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Test Prep: 7 Tips for LSAT Success

Brian Burnsed, Ilana Kowarski

A stellar score on the Law School Admission Test, better known as the LSAT, improves the odds of getting into a top-tier law school. Rather than testing what you've already learned, it's designed to measure and project your ability to excel in law school. Because of this focus, the LSAT is vastly different from many other standardized tests that students take in high school or college. Its unique nature requires that you clearly understand its format and the type of questions that will be asked.

Kellye Testy, president and CEO of the Law School Admission Council, says the purpose of the LSAT is to assess skills that are necessary for success in law school classes and legal careers, such as logical reasoning abilities. Preparing for the LSAT helps aspiring attorneys cultivate the skills they will need as law students and later as lawyers, she says.

The test includes five 35-minute, multiple-choice sections: analytical reasoning, reading comprehension, two logical reasoning sections and the unscored variable section, which is used to determine the validity of potential questions that could appear on scored multiple-choice portions of the LSAT in the future. There is also an unscored digital writing exam that is administered online separately from the rest of the LSAT, which test-takers can choose to take at whatever time is most convenient for them. A writing sample will be provided to each law school to which a given student applies.

Since there are two logical reasoning sections on the LSAT, that portion of the test carries the most weight. Those sections test your ability to analyze and criticize arguments that are presented to you. The analytical reasoning section contains "logic games," which test your ability to understand the structure of complex relationships. The reading comprehension section more closely mirrors verbal- or reading-related sections on other standardized tests, asking you to understand what you read in the limited time you're given. The maximum score for the test is 180, but a score of 170 usually puts you in the 97th percentile.

Until recently, the LSAT was a paper-and-pencil exam; it is now a digital test. On test day, LSAT test-takers can expect to use tablets to read passages and answer multiple-choice questions. Up to one year after they take the multiple-choice part of the LSAT, test-takers will need to use a computer to access the proctored writing section of the LSAT.

[Read: What Is a Good LSAT Score?]

Experts suggest preparing specifically for the new digital format of the LSAT. "To prepare for the Digital LSAT, get a tablet (or borrow one) and get used to reading dense text on a screen rather than paper," wrote Steve Schwartz, an independent LSAT tutor and author of an LSAT Blog, in an email. "Treat your books like screens, i.e., don't write on them, since you won't be able to write on the tablet screen itself."

Given that the LSAT is considered by many law schools to be a strong predictor of academic performance in legal coursework, it is given significant weight in the application process. So, it's important to study prior to taking the LSAT.

"Regardless of format changes, the LSAT remains a test that requires very quick decisions, making familiarity with the questions essential," wrote Mark Miller, a professor and pre-law advisor at Clark University in Massachusetts, where he serves as director of the school's law and society program. "Anybody can take the test, but doing well requires a great deal of preparation and attention to legitimate shortcuts in order to overcome the intense time demands on the exam."

Keep the following guidelines in mind as you get ready for this difficult standardized test.

How to Prepare for the LSAT

Maximizing your LSAT score requires months of continuous effort. Oftentimes, aspiring law students will let LSAT preparation slip by the wayside during their busy weeks in school or at work, only to spend hours on the weekends cramming and taking an endless number of practice tests. While practice tests are important, it's best to keep your mind LSAT-ready at all times, practicing a new section each day with the occasional or weekly practice test thrown into the mix, experts say.

"This is entirely a skills-based test," says Jeff Thomas, executive director of admissions programs at Kaplan Test Prep. "There is no knowledge required, and therefore it is impossible to cram for. This is like learning how to play a sport or musical instrument. And the only way to get better at this is to practice consistently and regularly over a long period of time."

Thomas says it is difficult to prepare for this test in six weeks or less, adding that he would recommend that aspiring attorneys study for the LSAT for a minimum of three months and ideally for longer.

