“I take really long reading the passages (timed myself 3 to 4 mins) then I tend to not refer back to the passages thinking there is no time. I read the passages intensely and then end up staring at the answer choices. It’s the time pressure that really hurts me… what should I do?” – Julie
This is a pretty common question. A lot of students have difficulty finishing all four LSAT reading comprehension passages on time. Or you may be able to finish all the passages, but you feel rushed and uncertain about the answers you’re picking.
In the main speed FAQ, I wrote that the biggest determinant of speed is competence. If you know the material, you’ll go faster. That’s true for reading comprehension too. The more you practice and learn about LSAT reading comprehension, the faster you’ll go. And if you don’t know the material, you won’t go as fast as those who do.
That said, there are some techniques you can use to increase speed. Though note that these are really just “doing well at reading comprehension” tips. I’ve also written a separate article on improving reading speed.
1. Know the Passage Structure
LSAT passages aren’t like regular texts. They all follow a set format. The passages have 3-4 paragraphs. Each paragraph is typically organized around a theme. If you know the point of each paragraph, then you can know where information is. This helps you quickly locate line references if needed. Knowing the point of each paragraph also helps you think about the passage more clearly. The single biggest speed mistake on LSAT reading comprehension is moving on to the questions without having understood the passage. Thinking about the theme of each passage helps you avoid this trap.
You can tell that the paragraphs are important because the LSAT actually tests this knowledge explicitly. Some questions ask you to identify the structure of the passage. Each of the five answers will have a sentence for each paragraph. Knowing passage structure will obviously help with those questions, but the existence of these questions is a strong hint that knowing passage structure will help on all questions.
To see my own rough summaries, check out my explanations for LSAT reading comprehension. Note that the summaries I’ve written aren’t quite the same as what I have in my head on a timed section. In timed practice, I know both more and less than the summaries I write. More, because I retain details from the passage I don’t fit into the summaries. Less, because my summaries only have to make sense to me, so I can cut out some detail. My written explanations are longer because I have to include enough detail that they make sense to everyone, not just to me.
2. Spaced repetition and rereading
Spaced repetition is a memory technique. It’s incredibly effective for both long term and short term memorization. I’ve personally used it for language learning. If you ever used Pimsleur, Duolingo, Memrise, or Supermemo, then you’ve been using a spaced repetition algorithm. Spaced repetition can also help you increase your speed on LSAT reading comprehension by allowing you to memorize information quickly.
The gist of spaced repetition is that we remember information better the more times we see it. Several times better. And there are optimal time intervals for seeing information again. Here are the time intervals used in Pimsleur languages courses: 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years.
I bolded the first four intervals because they roughly match the time you spend on a single reading comprehension passage. What do these intervals mean? The idea behind spaced repetition is that you should see information just as you’re about to forget it. Then you’ll remember it until the next interval.
So if you’ve seen information once, then you’ll forget most of it at the five second mark. If you see it again at that time, however, you’ll remember it longer, up to 25 seconds. If you see the information again at the 25 second mark, then you’ll remember it even longer, up to two minutes. If you see the information again at two minutes, then you will remember it for ten minutes. So effectively you’ll have memorized the information for as long as you’re doing the passage. This method really works; I effortlessly learned Portuguese and Italian using spaced repetition.
Now, obviously you can’t reread the material in the passage at precise time intervals. But you can use the knowledge above to approximate the repetitions. Here’s how I mimick the intervals. Basically, I take every chance I can to reread. Rereading is much faster than reading the first time.
- If I don’t understand a line, I reread it (roughly five second mark)
- If I don’t understand a paragraph I read, or if I forgot the paragraph, I’ll reread it. (Roughly 25 second mark)
- After I finish a passage, I skim over everything. I slow down to reread anything I’ve forgotten. (Roughly two minute mark)
I have a bias towards rereading anything I don’t understand or I’ve forgotten. This has the obvious benefit that I understand the passage much better. But this also has the non-obvious benefit that I more or less effortlessly memorize the passage by following the timing above.
Better understanding and memorization of the passage both dramatically improve speed. Try the rereading approach I outlined above and see if you notice a difference in your speed and understanding.
3. Returning to the passage
I hate writing explanations for LSAT reading comprehension. It’s the most boring section by far. The answers don’t require thought. They just require line references. “C is wrong because line 32 says….” “Line 47 directly says D”, etc. There’s none of the logical subtleties of LR, or the chains of reasoning from LG. In reading comprehension, you can prove or disprove most answers merely by pointing to a line.
This is dull when writing explanations, but it’s great when doing passages. There’s no need to agonize over answers. You can just go to the passage to prove them right or wrong. Most wrong answers are nonsense designed to sound like something the passage said (but actually didn’t say).
I know, I know….you’re thinking “I don’t have time to go back to the passage!”. That’s just because you haven’t practiced. I’ve tested this with my classes. Most students take 30 seconds or so to find a line reference if they just go about it the normal way. That is indeed to slow to do regularly.
But within a few minutes, I can have students finding line references in 2-5 seconds, about as fast as I can find them. How? By using the techniques I described in the earlier sections. If you know what’s in each paragraph and you understand the passage, then you know where information is located. You don’t need to search the whole passage to find a line. You can just search the paragraph that you know the line would be located in. This is 4-5x faster.
You can practice this. Print off two copies of a passage. Read it yourself, and have a friend read it. Then have the friend drill you on the passage. They can read out a few words, and you have to find them as fast as you can. If you practice this for a bit you can be as fast as me. It takes me about 2-3 seconds to find most lines. Once you master this skill, you can quickly eliminate or prove answer choices.
4. Author’s main Point
There’s always a reason that LSAT authors say what they say. If you can find this reason, then it becomes much easier to interpret what they’re saying. The questions are also easier. Some answers may seem tempting, but if you know the author’s point, then it will be obvious that an answer wouldn’t have been something the author said.
Pretend the author is a real person. Why are they telling you all this? How does the information in each paragraph support what they’re saying? If you have a clear view of the author’s point, then you’ll be able to sift through answers much faster.
You can practice understanding the author’s point by discussing passages with a friend. Hold yourselves to a high standard. LSAT reading comprehension passages have a lot of depth, and everything is said for a reason. If you correctly figure out the main point, you’ll be able to say why the author says each and every thing they say.
A true understanding of the main point will not only help you go faster, but it will let you get more questions right. Even questions that do not seem like main point questions often involve the main point somehow.
RC Mastery Seminar
Update: If you need more help on reading comprehension, I’ve created an advanced seminar on how to do better at them: https://lsathacks.com/rc-mastery-seminar/