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How I Scored a 180 - Article #3
This entry comes to us from a TLS user who aced the September 2009 administration of the LSAT. By working as a private LSAT tutor, he developed his own winning strategies for LSAT success through self-study.
I scored a 180 on the September 2009 LSAT. In this article, I will share my story with you along with some of the reasons for my success. I’m offering a general overview of how to approach your LSAT studying, using my own experience as a template. You will not find many specific tips on how to approach LSAT questions, and if you do, they are merely illustrating a broader principle.
Please keep in mind that these are the methods that worked for me. Part of the reason I did so well was that I knew myself and what I needed to do to improve. Hopefully you will find this article useful, but realize it is not a definitive guide to the LSAT; indeed, there is no such thing, given the multiplicity of learning styles.
Furthermore, this article mostly pertains to self-study. I did not take a class because I knew that those teaching the class were not any more qualified than I. However, depending on your goals and level of fundamental understanding, finding a tutor or enrolling in a class may very well be worth the money.
Do not be afraid to drop some serious cash on LSAT preparation materials – view it as an investment. Generally speaking, the higher your LSAT score, the better the school you can get into, and the better the school you go to, the better the job you can likely get upon graduation. While this is an oversimplification of the entire law school process, there’s no denying that the LSAT is a crucially important test which will have a significant impact on your future; if there’s any time to sink a lot of money into test preparation, now would be the time. Keep in mind, too, that there also tends to be a direct correlation between LSAT score and amount of merit aid received.
That said, only a few LSAT study guides are worth your time. I used two: the PowerScore Logical Reasoning Bible and Logic Games Bible. There seems to be a consensus amongst Top-Law-Schools.com self-studiers that these are the most useful guides, but having not used any others, I cannot speak to their effectiveness. Whichever books you end up choosing, make sure that they use real LSAT questions – some publications fabricate their own LSAT questions to teach. You do not want to be studying from made-up questions.
The majority of your LSAT study fund will likely be sunk into the official Pret Tests, by far your most important purchase. There is no more effective means of raising your LSAT score than by practicing on old tests, so don’t skimp here, either. I took over 35 Prep Tests and wasn’t consistently scoring at or above 178 until I had taken about 20 or 25 tests. Make sure you are practicing with more recent tests as it gets closer to test day, as the LSAT has changed in some subtle but significant ways over the years. Thus, it is generally best to get started with the oldest tests and work your way up to the more modern iterations of the exam.
Drafting a Game Plan
Given the large number of previous tests with which you can practice, you must set a schedule and stick with it. Otherwise, you may not cover all the material. The more material you cover, the more comfortable you will be with the test and the higher you will likely score.
Your game plan will look different depending on how much time you have to study. I studied for about 2.5 months, but I would consider this to be close to the minimum if you’re serious about maximizing your score. There are three reasons why this was enough time for me: (1) I have a strong background in philosophy and logic from undergrad; (2) I naturally think the way the LSAT requires you to think; (3) I’m a good standardized test taker (I do not get nervous and actually enjoy taking tests). If you feel like you have a high ceiling for this test but your diagnostic is disappointing, you should seriously consider studying for up to 6 months.
For my first month of studying, I spent around two hours per day reading through the PowerScore books. I would take a practice test every couple of days so as to put into practice the methods suggested by PowerScore. Periodically, I would evaluate the situation and retool my plan for the remaining time I had to study. At one point, I took 15 practice tests in a 17 day stretch. While I think this was crucial to my success, I also felt myself burning out. This was confirmed by the data (see next section), which showed my scores peaking and then dropping off towards the end of that stretch. Recognizing this, I relaxed and slowed the pace of my studying. My average score began to rise again and was peaking just in time for the actual test. So while setting a strict game plan ensured that I covered as much material as possible, I was aware enough of the grand scheme of things to alter the schedule to fit my needs (see “Flexibility and Adaptability” section below).
Similarly, you must recognize your own weak spots and tailor your study accordingly. While logic games was my strongest section, I realized that I could not afford to miss a single question if I wanted to get a 180. Thus, in the last month or so, I altered my game plan to include a logic games section every day. I tried to take every LSAT game ever, even repeating ones that were no longer fresh in my memory.
Let me emphasize that studying for the LSAT effectively without a class or tutor does require serious self-discipline. If you cannot make yourself do the work, perhaps you need the structure a class can provide. Just remember that no one will be making you study for your torts final, so you might as well develop some discipline now. Creating and adhering to a game plan is one way to keep yourself on track.
Monitoring Your Progress
It is impossible to tailor your game plan to your own needs if you are unaware of those needs. In order to discover what alterations need to be made, you should be keeping track of your PrepTests in some way. I used an Excel sheet. Here is an excerpt from mine:
I could then take this information and use it to evaluate my progress in certain areas. I even made graphs to make trends more obvious. You may not find that completely necessary, but I would suggest that at a minimum you keep track of your scaled and section scores over time.
