LSAT Mailbag: Deciding Between Two Choices

Have you ever heard the saying “there are no new ideas?” Well, while teaching the LSAT I’ve heard some variation on this mailbag question approximately several thousand times, and it usually goes something like this:

I can narrow it down to two answers, and one of them is right, but then I always pick the wrong one. Help?

First of all, you don’t always pick the wrong one.  You probably just remember it more when you do. But that’s little consolation. How can you get better at picking the right answer when you’re down to two?

The biggest mistake students make when deciding between two answers is looking for the better answer of the two. On the LSAT, there’s no such thing as better. There is, however, such a thing as wrong. So when you’re trying to decide between two seemingly correct answers, don’t try to figure out which answer is better. Your job is to find what makes one of the two answers wrong.

Let’s take a fictional LSAT reading comp passage as an example. Say the passage is about Miley Cyrus’s attempts at twerking. The first paragraph covers the implications for gender politics. The second paragraph covers the implications for racial politics. Then the third paragraph goes something like this:

Another important ramification of Miley’s misadventures in dance is that they help to contradict a long-held assumption about celebrity in America. It’s long been assumed that children whose parents are in show business will have innate skill in managing their own image in the media. Miley is the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus, who, though not the biggest celebrity in the world, nonetheless went platinum with “Achy Breaky Heart.” And yet Miley has managed, by prominently displaying both her own buttocks and those of her teddy-bear-clad backup dancers, not only to offend various groups but also to subject herself to widespread ridicule.

You get a question about the author’s purpose in this paragraph, and narrow your choices to the following two answers:

(A) to show that Miley’s twerking contradicts a long-held assumption about the children of the rich in America.
(B) to demonstrate that Miley’s twerking has implications that affect a certain assumption.

The common mistake is to focus on “contradicts” vs. “affect” in the first sentence of the passage. If the author had written “affects,” then “contradicts” would be wrong – it would be too strong. But the passage states that Miley’s example “contradicts” the assumption. Choice (A) may seem “better” for that reason. But if something contradicts an assumption, by definition it also affects that assumption. Both words are fine.

Look instead for what’s wrong about one of the two answers. Choice (A) mentions the children of the rich, but the passage discusses children of celebrities. Sure, people in show biz can be rich, but they can also be MC Hammer. For that reason, choice (A) is wrong. Choice (B), boring as it may be, is the right answer.

The things that make answers right and wrong vary according to the type of question. But this principle applies across question types in LSAT Logical Reasoning and Reading Comp: when you’re down to two answer choices, don’t look for the better answer. Look for the reason one of the answers is wrong.

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