The LSAT Is Not a “Standardized Test” (and Why Realizing that is the First Step to Overcoming Fear of the LSAT)

The title is not a typo.  The LSAT is, that’s right, not a standardized test.

More than half of all people who call me about Advise-In Solutions’ LSAT program eventually come around to the topic of their success (or lack of success) on other “standardized tests.”  A lot of the fear that many have about taking the LSAT comes down to being intimidated by standardized tests.  Some believe that their best LSAT score is capped by their other standardized test scores, which of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I got a perfect 180 score the only time I took the LSAT (I can’t even imagine what’s going through the minds of people who take the test 10 or more times so they can claim a 180).  I did ok on other “standardized tests” I took, namely the GRE and the SAT, but was nowhere near perfect.  So much for predicting your LSAT score on the basis of those other scores.

The reason that my SAT, GRE and LSAT scores had no relationship to each other is simple: the tests have no relation to each other.  The LSAT is not a standardized test in any meaningful sense but one.

That’s important because it means that the first step to overcoming any fear you may have of the LSAT is to recognize that it’s meaningless to fear it because it’s supposedly a standardized test.  For some people, that’s enough.  For many others, it’s not, so that the second step is to appreciate your lingering fears for what they are: often, anxiety about high-stakes tests.

Less happily, just because you scored exceptionally well on the SAT, for example, doesn’t guarantee you a great LSAT score.  Of course, it’s better to figure that out before you take the LSAT rather than after, as many people do.

Now, I’m saying something that’s exactly opposite the entrenched view of the LSAT (but I think it’s safe to say that had I thought of the LSAT as just another standardized test, there is no chance I would have gotten a perfect score).  Big companies generally offer classes or tutors for all major standardized tests, and that’s partly because everybody thinks (and those companies have an economic interest in telling you that) they’re all pieces of the same cloth.  But they’re not—Advise-In Solutions sticks to the LSAT because I couldn’t in good conscience take the position that expertise in it translates into expertise in the SAT or GRE or MCAT.  They’re just different, no matter how much money people try to make by glossing those differences.  What’s even more baffling about mass test-prep companies who lump all these tests together is that they spend little or no time addressing the one thing that each test actually does have in common.  It’s more marketing strategy than test preparation.

First, there’s the content of each test, which is, of course, the crucial thing you have to get right.  The SAT, the GRE and other tests usually grouped together as standardized require a significant base of knowledge outside what is provided to you on the exam.  Not the LSAT.  True, you need to be able to read, and you need to be familiar with how the LSAT wants you to reason.  But you don’t need to know anything about science to get every single science-related reading comprehension question correct.  How do I know that?  Because I know very little about science and got a perfect score.  The reason is that, unlike the GRE, for example, the LSAT will ask you no question for which the answer is not contained in the LSAT itself.  So, how you prepare for the LSAT is necessarily completely different from how you would prepare for the GRE.  In content and preparation, they are as similar as biology and French.

Second, it’s never clear what people who insist on calling the LSAT a “standardized test” mean by the term.  Do they mean it’s timed?  So are most tests that students take during their educational careers.  That there’s a bubble sheet that takers have to fill out?  That just makes it a multiple-choice test, nothing more.  That a lot of people take the same test?  Well, ok, but at many colleges and universities, a lot of Intro. to Sociology students take the same multiple choice test.  And so what if a lot of people take it?  Your number of correct answers doesn’t change based on the number of other takers.  The scale changes slightly, to be sure, but that’s just a statistically sophisticated version of grading on a curve.

So, there’s no content similarity between the LSAT and other “standardized” tests.  And the formal similarity is so vacuous as to not meaningfully distinguish between the LSAT and a multiple choice test for your psychology class.

There is one meaningful similarity between the SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc.  They’re used by schools to make admissions decisions.  That is, they are all tests that are perceived by their takers (generally, though not always, correctly) as high-stakes tests.  Now, if you approach your anxiety as a high-stakes test anxiety, rather than a standardized test anxiety, you’re getting somewhere.  To begin with, it means something.  It means that the pressure of high stakes is something you may have trouble adjusting to.  But that gives your anxiety a form that can be addressed, rather than being some mysterious external force known as the Magician of Standardized Tests.  High-stakes test anxiety is an empirical problem and a question of matching psychology and technique; standardized test anxiety is a superstition (and an invidious one).

If you have high-stakes test anxiety, in other words, there’s a lot that can be done by your LSAT advisor or instructor to help you get your highest LSAT score.  A lot of what Advise-In Solutions does is informed by cognitive research and I think we’re unique in paying such close attention to the latest findings in cognitive research and adjusting each client’s program accordingly.  Mass-prep companies do almost nothing in this regard.

In principle, of course, anyone could pay close attention to cognitive research, focus maintenance and conquering anxiety in high-stakes tests.  It’s also true that many of the methods would likely hold for other high-stakes tests like the SAT, GRE or MCAT.  But—and these are significant qualifiers—how those techniques apply will differ considerably based on the specific test, and how they apply to you will differ from how they apply to others.

To the first point.  Since the content of the tests is so different, the LSAT study techniques that are useful for maintaining concentration and feeling comfortable during the exam differ significantly, and your LSAT review course will have to be accordingly specific.  It isn’t the same thing to say “I have no idea what that Latin verb root means, and I can’t figure it out” (which may be an SAT issue) and “I’ve forgotten my procedure for answering assumption questions” (which may be an LSAT issue).  In the first, you don’t know and can’t find out.  In the second, if you’ve prepared properly, it’s just a question of remembering and applying what you do know.  That’s a much different problem and requires a different mental and emotional framework as you’re taking the test.

To the second point.  Each person has a different complex of stressors and anxieties, and effectively addressing them is possible only on an individual basis.  There are general things one can say, of course (and I’ve said many of them on this blog and in my pro bono classroom LSAT prep courses).  But the reason Advise-In’s paying clients work with me exclusively on a one-on-one basis is that getting to the point of actually overcoming high-stakes test anxiety requires that I understand this person and her or his stress patterns (do you come from a liberal arts college that doesn’t give multiple-choice tests; does your anxiety appear primarily in one type of question; in whole sections; at certain points during practice tests; did this combination of techniques help; does adding another work better; is one technique or another losing its power and in need of replacement; etc.). Answering those questions and addressing those issues—which is necessary for anyone with high-stakes test anxieties to get her or his best LSAT score—is impossible except by working intensively with one person at a time.

To recognize the need for more detailed and customized fixes (to say nothing of actually making them work), however, requires a prior recognition of this simple fact—that LSAT is not a standardized test.  You’re not fated to repeat your performance on the SAT, whether a great performance or a poor one.  You have to approach the LSAT as a thing in itself, not as the SAT with an “L” in front of it.  What the LSAT is, for most people, is a high-stakes test, and how any one person reacts to high-stakes tests is anything but standardized.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on March 30, 2011.

One Response to “The LSAT Is Not a “Standardized Test” (and Why Realizing that is the First Step to Overcoming Fear of the LSAT)”

  1. […] has made (and asked that I make) the point here that the LSAT isn’t a “standardized test” in the way we usually mean, and that thinking of the LSAT as a sort of super-SAT is damaging to […]

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