3. Identify Organization
Make a road map of the essay and/or draw an outline.

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. Outlining the structure will make the essay’s purpose and underlying reasoning more apparent.

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.By reading and writing a raod map, you are increasing your retention by doubling your brain’s exposure to the content. This makes re-reading less necessary and ultimately saves you time.

Video Courtesy of Kaplan. Read an in-depth review of Kaplan LSAT prep.
(Note: video is for SAT, but it covers an overlap topic with LSAT).

Next LSAT: January 26

Understand what each paragraph is about (tone, main idea, relation to preceding paragraph) and jot down a short summary of its main idea.

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: Radical solution to stem cell problems
P5: Conclusion that we should promote the new solution


Not at first. You might accidentally skim over the Big Idea. As a beginner, you should concentrate on finding the Big Idea and using the 5 steps for working through a passage. Skimming is an advanced skill, as it demands you quickly distinguish between the significant and the extraneous. If you skim over the important stuff, you’ll have to go back — or even worse, you’ll get the questions wrong due to misreading.


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 body paragraphs (all others).

Body Paragraphs

In skimming body 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

How can you tell if you are reading too quickly?

If, when you finish an essay, your first reaction is confusion, then you probably read it too quickly, weren’t reading for the writer’s idea, got buried in details, or got lost in a blur of jargon. When you are done with reading an essay, you should have a general idea of the content.

If you have to return to the passage extensively for Macro questions, then you probably read it too quickly. You shouldn’t have too much trouble answering general idea questions without going back.

Here is a sample short passage with accompanying commentary:

Read the commentary as you are reading the passage to see the underlying logic of how mapping works.

Paragraph One

(1) As in the case of so many words used by the biologist and physiologist, the word acclimatization is hard to define. (2) With an increase in knowledge and understanding, meanings of words change. (3) Originally, the term acclimatization was taken to mean only the ability of human beings or animals or plants to accustom themselves to new and strange climatic conditions, primarily altered temperature

A person or a wolf moves to a hot climate and is uncomfortable there, but after a time is better able to withstand the heat. (4) But aside from temperature, there are other aspects of climate. (5) A person or an animal may become adjusted to living at higher altitudes than those it was originally accustomed to. At very high altitudes, those which aviators may be exposed to, the low atmospheric pressure becomes a factor of primary importance. In changing to a new environment, a person may, therefore, meet new conditions of temperature or pressure, and may also have to contend with different chemical surroundings. On high mountains, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere may be relatively small; in crowded cities, a person may become exposed to relatively high concentrations of carbon dioxide or even carbon monoxide, and in various areas may be exposed to conditions in which the water content of the atmosphere is extremely high or extremely low.  (6) Thus, in the case of humans, animals, and even plants, the concept of acclimatization includes the phenomena of increased toleration of high or low temperature, of altered pressure, and of changes in the chemical environment.

What’s going on?

1) First sentences are often topic sentences. This first sentence sets up that the topic will be a discussion of the meaning of acclimatization. (2) Setting up a contrast: old definition vs. new model. (3) So acclimatization meant getting used to a hotter or colder climate. If you live in Vermont, think of moving to Florida.

(4) “But” signals contrast. That was then, this is now. Old definition vs. new, more encompassing one.
(5) We thought we had the meaning down, but there is more. Temperature isn’t the whole ball of wax. There is higher altitude, new chemicals, all kinds of exciting stuff.

(6) “Thus” is a major, major word. It means “Hey, I’m going to say something important now.” For GMAT passages, it sometimes means “Now, let me state the Big Idea,” which here is an expanded set of phenomena for a deeper understanding of acclimatization.

Paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown of the passage:

P1: Acclimatization: more than just temperature

Paragraph Two

(1) Let us define acclimatization, therefore, as the process in which an organism or a part of an organism becomes inured to an environment that is normally unsuitable to it or lethal for it. (2) By and large, acclimatization is a relatively slow process. (3) The term should not be taken to include relatively rapid adjustments such as those our sense organs are constantly making. This type of adjustment is commonly referred to by physiologists as “adaptation.” Thus, our touch sense soon becomes accustomed to the pressure of our clothes and we do not feel them; we soon fail to hear the ticking of a clock; obnoxious odors after a time fail to make much impression on us, and our eyes in strong light rapidly become insensitive.

What’s going on?

(1) A new definition… that’s important. Make sure you know the contrast between the old definition (temperature) and the new, improved one (temperature, pressure, chemicals).
(2) OK, the new definition encompasses a lot more than the old one, but there is this other issue of time.
(3) Another important contrast: fast vs. slow. Acclimatization is slow. It is what happens when you’ve been hanging out in an environment for a long while.

P2: Fast adjustment = adaptation vs. slow adjustment = acclimatization

Paragraph Three

(1) The fundamental fact about acclimatization is that all animals and plants have some capacity to adjust themselves to changes in their environment. This is one of the most remarkable characteristics of living organisms, a characteristic for which it is extremely difficult to find explanations.

What’s going on?

(1) First sentences of last paragraphs are usually important, especially when they contain a giveaway phrase like “fundamental fact.”

P3: Characteristic of all living things = Capacity for change

Sample Passage

Paragraph One

Nearly twenty years ago, biochemists found that a separable constituent of the cell deoxyribonucleic (or DNA) appeared to guide the cell’s protein-synthesizing machinery. The internal structure of DNA seemed to represent a set of coded instructions that 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’s going on?

The first paragraph here is actually mostly fluff. This is scientific background that prepares the reader for the drama ahead. Don’t get intimidated. Skim over it without getting into a panic if you don’t understand all the jargon.

P1: DNA is the molecular basis of inheritance.

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 metallic salts present.

What’s going on?

When you see “dogma” or some other powerful term, bells should go off. Read S L O W L Y because you are getting to the good part. You have just found the raison d’être of the passage: our author is challenging a “dogma!”

What is the author using? “Actual experimental observations.” Like Galileo using the movements of the planets to rail against the established orthodoxy of his time, our author seeks to use his experimental observation to challenge the “dogma.” That’s part of the controversy here: a conflict between dogma and actual experimental evidence. Do you want to bet that a few of the questions hinge on this paragraph and that simple theme?

P2: DNA is not the only game in town. The reality is more complex.

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 nonliving; but these same ingredients, organized by the subtle structure of the cell, constitute a system, which is alive.

What’s going on?

Brace yourself…. our molecular biologist is about to let loose: “the central dogma banishes from consideration.” Wow! That is strong language. We just know that he is going to follow up that line with his main point: “the interactions among the numerous molecular processes that have been discovered in cells or in their extracted fluids” and voila! There it is.

So we know this is the old “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 interactions of molecular processes and all kinds of extremely complicated things that go on in a cell.

P3: Cells are unbelievably complex and their parts all work together.

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’s going on?

What does electricity have to do with DNA? The last sentence says “lose their individual identities and form a coordinated, collective system.” What could be the “coordinated, collective system?” Aha! The author is drawing an analogy to complex and coordinated cell function. Basically, the purpose of this rambling, extended analogy is just to make sure that you, the reader, really, really, gets it — we are dealing with COMPLEX systems with all sorts of coordinated things going on. Simple concept of cells = bad “dogma.” Complex coordinated systems in cells = good.

P4: In case you don’t get the idea of complexity, here is another example: metals are complicated and the parts work together.

Paragraph Five

Such discoveries of 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’s going on?

Just in case you didn’t get the superconductivity analogy, the author hammers his point for the third paragraph in a row… just one last time for good measure. Clearly the writer has got this thing for “complex chemical systems” in cells. So you can expect many of the questions to turn on this issue.

P5: Okay, one more time: cells are complex, highly coordinated systems.