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Taking the LSAT with Zero Preparation (vice.com)
74 points by malloci 12 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments

The LSAT is what's known as a "learnable" exam, which means that taking it without preparation is 100% not indicative of the final score one could get. This is well-reported all over law school forums where people took it cold and got a 140 and after months of study ended up with a 177. Or started with a 155 and ended with a 165.

The LSAT (especially the logic games) is mostly pattern-recognition and understanding the "type" of problem you're being asked to solve. Getting a high score (e.g. over 170) the first time around is probably impossible because the questions are formulated so weirdly (in other words, you'd need to be familiar with the format to do well). Further, you'd probably not be used to the time constraint and end up guessing on whatever you didn't have time to answer. This article is just stupid bravado, but then again, it's Vice and they're not exactly known for hard-hitting journalism.

NB: 158 going in cold is very high (which is why the article seems like humblebragging to me). A 20 point increase is doable with an intense studying regimen. And with a 178, you can write your ticket to basically any law school (given a 3.5+ undergrad GPA).

I know a guy (with BA in physics) who almost aced the LSAT going in cold (i.e. had never seen a practice test), on a dare, without any intention of becoming a lawyer. At some point a decade ago I was vaguely curious to try the same, but not curious enough to overcome laziness and actually sign up for the test (and nobody dared me).

My impression is that people who spend a lot of time thinking critically about text, have a solid understanding of grammar, and have done lots of logic puzzles (say, work through Smullyan’s books for fun) and other mathematics problems tend to do pretty well without any specific training.

One reason many Americans have trouble with tests like the LSAT is that we spend very little time or effort up through high school on solving real math problems (as compared to trivial mechanical exercises), with the result that students’ technical reading comprehension and critical thinking also tends to be pretty poor. See e.g. http://www.de.ufpe.br/~toom/travel/sweden05/WP-SWEDEN-NEW.pd...

I'm not saying this isn't true, but I take stories like this with a grain of salt. Every now and then, you'll have someone claiming that they got a 170+ with no practice on TLS or reddit. Since the LSAT is multiple choice, even a completely random outcome has a nonzero chance of scoring a perfect 180.

I'd argue that what makes the LSAT difficult isn't the raw difficulty but rather the time management. Most people could probably do decent on it if they had as long as they needed, but the fact that you need to pick the best answer in like 2-3 minutes when the question is like two paragraphs long makes it very unlikely that a neophyte will score well. Once you study it, you learn to look for certain things and only end up skimming questions for the key information. Without having ever seen the test, you will most likely do what any sensible person would do: read the question carefully, read every potential answer carefully, come up with your answer, eventually run out of time, and blindly guess on the last 5 questions on every section.

I did the test cold, expecting it to be in-situ practice for a 'real' test which I anticipated to write a year later. I scored over 170 easily.

I later trained to become an LSAT instructor on the basis of my scores and realized I didn't have any aptitude for it because none of my strategies for dealing with the test were explicit - they were just my test taking routine.

If you did logic puzzles for fun as a kid and read enough to develop a large vocabulary, good test taking practices will take you the rest of the way. For what it's worth, in my experience most of the kids who did the LSAT coming from the sciences considered it a joke and prepared minimally with good results. They, however, constituted maybe 1/100th of the test takers.

It’s probably true. My girlfriend took a timed LR section and LG section, and got 1 wrong, I think. I’ll give her a full test eventually. She is a physics/comp sci major.

I expect a sizeable chunk of the physics department could do the same. But, they normally don’t take the LSAT.

(I’m an LSAT instructor, so this is a bit more than a random anecdote)

The LSAT sounds an awful lot like an IQ test. In fact, the scoring looks suspiciously close to IQ * 1.5 with a similarly scaled standard deviation, seeing as the range is 120-180 (which would correspond to 80-140 on a typical IQ test) and the median score is 153.

So it wouldn't surprise me if a person with a BS in Physics aced it. Math/Physics majors tend to have the highest aggregate scores on standardized tests, be it GRE, SAT, ACT or even ASVAB.

