The Differences between Good and Excellent LSAT Performance, and Why the “Smartest” LSAT Takers Have the Most Trouble Reaching their Potential

A couple of nights ago, I watched the two remaining Mountain West Conference teams in the NCAA tournament play (unfortunately) their final games of the season.  I don’t watch much college sports but I’m from the Rocky Mountains originally and still have a little rooting interest for the conference and affection for the region.

Both teams lost, one in overtime.  The interesting thing about both games was that both teams played their higher-profile opponents solidly and evenly—until the last couple of minutes of the game, when their game plans unraveled, they made bad on-court decisions and just generally collapsed, allowing teams from more–touted conferences to escape with wins.

If you make the Sweet Sixteen, as Brigham Young and San Diego State did, you’re a very good basketball team.  But you’re not necessarily an excellent basketball team, and these teams were not able to make the jump from good to excellent.  And they failed in almost exactly the same way.

What does this have to do with the LSAT?  A lot and very little.  The very little part is that reacting successfully to pressure situations in athletics, on the one hand, and a cognitive task like the LSAT, on the other hand, rely on different regions of the brain, so the precise methods of maximizing athletic performance and cognitive performance differ.  Success on the LSAT depends more on working memory; in athletics, procedural memory is the key.

The “a lot” part is that reacting well to stressful situations is a key difference between “good” and “excellent” in both.  Indeed, in cognitive pressure situations such as taking the LSAT, cognitive research shows that it’s the people with the greatest cognitive horsepower whose performances declines the most.

Why is that?  While in athletics, poor reactions to pressure situations are often attributable to “overthinking,” that’s not the case in testing situations.  Rather, some cognitive research appears to show that the problem for high achievers is that they get thrown off-track by one or another stimulus (whether on the exam or something wholly external like, say, an unexpected noise) and forget to apply (or suffer a “brain cramp” that makes it impossible to recall) the techniques they’re used to applying.  It’s less overthinking than the inability to think.

Why does that affect those with higher cognitive power more?  Because those with somewhat less cognitive power rely more on shortcuts, which may, let’s say, have a maximum effectiveness of 75%.  But since they’re simple to apply, the impact of pressure on those shortcuts will be comparatively small.

In contrast, people with greater cognitive power have the ability to get the right answer every time, or close to it.  Let’s call those the “100% techniques.”  But since the 100% techniques are generally more complex, they’re likely to be thrown off more by pressure situations.  This is one among many reasons why it’s counterproductive to think of the LSAT as an intelligence test.  It’s nothing of the kind—other than requiring core abilities to read and reason, marginal effectiveness on the LSAT is not convincingly tied to intelligence.

Rather, the secret to the LSAT for those with greater cognitive ability is to maximize performance by minimizing the impact of the stress of the situation.  To do that, LSAT takers need to do several things:

(1)    Find better 100% techniques.  By “better,” I mean simpler.  I don’t mean shortcuts that can’t be effective 100% of the time.  I mean rethinking and reorganizing steps of the 100% techniques so that they’re shorter, easier to remember and simpler to apply under pressure, and just as effective.  Customization is important, since a technique that is a 100% technique for one person won’t necessarily work as well for another, particularly when it’s made more efficient.

(2)   Reduce the number of techniques.  The less you have to remember, the better off you are.  This is what users of the 75% techniques understand instinctively.  If your LSAT prep program tells you there are more than 20-25 question types on the LSAT, it’s already overcomplexifying the LSAT for you and reducing your chance of success.  Your LSAT review course should keep things as simple as possible while still giving you techniques that allow you get every question right.   

(3)   Routinize the steps.  In this respect, practicing for the LSAT is similar to practicing a golf swing.  You want to take the same steps with the same question type every time you see it, so that execution of the method becomes as close to automatic as possible.  That in itself is a stress reducer.  It’s the difference between driving down a familiar road, every twist and turn of which you know, as opposed to navigating a strange road at night, in a snowstorm, and having to find a small turnoff or be lost.  Paying attention to all that, you’re more likely to not see the large animal running across the road.

(4)   Fine-tune the steps.  Routinization helps here, too, since you will inevitably need to make a few fine tuning adjustments at each point in your LSAT prep program, and will have to make a couple of on-the-fly adjustments on exam day.  But if you have the right technique, and you’re applying it automatically, you’ll have the mental energy to make those changes.  If you’re already overwhelmed, you won’t.

 For people with a lot of cognitive power, the objective of any excellent LSAT prep course isn’t to find techniques that work most of the time.  It’s to find the right techniques—for you—that work all the time, and then to make those techniques simple enough and automatic enough that you don’t suffer from the greater effects of pressure and panic that disproportionately affect you exactly because you have enhanced cognitive power.  It’s the difference between good—that’s your base power—and excellent, the ability to get your best LSAT score on exam day.  That transition—being as good as you were in practice or in the first 38 minutes of the game—is what my Mountain West teams were unable to do, and it’s why they’re now sitting at home.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on March 26, 2011.

4 Responses to “The Differences between Good and Excellent LSAT Performance, and Why the “Smartest” LSAT Takers Have the Most Trouble Reaching their Potential”

  1. […] in what way?  Lack of sleep damages working memory, which is precisely the type of memory (as distinct from procedural memory) that one relies on in […]

  2. […] and test-taking procedures as on “understanding.”  They’re related, of course—the simpler your approach, the less likely your performance is to suffer.  But even if you have the right approach, you need […]

  3. […] 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 say no) mental strain. […]

  4. […] 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 say no) mental strain. […]

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