You will not be allowed to use a digital watch during the actual test, so I would advise that you get used to using an analog watch at some point. However, I used a stopwatch in the first month or two of studying so that I could keep very accurate time. After each logic game or reading comprehension passage, I would note the time on the page. I would do the same thing for every two logical reasoning pages. I did this for a few reasons: (1) it allowed me to recognize which (if any) game or reading comprehension passage gave me particular trouble; (2) it helped me get a feel for pacing; (3) it helped me develop an internal clock.
Skipping a Game or Reading Comprehension Passage
For most people, time is a significant issue on the LSAT. Please realize that with practice you can become faster. When I first began, I came close to running out of time on the logic games section nearly every time. On the actual test day, I finished with enough time to spare that I could leisurely check over three of the four games.
However, some people will never develop enough speed to finish an entire section, whether that be reading comprehension, logic games, or logical reasoning. For some of my students, I suggest that they experiment with doing a certain portion of the section and simply guessing on the rest. For example, some may end up with higher score on logic games if they take their time with three sections and guess on the fourth, as opposed to rushing through all four. This is another reason why it is wise to take so many practice tests: you can experiment with different approaches without any real penalty.
With practice and by keeping accurate time, you will eventually realize where you should be at certain points within each section. For example, I eventually realized that if I was about ten questions into the logical reasoning section at the ten minute mark, I was on pace. This was nothing like a strict requirement; I would simply recognize that I might need to speed up if I hadn’t met that goal, or that I could relax a bit if I was exceeding it.
Developing an Internal Clock
If you take enough practice tests and monitor your time in many of them, you will no longer need any time-keeping device. I once forgot my watch while going to the library to take a practice test. Instead, I set my cell-phone alarm for 35 minutes on each section. Even without any way of verifying the time remaining, my score did not suffer. I had such an intuitive feel for how much time was left because I had practiced so many times.
That said, I do not suggest you leave your watch at home on test day. However, you should feel comfortable that if you did, you would still be able to perform at a high level.
Flexibility and Adaptability
Earlier I talked about how you need to recognize when changes need to be made in your game plan. I made at least two significant changes over the course of my studying: (1) relaxing the pace of my studying after I suspected I was burnt out; (2) intensifying my logic games study in order to consistently score perfectly on that section. I imagine that had I not made these adaptations, I would not have met my goal of 180. (And, to drive home a point, I may not have noticed a need for these adaptations if I had not been monitoring my progress.)
You must also be flexible with the methods you employ. I found most of the PowerScore methods to be fine as they were; i.e. it wasn’t worth the time or effort to develop my own when theirs worked. However, in some cases I found that some tweaking was beneficial. Let’s take, for example, their approach to diagramming pure sequencing logic games. In these, you are given a list of variables and asked to order them according to some basic rules.
Ashley, Broderick, Chapman, Derrick, and Ellen are of varying heights. Their height is consistent with the following conditions:
Ashley and Broderick are both taller than Chapman.
Broderick and Derrick are both taller than Ellen.
PowerScore would have me diagram the game something like this (excuse my handwriting):
I found this method to be confusing, easy to screw up, and lengthy. So I developed my own, faster and more intuitive, diagramming method:
My point is not that either way is objectively better; in fact, they’re logically equivalent if you know how to read each one. I just found that the second way worked better for me. And, as I mentioned in the intro, I do not mean for this illustration to be a lesson on how to approach pure sequencing games (as it is obviously inadequate in that regard). I’m simply using this example to illustrate a broader point: always be willing to find ways that work better for you and be flexible enough to implement them. Just make sure that you try them out on practice tests rather than on the real thing.
Reviewing Your Mistakes
When you are finished taking a practice test, you are not finished with your studying for that day. You must review all your mistakes soon, before you forget why you selected the wrong answer choice. You should also make a habit of marking questions that gave you trouble and reviewing those even if you ended up selecting the correct answer.
Let me emphasize that there is a reason why each wrong answer choice is wrong, and there is a reason why the correct answer choice is correct. I have one student who, when I ask him why he selected a certain answer choice, often responds with, “It seemed like the right answer.” That’s not enough. You need to have a reason for thinking that, because there always is one.
Strive to articulate those reasons. If you cannot discern what the reason is upon further study and without the time pressure, perhaps you should seek out a tutor. It is crucial that you begin to understand the way the test creators think. A good tutor can help you get there.
