You probably already know that you can’t master the LSAT without preparing. You must study. And this is a standardized test that requires that you start early. Just how much time should you plan to devote to LSAT prep? What must you include in your action plan? On this show, our experts help you map out a study plan that gives you enough time to assess where you are at the beginning, set goals, learn the mechanics of the different sections, develop strategies for different question types and take practice tests – all so you can rock the LSAT on test day!
- Noah Teitelbaum, Manhattan LSAT, Executive Director, Academics
- Glen Stohr, Kaplan Test Prep, Senior Manager for Content Development
- Cathrina Altimari-Brown: LSAT Student, Legal Assistant, Google
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Diana Jordan. You’ve registered for the LSAT, and your test date is on the calendar. With each day that passes, you’re moving closer to that date. Do you have enough time to prepare for the most grueling of tests? While there are a few super-geeks among us who can ace the LSAT without any preparation, for most test-takers, it takes time, and an action plan to master this test. In this show, we’ll explore your crunch time until the LSAT. Our guests help you develop a time-based plan that focuses on what you need to do between now and the time you take the test.
To start, it’s about balancing studying, practice tests, and even the rest of your life. Noah Teitelbaum is Executive Director of Academics at Manhattan Prep. “Studies show that studying for the LSAT with a rigorous program makes you smarter, so enjoy it.” Also on this show, Glen Stohr, Senior manager of LSAT Product Development at Kaplan. “If you want this in your future that much, you’re going to aspire that much to be really, really strong and make the most of your preparation.” And we will hear from Cathrina Altimari-Brown, who has taken the LSAT twice since graduation from Amherst, and who is deferring law school while she works as a legal assistant at Google. “Even if you’re uncertain about law school, it’s worth it to do well on this test, to have that as an option.”
As you begin studying for the LSAT, you need to first figure out where you stand. There are geeky types who need virtually no prep, but Noah Teitelbaum, the Executive Director of Academics at Manhattan Prep, has a guide for the rest of us mortals. “The overarching idea is to avoid just taking LSAT after LSAT. That only works for people who are naturally good at standardized tests. All those people need – and let’s envy those people – all they need is exposure. For the rest of us, we need to learn a strategy, we need to practice that strategy and focus-practice that, and then mix it into full LSAT practice tests. Otherwise, we’re just going to be repeating the problematic or mistaken strategies that we might have come up with on our own.”
The LSAT is administered four times a year. And Glen Stohr, Senior Manager of LSAT Product Development at Kaplan, says you need to give yourself plenty of time. “I would encourage anyone to plan at least eight weeks of really earnest preparation – and more is great. You say that, and people think, well, what is it that I need to learn over that period of time? But actually, the thing that I think a lot of folks don’t understand until they get into the process, the LSAT is a skills-based test. And so, you certainly have to learn some methods, and learn some strategies, but then you need a lot of time to practice them, and sharpen them, and hone them. I’ve known students who took a month, four weeks, five weeks, maybe, and were able to make some pretty substantial improvements in their score. So I don’t want anybody to give up hope if you feel like you’re sort of last minute. But folks that are listening to this and are the kind who are taking this, I think, really seriously, and they sit here, you know what? More time on task, more hours of practice, more time to review and perfect what you’re doing, the better. So I would say ideal would be eight to 12 weeks, probably.”
Cathrina Altimari-Brown is now a legal assistant at Google, and was a 2011 graduate of Amherst College. She took the LSAT twice, with two very different degrees of success, based on her expectations, motivation, and preparation. For her first test, as a college senior, Altimari-Brown prepped the summer before, but the test wasn’t until October. She says she was shocked at how low her score was, 164, lower than her baseline test. She says she learned a lesson. “I assumed that I was ready. I assumed that I was good at taking standardized tests, and that I would just be able to really kind of not think about the test too much for awhile. I mean, there was a good maybe month or more gap where I, you know, was just focusing on schoolwork and I wasn’t really doing any LSAT stuff. And then I expected to be able to get ready and refreshed right before the test. And it just didn’t work for me, also because I just got very nervous that test day. And when I was kind of thrown a logic game that I hadn’t really seen before and I didn’t feel comfortable with, I just kind of freaked out. I got really nervous, and wasted time, and everything. And I think that really is what took my score down. And so I really needed to do a lot more kind of intense preparation for it and really devote more time to it. And that’s what I did the second time, and it made a big difference.”