Testy advises prospective law students to begin preparing for the LSAT through untimed practice sessions to gradually gain familiarity with the various sections and the different types of questions. She says students typically figure out relatively quickly which parts of the LSAT are hardest for them personally, which allows them to prioritize practicing those portions of the LSAT. Once students have become comfortable with tackling LSAT sections in an untimed fashion, they should work themselves up to completing all of the timed multiple choice sections of the LSAT in a single sitting, Testy says.

Help yourself, not your buddy. While there are benefits to studying anything with a friend, the LSAT exposes your personal strengths and weaknesses, experts say. Given the analytical nature of most questions, what comes easily to one person may prove to be a challenge for his or her friend. Studying in a group can be detrimental, given that it might make you prone to review the test in a general way rather than focusing on your specific weaknesses. Because the test does not quiz you on content, but rather how you use logic and think analytically, cramming with a friend is of little benefit. It's best to learn what gives you the most trouble and drill yourself on those questions alone or with the help of a tutor or LSAT instructor. "If a student and a buddy are prepping for the LSAT and if they go along the same course of action, same assignments (and) same prep exercises, they're going to have immensely different results," Thomas says. "Every student is different."

Testy notes that the LSAC, which designs and administers the LSAT, offers free individualized online test prep in conjunction with the nonprofit education organization Khan Academy.

[See: Law Schools Where Students Had the Highest LSAT Scores.]

LSAT Tips

Don't just practice. Analyze. Because many of the questions you'll encounter on the LSAT will be unfamiliar to you, you must practice them regularly to get accustomed to their format. Mere practice isn't enough, however, testing experts say. After you work through a timed practice section or test, don't just tabulate your results and record your score. Instead, look closely at each question you missed and try to discern what led you to the wrong answer. "Real review takes time," Schwartz says. "Most people don't spend enough time reviewing. If you got 10 questions wrong, and another 15 you weren't 100% sure of but still got right, that could take at least three to four hours if done properly -- a full day of study."

Sharpen your critical thinking in class. While the LSAT doesn't test content learned in either high school or college, some college classes can help you get in the right mindset to tackle the test. Taking classes in logic, philosophy or critical writing can prepare you for the test since they require you to analyze complicated theories or texts and present ideas gleaned from those texts in a concise and logical manner. Experts note that while these classes are far from mandatory for LSAT preparation or even getting into law school, they can make a difference. It's ultimately not what you learn in these classes that matters, but how you learn to understand and express complex concepts.

"Any course that requires lots of dense reading on unfamiliar topics is helpful, as the LSAT's reading comprehension topics are specifically chosen to be areas with which few test-takers have any prior familiarity," Schwartz says. "Being comfortable with dense passages on new topics is very helpful when the LSAT suddenly throws you a curveball topic on test day."

Be sure to play games before the test. Experts agree that the test's analytical reasoning, or "logic games" section, is one of the most difficult sections for students to wrap their minds around initially because it's often vastly different from anything they've seen on other standardized tests. The four games in the section each pose several questions that require students to understand complex hypothetical relationships between multiple parties or objects. Though these games may be challenging at first, there is an upside. "Logic games is the section of the test that is the most foreign and most feared by students," Thomas says. "But it's also the most coachable. We tend to see the most dramatic improvements in that section."

[Read: What to Know About LSAT Cancellations, Withdrawals and Absences.]

Answer everything. There is no penalty for getting an incorrect answer on the LSAT, so it's important to at the very least make an educated guess on each question. Leaving it blank does you no good. Also, every question is weighted the same. Tougher questions count just the same toward the final score as their simpler counterparts, so don't get bogged down trying to answer the difficult ones. Answer as many easy questions as you can and revisit the tough questions with your remaining time. It's much wiser to tackle questions that are in your wheelhouse first and guess on the harder ones than to dwell on the difficult ones and rush through simpler ones as your time expires, potentially botching them because of the time crunch.

Know where to find easier questions. "There is a general progression from easier to more difficult," Testy says. Students should not be concerned if they find the last question of an LSAT section to be especially difficult, since it is typical for an LSAT section to gradually become harder, she says.

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