LSAT Prep Tips Recommendations Diary

LSAT Blog DiaryThis installment of LSAT Diaries comes from J, a 39-year-old dad. He studied, took the LSAT in December 2009, and got a 157. J thought he could do better, studied again, and got a 166 in February 2010.

He's got tons of LSAT advice for you about how he did it.

If you want to be in LSAT Diaries, please email me at LSATUnplugged@gmail.com. (You can be in LSAT Diaries whether you've taken the exam already or not.)

Leave your questions for J below in the comments!

J's LSAT Diary:

Steve was flat-out wrong. In several blog posts, he alluded to his “belief” that studying for the LSAT should be an exercise that lasts for three months at a minimum. But that’s just what the average person should expect. I had always excelled at standardized tests, so his advice didn’t apply to someone like me. It was clear to me that I could sufficiently prepare in just over six weeks, and I was going to smoke that test.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, was the first major mistake I made during my LSAT prep, and the basis for my very first recommendation to you: prepare for this test for at least three months, and as diligently as your schedule will allow. And stick with me through my “diary,” because I’m writing this for the sole purpose of providing pointers that I offer as a result of already having gone through the process of studying for this exam. I will try to be direct and succinct.

The background: I am 39, married with two young children, and decided about a year ago to go to law school after playing around with the idea for the better part of a decade. Because of my family status and my unwillingness to uproot my wife and kids from our home, I was basically limited to applying to two schools: one being a Top 50 program, and one being a strong, upwardly mobile regional program ranked just out of the Top 100. I took the LSAT twice—in December 2009, I scored 157. After receiving my score in late December, I hit the LSAT prep books again, and scored 166 in February 2010, which not only helped earn me admission to both schools, but scholarship offers from each as well. Yes, the hard work during prep can and will pay off for you if you devote yourself to it.

So back to my mistakes, and my recommendations for you…

First, the issue of how long to study. Given the disparity between my two scores, it should be apparent to you that I was not sufficiently prepared the first time I took the LSAT. I thought that I was—but I was very wrong about that. Again, Steve recommends three months as a minimum. If you’re serious about scoring well though, and you’re the sort of person who is willing to take a methodical approach to this, I would suggest four to five months. Because you can get better the more that you read, the more that you practice, the more that you drill under timed conditions.

The more time that you give yourself, the more able you will be to identify your personal weaknesses, and to take measures to strengthen your approach in these areas. Think about how many people have gotten their results back and thought to themselves, “Geez, what I would give for just two or three more points so that I could get into so-and-so law school…” But it’s too late for them to “give something” to get those points. It’s not too late for you though, and all you have to give is your time and focus. Those extra points will be yours.

Timed practice tests: it is absolutely crucial that you mimic the actual testing conditions as much as you possibly can! When you complete a section of a practice test, don’t stand up to stretch or go to the bathroom; don’t check your Facebook account for notifications or go to the fridge to open a soda. Reset your timer, turn the damn page, and start the next section! It’s not fun, but you can be sure that it will be what is required of you on test day, so you might as well get used to it now.

The time of the day is very important as well! I have never been a morning person, and I initially took my practice exams in the afternoons. After my initial score, I changed my strategy, waking daily around 6:00 am and beginning my studying between 8:00 and 9:00, and I took all practice tests around that time from then on. When your mind is geared to perform at that level at that time of the day, it makes a big difference. (See Steve’s blog post for more on the dangers of sleep inertia).

Speaking of the transition from section to section, do not dwell on the fact that you might have had to fill in a couple of “guess” answers at the end of the previous section. Clear your mind and focus on the new task at hand—otherwise, your lack of focus will later lead you to having to fill in guess bubbles at the end of the new section as well. This is a planned trap by the test makers that you must avoid. Don’t let them do you in!

And again regarding practice tests, do as many of them under timed conditions as you can. But the real key to benefiting from them is to review every single question that you got wrong until you understand exactly why you got it wrong. Failure to do this will likely result in you making the same sort of mistake on similarly structured questions in the future. Review, review, review!

Do not allow yourself to get caught up in the content of a stimulus. Focus solely on the structure. As tempting as it is to picture outraged French people rioting because some artist displayed a new, controversial work of art (Mon Dieu!), such mental images will suck valuable seconds away from you that could be better used later in the section. Save the visualizations for after the exam—you’ll have more time to chuckle about them then anyway.