The second, in the summer of 2012, Altimari-Brown earned a 176. The top score you can get on the LSAT, by the way, is 180. If you’re super-geeky, you don’t need to do more than just take a few practice tests, says Teitelbaum. Otherwise, there’s no ‘normal’, but Teitelbaum says there is a range of possibilities. “The ideal is to have four years of rigorous college, with lots of tough courses, with lots of tough reading and writing and debates, and then followed by three or so months of rigorous LSAT prep. That’s clearly not the situation for a lot of people. For some people, they are great at standardized tests, and they just need a month, maybe, of doing some practice tests, getting themselves used to the format of the test and the types of questions they’re going to ask on this test. I think for most people, we’re looking at three, four months. I guess if you were my cousin and you were asking me what should you do, and you were sort of an average test-taker, I’d probably say even longer than that. But studying over the summer, that’s sort of… that’s the standard amount of time, and that’s great.”
Before you even start prepping, you take a test. “Beginning, I would do just a full five-section diagnostic, give yourself a sense of where you’re at, and also a baseline score, and some initial exposure to what’s ahead.”
This is the plan for the first phase, says Teitelbaum. “I’d break it down into about four different phases of study. So the first phase begins with a diagnostic LSAT, just to expose yourself, get a sense of your baseline score, set some goals for yourself, that sort of thing. And that first period of time – let’s call it a month – you’re studying all three sections, and in those sections, you’re studying some specific topics. So in logical reasoning, you’re studying assumptions, family problems, and conditional logic. Conditional logic is sort of the basic kind of logic you learned in logic class in college, and contrapositive and geeky terms like that, not too complex. And the assumptions family of logical reasoning problems are the types of questions which include an argument which has an assumption in it. And those are strengthen, weaken, flawed assumption principles. There’s a bunch of different questions that fit into that. And I would study all of those together, to build up your understanding of how they connect. In logic games, I would study all the ordering games. That’s definitely half the LSAT you’re going to see, so really master them. Some of the easier games are ordering games, often, and you want to get as fast as you can with those. And with reading comp, you want to work very intensely on how you read. You want to change how you read to match what the LSAT is expecting of you. You don’t have to worry too much about the questions yet. So we finish this first phase of our studying. Maybe we take in two LSATs in total, during that. Not too many. We’re doing a lot of practice sets, on maybe one section, but it’s not time yet to pull on the LSAT.”
Drilling down, as you begin the first phase of study, once you get results of your baseline test, and you know your timeframe, don’t just improve on what you’re good at. Glen Stohr at Kaplan has this to say: “If you can add five right answers to that reading comp section, even though you are pretty good at it, those are every bit as valuable as the five right answers you would add over in logic games. So you have to make that study plan, and you have to keep it balanced. Half of the test is logical reasoning, a quarter is logic games, and a quarter is reading comp. You may have within that your own sort of mosaic of strengths and weaknesses, but you should plan, in general, about half your study time goes to logical reasoning because that’s half the points on the test; a quarter to games; a quarter to reading comp. And I think a lot of people, especially when they’re trying to sort of feel their way on their own, they make the mistake of saying, ‘Oh, I’m just going to concentrate on my weakness,’ and they miss the opportunity to add a lot of points that they could, by improving their strengths as well.”
You’re going to want to learn an efficient approach for every type of game, every type of logical reasoning question, every type of reading comp question, because it doesn’t matter if you get it right – you want to get it right as fast as possible. According to Teitelbaum, the LSAT is draining. “The more of this test that you make routine, the more you’ve saved your mental strength for the tough stuff. So, this baseline test is good to give you a sense of, how much work do you need to do? It also can tell you what you’re good at, and what you’re not so good at. And depending on the amount of time you have, you can decide what to focus on. And that doesn’t necessarily mean only focus on the weaknesses. As I said, you can also focus on some of the strengths.”
After you take the baseline test, analyze it and discover your strengths and weaknesses. Isolate your materials, courses, online classes, practice tests, a book with practice items. Here’s Glen Stohr: “What I would do is I would lay out, here’s my work, or school, or whatever obligations are in your schedule, and then find time – I would say five or six days per week – that are going to be LSAT time. And maybe that’s an hour one day, or two hours another day. Remember if you’re taking a full-length test that’s going to be almost four hours of time. So maybe you carve out… and maybe that’s for Saturday mornings, or maybe that’s for Monday evenings, or whatever it is that it fits into your schedule. And then, on those other times during the week that you’ve decided to practice, lay it out so that you say, ‘Okay, I’ve got a couple hours here; that’s going to be for logical reasoning. I’ve got an hour over here; I’ll do logic games during that time.’ And so keep it balanced, sort of appropriate to the test, about half the time on logical reasoning, a quarter each on reading comp and games. And remember within that, that you need time not only to do problems, but also to review them. You need to have a source where not only do you know, Okay, I got this correct or incorrect, but hopefully also the kinds of explanations that really break down, Here’s the right method for this question; here are the right strategies; here’s why the right answer is right; and here’s why each of the four wrong answers is wrong.”
