LSAT advice

Can I Master the LSAT by Studying Only the Hardest Questions?

questions-1151886If you’ve decided to take the LSAT, you’ve probably spent a lot of time thinking about the perfect study plan. Everyone has limited time and resources, and creating the optimal strategy under these constraints is crucial. Students often ask whether studying only the hardest LSAT questions is a good idea. I’d actually recommend the exact opposite approach: a study plan with an emphasis on easier questions is the way to go. In theory, studying only the hardest questions makes sense. Maybe, if you can crack the hardest questions, the easier questions will be simple in comparison. You’ll then have a good understanding of the entire test, thereby quickly and efficiently mastering the LSAT.

The problem is that while the hardest LSAT questions are a great test of your skills, they make very poor study tools because they’re harder to learn from. Harder questions repeat the same principles and patterns as easier questions, but are designed to be more obtuse, and the patterns are harder to discern. By studying the easier questions, where logical flaws, game rules and reading passage content are more straightforward, you’ll gain a greater understanding of the LSAT make-up. Your mastery of the easier questions more readily boost your pattern rendition, helping you dodge through the tricks, traps, and general obfuscation of the harder questions to get to the right answer. The easier questions will help you master the harder ones, not the other way around.

Studying easier questions is also more rewarding. You’re more likely to understand these questions and get them right. Studying for the LSAT is an incredible feat in self-motivation, and nothing fuels that motivation better than a series of checkmarks. Heck, you don’t even need to answer all the questions on the LSAT to get an awesome score. Start with the easier questions, and work your way up. If you start with the hardest questions, you’re more likely to get discouraged or burn yourself out. You don’t need to make studying for the LSAT any harder than it already is.

So that’s why I recommend that students emphasize studying LSAT easier questions. I think this strategy applies no matter what your diagnostic score. I scored a 179 on the LSAT and there are still some logical reasoning questions I’m not 100% sure about. It’s my rock solid knowledge of the easier questions that allows me to A: get through a section quickly and confidently and B: deconstruct the harder questions, and get the right answers. If I had skipped the easier questions in my studying, I wouldn’t have built the foundation of my LSAT abilities.

There’s an analogy Nathan likes to use for this situation: Playing one-on-one hoops with LeBron James might seem like a good way to learn basketball. But if he never let you get a shot-off and just dunked in your face 10 times in a row, would you really be learning? The LSAT questions are not your friends, and the hard ones are never going to go easy on you. LeBron James wouldn’t either. So, instead of learning how to play, you’d probably just leave the court forever, plagued by a feeling of total failure. Don’t let this happen to you with the LSAT. Everyone can learn better by playing in their own league.

I’m more of a dork than Nathan, and don’t know much about sports. The question of whether or not to study only the hardest questions reminds me of math class. There’s a reason our teachers always assigned us questions that ranged from the easiest to the hardest. Mastering easier math questions helps you answer harder questions. The patterns you ingrain into your thought process by successful answering the easier questions helps you deconstruct more abstract problems. You really shouldn’t be doing advanced linear algebra without learning basic matrix arithmetic, just like you shouldn’t be doing questions 11-25 in a logical reasoning section without understanding the difference between the necessary and the sufficient.

So do yourself a favor when studying the LSAT and focus on the easier problems. Not only will it be more rewarding, it’ll also give you a much better understanding of the LSAT as a whole. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, a mastery of the easier LSAT questions will eventually make even hardest questions seem simple.

Learn more about private LSAT tutoring with me!

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The LSAT is This Weekend … What Do I Do?

calendarWith only a few days remaining until the December LSAT, I get a lot of panicked questions. Students want to know exactly what they should do -- hour-by-precious-hour -- with the time they have remaining before the big day. Some of them are nicely prepared, and some of them are woefully unprepared. No matter who's asking, my answer is always the same.

First of all, you need to relax!