I am non-American and pretty much everyone I knew who wanted to study in America prepared for those tests extensively for months. Yes, if you did the same style of problems a lot without lsat being target, then you are practically prepared.

However, just being good in math in general and good in solving hard math exercises wont make it. You would spend a lot of time thinking and trying to figure things out, while if you prepare you will instantly recognize problem and "solve it fast".

The only difference there is that Americans see test being learnable as a bad thing and talk about preparing on it as almost cheating. Here it was common sense, of course all tests are learnable and of course you gotta learn to do well.

Believe it or not, there exist people who can skim for key points, make fast mental diagrams, “instantly recognize” what task is being asked, and quickly solve a wide variety of standardized test questions of types they have not explicitly seen before. These people are not superhuman or anything, they just have spent a lot of time doing related kinds of tasks (close reading, competitive debate, code debugging, recreational math problems, etc.) Recreational logic puzzles get way harder than anything that shows up on the LSAT, and there are students out there who work through books of hard logic puzzles for fun, the way other people might read novels or play video games or whatever.

As an individual, studying for standardized tests isn’t “cheating” or a “bad thing”. It’s often the most rational use of time for folks with specific professional ambitions. But having everyone in the society spend a significant amount of time and stress on a handful of particular standardized tests is IMO a huge waste of collective attention and focus [though perhaps there isn’t any alternative gatekeeping system for law schools which won’t be equally gamed in a time-wasting way]. One problem with the increasing numbers of standardized tests at every level of education is that time spent training for a specific test in e.g. 5th grade has very little long-term benefit for a student.

The standard school curriculum (and frankly a lot of explicit test prep) doesn’t really do a very efficient or effective job of training the kinds of skills that would help someone do well on novel types of standardized test questions. Instead of training reading comprehension, working memory, generic problem solving heuristics, quick recall/matching, problem-solving time management, etc., they tend to focus on the particular features of specific types of problems, and teach memorized recipes or collections of factual information. Obviously this is a reasonable approach if the goals of the training are very narrow and specific. It doesn’t seem to me like the best generic training to do successful intellectual work.

A lot (hundreds if not thousands of papers) has been written about this subject in the scholarly literature by professors who were frustrated that their high-achieving undergraduate {math, physics, engineering, ...} students seem to be able to memorize recipes for solving specific problems very well and ace their usual tests, but have great difficulty synthesizing their knowledge or solving non-standard problems, and then spent some time and effort trying to understand why that is.

> But having everyone in the society spend a significant amount of time and stress on a handful of particular standardized tests is IMO a huge waste of collective attention and focus

This reminds me something that happened to me in college.

I was playing with neural network controlled rat in a maze.

I was hoping it will discover right hand rule. But the mazes I used for testing were small and randomly generated so sometimes rule 'just go staright ahead' worked perfectly because exit was facing entrance.

I solved it by removing such simple mazes from test pool.

> “instantly recognize” what task is being asked,

That is literally aim of the preparation. You train to be able to instantly recognize the task just by skimming for key points.

Being able to solve hard math problems, the ones that require days of thinking and requires you to try various approaches is entirely different skill.

Novels and games have zero to do with anything. It is learnable skill and altrough there is some talent component, large part of success is right kind of training and you can get better if you train - whether because you have lsat as a goal or because something else.

And precisely the people who did not went through whole logic puzzle book before but have right genetics benefit from that training the most.

Pretending it is not learnable and that those 17 years old who did not spent time with same hobbies up to know are lost causes is societal loss too. Some of them are dumb and others conflate "did not spend time with this specific training yet" with "the kid does not have innate talent".

I don’t understand what you think my point is or what I am “pretending”, but you’re answering something different than anything I have argued.

These tests are very clearly learnable, and nobody said anything about “lost causes” or “innate talent”.

The top-level comment claimed that it was all but impossible for someone to get a near-perfect LSAT score without extensive targeted training on the test specifically. I claim that this is an oversimplification which overlooks people who have extensively trained related more generic kinds of skills.

