On Reading Comprehension, They’re All Must Be Trues

On Reading Comprehension, They’re All Must Be Trues

This lesson was prompted by an email that arrived this morning from a Thinking LSAT Podcast listener:

I used to get annoyed when Nathan would say EVERYTHING was a Must Be True question, but that insight definitely helped me out. There was an inference / “most supported by the passage” type of question on my official test that the pre–Thinking LSAT Podcast version of me would have gotten wrong every time. One answer choice seemed to paraphrase everything presented about the author’s views and seemed like a great example of what the author would have agreed with. Another answer choice referenced in dull language a specific throwaway line from the passage. I didn’t hesitate to choose the latter. Must. Be. True.

Yeah, that pretty much says it. When in doubt, on LSAT Reading Comprehension, we should assume the question is a Must Be True. As such, we should pick an answer that has straightforward support from the passage. Being dull and boring never makes it wrong here—in fact, dull and boring is exactly what we want.

Step into the test makers’ shoes for a moment. The LSAT contains a section called “Reading Comprehension.” What, as the test maker, do you intend to test here?

Are you looking to examine an applicant’s command of logic and argumentation? No, you do that on Logical Reasoning.

Are you looking to examine an applicant’s ability to solve complex systems of variables and rules? Do you want to see whether they’re willing to practice arcane puzzles for weeks, months, or years until they achieve mastery? No, you’ve got Logic Games for that.

On Reading Comprehension, you’re simply testing an applicant’s ability to understand what they’ve read. But you get bored asking, “Which one of these five does the passage say?” So instead, you write questions like these:

  1. Which one of the following most accurately expresses the main point of the passage?
  2. Which one of the following is most analogous to the literary achievements that the author attributes to Dove?
  3. According to the passage, in the U.S. there is a widely held view that
  4. The author’s attitude toward the deep rift between poetry and fiction in the U.S. can be most accurately described as one of
  5. In the passage the author conjectures that a cause of the deep rift between fiction and poetry in the United States may be that
  6. In the context of the passage, the author’s primary purpose in mentioning Dove’s experience in Germany (last sentence of the third paragraph) is to
  7. It can be inferred from the passage that the author would be most likely to believe which one of the following?
  8. If this passage had been excerpted from a longer text, which one of the following predictions about the near future of U.S. literature would be most likely to appear in that text?

These are the eight questions from the first passage of PrepTest J,  by the way—a test that’s available to all students via a Demon Free account.

Are all of these questions Must Be Trues? Well, let’s take them one at a time.

  1. Yep. Main Point questions are a subset of Must Be True. The correct answer here has to come straight out of the passage. It can use synonyms, of course, but the correct answer has to be something that the passage actually says, or else it’s automatically wrong.
  2. Tricky, but yes. If we’re looking for something “analogous” to what the author says about Dove’s literary achievements, we start with “well, what does the author say about Dove’s literary achievements?” Maybe the passage says that Dove was able to write books while also being named after a brand of chocolate. If that’s what it says in the passage, then something analogous to that might be, “Hershey wrote a book of poetry” or, “Toblerone wrote a treatise on tort law.” Point is, we start with what the passage actually says, then we find something analogous to that.
  3. For sure. Note the first three words here: “according to the passage.” If they’re looking for something that’s “according to the passage,” then we damn well better pick an answer that’s straight out of the passage. The test is literal.
  4. Yep. The author’s attitude is not something we imagine or invent. They’re not asking us to read between the lines; they’re asking us to read the lines themselves. Before looking at the answer choices, paraphrase what the author says about the rift between fiction and poetry in the US. If the author says the rift is “unfortunate,” then the correct answer has to say that—or a similarly negative synonym. If the author says the rift is “beneficial,” then the correct answer has to say exactly that—or something positive that means the same thing. If the author says the rift is “mysterious” or “widening” or “deep,” then that’s what the correct answer will also say.
  5. Yes. Here, the test maker is getting fancy with the verb “conjectures,” but all they really mean by that is “says.” They want to know whether we understand the passage (and whether we can figure out that “conjectures,” in this context, means “says”). The correct answer needs to be lifted straight out of the passage.
  6. Yes. Why does the author bring up Dove’s experience in Germany? Well, what does the passage say about Dove’s experience in Germany? Did Dove learn about the wonders of German chocolate cake and gain critical inspiration for whatever chocolate-themed literary achievements followed? Well, then, that’s the answer.
  7. Yes, yes, yes! This formulation of a Reading Comprehension question is particularly vexing to LSAT novices, who take the phrases “it can be inferred” and “would be most likely to believe” as invitations to speculate. They are not. “It can be inferred” means “it must be true,” and “most likely to believe” means “they say this.” The most important part of this question is the three-word phrase that novices tend to ignore: “from the passage.” They’re not looking for us to read tea leaves here or make anything up. They want us to answer the question based on what it actually says in the passage.
  8. Well, this is another weird one—but let’s default to yes. They can’t be asking us to magically invent parts of a “longer text” that we haven’t read and that might not even exist. Rather, they want to know whether we understand the parts that we have in fact read. What does the author say about the current state of U.S. literature? How is it currently changing? The correct answer, if we’re making a prediction about the “near future,” is going to be the present state of U.S. literature, modified by whatever current changes are already happening, as described by the passage. That’s it.

I picked this passage at random, but I’m not surprised that eight of eight questions turn out to be some variety of Must Be True. Yes, the test makers do throw in an explicit Strengthen or Weaken question from time to time. But when they’re asking us for the main point, primary purpose, author’s attitude, or any of the various quirky questions posed above, they’re really just testing whether we understand the passage on the page in front of us. When in doubt: Must Be True.

So, putting on our Must Be True hat, how do we know when we’ve found the correct answer for each question?

Put bluntly, the correct answer is correct because it’s what it says in the damn passage. We should be able to predict the answer half the time, or more, if we stop and think about each question before blundering ahead into the answer choices.

If we narrow it down to two—which shouldn’t be happening very often, because the right answers are very right and each wrong answer is very wrong, often for multiple reasons—we should lean toward answers that are boring, obvious, vague, and/or conservatively stated. Those answers are easier to prove and, therefore, more likely to be correct. We should be extra suspicious of answers that are too specific or strongly worded or that add anything new, different, or extra. Those answers are harder to prove and, therefore, almost always wrong.

Next week, I’ll dive into question types in Logic Games. Do they matter? Are some types harder than others? Should we do Logic Games questions out of order, or are there certain types that should be skipped?

Li’l brain teaser for ya. Seven clowns of different colors are getting out of a clown car, one at a time.

1. If the red clown gets out of the clown car before the blue clown, which one of the following must be true?

A.    The orange clown gets out first.

B.    The purple clown gets out last.

C.    The red clown does not get out first.

D.    The red clown does not get out last.

E.    The blue clown does not get out last.

2. Unless the red clown gets out of the clown car after the blue clown, each of the following could be false EXCEPT

A.    The orange clown gets out first.

B.    The purple clown gets out last.

C.    The red clown does not get out first.

D.    The red clown does not get out last.

E.    The blue clown does not get out last.

3. Which one of these questions is harder, and why?

Answers next time.

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