Why Reading Comprehension is Underemphasized in LSAT Prep, and What You Can Do about It
A few weeks ago, I spoke with John Richardson, who teaches LSAT prep in Toronto, about doing a blog post for our sites on why most LSAT prep courses—and their marketing material—tend to underemphasize reading comprehension.
Things have been a little busy lately, but sometimes delay is a good thing. In this case, it allowed me to have lunch with Elise Jaffe, a former law firm colleague who is now the pre-law advisor at Hunter College in New York City. Elise and John are always insightful and, while this post is my view, it owes a lot to those conversations.
There are several reasons why reading comp seems to be the forgotten stepchild in LSAT prep courses and marketing. Some of them are merely commercial; others are inherent in the relatively short-term nature of LSAT prep, which is to say that most programs don’t address reading comprehension very well because—within the structure of most LSAT prep programs—it’s harder to address. In combination with the limited objectives of most LSAT programs, the result is that reading comprehension feels like an afterthought.
I’ll talk about a little theory below. The practical payoff is simple, though: Read—a lot—before you begin your intensive LSAT prep. The more of a reader you are, the easier you’ll find reading comprehension especially, and logical reasoning to a lesser (but still significant) extent.
As Elise and John, in their own way, noted to me, taking a too-narrow view of the LSAT (which, I’ll add, is in the commercial interest of most LSAT prep programs) is positively damaging to performance. Elise emphasizes that in one very important way, LSAT prep isn’t a short-horizon task. It may be that you only “prepare for the LSAT” for a relatively short time but you start from somewhere; that is, you rely on a long personal development of reading and analytical skills. To help develop those skills, Elise recommends to her students that, throughout their college careers, they become regular readers of the New York Times (relatively inexpensive with student rates) and at least one other respected news source, targeting op-ed pages in particular if they don’t have time to read the entire publication. One of my first posts on this blog contained similar advice.
John’s R.E.A.D. principle is in a similar vein. It’s a great “back-to-basics” reminder that what the LSAT, in its essence, is asking you to do is to understand and analyze the information it presents. No one starts doing that from a blank slate. Any taker relies on a better or worse history of doing exactly that, understanding and analyzing information as it’s presented.
I’m not recommending extending dedicated LSAT prep time—I think that too long spent preparing is just as unhelpful as too short a time, as I’ve said several times on this blog. What’s important is the preparation you do before you start “preparing” for the LSAT.
A great LSAT prep program can maximize your reading ability but can’t create it from scratch (or nearly scratch). Knowing and using the right techniques for you are important to maximizing your LSAT performance—but they’re not alchemy. LSAT books that purport to teach you “how to read for the LSAT” are more harmful than beneficial—that’s another reason why I continue to believe that the best decisions I made in my own LSAT prep were to take all those books to the dumpster and to ignore all those programs and tutors that held out the possibility of great results (“crushing the LSAT,” “beating the LSAT,” etc.) without any pedagogically sound plan as to how to get to those results.
The basic fact is this. Takers of the LSAT have been reading (more or less well and more or less heavily) for a long time. For example, although I didn’t start my LSAT prep anywhere near the 180 score I got on my only LSAT, I had the advantage that I was a heavy reader (and I had no idea what the LSAT books were trying to tell me about reading—they had nothing to do with how I read or should read, and I was pretty convinced that I was already a better reader than the books’ authors). I didn’t read quite the way the LSAT wanted me to but I read a lot. So, what I needed to do was to change the way I processed and analyzed information. But I didn’t need to learn how to read, understand or process information at a reasonably high level.
When prospective clients take a diagnostic (or show me their actual LSAT after having taken another program), I worry more about the ultimate cap on their scores if reading comprehension is weak. I’m upfront about that with them. I think that’s my duty. The bottom line is that I’m not qualified—nor, to my knowledge, is any other LSAT instructor—to teach remedial reading. I can help tweak reading habits but 10 weeks—or, for that matter, 6 months—isn’t enough time to completely rebuild reading habits. I can teach more efficient reading, better analysis of arguments and various other techniques specifically to maximize how any individual is already reading—but I can’t teach someone how to read. And any LSAT book or instructor who tells you it or he can (especially in a few weeks) is either badly deceived, less than truthful or a severely underpaid sorcerer.
Even in making adjustments to how you read, the longer you have and the more dedicated you are, the better off you’ll be. That’s the function of the pre-program that I offer to my clients. The objective of that program is to get clients in the habit of reading in the way that the LSAT wants them to read without using up LSAT questions doing it, and giving ourselves more time to get it right. Some of my clients are doing the pre-program (at no additional charge) for over a year—it’s just a few hours a week but it pays considerable dividends.
I don’t know of any other LSAT prep company that offers a similar program. Why? Well, it’s time and effort, for one. And most LSAT prep programs are volume-based, so it’s not worth their effort. But since the issue with those whose reading comprehension is weaker is more one of reading generally—and less one of 8 or 10 or 26 weeks of LSAT prep—these programs don’t emphasize reading comprehension.
They can’t, really. And to the extent that mass-market LSAT prep intends to get its students a marginal improvement on a base score, they don’t have to—they can get enough small improvements through marginal moves. Still, they should make the limitations of what they’re doing clear, in my opinion. If what you want—and you should—is your best LSAT score, you should start preparing for the LSAT long before you start preparing for it, either in a dedicated pre-program like the one I offer clients or in a self-designed program. If you do that, your LSAT-specific work will have greater impact.
That’s all in “LSAT mode.” There’s a more important consideration. As a lawyer, one of the two or three activities that will take up the largest proportion of your time will be—reading. And you’ll need to be a very careful and efficient reader to be a first-rate lawyer. While I am generally of the opinion that the LSAT has a single purpose—to help get your best law school admission with the most merit-based financial aid you can get—it’s important to keep the end goal in mind. If you don’t like to read, you should think carefully about whether the law and being a lawyer are right for you. And the most practice you get at analytical reading—of the type tested on the LSAT, among others—the better off you and your clients will be when you become a lawyer.