Necessary versus sufficient conditions. The difference between these is something that you absolutely, positively have to understand, for this exam will test you time and again on your ability to discern between the two. Hopefully, you will reach a point in your studies when you will suddenly reach an epiphany about how the two interact with one another, and about how the psychometricians try to test your understanding of the relationship between the two. Read what you can about it, and you should definitely take the time to memorize the lists of necessary and sufficient condition indicator words. I wrote the two lists down on an index card and carried it around with me for two days, periodically attempting to mentally recite the list. You will benefit from it if you do the same.

Some day, you might be tangled up with some nasty stimulus that is designed to sink the vast majority of test takers. But if you can quickly identify an indicator word, the structure of the stimulus will become transparent, and you can move quickly through the question. And don't forget that they will often try to see if you are prone to confusing necessary and sufficient conditions. Know the difference well enough to avoid this classic trap. See Steve’s blog post about necessary versus sufficient conditions.

Here are a few pointers about books:

* Logic Games Bible—read Chapter 2, and then re-read it before moving on. At the end of the chapter, the authors “strongly urge” the reader to do just this. Guess who initially ignored their advice? I got a lot more out of the chapter when I read it again during my prep for a re-test. I know that you’re antsy to get through the book and get started on taking PrepTests, but it’s definitely worth the time to do it.


* Reading Comprehension Bible. I hate reading comp. Or at least I did. It was my weakest part of the test, and I loathed the idea of even trying to prep for it. Rather, I focused on the other areas. The result was a big, fat -11 on the December exam. Being out of school for so long, I wasn’t used to using the sort of critical reading skills that the exam seeks to measure, and my speed was lacking. I ordered a copy of the RC Bible and spent the better part of a week reading it, and I’m glad that I did, because it gave me direction on what to look for to determine the author’s tone, and discussed certain trends that have repeated themselves through the tests. By the time I took my second exam, I was consistently scoring in the -4 to -5 range, and more important, I was finishing (or nearly finishing) the section in the allotted time, something that I wasn’t able to do before—and this was a confidence booster. This book is probably not for everyone, but if you are scoring more than five or six wrong on a section during prep tests, it might be worth a look. I can confidently say that this book increased my raw score by two to three points at minimum.

Pointer: I completely agree with Steve’s feeling that you shouldn’t allow yourself to get too bogged down in the typical LSAT Bible pattern of over-classifying everything. They tend to go too far, and it’s not like it will really help you to start classifying types of RC passages.



* Kaplan Advanced. I ordered this book from Amazon before becoming familiar with Steve’s blog. When I asked him what he thought of it, he wrote that I should give it to my worst enemy. Given that I had plenty of other material to learn from anyway, it sat on my bookshelf until my February exam was postponed due to snow. By then, I was out of prep tests, and didn’t know what else to do. I began going through the Kaplan Advanced book for more practice, and I will tell you that I feel that the book has some value as far as LR goes, for it offers a collection of really tough LR questions for you to practice on—the sort that you tend to find in questions numbered 15 to 23 on the exam, though the explanations for the questions are often lacking in substance.

It offers much less value for logic games, for the games tend to be outdated. Sure, they’re good to do from a brain exercise perspective, but the more recent game types (the sort that you’re far more likely to see when you take the exam) are not well represented. But what really pissed me off about this book is that as smart as these authors purport themselves to be, in all of their smugness, they failed to adequately proofread their own work. Sometimes, they offer a stimulus and answer choices, and then in the discussion section for the correct answer, they offer an explanation that belongs to an entirely different stimulus. I was particularly angered at one point because I spent roughly 20 minutes trying to understand their explanation for why a certain answer was correct before realizing that they had actually chosen the wrong answer. What a bunch of clowns. I didn’t have the time to waste on something like this, and I’m assuming that you don’t either.



Warning: unsolicited testimonial
Help from Steve: I enlisted Steve’s tutoring services via telephone. I was already in a position where I could ace many games, but certain types would give me trouble. I went into my sessions with him with a list of games that had especially given me trouble.

What Steve helped me to do was to sharpen my skills so that I could slash right through many games (many in only 5-6 minutes), giving me the extra time I would need in the case of an especially ugly game (Dinosaurs, for instance) might appear. He also taught me how to quickly identify the limited placement options that are essential to cracking certain tough games, and also how to know when creating full templates of possibilities is your best bet (a great example of this is PT 59, Game 4).