Then you made a point about whether having everyone do test prep should be considered “cheating” or a “bad thing”, and I responded by arguing that test prep is individually rational but a collective waste of time (a much more severe waste in some countries than it is in the USA). Personally I think we should use some other mechanism(s) for gatekeeping legal training (and other schooling), so that incentives to do well at the gate-passing task are more closely aligned with meaningful training for effective citizenship and generic intellectual work, or perhaps with student passions and aptitudes.

The GPA is an important caveat. I scored in the 99th percentile on the LSAT, and still couldn't get into any of the top tier schools I applied to because I slacked off too much in undergrad.

Yeah, with a sub-3.0 GPA even with like a 180 on the LSAT, you're basically out of the t14 (except for a few splitter-friendly schools if you get lucky).

The good news is that if you scored in the 99th percentile on the LSAT, you probably don't need to go to law school to be successful :)

Could be. I'd be interesting in knowing if there's a big difference between sub 3.0 STEM GPAs and humanities.

The problem with humanities is that there's just no need to consider you, they are already going to reject a large number of people with high grades and test scores. I suppose if you were a STEM major, the schools might need consider applications that aren't perfect if they want a decent representation from the sciences and engineering. I'd be interesting in seeing some data on this.

At a place like Berkeley or other difficult STEM programs with low GPAs, I'm prepared to believe that a 2.9 GPA doesn't indicate someone would have any trouble with law school. It's very different from running this GPA in history at a top private.

It's also worth noting that elite law schools have vanishingly low attrition rates - Columbia, for instance, has a 1L attrition rate of 0.3%. Yale often has no 1L attrition. Although I don't have data by engineering schools, my experience in a grad program at Berkeley is that such low attrition would be inconceivable in STEM, even at the MS level (and without question at the PhD level, where attrition can be as high as 50%, really, over 100 times higher than at an elite law school).

Yes, in fact I view this as one of the great "dodged bullets" of my life. Because I wasn't accepted by my top choice schools (I had several who I wasn't interested in beating my door down), I decided not to go to law school at all. In retrospect, that was the best possible outcome.

Do you have an email I could reach you at? I'd love to ask you a few questions privately!

As a former LSAT tutor, I can tell you that 158 isn't humblebragging for a journalist. Most of my tast-taking students were in the 150s before tutoring. I was a test prep tutor for other tests for a few years before I added the LSAT to my repertoire. Most students had no idea how to set up charts or mental pictures for the logic problems. While I understood this aspect right away, I needed to work on speed before I helped anyone else. Later in life, when learned how to code, I realized that coders would do well at this section. If I'd known how to code back then, I'd have used algorithmic thinkg techniques to help students improve their LSAT score.

  > Most students had no idea how to set up charts or mental
  > pictures for the logic problems.
I took Introduction to Symbolic Logic my first year in college. It was a tiny class, which was a real shame. Many years later, I remember my LSAT instructor spending the first two sessions explaining, e.g., Venn diagrams to the class. I was like, "is this guy serious?" "Who could possibly need a refresher on this stuff?" But I guess I was the odd one in terms of formal exposure.

Symbolic logic should be required for every college student. I can't think of any better class for helping produce well-rounded students with solid critical thinking skills, regardless of their academic focus.

The class is easy and it has almost no direct application whatsoever. But that's the point. Every college student should be able to get through it without sweating, even if it seems initially daunting. And it has no direct application precisely because it's a distillation of some of the very basic mechanisms of rational thinking--mechanisms that everybody and everything glosses over. It's the one class that puts the really simple stuff front-and-center, which after a semester of lessons makes it so much easier to recognize the logical patterns (or lack thereof) elsewhere. Practicing logic negations for example is incredibly useful, especially in the humanities, but even in the hard sciences.

The only downside is producing more of those annoying people who apply formal logic in every context, oblivious to the limitations. But that's better than the current state of affairs, I think. And I guess those annoying people keep everybody on their toes.

LSAT logic questions are in many ways similar to common interview questions: listen to the problem, identify key words, apply known solving pattern.

