs’ photographs reproduce reality, most artists and art critics do not consider them art. Much of what is recognized as art conforms to the definition of art as the creation of forms, but an engineer and the illustrator of a geometry textbook also construct forms. The inadequacy of these definitions suggests a strong element of irrationality, for it suggests that the way in which artists and art critics talk and think about works of art do not correspond with the way in which they actually distinguish those things that they recognize as works of art from the things that they do not so recognize.

The words “inadequacy” and “irrationality” establish an attitude of frustration over the current method of defining art. We can sense that the author is exasperated by the current practice of critics.

C. Relation to Preceding Paragraph

A good writer will make a smooth transition from one paragraph to another with a new idea. After each paragraph, mentally note its relation to the preceding paragraph. The paragraph is the main structural unit of any passage. To find a paragraph’s purpose, ask yourself:

  • Why did the author include this paragraph?
  • What shift did the author have in mind when transitioning to this paragraph?
  • What bearing does this paragraph have on the main idea of the passage so far?

Tone can shift suddenly in a new paragraph:

There are increasing indications that academic research has separated itself from practical concerns to such an extent that, in many academic arenas, the transition from theory to practice has vanished entirely. Indeed, public and private institutions alike are awakening to the need to infuse scholarship with an ‘ear’ for the practically useful. Yet, the problem appears intractable, with a chasm between academics and practitioners that only grows wider. Only radical change will steer academia back toward collaboration with practical concern. But who could devise such a radical, yet effective, strategy?

I can. I have the answer. All academic research must seek private funding. Scholarship without funding has no justification for existence. You, naturally, think my idea is preposterous. Surely I understand that commercial value is separate from scholarly significance? Yet it is you who are mistaken. You do not understand that the market is the most efficient measure of worth, be it commercial or scholarly. You again object, this time almost in a panic, that I speak nonsense. But you are merely afraid of what you know to be the one viable path for modern academia. Follow or be left behind in your blind fear of the most fundamental economic truths. This is the only way.

The first paragraph sets up the problem: academics have lost touch with real life. The second paragraph signals a tone shift from explanatory to aggressively persuasive, reflecting a shift in purpose from explaining a problem to forcefully advocating a solution.

See the Organization

Here we will uncover the author’s organization and develop a roadmap of the text. A roadmap essentially paraphrases the main point of each paragraph.

Why do you need to make a mental roadmap of an essay?

In order to uncover the author’s main point, you will often need to combine the author’s statements and the organizational structure.

Detail questions ask for answers related to specific information in the essay. If you know the organization of the essay, you will be able to more efficiently pull out details because you have a good idea where the needed information is located.

Writing down content doubles its exposure to your brain, increasing the retention rate of the content. This makes re-reading less necessary and ultimately saves you time.

Skim

The most efficient way to read essays is to read closely for the main idea but skim through the details. The amount you skim will depend on you, but you will hurt yourself by treating each word as vitally important.

Primary

Spend more time understanding the function of the first paragraph (or second, if the first is a backgrounder) and last paragraph.

Secondary

In skimming secondary paragraphs, you should focus entirely on understanding the tone, main idea, and relation to preceding paragraphs. This system keeps you focused on getting the important secondary content without wasting time on details. Remember to look for slam-on-the-brakes or any other conspicuous language.

For example, a science essay might have the format:
P1: Background
P2: Main idea: stem cell therapy faces many problems
P3: Problems in stem cell research
P4: More problems in stem cell research
P5: Conclusion about future

Prioritize

Read the paragraphs strategically. Read the first paragraph the most closely (usually every word), unless it is a backgrounder (an introductory paragraph that introduces background information, with little description of the author’s point of view). If it is a backgrounder, then the second paragraph takes primary importance. Backgrounders are one way the LSAT writers make the essays longer. Read the last paragraph with second to highest priority. Skim most of the content of secondary paragraphs (all others).

Sample Passage

Here is a sample passage, broken down paragraph by paragraph:

Paragraph One

Nearly twenty years ago, biochemists found that a separable, constituent parts of the cell deoxyribonucleic acid (or DNA) appeared to guide the cell’s protein-synthesizing machinery. The internal structure of DNA seemed to represent a set of coded instructions which dictated the pattern of protein-synthesis. Experiments indicated that in the presence of appropriate enzymes each DNA molecule could form a replica, a new DNA molecule, containing the specific guiding message present in the original. This idea, when added to what was already known about the cellular mechanisms of heredity (especially the knowledge that DNA is localized in chromosomes) appeared to establish a molecular basis for inheritance.

What is going on?
The first paragraph is actually mostly fluff. This is a scientific background that prepares the reader for the material ahead. Don’t get intimidated, skim over it and don’t panic if you are unable to understand all the jargon the first time through.

