Tags, You’re It

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Studying for Reading Comprehension is tough. The passages are long, about obscure topics that have almost no impact on your life, and written with a heightened academic tone that is, frankly, boring.

For reference, here is a list of some fun topics from recent LSATs: the legitimacy of dowsing, the misleading nature of brain scans, the fascinating career trajectory of a lacquer artist who became an interior designer and architect, the debate over why Mesolithic-era humans cleared pathways in the woodlands, the demarcations found on clay tablets from Sumer, the rehabilitation of a long-discredited theory by new research, the epistemological value of negative evidence.

And here’s what passes for a joke in Reading Comprehension: “In many respects [these Victoria-era photographs] have more connection to the family album pictures of recalcitrant relatives who have been herded together for the obligatory group picture than they do to the masterpieces of Western painting. In Raphael and Giotto there are no infant Christs whose faces are blurred because they moved, or who are looking at the viewer with frank hatred.” Knee-slapping stuff.

So, yeah, it’s rough out there studying Reading Comprehension. I can’t get mad at students who throw their hands up and mostly ignore Reading Comp, dedicating their time to mastering the more logically-demanding concepts of Logical Reasoning and Logic Games. Or students who “practice” Reading Comp, insofar as the practice entails doing passage after passage in the hopes of eventually, by happenstance or magic or just sheer brute force, getting better.

But neither of these approaches work, for obvious reasons. Even doing a ton of passages won’t lead to significant progress, if you’re not developing a sound approach to reading and comprehending these passages. Many students intuit this, and mostly ignore Reading Comp.

This is misguided for a bunch of reasons. First, the Reading Comp section on your LSAT will have more questions than any other scored section. You can expect between 26 and 28 questions on your RC section. On Logical Reasoning, that number will between 24 and 26. On Logic Games, 22 and 24. Second, the dark logicians who write this test have made Reading Comp significantly more difficult on recent exams, and this trend shows no sign of abating.

This trend, by the way, is probably no accident but instead a response to test prep companies, like ours, that have developed and taught helpful strategies that have allowed test takers to master Logical Reasoning and Logic Games. The test writers, in response, have to increase the difficulty of the exam elsewhere. And they chose Reading Comp, which they probably see as more immune to the kind of test prep strategies that work so well on the other sections.

Here’s the thing though: the test writers are wrong about that. Now, there’s no equivalent to a concept like conditional statements or scenarios on Reading Comp — something that you can learn rather quickly and will pretty much guarantee you a ton of points on LR and Logic Games. And, granted, you’ll be able to make a lot more progress learning how to approach Logic Games, which is completely new to you, than how to read Reading Comp passages, which involves reading, a skill that are pretty much hard-wired for you. However, there are important concepts that you can practice on you can make you better at Reading Comp.

And in my eyes, there is no concept more beneficial than making good tags. “Tags” are what we refer to the notes that you make in the margins of a Reading Comp passage. An effective set of tags will help you answer each type of question you’ll encounter on a Reading Comp passage. It will help you answer questions about the entire passage (like questions on the main point and author’s attitude), about the organization of the passage, and questions about the specific details within the passage.

And this is actually great news for you. Because if you’re anything like 98% of the students I’ve taught, your current system of marking up a passage is trash. Let me guess: As you read the passage, you start underlining things that seem important? Like anything that seems at all noteworthy? Maybe if something seems really significant, you circle it or something? Am I right?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. That system isn’t going to help you much. You’re probably underlining way too many things. If you underline over half of the passage, are you really underlining anything? You probably underline inconsistently — underlining the author’s conclusion, the author’s support, alternative viewpoints’ conclusion and support, examples, definitions, background information, you name it. Meaning when you look back at the passage, nearly the entire passage is underlined but you can’t tell what any of it means.

So you shouldn’t have any hesitation to abandon that completely unhelpful system and hop aboard tag train. But be careful to not repeat the same mistakes you made in your old system. A lot of students, when they first start making tags, make a little tag for like every sentence they read. Next to a sentence about an artist’s use of panels in a sculpture they’ll write, “Panels in sculpture.” Next to the following sentence about the same artist’s uses of screens in a later piece they’ll write, “Screens in sculpture.” Next to the following sentence about the same artist’s use of modern materials they’ll write “Modern materials.”

There are many problems with this approach to tagging. First, it’s too time consuming. You have somewhere between 3-5 minutes to read the passage, which is not nearly enough time to write your own little Spark Notes version of the passage. Second, writing something down after every single sentence actually breaks up the flow of reading the passage. You’ll be far too focused on the passage as a collection of discrete sentences, instead of seeing how everything works together to form an argument. In the above example, the hypothetical student would have missed that these were all just examples meant to show that the artist had an architectural approach to making sculptures, which prefaced the next stage of her career. Finally, these tags will actually be too cluttered and specific to be useful when you go back to use them. You’ll have to read through too many things to find the salient detail to answer a question. If you have to re-read something, isn’t better to re-read the passage itself, and not your version of the passage? Wouldn’t it be better if your tags instead quickly directed you to the relevant part of the passage?

Ideally you want to tag the structure of the passage. You want to tags to display what role a given paragraph plays in the passage. You want to know, based on a tag, if that paragraph is providing a conclusion offered by the author or another party, or if that paragraph is offering evidence to support a conclusion. And you shouldn’t have more than one or two tags per paragraph.

Now, this might sound like a daunting feat, especially in the early goings of your studies, when you’re still learning the ins and outs of argumentation. When you’re starting out, approach it this way: Read a paragraph (or, if it’s a lengthy paragraph, read until you sense there’s a natural breaking point in the paragraph — a word like “but” or “however” or “nonetheless” usually is the point at which you should stop). Then think about what you would title that paragraph if it were your job to give each paragraph a title or a header. Doing so will force you to think more structurally about the paragraph, and will yield a tag that tells you exactly what role that paragraph plays. Pro-tip: Most paragraphs have a topic sentence that will tell you, more or less, what function that paragraph is going to play.

These structural tags will serve several functions. They’ll help you answer the big-picture questions. If you’ve tagged each conclusion in the passage, you’ll know immediately how many viewpoints were offered in the passage and where to find those viewpoints. And if you’ve noted in your tags which conclusion is the author’s, you’ll have answered the main point question already. They’ll help you answer questions about the organization of the passage. They’ll be questions that ask you what role a paragraph plays. If you figured this out already with your tags, you’ll have that answer ready to go. And finally, they’ll help you answer the questions about specific details. When you have to go back to the passage to answer a detail-oriented question, your tags will direct your attention to the relevant paragraph where you’ll find that answer.

And best of all, you can get better at tagging in a short amount of time. Like a lot better. And it’ll keep you engaged as you read dry and uninteresting passages. And you’ll make those test writers, who were gambling on you not being prepared for a tough Reading Comp, look foolish.

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