(click here for article #2 and article #3)
In this continuing series of LSAT diaries, we give various 180 scorers free reign to share their thoughts and feelings about the test as well as the neuroses, methodology, and strategies employed to achieve a perfect score!
I scored a 180 on the LSAT, and it was due in large part to advice I found on Top-law-schools.com. In this article I hope I can give a little back to the site and help others reach their LSAT goals.
Your LSAT score is probably the main determinant of what schools you can get into and how much merit-based financial aid you will receive. Therefore, there is no better way to strengthen your law school application than by raising your LSAT score. Do not assume large gains are not possible, as some TLS users have reported score jumps of up to 20 points.
On my initial diagnostic, I was pleased to see a 168. I thought, “All right! I’ll study for a couple weeks and take a couple preptests to raise that to 170+, and I’ll be set!” I fell short of my goal, which proved to be fortunate because I realized how much more I could improve if I worked at it. I came back later after a solid three months of filling my head with nothing but flaws in reasoning, the status of women in medieval English law, and Don Juan, Eiji, and Francine’s seating arrangements. The effort paid off.
A quick note about test prep company courses: Some TLS users consider them worthless, while others think they really do help. At the very least, I can tell you that they are not necessary to score at the highest level on the test, as I never took one. My own improvements on the test came from finding what worked best for me, rather than following a method devised to work for thousands of students.
Much of what you need to know can be distilled to this:
- Though exceptional, plenty of TLS users raised their score by as many as 20 points over their initial diagnostic.
- This generally involves at least three months of hardcore study.
- To do the same, you want to take at least 30 official PrepTests timed properly and with a bubble sheet.
- You must thoroughly review your mistakes.
- Help your brain switch to text processing mode by reading in your free time.
- Find methods of attack that work best for you.
See the following articles for more information:
- Other Ways to Prepare for the LSAT
- If You Did Worse than You Expected in Your LSAT Test
- Tips for Taking the LSAT Test
- Registering for the LSAT
- Where Have LSAT Scores Declined the Most
Create a Study Plan
TLS poster pithypike wrote up a very detailed post outlining a plan to assault the LSAT with special attention paid to the Logic Games (LG) section. You should consider following it because many TLS users swear by it. At the very least, you should create a similar study plan and stick to it.
Look to do at least 30 official PrepTests over at least three months. Some people do more PrepTests over a longer period of time, but I would say 30 tests and three months are the minimums. Each week I would do a full length PrepTest on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. After about three weeks, I started doing four games sections that I’d seen before on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
It is best to use more recent PrepTests, as the LSAT has undergone some degree of evolution over the years. Since most people go through the tests in chronological order, I think there is some bias toward thinking the new tests are “easier,” when in fact the person preparing is becoming more skilled. Nevertheless, I found the Logical Reasoning and Logic Games sections to be easier on the newer tests, while Reading Comprehension probably became more difficult.
If you’re on a budget, the earlier books of 10 PrepTests will be very attractive, but you should also purchase a healthy number of the later tests. You might think that they’re overpriced, but they may literally be worth their weight in gold if you get into the school of your dreams or if you’re offered a full scholarship because of your LSAT score. I strongly recommend using newer PrepTests close to gameday so that you are accustomed to them.
In the next three sections I’ll tell you a little about what worked for me. What worked for me may not necessarily work for you, but this should give you an idea of the kinds of things you need to be thinking about when you’re reviewing your finished PrepTests. If you haven’t done a PrepTest or two yet, you can stop reading here and come back when you’ve seen the test.
Specific advice for Logic Games (LG)
If you’re like most people, LG will be the most foreign section type for you. The good news is that a decent number of TLS users eventually achieve consistently perfect scores in this section. As with most everything in life (and other LSAT sections), repetition is the key to improving in LG.
Most people will probably want some system to give their thinking structure. Games were certainly my weakness and it took forever for me to get them down. I originally looked at one of the Kaplan books, but eventually settled on the Powerscore Logic Games Bible. It’s not important to follow a system religiously, even if it calls itself the Bible.