Paragraph Two

Proponents of the theory that DNA was a “self-duplicating” molecule, containing a code that by itself determined biological inheritance, introduced the term “central dogma” into scientific literature in order to describe the principles that were supposed to explain DNA’s governing role. The dogma originally involved an admittedly unproven assumption that, whereas nucleic acids can guide the synthesis in other nucleic acids and of proteins, the reverse effect is impossible; that is, proteins cannot guide the synthesis of nucleic acids. But actual experimental observations deny the second and crucial part of this assumption. Other test-tube experiments show that agents besides DNA have a guiding influence. The kind of protein made may depend on the specific organism from which the necessary enzyme is obtained. It also depends on the test tube’s temperature, the degree of acidity, and the amount of the metallic salts present.

What is going on?
When you see “dogma” or another somewhat derogatory term, bells should go off. Read S L O W L Y because you are getting to the important part. You have just found the raison d’etre of the essay: our author is challenging a “dogma!” What examples or evidence is the author using? Take note of the phrase “actual experimental observations.” Like Galileo using the movements of the planets to disprove the established orthodoxy of his time, our author seeks to use his experimental observation to challenge the “dogma.” That’s part of the controversy of this essay: a conflict between dogma and actual experimental evidence.

Paragraph Three

The central dogma banishes from consideration the interactions among the numerous molecular processes that have been discovered in cells or in their extracted fluids. In the living cell, molecular processes, the synthesis of nucleic acids and proteins or the oxidation of food substance, are not separate but interact in exceedingly complex ways. No matter how many ingredients the biochemists’ test tubes may contain, the mixtures are non-living; however, these same ingredients, organized by the subtle structure of the cell, constitute a system which is alive.

What is going on?
“The central dogma banishes from consideration”: that is strong language. The author must follow up that line with the main point: “the interactions among the numerous molecular processes that have been discovered in cells or in their extracted fluids.” So, we know this is a “simple vs. complex” conflict. In the prior paragraph, it was “dogma vs. experimental evidence.” In this paragraph, it is “simple” dogma versus more “complex” understanding of the interactions of molecular processes that go on in a cell.

Paragraph Four

Consider an example from another field. At ordinary temperatures, electricity flows only so long as a driving force from a battery or generator is imposed on the circuit. At temperatures near absolute zero, metals exhibit superconductivity, a unique property that causes an electric current to flow for months after the voltage is cut off. Although independent electrons exist in a metal at ordinary temperatures, at very low temperatures they interact with the metal’s atomic structure in such a way as to lose their individual identities and form a coordinated, collective system which gives rise to superconductivity.

What is going on?
What does electricity have to do with DNA? The last sentence says electrons”lose their individual identities and form a coordinated, collective system.” The author is drawing an analogy to complex, coordinated cell functions. The purpose of this extended analogy is to make sure that you understand that we are dealing with COMPLEX systems.

Paragraph Five

Such discoveries in modern physics show that the unique properties of a complex system are not necessarily explicable solely by the properties that can be observed in its isolated parts. We can expect to find a similar situation in the complex chemical system of the living cells.

What is going on?
The author discusses his point for the third paragraph in a row. Simple concept of cells = bad. Complex coordinated systems in cells = good.

Here is a simple road map of the passage:
P1: DNA is the molecular basis of inheritance.
P2: DNA is not the only game in town. The reality is more complicated.
P3: A cell is extremely complicated and all the parts work together.
P4: In case you don’t get the idea of complication, here is another example: metals are complicated and the parts work together.
P5: Okay, one more time: cells are complicated, highly coordinated systems.

Find the Big Idea

Wouldn’t it be easier if LSAT essays had a title? If they did, you would have a good idea from the start what the main point of the essay would be. The writers of the LSAT purposefully exclude the title so that it is up to you to decipher the essay and its main idea.

The main idea is the Rosetta stone of a passage. It helps us to decipher the passage and discern its structure. The tone, scope, and implications of the main idea usually hold the key to answering more than half of the reading comprehension questions. Accordingly, we must focus our strategy on easily finding the author’s point of view and the main idea.

In nearly all LSAT passages, the author will make an argument of some form. Don’t expect the main point of a passage to be a detail issue like “World War I was fought from 1914 to 1918.” Instead, it’s more likely to be “World War I was extended by Britain’s needless and poorly executed intervention.

An author can’t make such an argument without substantial support. This means that the argument must contain the elements of persuasion:

  • Evidence
  • Refutation of possible rebuttals
  • Subsidiary points

Most essays will put up clear signposts and make the Big Idea pretty obvious — so long as you know to look for the following.

A. The first and last sentences of the first paragraph and the first and last sentences of the final paragraph are important, since they often introduce or summarize the main points.