Living in Preparation for the LSAT: The Month and Days Before
In many ways, I approached the LSAT as I would an athletic event. (Hence, the “game plan” terminology used before.) In preparing for the LSAT, I did many of the same types of things I would do to prepare for a weekend beach volleyball tournament. After all, the LSAT is not only about your level of intelligence and your understanding of the questions; it is also about your performance on test day. So I present an assortment of tips to follow in order to be at the top of your game on test day:
Follow a Balanced and Healthy Diet
I have been a vegetarian for some time, but not necessarily a health nut. I have been known to make a giant pot of mac ‘n’ cheese and consume only that for upwards of three days. But in the two weeks prior to the LSAT, I made sure that I was meeting all my dietary needs and eating enough to feel energized and alert. I went so far as to sketch a meal plan for the final week.
Some foods, such as blueberries and salmon, are widely considered “brain foods.” I’m not an expert on the scientific research into these foods, but it can’t hurt to eat them and you may experience a bit of a placebo effect. Whatever you do, don’t drastically alter your diet right before the LSAT. You will probably be nervous enough without last night’s Thai extravaganza rumbling around in your digestive system.
Again, this is an activity I would recommend at all points in your life, not just prior to the LSAT. But maybe the LSAT can give you particular motivation to stay dedicated, as it did for me. I ran and jumped rope nearly every day for at least a month before the LSAT. Your brain is part of your body and in order for it to function at its highest level, the rest of your body should be doing so as well.
Wake Up Early
I am not a morning person. I forced myself to become one because of the LSAT. I believe the June LSAT is taken later in the day, in which case this is less necessary. But for most administrations of the LSAT, you will need to be there before 8:30 am. I got used to waking by 6:30 am so that I could eat a full breakfast and be alert by the time testing began (usually around 9:00).
You should be doing all you can to reduce anxiety. You will probably be very nervous on test day, and rightfully so. The most effective way to reduce my stress was to plan for everything in advance. I picked out the clothes I would wear the night before. I knew where my testing center was, how long it would take to get there, alternative routes in case of an accident, etc. I even knew what I was going to have for breakfast. I had my plastic bag all set with my sharpened pencils and snacks. It may sound ridiculous or obsessive-compulsive, but it helped me relax because I had fewer things to think about on the morning of the test.
I also took off work the Friday before the Saturday test. I did almost nothing that day except watch television, exercise, read light material, and eat full and healthy meals. You do not want to study for the test very much, if at all, in the few days preceding it. I would hope you know by now that this is not a test for which you can cram.
Wake Your Brain Up
When you go to bed the night before the test, you should have a very good idea of what you will do when you wake up in the morning. One of the things you will want to make time for is taking some practice questions. On the morning of my test, I did a logic game and some logical reasoning questions while still at home. Then I arrived at the test center fairly early and did another logic game and another page of logical reasoning questions. Just as you would not want to run a marathon without having stretched and loosened up beforehand, you do not want the actual LSAT to be the first time your brain works hard that morning.
Right after finishing the test, it is normal to feel like you did not perform up to your expectations. I knew I was capable of a 180 and was confident going in that I would score very near there. However, I truly thought that things had gone poorly on reading comprehension, and expected to score somewhere between 173 and 176. I slept on it and felt better the next day. It turns out my initial prognosis was wrong, as I got my 180 and a perfect score in reading comprehension.
My point is this: you have a few days to decide whether you want to cancel. Take advantage of that. Had I overreacted at the close of the test, I might have made a huge mistake. That said, some people really should cancel their score. My best advice is this: take as many practice tests as you can, and get in the habit of predicting how well you did. If you know yourself and your tendencies, you can better predict your score and decide whether or not you should cancel.
I hope you have found this guide useful. I am confident that if everyone took this test as seriously as I did, the median score on the LSAT would rise a great deal. Fortunately for you, most people do not spend much time doing the things I’ve mentioned: developing a game plan; adapting their game plan, and the methods of attacking specific LSAT questions, to their own needs; taking seriously their non-LSAT preparation (reducing stress, eating well, etc); and, most importantly, taking lots of practice tests and reviewing mistakes. Take this test seriously and you will have a competitive advantage over your fellow LSAT takers.
Remember that TLS users are always ready and willing to help in the LSAT Preparation forum. Goodbye for now and best of luck in your studies!
Ken's Introduction to the LSAT
Conquering the LSAT
How I Scored a 180 - Article #1
How I Scored a 180 - Article #2
How I Scored a 180 - Article #3
Retaking the LSAT
Logic Fundamentals: A Lesson In Conditional Reasoning
Objection’s LSAT Tips – “Describe” Questions (LR)
Objection’s LSAT Tips – “Main Point” Questions (LR)
Objection's LSAT Tips - "Must Be True" Questions (LR)
Objection’s LSAT Tips – “Role” Questions (LR)
Objection’s LSAT Tips – “Level Ordering” Games
Objection’s LSAT Tips – “In/Out” Games
Objection’s LSAT Tips – “More/Less” Ordering Games
Objection’s LSAT Tips – Simple Ordering Games
Objection’s LSAT Tips – Multiple Group Games
LSAT Prep with Work and School