Students wanting to test themselves against the toughest Reading Comprehension passages often ask us where they can find the hardest passages that have ever appeared in the RC section.
Below is the list of the 12 hardest LSAT Reading Comprehension passages of all time, accompanied by our at-times jesting commentary. The list is presented in chronological order.
Although we can no longer offer direct downloads of the passages (LSAC rules), this publication identifier link will help you find them: https://www.powerscore.com/lsat/help/pub_ident.cfm.
- October 1991, Passage #3: Waterbugs
This was the first “hard science” passage ever to appear on the LSAT. The passage discusses adaptive responses in organisms, and features an extended discussion of developmental responses in waterbugs (hence the passage name). The text included such fun terms as “dimorphic,” “macropterous,” and “micropterous,” which were quickly forgotten by most students once the passage ended.
- February 1994, Passage #4: Civil Rights Theories
This passage contained only six questions, but the discussion of classical social psychological theories (“relative deprivation” and “J-curve,” to name two) in Civil Rights movement literature caused fits for most students.
- December 1995, Passage #2: Hard Cases and Texture
This is one of several passages to include the views of Ronald Dworkin, a noted legal scholar. Regrettably, the topic under discussion—about legal cases that contain highly controversial issues that are not easily resolved—ventures into a nearly impenetrable discussion of legal principles.
- December 1998, Passage #2: Personal Names
This may be the most difficult passage on this list. The passage discusses personal names, and references John Stuart Mills, Claude Levi-Strauss, and the Hopis of the southwestern U.S. A passage about people’s names sounds fun, but this one wasn’t.
- June 1999, Passage #3: Steady-state Economics
Steady-state economics is a new school of economics, one that most people didn’t want to learn more about after reading this passage. The text at times delves into deep economic theory and then, to make matters worse, the passage contains eight questions.
- October 2000, Passage #2: Multicultural Education
This is possibly the easiest of the ten passages on the list. Of course, because this list is about the ten hardest LSAT passages of all time, that still makes this passage extremely challenging. Here’s a brief, fair-use sample of the text: “The Western scientific heritage is founded upon an epistemological system that prizes the objective over the subjective, the logical over the intuitive and the empirically verifiable over the mystical.” Umm, yeah, what he said.
- December 2005, Passage #4: Embryo Polarity
Overall, this was a difficult RC section because the second passage—about Louise Gluck—was also tough. Test takers who fought their way through that passage would soon arrive at this brutal closer to the section. The science-based topic—embryo polarity, or how organisms determine what is up and down, and front and back—is unknown to most students, and certainly presented a reading challenge. The passage was then followed by eight questions, furthering the misery.
- June 2006, Passage #4: Maize
Maize is just another word for corn, so at first this passage doesn’t look too difficult. Indeed, the first paragraph is fairly easy to understand, as it lays out the importance of maize to the cultures that cultivated it. After the first paragraph, however, the discussion turns extremely detailed and covers the physical science behind why maize is so bountiful. Corn never tasted so bad.
- September 2006, Passage #4: Riddled Basins of Attraction
Similar to the Maize passage, the first paragraph of this passage is fairly easy to understand (it discusses the replication of experimental results in fairly clear terms). Thereafter, the passage discusses “riddled basins of attraction” and fractals as an analogy of systems where replicating results can be impossible. Those portions of the passage lead most students to feel that the passage was impossible.
- October 2008, Passage #3: Chinese Talk-story
This passage covers Maxine Hong Kingston and the literary antecedents of her writings in Chinese talk-stories. While the passage wasn’t overly absorbing, the eight questions were where the real difficulty appeared, and many students struggled between two or more answers on more than one occasion. Overall, after reading the passage, most students wanted nothing more to do with Kingston or her stories.
- June 2016, Passage #3: Clay Tablets and Tokens
This passage covers clay tokens and envelopes that date back to 4000 BC. According to one writer, these tokens and tablets were a precursor to the development of written language. After reading this, you won't even want to look at a clay pot again.
- September 2016, Passage #2: Eileen Gray/Lacquer
This passage covers designer Eileen Gray's fascinating career journey with lacquer, furniture design, and architecture. She was extremely detailed in her designs, and often focused on simple, clean looks with multiple usages. She's actually quite fascinating, but the questions in this passage make for a rough go of it.
Honorable mentions: October 1994, Passage #3: US & UK Law Systems; October 1994, Passage #4: Serotonin; October 1996, Passage #2: Medieval Canon Lawyers; June 1997, Passage #4: Language in Science; December 2004, Passage #2: Hippocratic Oath; December 2009 #3: Isamu Noguchi, among others.
One striking thing about the list is that none of the passages on the list or in the honorable mentions appeared first in a section; every passage listed above appeared second, third, or fourth in the section. This does not mean, of course, that hard passages never appear first in a section. It just means that, when placing the hardest passages of all time, the test makers kindly chose to place those passages in a position other than first.
One final note about the list: by definition, any such list is subjective, and what challenges one student may not be difficult for another. The passages listed above are ones that students regularly ask about, and the ones that we know from experience are extremely difficult. If you can solve any of the passages on the list in less than nine minutes, you have done a great job. Good luck!