What should I do when I'm trying to decide between the two answer choices I have left?
OK. Strap yourself in. This one's a long, multi-part answer:
Answer Part 1 - Inference Questions
For inference questions, remember that the right answer is something that you can prove based on the passage, right?
So, think about it this way: If you have four or five lines' worth of passage, how likely is it that in those few lines you'll be able to prove that "Most successful entrepreneurs have engaged in and enjoyed carnal relations with root vegetables"? Not likely at all, right? I mean, to prove it, you'd have to know how many successful entrepreneurs there are in the world, plus how many of them have engaged in the disgusting relationships indicated here. And if a passage had told you that much information, it would be too easy to answer.
Instead, you're much more likely to prove that "At least some successful entrepreneurs have engaged in and enjoyed carnal relations with root vegetables." To so prove, you don't need to know how many successful entrepreneurs there are in the world, and you don't need to know how many of that aggregate have filthy, filthy habits. You'd only need one example in order to prove that "some" enjoy those relations.
What I'm saying is this:
When you've got it down to two choices in an Inference question, choose the one with smaller, softer language every time. Generally, you'll eschew words like most, usually, all, never, and only, in favor of words like some, sometimes, not all, and not always.
Answer Part 2 - Sufficient Assumption Questions
These questions demand of you that you provide an answer that, if true, would be sufficient to prove that the argument's conclusion is true. And proof? That means that it's impossible for that conclusion to be false.
That's a really big job. How do you do that?
I mean, how do you prove, in a sentence, that some claim is true? It would take some heavy-duty information to do that, right?
So, expect that the right answer to a Sufficient Assumption question will be big. Expect it to employ what I call Load-Bearing language (the kind of language that can bear the burden of proof).
Words like all and always and never and every and only. Also superlatives - words like best and first and smartest and weakest and surest.
When choosing between two answer choices for a Sufficient Assumption question, choose the more-aggressively worded choice.
Answer Part 3 - In which we switch gears, to talk Reading Comprehension
In the RC, every question asks you what is supported "according to the passage," right? That means, of course, that the right answer to every question in the RC can be found within the passage that's on the page next to you. It tells us that the answer is available in print. That's something - it means that if we look efficiently enough, we can be guaranteed of finding the correct answer. I love RC because it's like an Easter-egg hunt in this way. The answers are all right there, just waiting to be uncovered. It's so great! So, that's one thing.
What it also says for us, that we may overlook, is that all RC questions are Inference questions. Every one asks us - explicitly or in essence - what we can prove on the basis of the passage. This means that the answers to all RC questions are Inference answers - the right answer choice, then, will tend very strongly to be small.
So, for all RC questions, when choosing between two answer choices, choose the smaller of the two. Exactly the way we talked about Inference questions in Part 1.
One other thing:
Imagine two answer choices, when you've been asked for the author's attitude. (A) says "scornful" and (D) says "critical." I can tell you right now, without any passage to reference, that the correct answer between those two has to be (D). I don't need any evidence at all in order to be positive in my choice.
Here's why: if an author is "scornful," then she must also be "critical." It isn't possible to express scorn without the element of criticism. So it isn't possible for "scornful" to be correct in this instance - if (A) were true, then (D) would also have to be true. And it's not possible to have two correct answers. On the other hand, it's entirely possible to be critical of someone without being scornful of her. There's no reason that (D) can't be true without needing (A).
In RC, when in doubt, choose the smaller answer.
You'll be right most of the time.
Answer Part 4 - Method Questions
Method questions ask you to articulate the method of reasoning used by the argument. The demand can be suitably met if you think of every Method question as asking you this: "Please describe the argument above" (in which the introduction of the word "please" makes the whole thing go down better, don't you think?).
So you begin your answer by describing the way the argument goes in gross, structural terms. And then you find an answer that matches that description. But what if there are a couple that seem enticing?
Before we tackle that directly, here's something important to keep in mind when you're looking at answer choices: the test writers are very unlikely to take sides. That is, the writers do not tend to denote any agreement with (nor disapproval of) the content of these passages. They just put the information out for us to reason through. And this makes sense, right? I mean, if the test writers were to indicate that any conclusion was, in fact correctly drawn, then that could potentially lead to challenges (this whole test is, after all, being administered to a bunch of future lawyers).
So rather than take any part, the test writers will pepper their work with phrases like "...according to the passage..." and "...if the above statements are true..." at least partly so that they, as an entity, cannot be accused of having taken an invalid or unsound - or just unpopular - stand on any issue.
