How I Scored a 180 - Article #2

(click here for article #1 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!

Studying Approach

I sat the June 2009 administration of the LSAT. I started studying in mid-April by going through Princeton Review's Cracking the LSAT, concentrating mostly on logical reasoning and critical reading. I never took a diagnostic test, because I wasn't particularly interested in what my score would be with no preparation – the scores I really wanted to know about were those I could get after studying. After around two weeks of studying, I took two of the practice tests in the Princeton Review book, on which I scored a 166 and a 170. A week later, I moved on to my first official LSAC practice test, on which I scored a 179.

(Based on the fact that I did no studying between the Princeton Review tests and the first LSAC test, as well as the fact that I never scored lower than a 173 on any LSAC test, I believe that Princeton Review's tests may be slightly harder, or at least somehow different, than the real thing. This is good news for us, as I will discuss below.)

After faring well on my first official prep test in May, I determined that I had the basic LSAT skills down and should focus my studying mostly on practice tests, rather than the preparatory books that explain different question types and problem-solving strategies. In fact, the only such prep book I purchased was Kaplan's LSAT 180 (now known as LSAT Advanced), which focuses on the hardest types of questions in each section. I found that this book helped me make efficient use of my study time, since I never found myself slogging through banks of easy questions that would never trip me up on the real test; all of the questions in LSAT 180 were the type of questions I had to watch out for. During the second week of May, I took a vacation with some friends, and LSAT 180 accompanied me.

When I came back from holiday in mid-May, I buckled down and began taking practice tests nearly every day. I drove to the library on a daily basis and tried to take each practice test around 1:00 p.m., which is when I would be taking the real LSAT in June. I also carefully timed myself with the very same analog watch I would use on test day.

I admittedly snacked regularly during many of my practice tests, simply because it made the whole experience so much more pleasant; however, as you probably know, snacking during the real LSAT is not actually allowed. I made sure to take several tests with food and drink available only during a brief break – as they would be on test day – just to ensure that the constant availability of snacks was not making my practice test scores artificially high. (It wasn’t).

I concentrated on full-length tests because, for me, they proved to be a much more valuable study source than just the individual sections. In addition to challenging my concentration and endurance, these full-length practice tests also challenged my ability to tackle the LSAT under stressful conditions. When working with a single 35-minute section, it’s much easier to manage stress; you don't have four more sections stretching out menacingly in front of you, and you know that in 35 minutes or less, you'll be able to throw down your pencil and rush to the answer sheet. Compared to the real thing, taking LSAT prep tests one section at a time was just too relaxing to effectively prepare me for the real test.

I also took steps to insert a fifth section into each LSAC practice test, thereby simulating the experimental fifth section that test-takers encounter on test day. Like many standardized exams, the LSAT tests our little-used mental stamina and self-discipline. In this day and age, when else are we required to concentrate solidly, without a moment's interruption or distraction, for several hours at a time? Certainly not in school! LSAC's published prep tests include a writing section and four multiple choice sections, but the real test will have five multiple choice sections, the last two of which will almost certainly be scored sections. (Although LSAC makes no guarantees regarding the location of the experimental test, historically it has always been one of the first three sections.) In short, if stamina and concentration turned out to be a challenge for me, a four-section prep test was not going to prepare me for the five-section ordeal of the real thing.

This is where the aberrantly difficult Princeton Review tests come in. A common concern about the experimental section is that it will be filled with unusual or poorly tuned questions that will throw the taker off course and destroy his confidence. With the use of questions written by test prep companies rather than LSAC, even this aspect of the test can be simulated. If you purchase prep books that contain practice tests, I recommend that you split them up into individual sections which you can then devote to serving as experimental sections amidst the official LSAC prep tests.

The obvious hurdle in this plan was the fact that I would always know which section was “experimental.” On the real test, you try your best – thus expending your energy and stamina - on the experimental section just as on the other sections, because for all you know, it is a scored section. The best way, then, for me to force a sincere effort out of myself on the simulated experimental sections was simply to score them. I set aside four practice tests and devoted them to serving as experimental sections. (For the sake of less convoluted prose, I will refer to these tests as “B tests” and the regular practice tests into which they were being inserted as “A tests.”) After every four full-length A tests, when I had used up each of the four sections of one B test, I would combine the raw scores I had achieved on each section and award myself a scaled score for that B test. Thus, I had a motive to work hard on each “experimental” section and accurately simulated a full five-section LSAT.

So, the remainder of my studying consisted of daily practice tests, each taken in the early afternoon and each consisting of five sections. My low score on these tests was a 173, my high score a 180; my average at the conclusion of my studying was a 176.5. In addition to simulating test conditions as closely as possible, I used these practice tests to determine my optimal level and delivery method of caffeine. On test day, I was merely repeating an activity I had done roughly sixteen times over the past three weeks.

In the following pages, I will give my thoughts on the three scored sections of the test; the majority of my advice pertains to the logical reasoning section. Finally, I will address the practical details I considered in my drive to ensure that nothing could interfere with my performance on test day.

