Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Preparing for the Law School Admission Test

The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) by Dr. Rick Swanson, Pre-Law Advisor, Political Science Department 

What is the LSAT?
According to the Law School Admission Council, as stated in the LSAT registration booklet:
 “The LSAT is a half-day standardized test. . . . All LSAC-member schools require applicants to take the LSAT.   
The LSAT is designed to measure skills that are considered essential for success in law school: the reading and comprehension of complex texts with accuracy and insight; the organization and management of information and the ability to draw reasonable inferences from it; the ability to think critically; and the analysis and evaluation of the reasoning and argument of others.”
The test consists of five 35-minute sections of multiple-choice questions.  Four of the five sections contribute to the test taker’s score.  These sections include one reading comprehension section, one analytical reasoning section, and two logical reasoning sections.  The unscored section typically . . .  is used to pretest new test questions . . ..  The LSAT is scored on a scale of 120 to 180 . . . A 35-minute writing sample is administered at the end of the test.  LSAC does not score the writing sample, but copies are sent to all law schools to which a candidate applies.   (2007-2008 LSAT &LSDAS Information  Book).
The LSAT is used because it is currently the best available predictor (correlation of about .4) of first-year law school grades.  The LSAT does NOT test knowledge, it instead tests SKILLS (reading and critical thinking).  Thus the LSAT does not assume that any test taker has knowledge of a particular academic discipline.  The only thing the LSAAT assumes is that you read and write English at a college level.  However, academic courses that require writing and critical thinking will help develop LSAT skills.

How do I register for the LSAT?
The Law School Admission Council’s (LSAC) website at www.lsac.org contains LSAT information and registration, as well as the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS), the ABA-LSAC Official Guide to Law Schools, and other helpful information.  Also, printed LSAT and LSDAS information packets can be obtained from the Department of Political Science office.

How do I prepare for the LSAT?
Preparation for the LSAT consists of learning about the test and becoming comfortable with it.  There are three ways to do this:
1. Practice.             2. Practice.             3. Practice.
Practice is essential because the skills tested in the various sections can be developed and improved upon through practice.  Moreover, each of the different LSAT sections use certain repeating patterns of questions—the questions themselves do not repeat, but the style or format of the questions are limited to a fixed number of different patterns.  Once you become trained at spotting the pattern in a question, that familiarity should help you in answering the question.  A common recommendation is to study at least 50 hours for the LSAT (and ideally much more) using some or all of the following various means of studying for and practicing the LSAT:

1.  The LSAT & LSDAS Information Book is free, and contains instructions, suggested approaches for the different LSAT sections, and numerous sample LSAT questions. LSAC also offers numerous past actual exams for sale.  These can be ordered when you register for the LSAT or LSDAS on-line at www.lsac.org

2. There are numerous low-cost commercial preparations available that cost little more than $30.  These are located in the standardized testing section (ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, MCAT, LSAT, etc.) of most larger bookstores.  Some of these preparations are The Princeton Review, Barron’s, Kaplan, Arco, and Cliff’s, among many others.  Each of these offers LSAT hints and strategies for the different sections and types of questions within each section, and also LSAT practice tests, and often actual past exams.

3. There are several commercial LSAT tutoring programs, costing several hundred to over a thousand dollars.  Some of these are the Princeton Review, Kaplan, Intensive Review, Testmasters, Get Prepped, Powerscore, and Test Review Institute. These programs give hints, strategies, and practice tests throughout the course.   For more information about these programs, search on-line to locate their company websites.   Students that enroll in these programs tend to enroll because (a) they lack the discipline to maintain a regular study schedule in preparing for the test on their own; (b) they desire the extra confidence they think a commercial tutoring service will give them, and (c) they can afford it.  True, an LSAT course is likely to improve your score. However, improvement might be only a point or two, so it is basically a gamble that you will get your money’s worth of improvement by taking such a course.  Roughly only one-third of LSAT takers take a commercial prep course, and statistics show only a slight (a couple points) improvement on average.

When is the best time to take the LSAT? 
The LSAT is offered four times a year: once in the summer, twice in the Fall, and once in early Spring.   June is generally considered best, because you can focus on preparing for the test without having other academic demands on your study time, and this also gives you time to re-take the test should you choose to do so.   If you take (or re-take) the test in the Fall by the latest, this still allows you to apply to law schools early and thus increase your chance of admission at schools that use early or rolling admissions.  Most importantly, however, take the LSAT whenever you are able to best and fully prepare for it.