Now, here's how we can use that bit of knowledge to our advantage: The right answer to a Method question is very unlikely to be declarative. Instead, the right answer is much, much, more likely to be qualified in some way. So, for a question asking
"The argument proceeds by..."
between these two answer choices:
(A) undermining a claim by attacking the evidence offered in its support
(D) attempting to refute a view by showing that it rests upon a questionable assumption
choose (D) every time, even if you don't have a passage in front of you to compare these answers to!
Here's why: if (A) were credited, that would mean that the test writers have said that this argument has in fact undermined some claim. This means the argument worked. Now, it's possible to undermine a claim, but it's incredibly unlikely that the test writers would ever indicate that an author has done so successfully (as we discussed above).
Instead, it's much more likely that the test writers will indicate that the argument has proceeded by attempting to refute a view. See, this removes all voice - the test writers aren't saying that the argument succeeded, and they're not saying that it didn't succeed. They're just describing - saying that the argument tried to refute a view.
And that's the kind of carefully-worded answer choice that's likely to be correct.
So, for Method answer choices, choose a moderated, qualified statement over an unmodified declarative answer choice. Almost all the time, you'll be correct.
Answer Part 5 - Necessary Assumption Questions
The right answer to the Necessary Assumption is, well... necessary to the conclusion. It's a piece of evidence that the argument needed, but left out.
This means two things for us:
- The right answer will often be small. Like most other necessary things in the world, the right answer is not likely to be something big and aggressive. Consider the things we need in life. We don't need the $600 bottle of Cristal, we don't need the McMansion - or the McDonald's, for that matter - we need only some food, some shelter, something to drink. In the same way that our physical needs tend most often to be little, the right answer to the Necessary Assumption question will tend to be little. Expect often to see the word "some" or "not all" and the like.
- The right answer is necessary - meaning essential, required, un-live-without-able, right? In other words, if you take it away, the argument will die without it. So, when you think you've found the right answer, ask yourself this question: "If this answer choice weren't true, would the conclusion still make sense?" If the conclusion can live without the answer choice, it's not the right answer! If the right answer isn't true, then the conclusion of the argument will become stupid. This is because the conclusion depended on the truth of the right answer.
So, when choosing between two answer choices in Necessary Assumption questions, choose the smaller answer, and try the test discussed in point 2 above.
Answer Part 6 - Weaken + Strengthen Questions
We've talked a lot about language cues, because they are among the most important indicators of correctness (and incorrectness) when you've got two answer choices left.
There are pretty strong cues at work for Weaken and Strengthen questions, too. Like this:
1. We know that the right answer to a Weaken or Strengthen question will (respectively) attack or assert the necessary assumption of the argument. In order to do so effectively, that answer needs to employ bigger, more powerful words than the soft language we expect from Inference and Necessary Assumption answers.
2. While the load-bearing language we know to expect from the answers to Sufficient Assumption questions would be awesome for doing the work of weakening and strengthening, experience teaches us not to expect such language to be used.
So, while it would certainly kick a lot of ass (in more ways than one) if an answer choice said "Nobody has ever enjoyed any Steven Seagal movie," such an answer isn't to be expected among the answer choices.
At the same time, an answer that said "People do not always enjoy Steven Seagal movies" is such weak sauce that it can't be expected to effectively counter (or support) much of anything, and would therefore be very unlikely to be the credited response.
Instead, we will expect language that's in between those two poles.
I'm thinking about words like these:
I call these words (quite cleverly, I think) "Middle Language."
Denotatively, they're not so different from the soft language of previous discussions. However, these words trade heavily in connotation. So much of their force comes not from direct meaning, but instead from their evocative nature. "Many" doesn't mean much different from "some," but it sure sounds like more, doesn't it? For this reason (along with those given above) we can expect this kind of language within the right answers to weaken and strengthen questions.
So, when choosing between two answer choices for Weaken and Strengthen questions, look for Middle Language.
Answer Part 7 - Parallel Questions
The Parallel Question asks you to describe an argument (exactly the same task demanded by the Method Question), but then, instead of answer choices articulating that description, you're given 5 other arguments, one of which answers to the same description as the original.
There are three quick checks you can perform to get rid of many bad answers to these questions:
- Does the conclusion match? If our argument was prescriptive, then the right answer must also include a prescription (look for the words should, ought, must, + needs to). If our argument concluded that Thing X was not the cause of Thing Z, then the right answer must likewise conclude that Thing F was not the cause of Thing M. If the conclusion doesn't match in its form, that's not the right answer.
- Do the quantifiers match? If our argument said "most lizards are herbivores," then the right answer must say "most musicians are bassists," and not "some moles are cancerous." If our argument says "all members of the Kardashian family are vapid pretenders," the right answer cannot say that "many exotic birds are preening narcissists." The language of quantity is a major indicator of the underlying logical structure. It has to match.