Logic Games

Logic games are my favorite part of the LSAT, but they are also the section on which I am most likely to run out of time. Late in my studying, I determined that running out of time on logic games was the greatest remaining threat to my score, so the weekend before the test, I sought out extra practice in the form of Kaplan's LSAT Logic Games Workbook, in which I did all of the games that were not repeats from LSAT 180.

Apart from stressing the effectiveness of sheer volume of practice games, my main strategic advice on logic games is to actively look for deductions and make your master diagram the first time you read the question. Initially, my instinct was to read the question through once to “get a feel for it,” go through to rules a second time to diagram them, and then sit back afterwards to fill in any deductions I could make from the rules. It turned out, however, that this preliminary read-through was not a good use of time for me; I realized I could make deductions more efficiently if I was already on the lookout for them as I first read the question.

The June 2009 test (now known as Prep Test 57) featured the infamous dinosaur game. Although this particular game didn't give me too much trouble, I had been completely thrown during previous practice tests by unusual games, most notably Prep Test 27's infamous “snakes and lizards” game.

Often, games that seem odd or extra hard are a hybrid of the more common types of games. “Snakes and lizards”, for example, is a combination of matching and sequencing, while PT 57’s “dinosaurs” is a combination of matching and in/out grouping. For anyone banking on a high score on logic games, I would recommend taking the precaution of making sure to include some hybrid games in your studying, as they are often the most challenging.

For the locations of various types of hybrid games, check out LSAT tutor Steve Schwartz's categorized list of the logic games on Prep Tests 19-38 on his blog at:

Logical Reasoning

Though different at first glance, logic games and logical reasoning are similar in several ways. Firstly, like logic games, logical reasoning questions test your ability to combine rules and make correct deductions. Secondly, just as we can rewrite the rules of a logic game in terms of letters and arrows, so we can simplify a logical reasoning question into general terms and concepts. For example, here is a question from section II of the June 2007 test, available for free at

4. Consumer: The latest Connorly Report suggests that Ocksenfrey prepackaged meals are virtually devoid of nutritional value. But the Connorly Report is commissioned by Danto Foods, Ocksenfrey's largest corporate rival, and early drafts of the report are submitted for approval to Danto Foods’ public relations department. Because of the obvious bias of this report, it is clear that Ocksenfrey’s prepackaged meals really are nutritious.

The reasoning in the consumer’s argument is most vulnerable to criticism on the grounds that the argument

(A) treats evidence that there is an apparent bias as evidence that the Connorly Report’s claims are false

(B) draws a conclusion based solely on an unrepresentative sample of Ocksenfrey’s products

(C) fails to take into account the possibility that Ocksenfrey has just as much motivation to create negative publicity for Danto as Danto has to create negative publicity for Ocksenfrey

(D) fails to provide evidence that Danto Foods’ prepackaged meals are not more nutritious than Ocksenfrey’s are

(E) presumes, without providing justification, that Danto Foods’ public relations department would not approve a draft of a report that was hostile to Danto Foods’ products

To answer the question, we need to see past the superficial details and look at the underlying logical structure. On the surface, the stem first introduces the Connorly Report's claim that Ocksenfrey's meals are not nutritious. Then, it presents the information that the Connorly Report may have ulterior motives behind that claim. Finally, it concludes that, because the Connorly Report may have these ulterior motives, their claim regarding the nutritional value of Ocksenfrey's meals must be false. All we need to know, however, is that the question stem

1. introduces a claim,

2. presents evidence that the source of that claim has an incentive to be dishonest, and

3. concludes, on the basis of that evidence, that the claim must be false.

The conclusion, in other words, rests on an assumption (which we could also call a missing premise) that we can put in logic game-esque terms:

A [presence of ulterior motives for making a claim] → B [falsity of that claim].

According to the consumer's reasoning, A implies B. Here, the consumer sees A (the Connorly Report's close association with Ocksenfrey's main competitor) and so he concludes B (the Ocksenfrey meals must be nutritious after all).

Now, we look at the question. How might this reasoning be vulnerable to criticism? We know from our analysis that there's really only one piece of reasoning involved in the argument: the reasoner is presented with a claim and a reason to doubt the claim, and he arrives at the conclusion that the claim must be false. To attack this argument, we have to focus on what allowed him to take that step – his application of A → B. So, what we need is an answer choice that questions the assumption that, because the Connorly Report may not be a source of neutral information, its claims must be false. Happily, this is exactly what we have in choice (A).

The final and most important similarity between logic games and logical reasoning questions is that none of them are structurally unique. On logic games, this becomes apparent very quickly. Although the rules and scenarios may be superficially different (e.g., in today's game element A has to go in slot 2, whereas in yesterday's game it had to go in slot 1; we're arranging interviews today instead of film showings; etc.), the cognitive tasks required are the same. Logical reasoning took me longer to wrap my head around, but after I had taken about ten practice tests, it struck me that these questions, too, were highly repetitive. Eventually, I began to feel as though every new question was just an old question dressed up in different nouns and verbs – politicians swapped out for scientists, public safety replaced with animal behavior, but with the same fallacies and logic at work.

You will recall that the last question we looked at involved a claim, an accusation of bias behind that claim, and the conclusion that the claim must be false. Now, take a look at a question from section III of the same test.

