RC: Working an example I

To give you an example of how to work a smashed reading comprehension question, I’m going to show you how to prove your answer is correct using question 13 from section 3 of the LSAT PrepTest 38 (2002).

  1. I do not read the passage.  I do allow my eye to stray over the first few words of the passage “Intellectual authority is defined…” and am very very glad I do not have to read or comprehend the passage.
  2. I read the question stem carefully.  “The author discusses the example from musicology primarily in order to.”  Okay, it is pretty clear that I’m going to skim for the word “musicology.”
  3. A quick roll of the eyes over the passage makes it clear that the word “musicologist” shows up in the third paragraph and only once.
  4. The sentence that contains the word: “For example, if a musicologist were to claim that an alleged musical genius who, after several decades, had not gained respect and recognition for his or her compositions is probably not a genius…” Okay, running out of steam here!  I don’t want to waste a ton of time on the verbiage.  Let me focus on the question stem again: what am I being asked?  The key is “discusses the example primarily to.”  Where does the sign post in the passage to the right answer point?  “For example,…” points to the sentence before!  That sentence reads “But, the critics might respond, intellectual authority is only recognized as such because of institutional consensus.”  This is the important bit: my answer choice must match this sentence.
  5. The correct answer choice reads: “illustrate the claim that assessing intellectual authority requires an appeal to institutional authority.”
  • illustrate: well, that is what examples do.
  • the claim: “critics might respond” with a claim
  • assessing intellectual authority requires an appeal to institutional authority: intellectual authority is only recognized as such because of institutional consensus: yup, both indicate intellectual authority being fundamentally derived from institutions.
  • QED

This one wasn’t even that infelicitous.

I must confess, though, there was an answer choice that called out to me!  It was “distinguish the notion of institutional authority from that of intellectual authority.”  The reason it called to me was that, in all honesty, I read the entire sentence that contained the “musicologist.”  The end of that sentence reads “the critics might say that basing a judgment on a unit of time…is an institutional rather than an intellectual construct.”  That sounds a whole lot like the answer choice, right?  The “For example” sign post, however, says that you need to base your answer to the question “discusses…primarily to” on what the “for example” is referencing.  Also, is it really distinguishing the notion or just an instance?

So, to recap:

  1. I followed directions by answering the question asked.  This helped me zero in on the “for example” cue.
  2. I paid attention to detail by proving my answer choice word-for-word and by noticing the sketchy “the notion” in the answer choice that called to me.
  3. I organized the information given to me carefully, by focusing on only the part of the passage that could contain my answer.  I then carefully matched that information with the information in the answer choices.

Barriers to Smashing this question type:

  1. It is hard to trust not reading the passage.
  2. It is going to take a lot of practice.
  3. You might see a dip in your accuracy rate.

Methods to overcome:

  1. Trust it anyway
  2. Practice, practice, practice.  Hundreds of passages.  Until you are getting them 100% correct.
  3. You will develop a sense for the tricks and traps they place for you if you practice enough, now that your attention isn’t cluttered with passages.

Reading Comprehension

‘Nough with the throat clearing.  Let’s talk question types.

I’m going to start with Reading Comprehension.  It tends to get short shrift in people’s study time, since they think “I know how to read!” but it is the one question type that is universal to all of the major tests.  It also isn’t measuring your ability to read.  Or comprehend.  And it is completely breakable.

There are two ways the test writers like to trip you up.  First, they want you to get the wrong answer.  Second, if you are going to get the question right, they’d like it to take a long time.  Don’t feed the test writers!  Refuse to follow their lures.

