The FAQs for Soft MBTs: Part 2

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Earlier this week, we went over the basics of Soft Must Be True questions to help you get started on this super prevalent question type.

To recap: Soft Must Be True questions ask you to make the “most strongly supported” or “best” inference from a set of facts in the stimulus (that paragraph of information at the beginning of a Logical Reasoning question). You can most reliably anticipate a supported inference by summarizing the facts in the stimulus, and then looking for strong statements in the stimulus to combine with other statements. But you need to make sure you’re avoiding answer choices that bring in outside information, make inferences that are stronger than the facts in the stimulus, or propose certain tough-to-prove relationships between facts in the stimulus, as these are all unsupported.

Now that we have the ins and outs of Soft Must Be True 101 covered, we’re going to get into some advanced strategies to help you master these questions. Like, what do you do if there isn’t a strong statement? What if the Soft Must Be True question asks you to do something a little different? And what should you focus on when you practice Soft Must Be True questions? So let’s get started with Part 2 of the FAQs of Soft MBTs.

“What if there isn’t a strong statement?”

Some Soft Must Be True questions won’t give you a super strong statement to help you anticipate a deduction. In that case, the right answer will often simply summarize the information in the stimulus. Your summary will be the only talisman you need to help navigate the answer choices.

Alternatively, many stimuli will present some surprising or curious phenomenon. The question will kind of expect you to explain what happened. Let’s say you came home to find that your roommate covered the every wall of your apartment with oil paintings of the Golden Girls and purchased several cases of the discontinued soda Surge. That would be an unexpected development. You’d want an explanation. Same thing for surprising phenomena on Soft Must Be True questions, more or less.

Take this question from the December 2014 exam …

“A university professor researching sleep disorders occasionally taught class after spending whole nights working in a laboratory. She found lecturing after such nights difficult: she reported that she felt worn out and humorless, and she had difficulty concentrating and finding the appropriate words. After several weeks of lectures, she asked her students to guess which lectures had been given after nights without sleep. Interestingly, very few students were able to correctly identify them.”

Oh, the irony of a professor researching sleep disorders developing a sleep disorder of her own. Her work becoming all consuming, spending tireless nights in her laboratory looking into the causes of sleep depravation. But the one cause she cannot face is the cause of her own sleep depravation. Beware, professor, that, when fighting sleep disorders, you yourself do not become afflicted with sleep disorder … for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Anyway … despite all the signs that our industrious professor needs some shut-eye, we’re presented with something surprising. Even though she reported feeling worn out, humorless, and inarticulate in the lectures following her midnight oil-burning research nights, most of her students weren’t able to identify which lectures followed sleepless nights.

Basically, this question wants us to explain why this is the case, based on the information given. When offering this explanation, however, we cannot make any unwarranted assumptions or engage in unfounded speculation. We cannot say, for instance, that her students — hung over and mostly concerned with making flirty eyes toward each other — just don’t pay attention in her class at all. While this would explain why they weren’t able to identify the lectures that followed sleepless nights, we’d be making too many assumptions about the academic mettle of these students. Nor could we conclude that the professor is just always a groggy, distracted, and tongue-tied lecturer. Again, this would explain why the students couldn’t identify the lectures following the sleepless nights, but we really don’t know how good this prof is at lecturing when she’s well rested.

We have to base the explanation on the information we do have. And the stimulus, importantly, states that she “reported” feeling felt very tired, humorless, distracted, and inarticulate. Just because we feel a certain way about ourselves doesn’t guarantee that the outside world can perceive that feeling. I’m an anxious ball of nerves 98% of the time, but I speak with a Southern California drawl that belies my neuroses to the outside world. Maybe it’s the same thing for this professor. She feels tired and groggy, but that feeling isn’t completely perceptible to her students, since it’s not manifested in her overt behavior. In other words, the professor’s subjective perception of the effects of her own sleep deprivation is stronger than other’s perception of those effects. That would lead us straight to the correct answer, which states, “The subjective effects of occasional sleep deprivation are more pronounced than are its effects on overt behavior.”

So on Soft Must Be True questions in which there isn’t a strong statement, we should look for surprising developments, and anticipate an explanation of that development. But we have to rely on the information given in the stimulus. We should be extremely careful not to make any assumptions about the state of affairs.

“Got it. So this is what I should do for every Soft Must Be True question?”

Well, every Soft Must Be True question that asks you for the “most supported” or “most strongly supported” inference, which is going to be the vast majority of Soft Must Be True questions.

But some Soft Must Be True questions will ask you to do something a little bit different. Not profoundly different, mind you, but it’s worth going over those differences here.

Some questions will ask you to “most logically complete” the argument in the stimulus. The stimulus will present some argument, and then will present a blank space right where the conclusion is supposed to go. And we’re expected to fill that blank space, like we’re 2014 Taylor Swift, with a lonely Starbucks lover the author’s conclusion.

While the right answer to a normal “most strongly supported” Soft Must Be True question will be any supported inference, on these we have to predict what the author is specifically going to conclude. We want to pay attention to how the author is using the evidence to reach the conclusion. So paying attention to the argument structure used is going to be super helpful.