Tip One: Adaptation is Key Although, repetition will do a lot of the work for you if you let it, you also need to think of general strategies to improve. The broad instructions in the Games Bible should work for everyone. Start by diagramming the game and fixing its rules and variables in your mind for a couple of minutes. Then attack the questions. How you do this is, in the end, up to you. As you gain more experience, you’ll find the wisdom in your book’s system, but you must remain open to adaptation. For instance, a system may suggest you represent a rule like this:
I found this to be too complicated both to write and read. It was easier for me to write it this way:
Find what works best for you!
Tip Two: Read the Entire Question For a long time, I was spending too much time writing out useless information that wasn’t necessary to answer the questions. Make sure you read and understand the entire question before you begin working on it. Let’s look at a “linear game” to illustrate this. Linear games often have you placing people in order from 1 to 7, or factory visits in chronological order on a schedule. Here’s a simple one:
A, B, C, D, E, F, and G must be inspected once each, once per day on consecutive days of a week. E will be inspected directly before F. [EF] B will be inspected before C. B<C A is inspected second. A2 (This game would probably have more rules, but they’re irrelevant right now.)
My setup would look like this:
A B<C D [EF] G
Now, let’s tackle a question:
If D is inspected fourth…
At this point I would mistakenly stop reading the question and begin writing out the implications and possibilities. If D is inspected fourth, then the [EF] block can only be in one of two spots:
A B<C D [EF] G
Look at that! I made a beautiful diagram showing both possible positions of [EF]! I even made inferences as to the position of C and G. Now I can definitely answer the question. Let’s continue reading it:
…the sixth day must be occupied by: (A) B or G (B) B or C (C) E or A (D) E or F (E) A or F
I easily find the answer is D. But I wasted time worrying about C and G when I didn’t need to go that far to answer the question. Read the whole question and preferably also the answer choices before you start working!
Tip Three: For Grouping Games, Consider Doing a Hypothetical or Two If you’re like me and most other people, “grouping games” will be challenging. In these games, you’re usually sorting people into two groups. You can often help yourself by doing a couple quick hypotheticals before tackling the questions. I made a habit of writing out the letters (e.g. HJKLPM) next to each hypothetical and crossing them off as I placed them.
Avon, Bodie, Cedric, D’Angelo, Ellis, Frank, the Greek, and Ziggy are all heading to a baseball game. They will take two cars, a Mercedes and a Nissan, subject to the following conditions:
The cars seat four people each. D’Angelo refuses to ride with Avon. ( D -> A , A -> D ) If Cedric rides in the Mercedes, so does Ellis. ( CM -> EM , EN -> CN) If the Greek rides in the Nissan, Ziggy rides in the Mercedes. ( GN -> ZM, ZN -> GM )
We can start diagramming, but the only rule that always appears is D -> A.
Should our setup phase end there? I don’t think so, because we have almost no useful information to use for the questions. The rules are probably not fixed in our minds at this point either. Take a minute or two to explore the effects of the other rules through a hypothetical or two.
If CM, then EM. Remember to cross off the letters as you place them in your hypothetical.
Only one space remains in the Mercedes. Z and G can’t ride together in the Nissan, so one of them occupies the remaining space in the Mercedes, and the other rides in the Nissan. Our random variables B and F have no choice but to ride in the Nissan.
We’ve filled in every square! This information should prove very useful.
Grouping games are often light on rules and heavy on the implications of those rules. During your “setup” time in a grouping game, it can be very beneficial to work out some of those implications. It can save time and help you solidify the rules in your mind.
Review your mistakes and identify pitfalls to avoid. Write down those conclusions and review them prior to your next tests.
Specific advice for Logical Reasoning (LR)
Improvement in LR kind of took care of itself just by virtue of the fact that I did 35 PrepTests and thus 70 unique LR sections. If you do a similar number of PrepTests while reviewing and learning from your mistakes, you should make some nice gains.
Tip One: Time Management My strategy for improvement on this section was to do the first 10 problems in 10 minutes. I struggled with that for a little while, but it gradually became second nature. Then I moved on to doing the first 15 in 15 minutes. By the end of my three month plan, I could do 20 in 20 and even 25 in 25 if I was lucky. You should definitely try to save time on the earlier questions since they tend to be much easier than the later ones. The early questions can still throw you a curveball, however, so be careful.
