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"I love your approach to standardized tests, and especially the LSAT. You have confirmed for me that it really IS as easy a test as I originally thought, before I let all those “experts” out there (like Kaplan, Testmasters, etc.) scare the bejeezus out of me! Thanks for the refreshing, common sense, and smarter approach to test taking."

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A More Intelligent Approach To The LSAT

I've been tutoring LSAT-takers through a variety of media for over a decade now, and one thing has become abundantly clear to me in that time:

Most people who prepare for the LSAT are going about it in a way that is completely and utterly ill-suited to the test. They waste tremendous amounts of time on "LSAT strategies" that don't actually work.

Several years ago, I began developing a system that would allow students to approach the test in a much more intelligent way. Instead of taking the LSAC's word about what the LSAT was testing, I decided to start from scratch, with zero pre-conceived notions, and look directly at what the test was actually doing. When I did this, I found that the LSAT was much, much simpler than I had originally imagined. In fact, I really believe it's the easiest major standardized test in America right now . . .

But before I get into that, let's discuss the normal approach to LSAT preparation, and why it doesn't work very well.

The Normal Approach to LSAT Prep

Like the normal approaches to most other types of standardized test preparation, the normal approach to LSAT preparation takes the test at face value.

In other words, most people who prepare for the LSAT begin with the assumption that the LSAT is a logic test, and everything they do follows (logically, natch) from that assumption. They learn logical structures like the contrapositive, logical concepts like necessity, and so on.

And they diagram stuff. Boy howdy, do they diagram stuff. They diagram logical propositions and they diagram essay structures and they diagram games. Some of them, I imagine, even diagram their own diagrams, just on principle.

You might be wondering what's wrong with that. If everybody does it, how can it be that bad? I'm glad you asked. Or I'm glad I asked for you, at any rate :)

The Fundamental Problem With Normal LSAT Preparation

The basic problem with assuming that the LSAT is a test of real logical reasoning ability, and the basic problem with diagramming the hell out of everything, is that this approach ignores a lot of things about what the LSAT can and cannot do. It ignores the fact that the LSAT is a multiple-choice test, for one thing. It also ignores the fact that in real logic every logical statement or argument can be refuted in an infinite number of ways.

For these reasons, students who prepare for the LSAT by learning formal logic often feel like what they're learning doesn't quite make sense, and this makes them feel like they must not be "smart enough" to take the LSAT. But the senselessness of the traditional approach to the LSAT is a real thing; it's not just in their heads. The strategies aren't hard to apply because the student is inadequate, but because the strategies themselves are inadequate. And there aren't really any tremendous differences among the various major companies, whether we're talking about TestMasters, Kaplan, or Princeton Review. Let's take a look.

The Normal Approach to LSAT Reading Questions

Most students approach LSAT Critical Reading questions by applying the same kinds of textual analysis that they would apply in a college-level philosophy or literature class. They do this because it seems natural to answer LSAT questions about a sophisticated text in the same way that they would answer a professor's questions about such a text.

So they try to digest the texts in the reading section, almost as an intellectual exercise. Most students use some kind of annotation scheme, and many LSAT preparation companies specifically teach their own such schemes. Kaplan, for instance, teaches its students to digest LSAT reading texts by looking for what it calls the "scope" and "purpose" of the text.

Students who use these kinds of approaches often find themselves trying to understand a text as thoroughly as they would need to understand it in order to take part in a classroom discussion with a professor.

The problem is that the LSAT isn't one of your professors. For one thing, the LSAT only asks you multiple-choice questions about the texts that it shows you, and those questions are designed so that only one of the pre-determined answer choices is acceptable to the test. Philosophy professors and literature professors would scoff at the idea that a question about a text only had one correct answer--so why would you approach LSAT reading questions the same way you would approach a college class?

The Normal Approach to LSAT Logical Reasoning

LSAT Logical Reasoning questions consist of short arguments followed by questions about those arguments. You might be asked to choose the answer choice with the statement that follows logically from the given argument, or the statement that would contradict the argument, or whatever.

There are actually two different "normal" approaches to these questions:
  • One is to learn to apply ideas like the contrapositive, necessity/sufficiency, and so on.
  • The other is to use your gut and simply "argue." Both are ineffective for most people.
Students who study formal logic as a way to attack the argument questions on the LSAT are rarely told that in real life every logical argument can be refuted in an infinite number of ways. Instead, they are often encouraged to use their logical training to predict what a correct answer might look like before they even read the answer choices. This typically results in frustration at best or failure at worst, for the same reasons that applying literary analysis to LSAT reading questions results in frustration or failure: in both situations, the student is encouraged to analyze something creatively and come up with multiple ways to address a question even though the LSAT is a multiple-choice test with exactly one acceptable answer per question.