Each week builds on the last, repeating lessons until they’re second nature. That takes you into the second phase. “Take another LSAT. We’re now in logical reasoning, moving out of the assumption family into non-assumption family logical reasoning problems. We’re looking at inference questions, matching questions, principle support, explain a result, things that don’t involve an argument but instead involve understanding the stimulus and doing something with it. In logic games we move out of ordering and into grouping. There’s really just two families – there’s ordering and grouping. We’re done with ordering; let’s hit the grouping games. And in reading comp we now move to a much more… much more of a focus on the questions. Learn about how they make right answers, and how do they make wrong answers that trap you – start really focusing on that. At the end of that second phase – we’ll call it the second month – you’ve now in total taken maybe three or four LSATs.”
Clearly, your goal is to gain a few points; then you solidify those gains. Every point gain should be celebrated. Have a plan, he says, but adapt as you’re going. Have a checklist. Have a study partner to stay motivated. Also, exercise during your LSAT prep. It’s a stress reliever, and helps your brain in terms of learning new things. “I’d first figure out the goal score. And I would base that on your lowest-ranked school that you’d be happy to attend. So, often I ask people, ‘Well, what would you like to score?’ And you know, people often go, ‘Oh, I’d love a 180, perfect score.’ But really, there’s some score that most people are happy with that’s lower than that, which will get them to a school where they’ll be proud to go there, and they’ll be happy and they’ll feel that their career is getting advanced. So start with that as your sort of minimum goal. And I think that alone can take some of the stress away.”
Altimari-Brown didn’t have a study plan the first time around. And she says it didn’t work out so well. She says take a baseline test; then break down the question types and the different sections so you know what to expect. She points out there’s a system and a logic to how the LSAT is presented. “After I felt kind of familiar with the question types, and with the different sections, and with what I might see coming up in a test, then I just did a huge amount of repetition and practice. So my main area of weakness was logic games, so I just did a ton of practice sections. I started out doing them untimed, just so that I could kind of get a hang of them without being so worried about the time. And then after I had done that, and I felt confident about my answers and I was getting things right, then I started trying to time them. So I did individual games for, you know, eight minutes each, and then I moved up to doing the full section for the time that you would get for a logic games section, and that was what really helped me in the end. I think that was what really improved my score was doing a bunch of full logic games sections, because then on the actual test I just felt so much more confident, and I was able to finish the whole section. So I think that was the most important part of the plan for me.”
It’s not a good idea to study for seven hours straight. Teitelbaum shares this: “You want your brain to be at top performance when you’re trying to bring in new ideas. So I tell people, I tell my students, ‘Two hours, and then take a real break.’ A real break means you get out of your chair. You don’t, you know, just spend time looking at the computer. You walk around, have a snack, something like that. So I suggest you do small sessions with breaks. Obviously, when you take a practice test, you need to set aside three, four hours. There’s nothing you can do about that. But the goal is to be at optimal attention span when you’re learning these things, and save the endurance tests for your practice sessions.”
Here are some study tips from Manhattan Prep’s Teitelbaum: Know your priorities. Have a plan. And check off completed items. A prep course can motivate you, keep you accountable, keep you on schedule. And teachers in these courses engage with you and challenge you. He also recommends that you adopt a prep company’s strategy, and then adapt it for your personal use. Another few hints: Reward yourself. And perhaps create a ritual – say, have your morning coffee and do 10 questions. And the third phase of crunching for the LSAT: Teitelbaum says you drill down. “We’re really focusing on implementing that timing strategy, making smart decisions. You now know, You know what? I suck at this type of question. I always waste way too much time, and I often get it wrong anyway. So you learn to cut bait on those kinds of questions, you learn to… you work on your endurance. You’re doing full five-section LSATs, maybe even a six-section practice test – really kill yourself. And you’re getting ready for test day and putting into place everything you’ve learned over the last three to four months.”
Do what works best for you. For Altimari-Brown, the process of doing questions and sections that she wasn’t as good at, untimed, then working up to a set of questions or logic games timed, then the full section timed, was what worked best for her. Start with a diagnostic test. Be familiar with the question types, reading or taking a class in the types of questions and games. “Once you get comfortable and you feel like you can identify the questions and know what you’re dealing with, then maybe in about the third month that’s when I would start doing untimed practice pretty more intensively, and really spending at least probably, in my mind, maybe seven to eight hours a week doing that. And that would just mean, you know, going through any sections and question types that you have problems with, and really doing a large number of questions untimed, and just trying to get the right answer and trying to understand why you’re getting things wrong.”