If you haven't already thoroughly prepared for the LSAT, you're not going to magically get yourself ready in the last five days. No amount of last-minute cramming is going to replace what should have been weeks, if not months, of practice. There's no memorization on the LSAT, which means you simply can't do this by brute force. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Yet, you can still do a few things to ensure that you'll get your (relatively) best score on test day, and giving yourself a last-minute ulcer isn't going to help anything.  Stay with me, because most of the tips below will apply to you.

If you have already thoroughly prepared for the LSAT, then congratulations!  Your months of hard work and practice are about to pay off. You've banged your head against the wall, you've done countless practice tests, you've spent lots of time (and probably money) on your preparation. You've invested wisely in your future. Now is the time to take a deep breath and make sure that your investment pays off on test day. Here are some recommendations:

1) Stop scoring yourself. If you want to do some practice during the week leading up to the test, that's great. But please don't hang on the results of every single practice test. If you obsess about every single score, you're becoming too results-oriented instead of process-oriented. The major risk is if you happen to have a bad day, and then let that bad day get inside your head. The worst-possible scenario I can imagine is someone who takes a full-length practice test on the day before the actual LSAT, scores 10 points lower than their average score, and breaks down sobbing. This is very taxing emotionally, and is the exact opposite of what you should be doing at this point. Do some practice if you want, but don't look at your scores.

2)  Get healthy. You might have been neglecting your physical and mental health over the past few months, juggling work, school, family, and LSAT preparation. Use this week to start to repair all that. As an LSAT teacher, I help people improve their average scores.  But most people still have a plus or minus 5 point range around their average. You need to ensure that you get at least your average score, and hopefully better than average, on test day. The way you do this is: Get some sleep. Get some exercise. Don't drink too much. Eat something healthy. Get some fresh air. See a movie. Relax.

3)  Take care of your loved ones. Buy your mom some flowers. Seriously. Take your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/it's complicated out to dinner. If you've been fighting with your roommate about your dirty bathroom, then just clean the damn thing and be done with it. The last thing you want on test day is a relationship problem hanging over your head. Your friends, family, and other loved ones have probably put up with a lot of shit from you as you've been studying for the LSAT. Don't study so much this week, and use the time instead to make some amends.

4)  Clear some space around the test. Make sure you've got your work or school affairs well in order so that you aren't worried about some last-minute project during the test. Talk to your boss or professor if necessary. Do NOT plan to cook a big dinner with all your friends at your apartment immediately after the test! A former student told me she did this, and during the test she couldn't stop thinking about all the shopping, cleaning, and other preparation she needed to do... big mistake. The test (including registration, etcetera) is a long and arduous process. Plan on getting there early and staying there late.  It'll take longer than you think. Don't make plans that will be spoiled if the test takes all day.

5)  Remove some potential panic-inducers. Print out your admission ticket if you haven't already, and slap it on your fridge. The last thing you want is a morning-of-the-LSAT printer nightmare. Make sure you have your ID photo attached to your ticket. Oops, didn't realize you had to have a special photo? You need to immediately review the list of test-day requirements published by LSAC. If you haven't already gone to your testing site, do so! Figure out where you're going to park, what the traffic will be like, or what the public transportation situation is. I've had students call me, while running across campus on the morning of the test, panicked because they can't find the room. You can avoid this if you do some reconnaissance this week.

6)  Find a caddy, if you can. The LSAC's requirement that you not bring a cellphone to the test site is a real pain in the ass. Transportation can also be a major issue. A friend or family member can be a big help here. See if you can get mom, or a buddy who owes you a favor, to be your chauffeur/caddy on test day. They can drop you off, hold your phone and other stuff for you, bring you a snack at the break, pick you up afterward, and just generally be there for you as moral support. This probably isn't absolutely necessary (I didn't have a caddy on my test day) but it sure wouldn't have hurt.

7)  Redo some easy LSAT questions. Test day is going to be all about confidence, and one thing that can help that is reviewing things you've learned. If you get panicked, or if you just want to build extra confidence, consider redoing some easy Logic Games, or stepping through a couple easy Logical Reasoning questions... maybe a couple Main Conclusion questions would work. The point is to show yourself how easy the test can be. The more you believe this, the more it will be true.