The cardinal rules of Reading Comprehension:

  1. Do NOT, under any circumstance, read the fucking passage.  It is a time sink put there to bore you to death and a low score.
  2. Read the question stem carefully instead.  Figure out what words or phrases you are going to skim for.
  3. Skim for said word/phrase.
  4. Read just the section that contains the word/phrase.
  5. Now consider your answer choices: you must prove your answer choice.  Every fucking word in the answer choice MUST be in the passage.  You must point it out to yourself.
  6. The correct answer is usually infelicitous.  It will usually be phrased in a way that you would never consider phrasing the answer.  It might even be written in a way that you have a hard time understanding.  But every fucking word will match what is in the text.
  7. There will be a wrong answer, which is clearly written, that almost matches the text.  There will be some slight deviation, though.  IT IS THE WRONG ANSWER.  Do NOT choose it.  It will sing to you, call you out.  Plug your ears and pick the ugly answer.

Once you learn to do that EVERY TIME, you will have smashed RC to smithereens.  No more wrong answers.  Yay!

What do you do when it is a question along the lines of “The primary purpose of this passage is to:”?  If it is an overview question, read the first sentence of each paragraph, and, possibly, the last sentence of the entire passage.  Each paragraph must be addressed in the correct answer.  There will be a wrong answer that beautifully describes the most important/interesting paragraph in the passage.  Don’t choose it.  It is the wrong answer.

Lots of students hate not reading the passage.  It makes them really nervous.  They might miss something.  They are right: they are going to miss most of the traps the test writers have carefully placed for them!  They are going to miss the lost time that reading the passage extracts from their lives!  Do.  Not.  Read.  The.  Passage.

My recommendation will be hard at first.  I don’t care.  Get over it.  Keep following the rules, and you will smash this question type.  You may already be scoring pretty well on RC, relative to some of the other question types, so it might be tempting to just keep up with your current practice.  DON’T!  Unless you are getting them 100% correct all the time and creating time to spend on the harder question types, you need to keep practicing reading comprehension.  This is one of the easiest question types to smash, so get out your hammer and free yourself once and for all from boring passages!

What do they REALLY test?

I said earlier that the tests don’t really test math or verbal skills.  This is why I have an ethical problem with these tests: they do their thing by trying to deceive and distract you.  Not cool, ETS.  On the other hand, the skills they do test?  They are handy skills to have, and will help you in school and in your job and in life.  People who cultivate these skills definitely have a leg up in life.  This is good news, ’cause you are about to start cultivating them, and I can promise you, it won’t be a waste of time.  Hard, maybe, but worth it.

So what are these secret skills?

  1. Following directions
  2. Paying attention to details
  3. Organizing your information effectively

“Say whaa?”  you say.  “That’s so easy.  Why aren’t I already at 800/180?”  Well, my friend, chances are you suck at this stuff.  Most people do.  Following directions?  We are, as a human race, catastrophically bad at following written directions.  Catastrophic because we assume that we can follow said directions, which means we try to give direction by writing.  (Have you ever tried to follow prescription directions?  How to exit a building safely in the case of fire?  Can you even follow a recipe?  Can you fill out your tax forms?  Correctly??)

Paying attention to details?  Even more hopeless.  People work in approximations.  They don’t want to think through things really carefully, and read every single word.  Hvea yuo sene tohse eaxmlpes wrhee teh ltetres aer all jmubeld?  We can read them anyway!  Which is cool, but it means we aren’t sweating the small stuff.  Great for lots of life, bad for the SAT/GMAT/LSAT/GRE.

Organizing your information effectively is a subtler skill than the other two.  It is what helps you overcome your instincts to gloss over important details or answer a question differently than the one being asked.  It is also, of course, what will crack open the analytical reasoning section on the LSAT (i.e. the LSAT games).  It also gets you most of the distance on data sufficiency questions (GMAT) and quantitative comparison questions (GRE and SAT).

I actually think that my previous career as a musician was instrumental to my being good at these tests.  When you are reading music, it is all about following directions and paying attention to detail.  Every dot on the page has lots of meaning.  You also learn to structure that mess of data into phrases, movements, musical forms, etc.  You see the structure beneath the variations.

So how do you study these skills?  There are no formulas to memorize.

