Why Is the LSAT So Difficult Even Though It’s Not Complicated?

Yes, it’s a loaded question.  Not complicated?  Well, I guess you can make it as Byzantine as you like, and many LSAT takers complexify to no end.

But here’s the thing.  There are only about 20 question types that appear on the LSAT.  Seven types of analytical reasoning questions—just seven—and a few of those haven’t been used for several years.  You need to understand and be ready for those dormant types, since they can always reappear but even when you include them, there are just seven types.  There are a total of about thirteen reading comprehension and logical reasoning questions, most of them common to both sections, a few unique to either logical reasoning or reading comprehension.

That’s why the LSAT isn’t complex.  There are approximately 100 graded questions per LSAT but they’re really variations on a maximum of 20 questions.  Once or twice on most LSATs, there will be questions that are combinations of the 20 main types, so those questions look a little different but aren’t.  In addition, even some of those distinct question types are susceptible to the same methods of analysis and answer, which makes the LSAT even less complicated.

So, why is the LSAT hard?  There are a lot of reasons, only a few of which I’ll talk about here.  I’ll also focus exclusively on content and question types, leaving out test-taking stresses and patterns, which are often more than half the battle for LSAT takers and explain why takers’ actual scores are so often significantly below their best practice scores.

Why so hard?  First, many LSAT takers do tend to overcomplicate the exam.  Some (not all) LSAT prep courses, guides and LSAT tutors exacerbate this problem, suggesting that there are 50 or more question types that you have to understand, and even more methods that you must use, to successfully take the LSAT.  If you take that approach, you’ll make the LSAT a lot harder than it is.  Unless you’re a genius (and if you’re that smart, you’re also smart enough to see that you can simplify), you can’t remember all the question types, much less apply all the techniques, when you sit down to take your real LSAT.  As a result, you very likely won’t be able to get your highest LSAT score.  You’ll also be diverted from what really does make the LSAT difficult.

Second, a lot of LSAT takers don’t focus their practice by question type.  It isn’t enough to just take LSAT after LSAT.  To obtain your best LSAT score, you need to understand your strengths and weaknesses and changes in them over time.  And you must focus on the right question types at the right time.  That’s at the heart of what my clients and I do in terms of LSAT content, and why each Advise-In client’s program is different.

Third, many LSAT takers don’t approach the LSAT with a clear conception of the LSAT’s theory of argument.  That theory of argument, like the LSAT itself, isn’t complicated but understanding it thoroughly is crucial to being able to see what the right answer can (and cannot) be, especially in logical reasoning and reading comprehension.

Fourth, a lot of LSAT takers resist accepting a simple principle (again, especially in logical reasoning and reading comprehension).  Here’s the principle:  If you disagree with the LSAT’s preferred answer, it’s right and you’re wrong.  That’s a difficult thing for a lot of people to accept, not so much intellectually but in their hearts.  People who want to go to law school often tend to be argumentative.  That’s sometimes useful for lawyers.  It doesn’t work in LSAT prep.  On the LSAT, your job is to understand how the LSAT got the answers it did.  And it’s the job of your instructors and advisors to help make clear why the LSAT’s answer to any given question is better than yours, with specific reference to why you got the different answer you did.

For some LSAT takers, that’s a challenge.  Often, an LSAT taker’s instinctive style of thought simply isn’t in line with the LSAT’s approach.  Or argumentativeness takes over, and LSAT takers irritatedly dismiss the right answer as inferior to their own.  Etc.

The obvious practical reason why fighting with the LSAT is a mistake is simple.  The LSAT, not the 100,000+ takers, gets to decide what the right answer is.  That makes the LSAT right.  Period.  There’s also a less arbitrary reason.  On average, a question on the LSAT has gone through several years of testing and tweaking before it shows up as a graded LSAT question.  The people who write the LSAT are simply excellent at what they do.

Having accepted the error of your ways on any question, the next step is to understand why you’re wrong.  That’s often difficult.  I didn’t have a trusted advisor or instructor when I took the LSAT and sometimes figuring out why the LSAT was right and I wasn’t took a long time.  But it was always worth the effort because it gave me insight into the difference between the LSAT’s (correct) and my (incorrect) way of thinking, which helped me correct my mistake the next time around.