Students who take the total opposite approach and simply try to get through the argument questions by using their argumentative instincts often run into another problem altogether, which is that the LSAT relies on very specific turns of phrase, while most of the argumentative instincts that students will have developed will tend to be flawed from the very technical perspective of the LSAT. Students who are used to winning arguments in school and in life through rhetorical flourishes and non sequiturs--in other words, students who learned to argue by watching politicians and the personalities on news commentary programs--will find that they fall flat on the LSAT's hyper-technical argument questions.

The Normal Approach to LSAT Logical Analysis ("Logic Games")

Most LSAT-takers view the logic games as the hardest part of the LSAT, for two main reasons:
  • They've never seen questions in this format before taking the LSAT, and
  • The advice they get on how to do the logic games is extremely complicated and inefficient.
Because they're so unfamiliar with these question types, most students don't realize that the normal approach to LSAT games is very poorly conceived.

The normal approach to LSAT logic games is to try to "diagram" them or "set them up," which usually means that a test-taker tries to work out every single possible arrangement of the given variables before looking at any of the questions in the game!

One problem with this is that many LSAT logic games are set up in such a way that pre-diagramming all the possible arrangements of variables would take far more time than the LSAT gives us.

Again, we see the same problem in the normal approach to logic games that we saw in the normal approaches to argument questions and reading questions: students are encouraged to think of every possible way to look at a situation even though the LSAT is only interested in a very small number of very specific outcomes. So students work hard to understand unnecessarily complicated strategies before test-day, and on test-day they work hard trying to figure out things they don't actually need to figure out at all.

The Basics of My Approach To The LSAT

I can summarize my approach to the LSAT by saying that it focuses on identifying exactly what the LSAT rewards in every situation, and thereby avoids the normal pitfalls of multiplying possible outcomes on every question type.
  • Instead of having my students critically deconstruct every LSAT reading passage, using annotation schemes and nebulous concepts like "scope," I teach them how to identify what a correct answer to a reading question looks like.
  • Instead of having my students study formal logic or just wing the argument questions altogether, I teach them the very specific attributes that a well-formed LSAT argument must have.
  • Instead of having them pre-diagram every single possible outcome of a logic game, I teach them to read the questions in a game carefully and do only the minimum amount of work necessary to find the answer, often avoiding diagrams at all.
This whole approach relies on realizing, and exploiting, two fundamental facts about the LSAT:
  1. The LSAT is a standardized test given to millions of people over the years.
  2. The LSAT is a text-based test in which the difference between a right answer and a wrong answer often hangs on a two-letter word.

The LSAT Is A Standardized Test

Everyone knows the LSAT is standardized, but very few people appreciate exactly what that means.

The LSAT was devised by the LSAC in order to provide law schools with a reliable, consistent way to measure something important in their applicants, to help law schools make meaningful comparisons among applicants from a wide variety of educational backgrounds.

And the LSAT can only perform this task if it measures exactly the same things in exactly the same ways, over and over and over again.

In other words, the LSAT can't reward one type of interpretation of a reading text on one day and another type on another day. If it changed the type of interpretation it rewarded, then it wouldn't be standardized. Similarly, the LSAT can't stop rewarding one way to strengthen arguments and start rewarding another, or suddenly ask you about logic games that don't involve rules and variables. Whatever the LSAT has done in the past, it must always do in the future. Any of the so-called "LSAT changes" that frustrated LSAT-takers often talk about are purely cosmetic, and don't affect the deeper functioning of the test--if they did, the test would be useless.

When we realize this, we start to see how counter-productive it is to try to apply formal logic or diagramming to the LSAT. Instead, it makes a lot more sense to turn the process around--rather than try to predict what a correct answer will say, we should look at the 5 answer choices and figure out which 4 are wrong and which one is right, according to the rules that the LSAT must always follow.

And this is where close reading starts to come into play.

Textual Analysis And The LSAT--Why Close Reading Is Critical

In the law itself as well as on the LSAT, we need to read things extremely carefully in order to keep from making small mistakes that can lead to bad outcomes.

On the LSAT, students often read texts and arguments in the sloppy ways that they would read magazine articles. They decide in advance what they expect the text to say, and then they don't notice that it doesn't actually say what they expected. This leads them to choose wrong answers over and over again, across a wide variety of question types.

For this reason, a large part of making the LSAT easy, and a large part of really appreciating how thorough the standardization of the LSAT actually is, comes from learning to read the text extremely closely in the way that the LSAC decided to reward when it created the LSAT. Students who do not learn to read the test in the right way will be doomed to weeks and months of frustration. This is why my approach to the LSAT relies so heavily on reading the test carefully and knowing specifically what the LSAC looks for in a correct answer.

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