I would first approach this as a practice, rather than as a finite set of skills.  Think yoga or meditation, not cramming for your calculus exam.  Awareness is the first step.  If you start studying for the GRE, say, by memorizing a bunch of geometry formulas, you are heading for a long, slow, unproductive slog.  If instead, you take some practice questions (written by the real test writers, please!) observe yourself as you go through the questions.  If you get a question wrong, was it because you “just made a careless mistake”?  ETS test writers lure you into carelessness.  That didn’t happen by accident.  Which piece of information necessary to solving the question did you gloss over?  Did you rely on your gut when you chose your answer?  Start making a list, and study it for common themes.

You can develop your practice in other ways.  Start working your way through intricate recipes, Julie & Julia -style.  When a recipe doesn’t come out the way it should, is that because of something you glossed over or an ambiguity in the recipe?  Annotate your experiences, look for patterns.  Play Sudoku and develop a process for solving the puzzles quickly that works for you.  Do LSAT logic games, even if you aren’t studying for the LSAT.  If you play an instrument or sing, learn new, rhythmically complicated pieces.

You are building a set of cognitive skills that are hard.  Be patient (think of the baby falling to his butt, time and time again, as he learns to take his first step) and stay focused on these skills everywhere you can.  Track the clarity that starts to emerge when you do those practice questions.

You must be so smart

When people say that to me, I have bite back the temptation to say, “And you must be so boring.”  Really, guys, intelligence is such a BORING topic.  If you want to compliment me on my courage or my integrity, I will go all gooey.  Compliment me on my intelligence, and I’ll either want to fall asleep or punch you in the face, depending on my grumpiness that day.


Intelligence is a trait that anyone reading this blog has in abundance.  If there are differences between people, the variation occurs at a not-interesting level.  It’s sort of like having a bank balance of $3,274,971.03 versus $2,974,817.71.  In both cases, you are fucking rich.  Drawing any kind of meaningful inferences about the wealth of either balance owner is ridiculous and BORING.

I have a niece who is not quite two yet, and she has mastered walking (and running!) and is in the process of learning to communicate effectively in English and Spanish.  While I think she is the awesomest little tyke on the planet (at least until I have kids), she is nothing special.  Any girl or boy her age is mastering the profoundly complex skills of walking and language.*  These require way more cognitive processing power than anything on the SAT, GMAT, LSAT or GRE.  I promise.  Even scoring an 800/180.  And each and every one of you has accomplished that!*  So why the hell can’t you do this?

Well, in addition to learning to walk and talk, kids learn artificial boundaries on their abilities.  This is a tragedy.  Teachers tell kids (who, remember, have just mastered the amazing skills of walking and talking) that somehow, they are “bad at math” or are “a little slow.”  Parents respond not by punching said teacher in the face (okay, that would be wrong, because solving problems with actual violence is wrong) but by getting anxious, yelling at their kid, setting lower expectations, medicating them, or whatever solution they see to this problem that isn’t really a problem.

The problem we should be trying to solve is the lack of patience, perseverance, creativity and joy in learning in the teacher and parents, not some sudden loss of the ability to claim new skills by the kid.  After little Johnny has sat down hard on his butt for the hundredth time after trying to figure out that walking thing, adults don’t turn to each other and say wisely “oh, well, I guess Johnny just isn’t good at walking.  I guess we’ll encourage him to major in screaming his head off — a skill he has shown great promise in from birth.”  Instead, we laugh and coo and cheer.  Johnny laughs (or cries a bit) and pulls himself up again (’cause goddamnit everyone around me seems to be going places.  I want to too.) and tries to move a foot forward, but doesn’t have his balance right and ends up on his butt.  Again.  Until one day, he takes his first step.

For the few insightful teachers who approach teaching math this way, the “slow” kids start doing college level math after a year of teaching that allows the kids an opportunity to find the inherent joy of math.  Read this: The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child to learn more.  (And yes, full disclosure, I make money from Amazon if you click that link and end up buying the book.)