- Do the topics match? If so, that's almost certainly the wrong answer. It is an extremely common red herring used by the test writers to present you with an argument about travel by train, and then a wrong answer choice about travel by bus, in the hopes that you'll mistake a similarity of content for a similarity of logical structure. Don't fall for it. Answer choices with similar subject matter to the argument are almost always wrong (really, I think they've actually always been wrong, but it's certainly possible to construct an argument with the same structure about the same content, so let's content ourselves with a strong warning against same-content answers, rather than a strict prohibition against them).
Running checks of those three items can help shorten the time it takes you to answer Parallel Questions, and can help you decide when you find you have two contenders left among answer choices.
Answer Part 8 - Flaw Questions
There are three kinds of answer choices associated with Flaw Questions. None of the three is more (or less) likely to be correct than the others. Instead, it's just that there are three flavors used by the test writers. Understanding these types of answer choices can help you understand when a choice is wrong and why it is.
Here are the three types:
- Choices that identify flaws. These answer choices are generic in language - they're not specifically tied to the content of the argument. They describe the flaw in structural terms (see this PDF - the same one I posted earlier - for examples of how LSAC identifies flaws in this way). When dealing with answer choices of this type, you must ask yourself only, Did we? "Did we, in this argument, really [generalize based on a sample, etc.]?" What sample? If you cannot identify the sample, then the argument didn't commit a sampling flaw, and this answer choice isn't correct.
- Choices that identify the assumption of the argument. These answers most typically begin with these words:
Presumes without providing justification that...
Takes for granted that...
Those two phrases mean "assumes." If an answer starts with that language, then whatever follows must be a necessary assumption of the argument, or it isn't the right answer. Answer choices that begin this way are Necessary Assumption answer choices, and are therefore subject to the same rules and tests as the answers to any Necessary Assumption Question (see Part 5 for more on this topic).
- Choices that negate the assumption of the argument. These answers most typically begin with these words:
Overlooks the possibility that...
Fails to consider that...
Ignores the possibility that...
Neglects the fact that...
All of those phrases are code for an answer that says "the assumption isn't true." Like this:
The only thing you can overlook (that it is a flaw to overlook) is the dreadful, ruinous possibility that the assumption of your argument is false. Consider this example:
She can't be a supermodel. She's only 5'3".
This argument has assumed that you have to be taller than 5'3" to be a supermodel.
It's flawed because it presumes without providing justification that you have to be taller than 5'3" to be a supermodel.
Another way of saying that is to say that it's flawed because it overlooks the possibility that you don't have to be taller than 5'3" to be a supermodel.
In other words, the reason it's flawed is that it has overlooked the possibility that its assumption is false. The wonderful thing about this 3rd type of answer choice is the clear effect that such a negation has on the argument.
If the right answer to a flaw question begins with this 3rd set of phrases, then whatever comes after them must ruin the conclusion, as in our example:
If you don't have to be taller than 5'3" to be a supermodel, then this argument is blown up. The conclusion becomes stupid, because the answer negates an assumption that the argument was depending on.
So, understand these three types of answers, and you'll go a long distance toward knowing how to get rid of bad answer choices in Flaw Questions.
Answer Part 9 - Point of Disagreement Questions
These questions ask you for the "point at issue" between two speakers, or for the thing about which two speakers "disagree" (hence my choice of name).
When deciding on the right answer between two choices, it will help to have a mechanism for making your judgments.
Here's a three-step approach that may help:
1. First, treat the question exactly like a Main Point question. The thing they disagree about ought to be their central conclusion, right? Articulate the end-of-the-day difference between the two arguers. Look for an answer choice that expresses that point. Experience tells me you'll find such a choice in roughly 1 of every 3 POD questions. When you don't find such an answer choice...
2. If no answer choice describes the main point of contention, treat the answer choices like the answers to Inference Questions; the answer will be the one choice that you can prove the
arguers take opposing positions on.
3. You may find it helpful to draw a two-column T-chart just to the left of the answer choices - one column is for Speaker 1, and the other for Speaker 2. As you read each answer choice, write down in your T-chart Yes or No answers for this question: "Can I prove that Speaker 1 agrees with this answer choice? Can I prove that Speaker 2 does?" If you cannot prove it either way, it's not the right answer. If they both say "no" to an answer choice (or, of course, if they both say "yes"), that's not the right answer. The right answer is the one with a firm Y in one column and a solid N in the other.
The right answer to the POD Question is the think you can prove they disagree about. For that reason, the answer is often pretty aggressively worded. When in doubt, choose the more aggressive answer choice. More often than not, that'll be the right choice.