With a few days to go before the test, the substantive work should basically be done. But there's always going to be at least a 10-point swing between your best and worst case scenario. I scored 4 points higher on my real LSAT than on any previous practice test. To give yourself the best chance of a welcome surprise on test day, use your remaining time to get happy, focused, and relaxed. The payoff is just around the corner.

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Should I Cancel My LSAT Score?

cancelWith the June LSAT just days behind us, I'm already receiving emails from students asking if they should cancel their score for one reason or another. Here's what I think: Short answer: Probably not.

Longer answer: It depends ... but probably not.

If you just took the LSAT, congratulations!  With any luck, in three weeks you'll get the score you've been dreaming of. But if you had a rough day, you're probably currently beating yourself up trying to decide whether or not to cancel your score. You have a couple days to decide. The LSAC's cancellation policy allows for a written cancelation request within six calendar days.

Students always ask me whether they should cancel or not. The emails sound like this:

I did very poorly on the games section. Fucked up the first game due to reading too fast: I tried to slow down and was able fix it, but not with certainty. second game went ok. Third game I couldn't even get past the first two questions, guessed on the rest. Last game couldn't understand it.... Feeling a 150-156 on this; definitely not enough to get admitted to any of the schools I'm looking at; maybe tier 4 and tier 5 schools. I cannot afford to go to law school and take out a huge loan ...

And this:

I: LG, 23 questions. Totally f'ed this up. II: LR, 25 questions. Was not my best, probably got 5 or so less than I would normally. III: LG, 23 questions. Did better, but didn't get to the 4th game. IV: RC, 27 questions. Not too bad, but didn't get to the last passage. V: LR, 26 questions. Best section, most similar to my performance in the last few weeks.

I don't think I did well. Likely below 160, should I cancel? How likely is the 2nd LG the scored section?

Can you feel the stress? I feel badly for both of these folks, but the situation is not nearly as dire as they might think.

Should they cancel? My answer to each of them is basically the same: "It depends, but probably not." Most people, in my opinion, should just keep their score and see what happens. Here are the factors to consider.

Reasons not to cancel (any one of these could be enough to keep your score):

1. You need an LSAT score on your record or else you cannot go to law school. The LSAT is a necessary condition. Without it, you're NOT going to law school. A bad score is better than no score at all. If you don't have any scores on your record, and if you want to go to law school next year, the fact that you must have a score is something you have to consider. Law schools use rolling admissions, so the earlier you apply in any given cycle, the better. This test might not have been your best, but it's the best you're going to have for at least a couple months. Canceling might set you back an entire year in your law school process.

2. Many (if not most) schools only consider your highest LSAT score. U.S. News uses the LSAT to formulate part of its rankings each year. When it does so, it only considers the highest LSAT score from each member of a school's incoming class. If that's the way U.S. News is going to rank the schools, then most schools are going to use the exact same criteria when evaluating candidates for their incoming class. (Schools want your tuition dollars, so schools have to play the rankings game.) If you're applying to Harvard, this might not be the case.  Harvard doesn't care about the rankings game. But if you're applying to UC Hastings, they definitely care about the rankings, and they definitely only care about your highest LSAT score. If you're only applying to schools like Hastings, then you should absolutely never cancel. Call the schools you're applying to, and ask them what their policies are! Here's a possibly inaccurate, but probably mostly correct, list of schools and LSAT policies.

3. You might have done better than you think. Some students always think they did horribly after a test, even when they actually did just fine. Are you certain you did poorly? Or is there a chance that you actually did okay? If you cancel, you'll never know. Some tests are harder than others, and the scoring scale will reflect that. On some tests, you can miss 20 and get a 160. On other tests, you can miss 25 and get the exact same score. Since your score is calculated relative to the difficulty of the test, you shouldn't just evaluate your own performance when you think about canceling. If you did okay on a difficult test, you might have gotten a much better score than you think. If you're not sure, then you should probably just wait and see.