Of all the questions I missed on old LSATs during my preparation (and despite my 180 score, there were a lot of missteps), there was one—just one—for which I think I had a better answer.  Since I took the LSAT, I’ve reviewed every available LSAT and some that aren’t publicly available anymore.  Thousands of questions.  The number I think the LSAT may have gotten wrong?  Still one.  They are superb question-and-answer writers.

And that’s why the LSAT is hard.  There may only be 20 questions but their drafters have devised a nearly infinite number of ways to ask them, to subtly bend answer choices to make it more likely that people will make the wrong choice (especially under pressure), to phrase the correct answer so subtly as to make it a less obvious choice, to emphasize or deemphasize question types over time, to find an uncharacteristic way of phrasing those 20 questions so they can be hard to recognize, and so on, and so on, and so on.  They have made an uncomplicated exam structure very difficult for a very long time.

It’s those subtleties that LSAT takers need to focus on to obtain their highest LSAT scores rather than fishing for the red herrings of an allegedly complicated structure.  To get your best LSAT score, you have to know what the real difficulties are and, more important, what they aren’t.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on August 3, 2010.

14 Responses to “Why Is the LSAT So Difficult Even Though It’s Not Complicated?”

  1. […] you take the LSAT, you want the pressure of the day to melt away.  The way to do that is to have clear, repeatable techniques that are simple to apply and that make the right answer clear with a minimum of (which is not to […]

  2. […] yesterday’s post, I talked about a tendency among some preparing for the LSAT, after making an error in their […]

  3. […] you take the LSAT, you want the pressure of the day to melt away. The way to do that is to have clear, repeatable techniques that are simple to apply and that make the right answer clear with a minimum of (which is not to […]

  4. […] you take the LSAT, you want the pressure of the day to melt away. The way to do that is to have clear, repeatable techniques that are simple to apply and that make the right answer clear with a minimum of (which is not to […]

  5. Great article! Can you please specify the 7 types of analytical question types and especially the dormant or the hard ones. I am improving alot but whenever I face a game like the ones found in the December 1998 LSAT I blur out and become lost. Please tell me which ones are the hardest types of games questions and if the ones that were on the December 98 lsat are the hard types. Thanks!

    • Dear Meir,

      The 7 types of games are:

      1. Line games;

      2. Grouping games;

      3. Grid games;

      4. Hybrid games (generally a combination of 2 of the first 3 types);

      5. Circle games;

      6. Circuits and paths; and

      7. Formulas.

      The first 3 types are by far the most common. The December 1998 exam (Exam 27) has two line games and 2 grouping games (so, the most common types). That said, if you had a little trouble with the snakes and lizards, you wouldn’t be the only one.

      I don’t think any of the games are more difficult by type that any other; it’s just that you need to have a clear plan for how to attack each type. Once you know how to identify each type of game, and know the right approach to each, the little curveballs they throw you are all solvable. But if you get overwhelmed by information, or don’t have a framework in which the insert the information they give you, you will have more trouble.

      I hope that helps. You may want to check out some of the videos on YouTube (or on my website) for a little free help. I’m also happy to talk with you about becoming an Advise-In Solutions client, which will provide you with a customized program, on-demand access to over 10 hours of similar (though more detailed) videos to those you can watch for free, daily work assignments and personal review by me of all work that you do.

  6. I am taking this test for the first time put it off for 7 years so many people former classmates make such a big thing about it..and only one out of many got it….So now older and fearless since I have 3 kids..lol I am ready to take the test the questions are by far difficult…its the speed I am worried about..How fast should I read..etc. I am doing what was stated above dissecting what I questions I got wrong understanding why. I am also going over the questions to make sure I really understand what I answered and why…even if I got it right…any other comments would be appreciated. I test in two months I dont plan on spending anymore money to prep! I am a sociology instructor I can teach myself. Besides I think they make too much of a big deal over it. thousands of dollars for a test..well if I am not smart enough to do it on my own then I should not be in law school 🙂

    • Dear Patricia,

      These are hard questions to answer in the abstract, i.e., without having a clear idea of how you read generally, how quickly, your general comprehension level, etc. In my view, one of the fictions of the test prep industry is that the LSAT is somehow divorced from a long, long reading and academic history that people have. I know why they have this fiction–it’s a volume business and they aren’t going to take the time to figure out where you are and start from there. That’s why Advise-In Solutions customizes every program–I want to know what your strengths and weaknesses are so we have a place to begin. All that is another way of saying that there are no magic bullets in reading comp (there are a few ways to speed up, become more efficient, etc., but which of those ways work best for you depends on your back story).

