I know—you didn’t want to end up having to read this article.
But there is some good news. For a certain number of you, having to retake will actually turn out to be the very best thing that could have possibly happened. Many retakers study smarter and better than they did the first time around, and they end up scoring far higher than they could have ever hoped to on their first exam. And, as I’m sure you know, most schools only consider your best performance. When else in life do you get a do-over with something so important?
The first time that you study for the LSAT, it can be very tough to figure out how to best spend your study time, and what you ought to focus on most. The LSAT is a very different type of exam than what we are used to, and it can be somewhat unclear, especially at the beginning of your study process, what it is that actually leads to improvement.
Your second time around, I’m sure many of you have a much clearer sense of what is required for improvement. Here is a checklist that will help you consider some of the most critical components of a typical successful study process. Use this list to assess your personal strengths and weaknesses, and, more importantly, to start thinking about plans and priorities for your restudy. Make sure to pay particular attention to aspects of the study process that you may have neglected the first time around.
Do I understand what specific skills the LSAT is designed to test? Do I have an understanding of how different types of questions test these skills? Off the top of my head, can I name all of the different types of Logical Reasoning questions? Do I clearly understand the similarities and differences between them? Can I name different types of Reading Comprehension questions?
The LSAT is a fast, pressure-filled test of your thinking ability—in order to think at your best, it’s imperative that you understand the parameters of the exam as clearly as possible. A significant portion of test takers go into the exam without a clear sense of what different types of questions are actually asking for, or without a sense of what issues are important to the people who designed the test—this lack of clarity about the situation at hand puts these test takers at a disadvantage.
If I have a clear sense of what it is that they are testing, do I then actually understand these underlying issues correctly? Do I really know what defines the various components of an argument, and how these components relate to one another? Do I have a clear understanding of the different types of flaws that can appear in an argument? Do I have a clear understanding of the different types of relationships that can appear in Logic Games rules?
It’s one thing to know what is on the LSAT, it’s another thing to understand these issues that are on the LSAT correctly. As an analogy, I knew my high school AP Physics exam would have certain types of physics problems on it; I also knew I didn’t actually understand how to solve those physics problems.
There are certain reasoning and reading issues that show up on the exam again and again, and you want to make sure you have a clear understanding of all of them. If you don’t, of course it’s very hard to perform at your best.
Do I have a specific strategy for how to read Reading Comprehension passages? Do I have general strategies for how to think through the beginning of a Logic Game, and do I have specific strategies for every type of rule that can appear? Do I have a unique and specific type of strategy for handling each of the different types of Logical Reasoning questions? Do I have steps to take when I have to link together a series of conditional statements?
The LSAT is a highly standardized exam—for the most part, you know exactly what your challenges will be on test day (you will need to be able to translate conditional statements correctly, relate ordering rules for Logic Games, answer questions about author opinion for most, if not all, of the Reading Comprehension passages, etc.)—and it’s reasonable to expect that you ought to have strategies for all of the common issues that you will likely face. Of course, knowing strategies and being able to apply them are two different matters (more on this in just a bit).
Do I have a general sense of timing goals, and strategies for when I happen to run into any timing issues? Do I have a strong sense of which questions I ought to go through quickly, and which ones I ought to be more careful with?
Strategies for the test as a whole are far fewer, and simpler, than are the strategies that you have to learn for specific situations. Therefore, you have no excuse for not developing effective general test-taking strategies. One tip: people often take practice exams just to see where their score stands; make sure you use your practice exams to think about, and work on, your general timing strategies.
These first four elements of the checklist focus on understanding and strategies—these are typically learned from study guides or courses. Most of you, I’m sure, have access to such materials from the first time that you studied—you want to do an honest assessment—did you not take advantage of your study tools the first time around, or were the study tools not as effective for you as you hoped? If it’s the former, you may want to stick with the tools you have. If it’s the latter, you may want to look into different study methods. Fortunately for you, there are many high quality, affordable options on the market today (shameless plug for my book), and you shouldn’t have to spend a lot to get new learning materials (unless you want to, of course). In general, students can benefit from mixing various high quality study methods together, and though it isn’t always necessary to do so, I’ve seen very little evidence that using multiple learning products can be any sort of detriment.
Drill work typically refers to questions of a certain type—Necessary Assumption questions, for example—done together. Doing a bunch of one type of question helps you see patterns in these questions, and can help you get better and better at applying your skills correctly.
This one is a biggie. Many, many retakers, especially those near the top of the scoring scale, credit drill work for much of their improvement the second time around. Many of these success stories share a similar plot line—the first time studying, the student focuses her energy on learning all the “rules” of the LSAT, and tries to take in as many clever strategies as possible. The second time studying, the student focuses on putting this understanding and these strategies to use, and sees her score reach new heights.
If you didn’t do a lot of drill work the first time you studied, make it your key priority this second time. If you did drill the first time, drill, drill, and drill some more.
Do I have assessment tools that help me to clearly see why I have trouble with the questions I have trouble with? Do I use these tools to get an in-depth understanding of my strengths and weaknesses? Does this understanding go far beyond whether I get certain questions right or wrong, and into the specific details of the problem-solving process? Do I have systems in place to ensure that my weaknesses get addressed?
You could argue that the entire process of preparing for the LSAT can be thought of in terms of “aligning” your thought process with the thought process that best matches the challenges on test day. In order to do this alignment properly, it makes sense that you have to be consistently evaluating your performance, and adjust based on this evaluation.
A lot of LSAT students simply do not know how to evaluate their performance. Why did they miss a certain question? How should one categorize his or her misses? Different learning systems recommend different ways to review and think about your performance (here’s an article I wrote about how to review your Reading Comprehension work), but no one system is best for everyone, and it’s okay for you to be wrong in your initial breakdown and categorization of issues—if you keep working at it, you’ll get better and better at seeing how issues you had for particular problems relate to one another, and the better you see this, the faster you’ll improve.
Note that practice exams, in-and-of-themselves, are not necessarily the best tools for helping you get better at the exam—I would say that course or book learning, drill work, or review of problems that you’ve already solved all yield more benefit in terms of actually helping you get better at the exam. However, you want to make sure to take practice exams periodically throughout your study process (nothing like a bad practice test performance to illuminate what you ought to work on most), and as you get close to test day, you want to focus a lot of your prep on taking full practice exams, ideally as realistically as possible. These final exams will help you firm up your habits, and help ensure that you perform at or near the top of your range on test day.
For your drill work and your practice exams, it is universally recommended that you only use real LSAT questions. The most recent exams are slightly more indicative of what you are likely to see on test day, but the test has stayed fairly consistent through the years, and older exams are still very useful in terms of prepping. Of course, Cambridge is a great resource for official LSAT questions.
Again, I know you would probably rather not be studying for a retake, but this is also an opportunity for you to do something great, something that changes your life for the better—if you study smart, and you study hard, you should expect significant score improvement—I hope you find the above checklist helpful as you plan your path to success.
– Mike Kim
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