Most students should keep their score because of one or more of the factors above. If none of those factors apply to you, then maybe you're a cancel.

Reasons to cancel (you need more than one of these in order to justify canceling):

1. You are certain that you did terribly. You froze up completely on the first logic game, had a panic attack, didn't answer any of the games questions with certainty, then let your poor performance on games bleed over into the rest of the test. Or you misbubbled your score sheet, realized it with one minute left, started crying, and half-erased all of your answers right before time was called.  Or you pooped your pants in the middle of the test and had to excuse yourself for 25 minutes while the clock was ticking. These are the situations the cancelation policy was made for.

2. You already have a score (or scores) on your record. You took the test last year and you got a 160. You were retaking the test in hopes of scoring 170 so you could apply to Berkeley. You've done a million practice tests and you know you had a bad test day. You're sure that your old score is better than your previous score.

3. You don't care if you have to wait an additional year to go to law school. You had a bad test day, but you're in absolutely no hurry. You don't mind if you don't start law school next year ... you're okay starting two or three years from now.  You're going to redouble your efforts and try again.

4. You're going to study more/harder/differently next time around. You rushed it last time--you are certain you're getting there, but it just hasn't quite clicked yet. You're going to redouble your efforts. You're going to tell your boss that you have to make your LSAT class your priority. You're going to pay your babysitter in advance so that you can commit to your LSAT studies three nights per week. You're not going to attempt to study for the LSAT while taking 18 credits in your final semester in college. You're going to find a better teacher, or take a better class -- or you're simply going to do the homework this time. What are you going to do differently, that's going to lead to a different score?

I've been teaching the LSAT for an awfully long time, and I'd estimate that after going through all of the factors above, something like 5 percent of all test-takers should cancel their score. Maybe less.

If you're still not sure, please don't hesitate to leave a comment, call me, or send me an email. I'm happy to help!

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Q and A: Strategizing for the LSAT

studying-ahead-642559-mI often receive questions from readers who are using the Fox LSAT test prep books to study for the LSAT. Here's some advice I recently gave a student planning to take the test this year. Question: I'm four tests in and tend to start strong. But by the third and fourth section, my brain starts lapsing and my test becomes riddled with errors. Any advice on how to correct this? Also, being only four tests in and am averaging a score of 154, should I plan to take the September LSAT over the December test?

Answer: Don't underestimate the importance of adequate sleep, nutrition, exercise, and recreation. I'm sure you're working very hard (at not just the LSAT) and it can be easy to fall into a "brain lapse." I advise students to practice for the LSAT only when they're feeling their best. If you notice you're making a lot of silly errors, it's an indication that maybe you're running yourself ragged, and maybe you should put the LSAT book down for a bit. Maybe a walk or a nap would be a better decision in the long run.

Fatigue in the late sections can also arise from lack of mastery over the topics. If you've only done four practice tests, then you're barely in the beginning stages of an adequate LSAT preparation. After you've done 8, or 12, or 20 full practice tests, you'll be a lot better at them. When you're better at something, it's not nearly as tiring.

Taking the September test is a good goal to shoot for. Two tests per week over the next five weeks gets you to 14 full practice tests. For some students, that would be enough. You'll know whether you're ready or not based on the scores from those tests. If you push for September and aren't ready, you can always change to December. (This can get expensive in terms of LSAC fees, but it's such a high-stakes test that it's absolutely worth it.) If you are ready for September, then a good score would allow you to apply to schools earlier. But more importantly, taking the September LSAT allows you to take another shot in December if necessary. That's the best reason to take it in September.

Then again, if you're not ready, you're just not ready. If your practice scores aren't where you think they could be, then you absolutely have to postpone. Don't take the LSAT until you're ready. An LSAT of, say, 160 in September is nowhere NEAR as good as a 165 in December. Even a few LSAT points is worth holding out for.

Learn more about my LSAT test prep books and how they can help you conquer the LSAT.

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