So what does this have to do with test prep???

Standardized tests purport to take their takers, line them up, and order them on the basis of … something.  Now, the psychometricians at ETS would agree with me that these tests are not “intelligence” tests, but the schools sure do treat them that way.  So do your peers, teachers, and probably parents.  The very hardest thing I run up against when teaching students these tests are their fixed beliefs about their own intelligence and how much they can accomplish given their limitations.  Time and time again, I have found that they are perfectly capable of doing absolutely everything the test asks of them, but their belief that they are “just not good at math” or “just not good at taking tests” and that those traits are immutable makes them bomb the test anyway.

So, the very first thing you need to do to do well on your test?  Believe that you can and insist on smashing every single fucking question type into smithereens.  Don’t give up until you have.

* Of course, there are people who are born with limits and cannot learn to walk and/or talk.  This rant does not apply to them.  They are also probably not taking these tests.  If you were born with some physical limitation and never learned to walk for that reason, you are still fucking smart so go smash the test!

Say Whaa?

This blog is my attempt to share with you how I have learned to conquer most of the standardized test question types used on the GMAT, LSAT, GRE, and SAT.

I became a TestSmasher over ten years ago, back when I was a professional musician who was trying to pay the bills by working for one of the big test prep companies.  I started working for them because they paid better than the receptionist jobs I had been working before that, but over the two years or so that I taught the graduate and professional school tests, I fell in love with them.

WHAT!  You LOVE the tests?  Are you crazy, girlfriend?

Yeah, okay, I know.  I’m weird.  I’m not the only one, though.  There are others.  These tests have a magnetic lure: frustrating, surprisingly sophisticated, a source of universal anxiety.  If you spend enough time on them, though, it becomes pretty clear that they are completely breakable.  And if you break them, well, that is pretty intoxicating, and has the side benefit of making it possible to pursue any institution of higher learning that suits your fancy.

That is what I did: in 2001, I had a sudden realization that if I continued to pursue making my way in the world on the basis of my music, I was going to turn into a miserable, bored, rotten shell of my former self.  So I decided to get a degree in something useful.  I wasn’t sure what.  But at least I was prepared for my standardized tests!  I took the LSAT and the GRE.  The LSAT score got me into several of the top law schools, but the GRE turned up the magic 800/800/800 (this was back when there was an analytic section).  It gave me the courage to apply to a PhD program I was sure would never look at a musician who hadn’t taken math since high school.  Well, I applied, and between the GRE scores and the serendipitous fact that I was going to be the second professional musician to go through their program — the first had blown everyone away — I was accepted.

When I got to my new grad school classes, a funny thing happened.  I did incredibly well.  Better than the engineers and economists who had relevant training for my program.  It turns out that teaching these damned tests was a profoundly useful experience to succeed in grad school!  Not really the teaching, but the TestSmashing.  Taking a slew of similar problems, analyzing their structure, and finding the key to the correct answer, every time, is what “research” of any kind requires.  That, and a cussed refusal to stop until the back of a problem has been broken.

So, my goal for this blog, and the private tutoring I offer, is to teach test-takers how to TestSmash.  Not just, and even not really, so that they can get into grad school or college, though that is important.  But also to have fun, learn an incredibly useful skill — one that is at least as valuable as the substantive skills these tests purport to test — and send a big F.U. to the folks at ETS who devise these questions.  It’s hard work — it isn’t just the bag of tips and tricks that will increase your score by some small margin offered by the big companies.  It is the profound, meaningful work of transforming how you think about authority, intelligence, your own abilities, and what you are looking for out of life.  It involves some math and some verbal skills, of course, but the focus of these tests are on other skills.  They just pretend to be about math and verbal.  By recognizing all of this, I hope to share with you how to transform your test prep days/weeks/months into something that isn’t just a vast waste of time and money or a soul crushing exercise in EgoSmashing.

So get out your sledge hammers, and let’s smash some tests!