What general strategies I can use during the test itself?
1. Scores are based only on the number of correct answers. No points are subtracted for wrong answers.  In other words, there is no penalty for guessing, so never leave a question unanswered. In fact, the LSAT is intentionally designed so that people have trouble finishing within the time limits.  Many people do not finish; guessing is often necessary, and this should be expected.

2.  Although questions might and do vary in difficulty, each correct answer is worth an equal number of points.  So, answer the easier questions first and then spend your remaining time on the more difficult questions.   Questions are NOT arranged in order of difficulty, so do NOT assume that easier questions occur at the beginning of a section; they will appear throughout the section.

3. You won’t have time to reread and double-check your answers, so answer the question carefully the first time and move on because you won’t have any time to come back and review your answer.  Work steadily and at a moderate pace but do NOT rush questions. Answer methodically but carefully. However, do not spend a lot of time on one question.   Again, each answer is worth the same, so move on to easier questions.  Come back if you have time; if not, then remember to fill in a guess.  Once you make a guess, move on and forget about that question.

4. If you skip a question or questions to come back to, rather than guess, make sure you put the right answers in the right spaces on the answer sheet.  And always remember to come back and answer any questions left blank, even if that means guessing.

What specific strategies can I use on the different test sections?
1. Reading Comprehension
The reading comprehension section is usually 26-28 questions. There are four long written passages, each followed by questions that test your broad comprehension of that passage. For example, a typical question asks about the thesis of the passage, or the author’s viewpoint.  Some people read the questions first to know what to look for while reading the passage, and then underline parts of the passage as they read. If the passage is technically difficult, don’t worry about vocabulary, just look for the main theme and arguments. Academic courses in English or other subjects with intensive reading components should help prepare you for this section.

2. Logical Reasoning (Comprises 2 sections)
The logical reasoning sections are usually 26-28 questions each. There is quite a range of types questions in this section, from logical argumentation patterns to what seem like mini-reading comprehension questions. Typical questions ask “Which of the following statements, if true, is most likely to undermine the argument?” Or, “What is the flaw in the above argument?” The best way to prepare for this section is to understand the question patterns as well as how logical arguments are formed and what follows logically from a series of statements.  (For example, If A then B; therefore, if not B, then not A, but the occurrence of B does not necessarily mean A has occurred.)  An LSAT preparation book or course should explain logical inferences and logical fallacies.  Logic courses or any academic course that requires intensive critical thinking and logical reasoning, such as philosophy, should help with this section.

3. Analytic Reasoning
This section is often called logic games. Many people find this section of the test the most difficult. This section of the test asks you to arrange a group of items based on certain (sometimes complex) conditions.  For example, “The person with the blue hat is sitting next to the person with the red hat. The person with the black hat is not sitting next to the person with an orange hat.  Where is the person with the green hat sitting?”  Familiarity with the patterns of the puzzles is the key here: the only way to really learn this is by doing practice tests. When you recognize a puzzle pattern, you can more easily understand, diagram, and solve it. One way to practice analytic thinking is to play classic electronic puzzle games like Mastermind or Minesweeper.  Everett Kaser Software makes electronic logic puzzle games (http://www.kaser.com).  Formal logic courses would also help prepare you. 

4. The Writing Sample
The writing sample does not count toward your LSAT exam score but is sent to law schools along with your LSAT score.  The writing sample question poses a situation where there are two more-or-less equal alternatives, and your task is to make an argument about why one alternative should be chosen over the other.  A good answer would discuss the pros and cons of both alternatives but then make a case why one alternative is better. (For example: While A provides such and such, B provides such and such as well but also has the added bonus of so and so; therefore B is the better option). There is no right answer to this question: the question simply tests your ability to make a clear, well-organized, well-supported, persuasive argument.  English, Communication, or other courses that involve persuasive argumentation and writing (such as term papers in history, political science, philosophy, etc.) would help you prepare.

Should I re-take the LSAT?.
According to one study, candidates who took the test a second time earn scored on average 2.7 points higher than their first scores. But remember this number is an average. Many test takers achieve higher scores but also many test takers actually earn lower scores. For example, among those repeat test takers who earned a 150 on their first LSAT in a recent test year, 628 earned a higher second score, 51 earned a second 150, and 211 earned lower scores.  Also realize that although some law schools will look only at the higher score, others will average the two scores or even look at the lower score.  In other words, taking the LSAT a second time is a gamble.

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