When I did Mensa exams I also felt that coders might have advantage there.

> Testy told me she too once took the LSAT, though she doesn't remember her score. Unlike many of today's students, she didn't spend months studying. "Honestly, I didn't even know at the time people did that." She says LSAC actually worries test-takers spend too much time preparing. It suggests students familiarize themselves with the test and the rhythm of the questions and maybe take an online course.

This sounds about right. I took the LSAT in college after doing some studying. Between my first practice test and my final test I went up 12 points to 168.

For those unfamiliar with the test there are 3 types of sections, plus an essay, which isn't really used by admissions offices nor is it a factor in your score. The multiple choice questions are a long form reading with many questions about a long passage, a logical reasoning section with a question per prompt, and logic games with several questions for a set of logical rules. The first two, reading and analytical, saw almost no difference in studying. There's a couple tips to get the flow of the test but there isn't much to learn: its fairly good test of innate skills. The logic games sections, even coming from a computer science background and solving similar problems for fun, were pretty challenging especially with a clock. However there are only a dozen or so variants to the games, with the occasional ringer and so studying by practicing a few of each variant has a huge pay off.

The clock is the test. That's pretty much the LSAT in a nutshell. This is much more so than the SAT, the GMAT, or even the bar exam.

I run an lsat prep website. A cold 158 is a very high score. The median LSAT is 151. Most students can improve about 10 points with practice.

Beyond that, improvement gets dicier, as it depends on actually changing your patterns of thinking. The LSAT is a test of precision, and gets to a level most people are never called to think about when making everyday arguments.

It’s actually a very interesting test, many people here on hacker news might find it fun to try. You can print this free version: https://www.lsac.org/docs/default-source/jd-docs/sampleptjun...

I strongly recommend doing it timed, as it is as much a test of your intuition with reasoning as anything else. It also uses subtle psychological biases to lead you astray. Each section is 35 minutes. If you only have time for one, try the logical reasoning.

Law school admissions is in flux right now, as there is a move to start using the GRE as an admissions test. At the highest level of schools, this will likely help get a few STEM graduates into law school. Mostly though, it’s seen as a move by schools to pad their enrolment, as law student numbers have declined in recent years. Skyrocketing tuition is the main cause.

The big open question is how the GRE and the LSAT will be compared in the rankings. My impression is that the GRE isn’t very important in grad admissions, so people don’t study for it. I suspect that motivated law applicants will be able to achieve a comparatively higher GRE percentile than LSAT percentile, as the GRE’s subject matter is more trivially learnable, and the motivated prelaw students will be ranked against the unmotivated GRE takers who are using it for grad school admissions.

You mention skyrocketing tuition, but haven't mentioned the second major cause of declining admissions, which is that employment rate for new grads _still_ hasn't recovered from 2008-2009 declines[1].


Thanks. Yeah, that’s the other half. If jobs and salaries were up I’m sure more would take the debt. Right now you need a scholarship for most schools to be worth it.

Incoming: Bay Area LSAT registration skyrockets as techies try to outdo their law school friends with zero prep.

After that: A bunch of nerds blow the LSAT out of the water, get admitted to Yale, and become crappy lawyers because they lack every other skill necessary to be a lawyer(social skills, mainly).

We're also starting to see some law schools not require the LSAT for admission. I know that Harvard, Northwestern, and Georgetown Universities are among those that have started accepting GRE or ACT scores.

From the article, I noticed an interesting parallel to medical school admissions:

> Testy told me she too once took the LSAT, though she doesn't remember her score. Unlike many of today's students, she didn't spend months studying. "Honestly, I didn't even know at the time people did that." She says LSAC actually worries test-takers spend too much time preparing. It suggests students familiarize themselves with the test and the rhythm of the questions and maybe take an online course.

I've had mentors say the same thing about the MCAT for medical school admissions, and even our USMLE board exams taken during medical school. It's almost as if it's a requirement for everyone to pay up for a service that just drills you until you can expect the kinds of questions that can come up, rather than actually being tested on conceptual knowledge.