Answer Part 10 - Main Conclusion Questions
I realize that for this question type, we'll really be talking less about choosing between two answer choices, and more about sussing the right answer from within the passage to begin with. I thank you for your forbearance.
Let's talk about three things that maybe don't get mentioned enough:
1. The But. Probably the single most important indicator of the main conclusion of an argument (in those cases when you've been asked to identify the conclusion, that is). So many arguments take one of these two forms:
(A) But ... since
Some people say that Tony will probably die alone [note the ascription!]
but this can't be true [see the conclusion here?]
since the ladies go crazy for guys who wear lots of cologne and say "broseph" a lot. [since always introduces evidence!]
(B) But ... so
Tony is afraid he will die alone, a victim of his own cologne [the setup]
but he needs to remember that there are some ladies who love them some cologne, [ah! competing evidence is offered!]
so maybe Tony will find love someday. [and we finish with a heartwarming conclusion]
In both instances, the word but can serve as an important indicator that you are nearing the conclusion. When you see that word in a phrase, determine whether the following phrase is evidence (as in the but ... since construction) or whether the phrase itself is the evidence (as in the but ... so construction).
2. The After All. These words (just like the word since, and the words to see this and this is because) always precede evidence. As a result of this rule, these words should then function for you like a giant, flashing neon light that says "Excuse me, Carl, but you have just now passed the Main Conclusion of this argument" (I'm assuming that if you're reading this, your name is Carl). When you see any of these words, you know you've found the conclusion. It's whatever sentence you just finished reading.
3. Therefore is wrong. Look, almost all the time, the word therefore is used to identify the main conclusion of an argument. But you tell me - if the test writers have asked you in a question to identify the conclusion, how likely do you think it is that they've telegraphed that conclusion by using the word thus or hence or therefore to signal it? Right. Not at all likely. When you're asked to find the conclusion, avoid the sentence that starts with therefore!
So, for Main Conclusion Questions, you'll be able to find the right answer most of the time (like 80% or better) by following one or more of these three rules:
1. Find the but.
2. Precede the after all.
3. Avoid the therefore.
Answer Part 11 - Role Questions
The Role Question asks you for the function of a statement within the passage as a whole. When deciding between answer choices here, the most important thing you'll do is develop a good initial assessment of the function of the statement.
To do this, start with a wide view - what's the argument about? Describe it in the same way you'd describe an argument when answering a Method question. Perhaps the most important thing to warn you of is to avoid the (completely natural) tendency to focus on the statement in question while you're reading the argument.
If your job is to assess the role of the statement within the passage (and it is!), then you have to be able to see the whole passage in structural terms. If you concentrate on finding that one sentence you've been asked about, you may be less able to provide a good description of the argument, and consequently less able to identify the function of the sentence.
So, for Role Questions, read structurally - the same way you would for Method questions. Prepare to describe the passage as a whole, and only then should you worry about the single sentence you've been asked about.
For answer choices, expect bad answers of these kinds:
1. Choices that correctly identify roles played in the argument by other statements. Your surest way to eliminate these answers quickly is to have at hand a strong, simple assessment of the role of the statement before you look at answer choices!
2. Choices that correctly identify the role of the statement, but incorrectly identify the conclusion of the argument. Many answers will have this form: "Evidence for the conclusion that [X]." Of course, those answers are correct when the statement in question is evidence, and the conclusion of the argument is [X]. However, it's often the case that the statement in question is evidence, but the conclusion of the argument is [Z], not [X]. The existence of these kinds of bad answers (and there are plenty of them) is perhaps the clearest reason why you need to strive for a good general description of the argument, and not worry only about the one statement in question. Stay on your toes, and you'll mostly be fine.
Knowing what you can expect from bad answers will help fill in the puzzle: For Role Questions, you describe the argument, eliminate choices that don't match your description, and eliminate options that don't match the argument.
Answer Part 12 - A final note on language cues
Think of language cues within answer choices sort of like modes of dress:
For example, if a person is wearing a wedding dress, then there are two additional things that are almost certain to be true:
1. The person is female.
2. The person is getting married.
Likely, well over 90% of all cases of persons wearing wedding dresses involve both of the above facts.
Of course, it's certainly possible that one or both of those things are false - maybe you see someone in a wedding dress and he's a man going to a costume party (or maybe he's in New York and he is getting married!)
It's possible for the cues regarding expected language to be misleading, in almost precisely the way that it's possible for someone in a wedding dress to be misleading. It could happen, but not very often.
For answers to Necessary Assumption and Inference Questions, we want Soft Language.
For answers to Weaken and Strengthen Questions, we expect Middle Language.
For answers to Sufficient Assumption Questions, we want big, burly Load-Bearing Language.