Let’s take this “most logically completes” question …

“Children should be discouraged from reading Jones’s books. Reading them is like eating candy, which provides intense, short-term sensory stimulation but leaves one poorly nourished and dulls one’s taste for better fare. In other words, the problem with letting children read Jones’s books is that _______.”

So we have to figure out where this total drag of a schoolmarm author is going with this argument. If you can identify the argument structure the author is using, anticipating the conclusion is easy. She’s using an analogy between Jones’s books and candy. She tells us that candy provides short-term pleasure but ultimately “dulls one’s taste” for better food. So kids who eat candy will not come to appreciate the nuances of fine wine and soft cheeses. So the author is going to conclude that something similar is going to happen with children who read Jones’s books. They’ll get short-term satisfaction but then won’t be able to enjoy the highbrow pleasures of Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace. And that will direct us straight to the correct answer, which states, “their doing so interferes with the development of appreciation for more challenging literature.”

In addition, we’ll get questions that ask us to make a generalization that is “best illustrated” by the stimulus. On these questions, we’ll get a description of something that happened, and we’ll be expected to make a broader, more general claim based on that description. Doing so is actually easy. The correct answer must: (1) be related to the description in the stimulus, and (2) be stated in weak terms (since you only have one description to use for your generalization).

So if a “best illustrated” question described a situation wherein a chicken farmer rounded up all of his chicken’s eggs and put all of said eggs into one (1) basket, then placed that basket in the front seat of his pick-up truck to drive to the farmers market, but on the way to the market got T-boned by a drunken hillbilly, shattering all of the eggs conveniently located in the singular basket, the aphorism “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” would come to mind.

But there are a few problems with that. First, it’s too strong. We only know of one situation in which it was a bad idea to put all of the eggs in one basket. We’d have to look for something weaker. Second, it’s too specific. The right answer won’t refer to “eggs” or “baskets” specifically. So we should look for an answer choice that says something like, “It is sometimes inadvisable to put all of one’s resources in a particular location.” Yep, that’s the LSAT for you.

Finally, we have what are known as Soft Must Be True Principle questions. In these questions, there will be a principle — a strong rule that can be applied to specific situations — in the stimulus. It will be our job to diagram that principle (they’re almost always conditional statements) and find the answer choice that correctly applies that principle. And that means the right answer will apply the principle to the appropriate situation, and make the conclusion demanded by the principle.

Take this question …

“No occupation should be subject to a licensing requirement unless incompetence in the performance of tasks normally carried out within that occupation poses a plausible threat to human health or safety.”

We’d want to translate this principle into a good, old-fashioned, easy-to-apply conditional statement. Since “unless” can be changed into “if not,” we should diagram this as:

Incompetence does not pose threat to human health or safety → No licensing requirement

So the right answer will apply this principle to an occupation in which incompetence does not pose a risk to human health or safety. Like, I don’t know, being an LSAT instructor. Even if we suck at our jobs, our students’ health and safety will not suffer. And it will make the conclusion demanded by the principle: that LSAT instructors should not have to get special licenses to teach the LSAT. And that’s why the right answer says, “Because there are no realistic circumstances in which poor work by an interior designer poses a danger to human beings, interior designers should not be subject to a licensing requirement.”

On these, just be careful to avoid answer choices that give you the inverse of the principle. Just because incompetence in the field of medicine poses a significant risk to human health and safety doesn’t guarantee that doctors should be subject to a licensing requirement, according to this principle.

“Whew … that’s a lot. So what should I practice to become a Soft Must Be True master?”

Here’s what you shouldn’t do when you practice Soft Must Be True questions: Read the stimulus, assume you “got it,” then go straight to the answer choices and try to feel your way, like a blind pig searching for the proverbial acorn, to the right answer. You might get a few of these correct. But the problem is that you’re relying on intuition to guide you. You’re not developing skills that are going to help you get more of these questions correct. And guess what doesn’t work so well on test day, when you’re nervous, in an unfamiliar location surrounded by strangers, and acutely aware that your performance has lasting ramifications for your education and career? Your intuition.

So when you’re practicing Soft Must Be True questions, practice anticipating what the right answer is going to look like. These FAQs just gave you all of the strategies you need to anticipate the deductions for each Soft Must Be True variation. Now it’s up to you to practice doing this on actual questions. It’ll be slow at first. You won’t anticipate the correct deduction 100% of the time. But with practice and persistence, you will get better.

Additionally, when you’re eliminating wrong answer choices, make sure you’re articulating to yourself why you’re eliminating that choice. Be as specific as possible. Act like a weird logic robot if you can. As in, “This idea referenced by (A) was not referenced anywhere in the stimulus. It is new information, and is therefore unsupported.” Or, “(B) is stating that this occurrence usually happens, but I only know from the stimulus that it only sometimes happens. (B) is stronger than its supporting information, and is therefore incorrect.” Don’t fall back on telling yourself, “This doesn’t seem right” or “I don’t think this is correct” or some other vague notion. There are only a few reasons answers choices will be incorrect on Soft Must Be True questions, and the better you are at identifying these reasons, the more questions you’ll answer correctly.

And with this practice, these questions will eventually Soft Must Be Rue the day they encountered you.

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