      On a side note, I wouldn’t approach the LSAT as an intelligence test or a predictor of your law school success. Beyond a threshold ability to process information, it’s a test of how closely you can come to think the way the writers of the test think–nothing more, nothing less.

      That said, to maximize your admissions and financial aid opportunities, every point matters. Your objective, I think, should be your best score and, given the very expensive investment you’ll make in law school, investing in test prep (if it works) can be a wise move. But the quality of those programs differs vastly. I didn’t use any programs because I thought most would do me more harm than good, and my 180 on the test tells me I was right about that. Advise-In’s programs are essentially designed to solve the problems I saw in the market.

      • So you might say I am really hard on myself first of all. My weaknesses are in reference to the test some vocabulary …I have a Masters degree so I consider myself alright with most words but I do have to look some words up. I am not the best writer I would like to improve in that area. I believe my strengths are at thinking logically actually I think the test is fun the logic games and reasoning…its like almost like doing your taxes which I like doing or a puzzle….,,I am bilingual so that is what hurts my writing skills. just fyi. My other strength would be that if I am wrong I am so ready to know why and understand why I am not going to argue my point here! I hope this helps some..

      • Dear Patricia,

        I’d be happy to discuss with you further. There’s only so much we can do without doing the prep course, whcih I understand you’re not in a position to take, but I’d be happy to have a brief consultation with you You can contact me by e-mail at info@advisein.com.


        Kyle Pasewark

  7. Advise-in Solutions. Help! I suffer from extreme test anxiety. I am almost 5 years removed from college (3.4 gpa in business management at LSU). I had some serious substance abuse issues (alcohol) when I got my bachelor’s and began studying for the GMAT. I was pretty bad off and despite a great deal of undisciplined studying I did not score high enough to pursue a MBA…..Well I’m 9 months sober now, have a beautiful 3 year-old daughter, and desperately need to score a 160. I need to make up for years of bad choices. My problem with the LSAT is time and anxiety. I took the ACT when I was a sophomore in highschool and did OK despite how undisciplined I was even at that time. When I was very young (middle school) I scored in the 97th percentile on my SAT’s, largely because I was too young to understand the true implications, stress, anxiety etc. So my raw intelligence is not an issue per say (I was on the Chancellor’s Honor Roll more often than not, but bad grades during my final year of college weighed my GPA down significantly). Anyways…. sorry for the mini life story but I thnik I could greatly benefit from your services and am very interested. I plan on taking the LSAT on 1/1/13… I don’t have much time to study with a very busy work schedule but I get 1-2 days off a week and need to maximize them. I’m not dumb or naive. I see how and where i messed up on the GMAT (I thought it was my best option since I was a business major). But i’ve changed a great deal and understand the importance of this test. Though standardized tests are a true weakness of mine, I strongly believe that with some specialized assistance tailored to my specific needs I CAN DO THIS.

  8. As a 33-year old, studying for the LSAT was tough for me because of my analytical, presumptive way of thinking. The Analytical Section is easy. The LR section, not so easy because I have a tendency to fill in the gaps (with Assumption questions) without realizing I’m doing it. I can also rationalize why any assumption answer could be right. The hard part was training myself to think like the test makers. Once I aligned my way of thinking with theirs, the test has gotten easier. We’ll see come December.

    • Thank you for this. It’s a crucial point. On the content side of the test (test-taking is another, and very important, matter), the single most important factor in success on the LSAT is learning to think the way the writers of the test think. That’s possible because the writers think in a very consistent and specific way. And it’s necessary because most people don’t instinctively think the way the writers of the test do. This is one reason I ask my clients to analyze each of the errors that they make in their 20+ practice tests and additional daily exercises. I review those analyses carefully, all with an eye to conforming the way you’re thinking with the way the test writers think. So, thank you for this comment; it is the key LSAT preparation point.

  9. […] I recently received a very thoughtful response to an earlier post about making the LSAT more complicated than it needs to be: […]

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