Here is the first paragraph of an essay:

One of the most persistently troubling parts of national domestic policy is the development and use of water resources. Because water management technology involves similar construction skills, whether the task is the building of an ocean jetty for protection of shipping or the construction of a river dam for flood control and irrigation, the issues of water policy have the mingled problems of navigation and agriculture. A further inherent complexity of water policy is the frequent conflicts between flood control on the one side and irrigation on the other and between the requirements for an abundance and those for a scarcity of water. Both problems exist in America, often in the same river basins; one is most typically the problem of the lower part of the basin and the other the problem of the upper part.

This is a clear topic sentence. “Troubling”, in the context of water management, is rather strong language. We know, from the start, that there is a serious problem with water management and that the author is going to explain what it is.

Here is the final paragraph of the essay:

Nevertheless, the most startling fact about the history of water projects in the United States is the degree to which their shortcomings have been associated with administrative failures. Again and again these shortcomings have proved to be the consequences of the inadequate study of water flow, of soil, of factors other than construction technology, and of faulty organization. In 1959, the Senate Select Committee on National Water resources found that twenty different national commissions or committees charged with examining these problems and seeking solutions had emphasized with remarkable consistency the need for coordination among agencies dealing with water.

This paragraph closes in very specifically on the author’s opinion—the failure of government agencies to effectively deal with water management. The first paragraph introduces the general idea and this paragraph focuses in on the area for correction —the government’s lack of administrative coordination.

Look at the Questions for the Big Idea
If, as we have said, many Macro questions revolve around the Big Idea, then isn’t it possible to get clues about the main idea from sample Macro questions from the essay? If all fails, look at the first question and maybe it will give you a clue about what the LSAT considers important about the essay. In addition, as you get to the second and third question on the essay, this will help tighten your understanding of the essay.

B. Slam-on-the-Brakes Language is another signpost. These are tone signals that should compel you to slow down your reading pace and start reading very closely. There is a good chance the author is about to reveal a central point and his opinion. It is like when the needle starts jittering during a lie detector test.

Here are some common Slam-on-the-Brakes words:
amazing
successful
impressive
remarkable
greatness
inadequate
invalid
unfortunately
inefficient
leadership
competition
startling
surprising

In that final paragraph, look at how the Slam-on-the-Brakes words emphatically signal the author’s point:

Nevertheless, the most startling fact about the history of water projects in the United States is the degree to which their shortcomings have been associated with administrative failures. Again and again these shortcomings have proved to be the consequences of the inadequate study of water flow, of soil, of factors other than construction technology, and of faulty organization. In 1959, the Senate Select Committee on National Water resources found that twenty different national commissions or committees charged with examining these problems and seeking solutions had emphasized with remarkable consistency the need for coordination among agencies dealing with water.

By focusing on these triggers, we can see how the author consigns the problem of water management to the government’s failings. This gives us access to the Big Idea.

C. Polish Up the Big Idea
Ok, you’ve finished reading the essay, you think you know the Big Idea, and you have an idea about structure. Take a moment to review everything and double-check that you have the Big Idea narrowed down. Write a sentence-long summary of the big idea on your whiteboard.

Diagnose Author’s Purpose

Ask yourself: Why is the author telling me this? Why does the author select certain facts and draw certain conclusions? What is the author’s agenda? There is always some reason that the author wrote the passage. Often essays will have a policy idea or suggestion to fix a problem described. Sometimes, the author might simply want to educate people about a subject or correct a misconception. Sometimes, there will be a more political/ideological motive for the claims made.

Writers try to sound objective, but there is always something the author wants to convince you of, or at least, get you to learn from the passage.

Be careful to distinguish fact from opinion. Though they may look like facts, some statements in the essay may be false claims or unsupported opinions loaded with bias. Pay close attention to the language in order to distinguish fact from opinion. The author’s purpose for writing the essay and his or her convictions are found in these subtle statements of opinion.

Take these excerpts from a passage on water management, for example. Some of the author’s statements are fact, but many are opinion.

Fact or Opinion

“In the arid parts of the land, it has recently become clear that climate varies over time, with irregular periods of serious drought followed by wet periods marked by occasional floods.” FACT: This statement is a review of recent scientific findings about climate. No opinion here. However, the author is using data regarding drought periods to back up later claims about water being mismanaged.
“One of the most persistently troubling parts of national domestic policy is the development and use of water resources.” OPINION: “The most troubling” indicates feeling, not fact. The author’s opinion is that the development of water resources is one of the most troubling parts of national domestic policy. This is not necessarily the ultimate truth. Some people may not think that the development of water resources is problematic.
“In 1959, the Senate Select Committee on National Water Resources found that twenty different national commissions or committees charged with examining these problems and seeking solutions had emphasized with remarkable consistency the need for coordination among agencies dealing with water.” FACT: The author is citing specific research conducted by a Senate committee. He or she is using these findings to back up the claim that water is mismanaged due to administrative failure. However, this statement alone contains no opinion.

In summary, every author has a purpose for writing his or her passage. The author’s purpose can be found in subtle statements of opinion. Pay close attention to language that indicates conviction.

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