How much you study depends on where you’re starting, what your goal score is, how much you’re improving as you go. Here’s Kaplan’s Glen Stohr: “I think you can, in 15 minutes, sit down and practice half a dozen logical reasoning questions – nothing wrong with that. But you need some [un]interrupted one- or two-hour blocks, so that you can work diligently and right then turn around and do that sort of review, self-analysis, ‘Where did I go off-track with this one?’ and so on. So I wouldn’t try to cobble together only tiny little pieces. Use the tiny little time – ‘Hey, I’m on the train. I have time to open up a book and do a logic game’ – awesome, nothing wrong with that. But find the time later to review that work and see, Hey, there’s where I got that one right. That’s why I… oh, that’s why I missed that one over there.”
As you get closer to test day, there’s still more fine-tuning. Teitelbaum shares this: “By the end of this, you’ve definitely… you’ve taken at least six LSAT practice tests; 10 would be a good… a better minimum to set for yourself. And that is, each practice test you’re doing some deep review afterwards, figuring out what you did wrong, replaying it, replaying old games again, and making sure you know how you should have done things. And the last two or three days, probably you’re easing off to give your brain a break, getting ready for test day.”
Remind yourself that the LSAT is your audition for law school. Law school admissions officers say your LSAT score is the single most important factor in your law school application. So, be accountable, be motivated, don’t repeat the patterns from your first test that didn’t work. Altimari-Brown exercised a different type of motivation prior to the second LSAT test, and it paid off. “I really need to put in the work, to feel that I understand this test, and that no matter what kind of questions come up, I will have done some practice on them. And I’ll be able to handle them. And then the actual test day was great, like I had a great experience. It almost felt easy. It was something that I felt so prepared for, and I felt like I was one of the more prepared people in the room. I wasn’t intimidated by anybody. I was just kind of happy to be taking it. And it was kind of bizarre to be like happy to be taking the LSAT, but I had a really good experience because I had prepared so much.”
Don’t cram, even if by some chance you didn’t give yourself enough time to study. “A lot of people are freaked out by the logic games because they don’t do logic games in their normal everyday life. And so that’s often the place where the fastest gains can be made. So I would recommend getting a strategy guide on logic games – we have one, obviously – and then that’s often the place you can get the most bang for your buck, if you start by sucking at it. It’s a lot… it takes a lot longer to improve on the other two sections. The other thing I would recommend is taking a bunch of tests. Even though I often tell people, ‘You don’t just want to take tests,’ you do need a bunch of exposure, [and to] get used to the rigor of the exam, the pacing – it’s a very fast-paced test and it takes some time to build up your momentum, your pacing. So that’s what I would recommend for those last-minute people, but if you can defer to the next test, do it, even if it means waiting a whole another year to go to law school. You know, we don’t… we’re living until 80 and 90 now, so one more year before law school shouldn’t make a big difference. And the difference between getting a 160 and a 170 means a lot for your career. It means a lot for how much money you maybe could get through a scholarship. So it really could be worth it, and people are often in a big rush, just because they have an idea in their head of when all this needs to happen, and I think sometimes some reprioritization needs to occur.”
To pull it all together, Teitelbaum has one more set of hints. He doesn’t want to sound like your mom and dad, but… “I honestly recommend not drinking in the last few weeks before the LSAT, or doing other things like that. This is a very intense test; your mental clarity is utmost important. It’s really almost a case of mental physical stamina. So whatever you can do to get yourself in the best shape is really useful. I also think it’s good to have a positive attitude about this. It can be… it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, it sucks! I’m studying for the LSAT, you know, I have to study four or five hours a day. Can’t believe [it’s worth it].’ It’s an… why not say, ‘It’s an interesting test’? Why not say, ‘This is exciting’? I mean, studies show that studying for the LSAT with a rigorous program makes you smarter. So enjoy it. It’s sort of the difference between going to a party saying, ‘It’s gonna suck,’ and you know, being very optimistic and, ‘It’s gonna be great.’ You know you’re going to have a better time with a positive attitude. You’ll be more receptive. Have a positive attitude about your LSAT prep. Get into it and geek out with us.”
A serious LSAT study plan means giving yourself three to four months of prep time. Start by taking a baseline and diagnostic test, decide if you want to physically go to a class, take online courses, or just work with books that have practice items. Your goal during your prep should be to gain a few points; then you solidify those gains. Every few points gained should be celebrated. Have a plan, but adapt as you go along. Have a checklist. Have a study partner to stay motivated. Also, exercise and take breaks. And finally, remember that your LSAT score is a key factor in getting into your top choice for law school, and for launching your career. There is no substitute for strong motivation. Good luck.
For more information, a transcript of the show, or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit www.LawSchoolPodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. I’m Diana Jordan, with Law School Podcaster. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process, and beyond.