Not ACT, just GRE. And Testy was actually recommending people prepare less than they do. (I think she’s wrong, incidently. If she had a $200,000 scholarship riding on the outcome, she’d prep)

The LSAT is entirely different from MCAT. It’s a skill based test. From what I saw the MCAT is more content based, and you can cram the knowledge, except for the reading section.

> It's almost as if it's a requirement for everyone to pay up for a service...

From the article: "(LSAC will launch a free one next year.)" So it's not about making them money. More importantly, it seems to me that if you could effectively separate "I'm not familiar with the test format" from "I'm not good at this", that would be very useful in terms of differentiating the strong candidates from the weaker ones. That doesn't seem too unreasonable. (I'm aware it's also not the same thing as intensive prep courses, which are what a lot of people (most?) take.)

I took GRE without prep as a non-native speaker. Lets just say I severely underestimated it, and went on to do other things in life … the concept of these tests are quite foreign in Northern Europe, so I was not expecting it /at all/. If I wanted to ace it, it would've probably taken me weeks to prep properly (especially all the silly math things, that I mostly forgot about how to do fast enough without mistakes or stressing out). Never ended up submitting my application, even though I had several first author papers as an undergrad, I felt too defeated by it.

I would expect the language to be the issue? As a European I took the GRE with zero prep and comfortably got an 800 on the numeric part and a 6.0 on the essay part (I felt I was consciously pandering with an American-style essay because that seemed to be what they wanted), but dropped a bit in the verbal part (640) which seemed to be just about knowing dictionary definitions for a lot of obscure words.

Wow the logic games are pretty interesting (sample: http://www.admissionsconsultants.com/lsat/lsat-prep-game.pdf) They feel like Karnaugh maps and state machines to me :-)

And those aren’t even real ones. Try the ones in this official practice test:


Awesome, thanks. I find those quite entertaining.

I'm not a native speaker and I couldn't shake the feeling that in first problem when order of sentences is reversed (<implication> if <condition>) it was supposed to mean 'if and only if' not just 'if' (it wasn't).

Now I know why I hated 'if' after the condition in Ruby.

And don't even ask me about 'unless'.

I found the writing amusing, but I don’t understand the premise.

If I were a writer, I’d happily take any standardized test, with zero prep and zero consequences. Then I’d tell you how I scored. And, so what?

I did not find his manufactured premise of “always thinking I might be a genius at something” too compelling.

Suggestions to strengthen the piece:

1. Now, he should study hard for 5 months and then take it again.

2. Interweave a profile of another LSAT test taker who has hung his or her dreams on scoring well.

3. Take 3, or 10, standardized tests in other domains, and report on what it says about his greatest area of strength.

I once went to take a tough mudder without any preparation. I wanted to see what shape I was in straight from the computer chair.

Well, it was in Mount Snow - turns out that going up and down large mountains was the hardest part for me. The obstacles themselves were pretty straightforward, but I was completely exhausted from jogging up mountains. I did skip the ice bath, though.

The Wiki article on the LSAT has an interesting section:


In the most recent study Nieswiadomy took the LSAC's categorization of test-takers into 162 majors and grouped these into 29 categories, finding the averages of each major

...and ironically, the last and second-last majors are criminal justice and pre-law, respectively.

I’m not american, so I may be incorrect, but I believe many of the top ranked schools tend not to have prelaw/criminal justice as a major. So it could be in part a school quality issue.

I hate to stereotype, but most of the "criminal justice" majors I've met have been... not high academic achievers.

I wouldn't read too much into that. I bet the pass rates on other professional exams are similarly skewed.

Lots of hopeless pre law students will take the exam. Very few unmotivated math students will find themselves taking the lsats, however.

I scored pretty high (I don't remember the score though) on a cold LSAT, but after taking a course with an instructor who got multiple 180's, my official score was in the 99.9th percentile.

I got into a top 5 law school, but didn't get a scholarship even with my LSAT score, a 4.0 GPA, and multiple honors (including PBK).

Two weeks into the semester I transferred to the MSCS program. Best decision I ever made.

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