Tip Two: If You Skip Around, Develop a Strategy Don’t be afraid to skip around, but make sure you do it intelligently. I would draw a big box around the questions where I wasn’t confident in my answer. I drew the box with a light line if it was a small doubt, and a dark line if it was a big doubt. I would circle questions that I didn’t answer.
When I’d finished the last question in the section, I would go back and answer the circled questions, then look at the dark box questions until satisfied, then the light box ones. Doing this will make sure you don’t get bogged down during the section. You need to avoid spending 3 minutes agonizing over a difficult question and then losing your opportunity to answer the easier ones.
Tip Three: Pay Attention to Scope Wrong answer choices on the LR section often contain language that is too broad or (less often) too narrow. Very commonly, if I was trying to decide between two answer choices, I could remind myself to check the scope and immediately eliminate one. For example:
10. A greater proportion of high school students these days are lazy compared with earlier generations. Industriousness is both necessary and sufficient for academic success, and lazy students are never industrious.
Which of the following can be properly concluded, assuming the statements above are true: (A) Blah blah blah (B) Yada yada yada (C) A greater proportion of high school students these days will find it impossible to succeed academically. (D) A smaller proportion of all students are industrious these days than in earlier generations. (E) More high school students these days will not succeed in life.
At first glance, D may actually appear more correct than C because its language isn’t as “strong” and it requires fewer logical steps, but I hope you noticed that D is talking about all students. C correctly limits itself to high school students. Pay very close attention to language indicating scope.
Tip Four: Prephrase Answers when Possible I do think it’s a good idea to “prephrase” the answers on LR questions. Prephrasing is the formulation a possible answer before actually reading the answer choices. This can be a great way to save time, especially on the earlier, easier questions. Still, even if you think of a perfect prephrased answer, you should be prepared to throw it away. Here is an example:
16. The only reason Don’s wife would leave him is if she learned his secret identity, and she will definitely leave him if she learns it. Don values protecting his secret identity above all else, and he would never intentionally reveal it to her. Therefore, his wife will not leave him.
(At this point, perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “What if she discovers it on her own?” You’re ready to look for that answer among the choices.)
This argument is vulnerable to the criticism that it assumes: (A) Don will not tell his wife his secret (B) Don is a good husband and provider (C) His wife can find his secret on her own (D) Don will not accidentally reveal his secret (E) Don will not act in a suspicious manner
Excellent! Our prephrased answer APPEARED to be among the answer choices. Let’s select C and move on… This is the danger of prephrasing. If we find an obvious prephrased answer, we might pay less attention to the question stem, and also ignore the correct answer. C is actually the opposite of what we’d hope to find. The argument assumes Don’s wife CANNOT find his secret on her own. LR questions will often try to fool you like this.
Prephrasing is useful because, if you’d prephrased D instead, you’d have saved time and the question would have seemed extremely easy. Someone with D in mind might be able to look at C and quickly see that it’s incorrect. Prephrasing is very powerful, but you still need to be cautious when doing it.
Review your mistakes and identify pitfalls to avoid. Write down those conclusions somewhere and review them prior to your next test.
Specific advice for Reading Comprehension (RC)
You will be asked the same types of things about the passages each time. You’ll often need to know the main point, the author’s attitude, statements the author would agree with, understanding a metaphor the author used, and so on. These questions will come up again and again so experience will help you find what to look for in the passage while you’re reading it.
Tip One: The Puzzle Theory What helped me was realizing that all the answers should match each other. I refer to this as the “puzzle theory” of RC. If you feel confident in your “main point” answer, you can use it to answer other questions that give you difficulty. It works the other way around, too. Maybe the main point is tough but you are confident in some others about “the purpose of the passage” or “statement the author would agree with.” Consider this example:
4. The author would be most likely to agree that Billy Mumphrey’s downfall was primarily caused by: (A) love (B) deception (C) his support of the conservative party (D) his abandonment by key political allies (E) his unbridled enthusiasm
You very confidently select E. Then later, you encounter this question that you find much more difficult to answer.