It’s probably hard for you to imagine how a tutoring session via telephone would be feasible (before trying it, I certainly did), but it works very well. And the time I spent working with Steve sharpen my skills was well worth the investment: when I approached my fourth game on the February test, I had 18 minutes remaining to complete it.

If nothing else, be sure to learn some of his approaches to various games, in particular those involving limited placement games (dinosaurs), Grouping: In and Out games (birds in the forest), and Sequencing. I feel strongly that his techniques in these areas are far superior to those offered by the prep books.

By the end of my prep, I had done enough LR questions that I felt as though I knew what was coming—where they would try to set you up, and how to sidestep it. I got to the point that I sometimes didn’t even need to read each of the answers—I could pre-phrase after reading the stimulus and go straight to the correct answer, thereby conserving valuable time for the tougher questions later in the section (though I don’t necessarily recommend this approach UNLESS you have spent considerable amounts of time drilling).

I told Steve that I sort of felt like the Keanu Reeves' character “Neo” in The Matrix—that I could see “the code” and react accordingly (interestingly, Steve told me that he uses that analogy with his students as well). Why dodge the bullets coming at you when you can just raise your hand up to them and cause them to fall harmlessly to the floor?


For Test Day:

Be prepared! If at all possible, visit the test center a day or two before the exam. I did, and what I found was a lecture hall with cramped tray desks and somewhat poor lighting. But I also noticed that there were a few larger desks located in the back of the hall, adjacent to some windows that provided natural light. While checking in, I explained to one of the proctors that my back wasn’t all that great (remember, I’m 39…) and asked if I could sit in one of the larger desks (she allowed me to do so). If nothing else, a visit to the testing room will likely keep you from having to deal with any curveballs on test day that might get you rattled.

Finally, learn to love the LSAT. Yes, I’m serious. When I first read Steve’s posts about loving this exam, I concluded that he must really be deranged. But what I found is that the more you drill, the more you understand the setup and the more that you can come to admire it. There were some questions that I got wrong during practices that after examining again, I would think to myself, “Wow, what a really cool question…” And while I thought that he was deranged, I find myself a few months later still receiving his weekly blog post email and looking through it—I suppose I’ve become a deranged Steve Schwartz disciple myself.

I hope at least some of you find this to be helpful, and I wish all of you luck in your efforts. Bust it up!

Photo by bdorfman



10 comments:

  1. Thanks Steve for discipling J and thanks J for sharing your progress. I could imagine going back to the habits of study, having been away from it for a quite some time. I believe your advice on taking timed prep-tests is crucial. Most of my struggles is giving myself enough time to actually complete each game. I'm impressed that you wound up on your fourth and final LG with 18 minutes left. I aspire to get there. All together a great diary entry. Thanks for the advice.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks J, for the advice and the pointers. Oh, wow, I'm 39 and have two kids just like you! I was almost about to give up on my dream of attending law school, as with two kids and a mortgage things can be really odious sometimes...but you brought hope to my lachrymose eyes...thanks and best of luck to you!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Glad you liked it guys--thanks and good luck to you as well. One other thing I forgot to mention: try to avoid taking the test when your wife is 38 weeks pregnant. :)

    -J

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post! I laughed out loud at the paragraph with the Matrix analogy.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks J!
    I thought I was the only old man trying to reach my goal later (much later in life). I am 44 years old, and instead of thinking about retirement or where to buy my burial place, I am thinking about going to law school with my 24 year old son. To all the latter bloomers out there studying for the lsat "come out, come out, wherever you are". It would be nice to hear from all of you.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Minimanny!

    I too am 44..well, okay I am 45 (it's hard for me remember, selective memory:)); I too decided to go to law school after a twenty year career. Good luck. I am taking the LSAT in October.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for the post. I just turned 37 and hoping to attend law school next year! Nice to know we are all in the same boat, very inspiring!

    ReplyDelete
  8. J,

    Thanks for sharing your LSAT prep experience. I too am 39 and I will be taking the February 2011 exam. After reading your post I am even more encouraged about taking the LSAT and performing well. By the way, I love the Matrix analogy.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks for sharing! At 50 plus, I'm following through on my dream, hoping to enter Law School nearly 30 years after I received my BA! This site is a wonderful resource. Thank you Steve!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Update: I'm six weeks into 1L. It's a lot of work, but it's exhilarating as well.

    Good luck to you guys--may you be the next Neo...

    ReplyDelete