23. Political candidates’ speeches are loaded with promises and with expressions of good intention, but one must not forget that the politicians’ purpose in giving these speeches is to get themselves elected. Clearly, then, these speeches are selfishly motivated and the promises made in them are unreliable.

Which one of the following most accurately describes a flaw in the argument above?

(A) The argument presumes, without providing justification, that if a person’s promise is not selfishly motivated then that promise is reliable.

(B) The argument presumes, without providing justification, that promises made for selfish reasons are never kept.

(C) The argument confuses the effect of an action with its cause.

(D) The argument overlooks the fact that a promise need not be unreliable just because the person who made it had an ulterior motive for doing so.

(E) The argument overlooks the fact that a candidate who makes promises for selfish reasons may nonetheless be worthy of the office for which he or she is running.

This question should look familiar. Again, we have a claim (the promises made by politicians), a possible ulterior motive for making that claim (the desire to get elected), and the conclusion that, owing to the existence of that motive, the claim (or claims, in this case) must be false. Then, we are asked to find fault with the argument. As far as the alert test taker is concerned, this is a duplicate question, and the answer is the same: the argument makes the unwarranted assumption that the presence of ulterior motives automatically undermines the veracity of a claim. The answer is (D).

The LSAT is a very well-written test, but the number of distinct argument structures it can present is finite. On the LSAT, practice really does make perfect, because each practice test you take decreases the likelihood that any subsequent test will be able to take you by surprise. When you get a question wrong, go back afterwards and figure out why. Then, when you meet it in its next incarnation, you will already have trained your brain to handle it.

Critical Reading

Critical reading – also known as “reading comprehension” – is by far my least favorite section of the LSAT, simply because it's just not very much fun. Like many other LSAT takers, I found that the most challenging thing about critical reading was the need to maintain focus and keep my brain engaged while reading those four dense passages. During this process, I would often underline or bracket bits of a passage that I deemed important in some way – a conclusion, a major pivot, a central piece of evidence, etc. Ironically, I would never go back and use these markings when answering questions, but the simple act of making these marks helped keep me aware of what was going on in the passage.

The only other advice I offer on critical reading is to maintain awareness of the fact that this section is not simply testing your reading comprehension; it will also throw questions at you regarding the principles, the reasoning, and the strengths and fallacies which underlie the passages. The LSAT never stops testing your ability to reason.

Test Day Strategy

The February, September/October, and December administrations of the LSAT are all given at 9:00 A.M.; the June administration, however, is at 1:00 p.m. So, for many people, the June test has the advantage of allowing the taker to complete his morning routine and sit the test undistracted by hunger, lingering sleepiness, and so on. Also, as we know, stress can interfere with sleep in various ways. In my case, anxiety keeps me from falling asleep at night, but it does not cause me to wake up earlier. The afternoon test, then, gave me the luxury of sleeping longer in the morning and getting more total sleep.

In an attempt to minimize test day stress, I visited the test site the day before the test to plan out my driving route and investigate parking. As it happened, there was unexpected construction on the day of the test and parking was a complete fiasco; regardless, I do recommend driving by your test center in advance to take in the lay of the land.

I function best when caffeinated. Since you aren't allowed to drink during the test, I brought a bottle of iced coffee in my plastic bag and chugged it during the break, which worked pretty well for me. My general advice about caffeine is simple: don't make any changes to your regular routine. Don't take extra for an extra cognitive boost, don't take less than usual to minimize bathroom breaks, and don't get it from a different source than usual for the sake of convenience; it isn't hard to see how these strategies could backfire. Do whatever you would do for a practice test. Incidentally, the same should go for any psychiatric medication that is taken as needed (e.g., benzodiazepines, beta blockers, psychostimulants, etc.).

Finally, I think one of the things that helped me on test day was the fact that, on some level far deeper than the jitters and the cold sweat I had developed during my parking debacle, I was looking forward to the test. The LSAT wasn't easy, but it sure was a lot more fun and engaging than most of the things I did in school or at work. It was also an opportunity I was thrilled to have. Here is a day where you can sit down in a climate-controlled environment, excel at thinking for a few hours, and change the course of your whole life. I looked at the LSAT the way many people look at marriage – anxiety is to be expected at the time, but in overall scheme of things, it's a happy day.

i)    The critical reader may have made a second objection at this point: if stamina and concentration were indeed issues for me, wouldn't these B test scores be artificially high, since each section was completed during one of the first three sections of a test, never in the fourth or dreaded fifth slot? This is a valid objection, and one for which I never really found an answer. I could have allowed the experimental section to occupy the fourth or fifth slot in some of the A tests, but this could have compromised the accuracy of my scores on those A tests, since, after all, the point of simulating an experimental section was to ensure that, as on the real test, roughly half my score on each A test would come from questions completed during the fourth and fifth sections. I felt that knowingly risking inflation of the B test scores would be preferable to interfering with A test scores willy-nilly, so I did confine the experimental sections to the first three slots of each A test. The bottom line is that, while this would have been a problem if I were tracking my scores for some type of experiment, it did not interfere with the effectiveness of my studying.