7. Which of the following most accurately restates the author’s conclusion: (A) The main character’s politics were more important than his attitude (B) The main character’s politics and attitude were equally important (C) The main character’s politics were less important than his attitude (D) The main character’s politics and attitude were equally unimportant (E) The dirty game of world diplomacy and international intrigue is unwinnable regardless of politics or attitude
You know “the main character” refers to Billy Mumphrey, and that this phrasing is simply meant to confuse you. You remember an earlier question where you had to decide between politics and attitude. You look back at number 4 see that unbridled enthusiasm had definitely been the cause of Billy Mumphrey’s downfall, and this helps you to be reasonably confident in selecting C.
Tip Two: Stay Interested I often lost points on RC in PrepTests because of boredom. You’ll be ruined if you get bored. You’ll also be ruined if you try to speed up, because if you feel like you’re reading very quickly, you’re probably missing important information. If I get interested in the passage and read to understand everything in it at my own pace, I can do well on it. This may vary from person to person though.
The TLS LSAT forum is quick to recommend The Economist for reading comprehension skills. This likely stems from the perception that The Economist is written using more difficult language than many other magazines. I don’t think any one magazine or book will prepare you for the reading comprehension section. It’s a good idea to read a variety of magazines like The Economist, Scientific American, Foreign Policy, The New Yorker, and others to which it seems graduate-degree holders subscribe.
The RC section can cover, in any one test, topics as disparate as a 1950s German poetry movement, the evolution of birds in a small corner of the Amazon, women’s landholding rights in the Magna Carta, and the origins of Law & Wine Tasting as an academic field. Chances are you’ll find at least one of those hard to get through due to boredom, convoluted language, or unfamiliarity with the topic. Reading more in your spare time can only help. This may also have some benefit for unfamiliar topics in the LR section.
Review your mistakes and identify pitfalls to avoid . Write down those conclusions somewhere and review them prior to your next test.
Reviewing Mistakes and Identifying Pitfalls
This may be the most important advice I have to offer. Doing a lot of PrepTests is an obvious method to prepare, but many people fail to review them sufficiently. I was guilty of it as well. When I sat down and thought a little more deeply about some of my mistakes in LG, for instance, I was able to identify some serious flaws in my method of attack. Here are some notes I wrote to myself over the course of those three months:
- Never take ANY section for granted
- Always make sure the answer choice fits PERFECTLY
- Be interested in every passage, game, and question
- Don’t skip around on games questions if you want a -0 Instead, make a full hypothetical if stumped
- Read everything slowly enough that you don’t miss anything
- One answer is 100% correct, others are 100% wrong. If you can’t see them that way, you’re overlooking something. Reread a tough problem critically if there’s time. Don’t rely on your memory.
- PAY ATTENTION WHEN BUBBLING! DON’T RUSH IT! BE CAREFUL!
I looked at this before I did each of my PrepTests. I also printed it out and brought it with me for test day. You might find it helpful. I definitely recommend starting with a blank page (or text file on your computer) and writing your own instructions to yourself.
Other Ways to Prepare for the LSAT
It’s common sense that you would study the LSAT itself in order to prepare, but you may be able to improve your score before you’ve even seen the test, or when you’re trying to relax after a PrepTest.
Tip One: Take Relevant College Courses Many people say that studying philosophy (particularly a Critical Thinking course) is good preparation for the LSAT. That’s probably true. A well-rounded college education will prepare you for the reading comprehension section, at the very least. I’ve studied a bit of computer science, and I felt that was very relevant. Several of my classes were devoted to manipulating logical expressions and games, and I have no doubt that this helped me.
The classes I felt were most helpful were Discrete Mathematics (aka formal logic), Computer Architecture, Theory of Computation, and Logic Design. This list is by no means exhaustive. All of these were in the engineering department. Even within it, some were notorious for their difficulty. As such, I wouldn’t recommend taking these classes solely to improve your LSAT ability, because they may well drag your GPA down. On the other hand, if they’re already required or optional for your major, don’t blow them off if you’re entertaining the thought of law school.
Tip Two: Maintain an Appropriate Attitude In terms of your attitude, you need balance when approaching the LSAT. You won’t do well if you’re intimidated by the test, a section type, or question type. At the same time, you won’t do well if you start to get cocky and think that the test, a section type, or question type are easy. Each and every question needs to be treated as a bomb squad member would treat a live explosive. Whether it’s a hand grenade (LR question #1) or a nuclear bomb (LR question #19 parallel reasoning), they can both blow up and kill you if you’re not careful. I found that I would miss questions if I fell into either extreme. Through practice you should be able to get yourself into the correct mindset.
Tip Three: Train Yourself for Test Day Conditions Some people recommend studying in a place with other people such as a library. It’s definitely wise to practice somewhere with some background noise. It was inconvenient for me to go to the library, but I did practice with the window open along a noisy street. One aspect of the test you can’t control is the noise and distractions in the room, so you might as well be prepared for that.
Most administrations of the test will begin early in the morning. If you’re a night owl like me, then you should train yourself to be up and functioning at this time of day prior to the test. Start waking up early and do a PrepTest properly timed.
Always practice with a bubble sheet. You will have to do so on test day, so you might as well be used to it.
Tip Four: Wake Your Brain Up on Test Day Some people also find doing a warm up to be helpful. On test day I woke up bright and early and did about 8.5 minutes of fresh, never-before-seen problems from each section type. That meant one game, one reading passage, and every fourth LR question in a section. You can do this pretty quickly and it should help your brain switch into LSAT mode.
Tip Five: Take Care of Your Body It goes without saying, but you need to take care of your physical well-being. Get plenty of sleep. I started going to the gym while I was studying and I honestly think it helped. Exercise is supposed to be good for your brain. If you normally eat nothing but junk food and drink soda by the case, consider investing in some healthier fuel for yourself.
LSAC keeps track of retakers and reports that most people only improve by a few points at best. They also show that the higher your original score, the more likely you become to go down upon a retake. This means you need to be cautious when approaching a retake. If you prepare for 3 months as best you can, take the test, and score at your practice average, you should probably call it quits. Yet, if you score above 175 very consistently, and then are shocked to find a 174 on your results page, then it may actually be wise to retake even with such a high score.
If you don’t improve upon a retake, then you’ve shot yourself in the foot. On the other hand, if you can improve by even one point, then in some cases you may have helped your application considerably. Admissions personnel expect you to improve simply through familiarity with the test, but since your highest score is the one that becomes part of the school’s statistics, the candidate with a 165 and a 166 will probably fare better than the candidate with a 165, all else being equal. I recommend reading TLS’s interviews with admissions deans for more perspective on how they view retaking.
It’s incredibly important that you use your months of practice to establish what your real ability is on the test. If you’re paying attention, you should learn your strengths, weaknesses, and strategies to score higher. You will also learn what score you can expect when you take the real thing. Using this knowledge, you can evaluate why you didn’t score as well as you expected. Was the test center noisy? Did you cut yourself some slack on practice tests without necessarily realizing it? (For instance, some people take long breaks between sections, don’t use a bubble sheet, fudge the section timing, or never practice with an experimental section.) Perhaps most importantly, did you put in as much practice as you should have?
Depending on the answers to questions like these, you can decide if and when you should retake and what you can do to ensure you do better next time. “I was unlucky” is not the right answer, because it excuses you from taking any corrective action.
Some proctors and testing centers can be truly atrocious. Your proctor may call time five minutes early, or chat on the phone with a microphone left on, or some other nonsense. You might also have some unimaginable personal problem. Having been kept awake with anticipation, maybe you slept through your alarm and showed up late. One TLS user claimed to have drunk two gallons of water the night before the test and severely disrupted his bowels. In these cases, the option to cancel your score may be attractive.
The decision whether to cancel or not cancel is an exercise of your judgment, and admissions staff are well aware of this. Thanks in part to US News, they have a strong incentive to look only at your highest score. Still, I think it’s only natural to view Candidate A with a 155 and a 170 in a different light from Candidate B with a cancel and a 170. When someone reads Candidate A’s file, they’d have to wonder why he didn’t cancel that first score. In interviews, most Deans of Admissions do not think negatively (or at least that negatively) upon a cancelled score.
The other point to consider is that Candidate A with 155, 170 likely looks better than Candidate C with 155, cancel, 170. Some schools (the top 3, for instance) state outright that they will look at your full testing record. It’s your job to make sure it reflects well on you.
If you’ve prepared properly, I believe you’ll be able to make the right decision.
That’s it for now. If you still thirst for knowledge, head over to the TLS LSAT preparation forum.
Best of luck on your LSAT studying!