Monday, August 10, 2009

Zen 10: Things Your LSAT Tutor/Class Should Do (And Probably Doesn't)

Considering how expensive LSAT prep can be, we thought it would be a good idea to post this Zen 10 list of things you must get from an LSAT tutor or class in order to get your money's worth.

1) Provide you with immediate, reasonable, and actionable steps before the next session.

After each meeting, you should have a concrete idea of which task standards (or equivalent thereof)--not entire sections--you are going to focus your practice on before the next session, the materials you are going to use in order to practice, and measurable goals to gauge whether or not you are successful.
  • Example: One of our students is focusing on identifying and pre-phrasing answers for two tasks within reading comprehension sections: identifying main idea and positions [sources] would agree about. Her goal is to score at least 85% correct on both tasks combined on PrepTest #25.
2) Help you adapt a training schedule to your needs.

The larger test prep companies are surprisingly inflexible with their course schedules: "You're going to have 28 sessions on these exact dates and times spread across 3 months." While some people may find it nice to have such structured study sessions, there are plenty of others who need flexibility to adapt their practice on a weekly or monthly schedule.

On a related noted, there is absolutely zero need, in our opinion, to pay someone to do anything other than explain mistakes or provide personalized strategies. If you are not able to time yourself, have a zealous friend do work nearby and wrap you on the knuckles when you cheat.
  • Example: Another student meets once a week for two hours to analyze mistakes he made on that week's practice tests and plan action steps for his upcoming practice. He chooses when to take the sections based on his own schedule, and has the flexibility of changing his practice to include five-section LSATs, fewer sections for targeted strategies, or more sections to build endurance.
3) Diagnose your strengths and weaknesses.

We have already discussed the need for precision in categorizing the different tasks required by the LSAT. Your class or tutor must help you determine the question types you have difficuly with, and more importantly, only use your session time to diagnose those issues, explain mistakes, and develop measurable action steps.
  • Quote from a student: "My prep course didn't have any sort of individualized method of diagnosing problem strands, and we certainly weren't able to track our progress nearly as efficiently! The Zen Task Standards are really easy to use, and they give me a much better idea of the areas I can work on and how much I can improve by working on those areas."
4) Offer a variety of strategies to address your weaknesses.

Many LSAT tutors and classes will only show you one way to answer a given question or task. While the train of thought may make perfect sense to you, it's possible that it won't. While there are definitively correct and incorrect answer choices on the LSAT, never let anyone tell you that you have to approach a given question, passage, or game in a way that doesn't make sense to you. It will only cause frustration and wasted time, as they are often probably treating you for an incorrect diagnosis.
  • Example: Two of my students had issues with the same task on reading comprehension sections, identifying positions that [sources] would agree with. One student had issues identifying the details of the positions, and another with stating the views different parties shared, so they needed different strategies. The former student underlined the relevant details after he identified signposts in the question stem, while the latter pre-phrased each source's opinions on the topics. Both improved dramatically on that task standard, but needed entirely different strategies in order to do so.
5) Track the effectiveness of your study.

There are few things worse than being unable to tell if your hard LSAT prep is paying off. While your overall LSAT score may only go up by a couple of points, it may be because you have improved dramatically on a little-tested task standard--every increase should be noted and celebrated. Part of the job of an LSAT tutor or class is maximizing your time, so make sure that your practice is focusing on high impact task standards.

  • Example: Because we have analyzed over 1,000 logical reasoning questions and all of the LSATs since June 2007, we balance the focus of our students' efforts between the task standards that are in most need of improvement and the ones that will also have the most impact on their overall LSAT scale score. Just because a student is 50% in identifying parallel argument structure does not mean that he should be focusing on it more than a 70% mastery in criticizing evidence use. The former represents only one missed question per modern LSAT, while the latter is between two and three!
6) Ensure you are ready for the length of the actual test day.

Mainly, this applies to the endurance component of the LSAT; it astounds us how many students accept the fact that they will only taken six full LSATs prior to the real deal. There are over 30 real LSATs readily available, which means that it is easily possible to mix and match the LSAC PrepTests into full-length, five-section LSATs. If your tutor or class does not have you taking full LSATs, not just the four scored sections without an experimental, supplement your regular study with your "experimental" mixed in before the break.
  • Example: After ensuring that our students have purchased the two bundles of 10 PrepTests, we repackage them into five-section LSATs by taking a single section from each of the four oldest (19-22) and mixing that section in with each of the "newer" LSATs (23-38). Works out perfectly so all the material is used and you are prepared for the length of the actual test!
7) Provide you with relevant material.

It makes sense that most tutors and classes can't provide their students with the most relevant material, because they don't utilize effective classification and diagnosing tools. While it may still be helpful to practice assumption questions for verisimilitude, it would probably be more beneficial to provide an entire logical reasoning section made up of questions that challenge the individual student's weaknesses. Most tutors or classes will offer "homework" questions, but the difficulty of the LSAT is not in individual questions but in performing the tasks in aggregate.

Do not ever use material that is not published by LSAC. We cannot emphasize enough how dangerous it is to practice strategies on unofficial LSAT questions, as no test prep company or tutor has the resources or time to develop test questions as accurately and balanced as LSAC. There is a reason for the experimental section on test day, and nothing else is as effective as screening out innapropriately balanced content.
  • Example: One of our students took a free proctored LSAT at a "leading" test-prep company's office in Los Angeles. The questions were written by the company, and although our student was averaging a 175+ on LSAC PrepTests, he scored a 152 on the company's test. Our student protested the answers to one of the sections, and the company spokesman finally admitted that the scoring rubric was incorrect for the entire section. Don't put yourself through the stress of paying to be a test company's guinea pig!
8) Change the format and frequency of preparation as test approaches.

Most LSAT classes do not meaningfully adapt their material and format to the three distinct stages needed for LSAT success: diagnosis, practice, and endurance. Make sure that you aren't just practicing with full, as-published PrepTests or just individual questions. Ideally you'll be moving from full, five-section LSATs for diagnosis, to custom-built PrepTests for practice, and six-to-eight section sessions for endurance.
9) Not waste your time.

You should not have to sit through a class where the topic of instruction is a task standard in which you are competent or the material covered is too easy, too hard, or not relevant (i.e. not real LSAC material). Never pay for a proctor for an exam or for a tutor or teacher to spend billable time on anything other than diagnosing your weaknesses and developing and applying strategies.
  • Example: Whenever possible, we direct our students to this blog or other online resources so they can access the material on their own, unpaid time. There is a surprising amount of quality, free material on the web; take advantage of it and don't let a tutor or class take advantage of you.
10) Help you take your LSAT, not teach you how they took theirs.

Test-prep companies and tutors will brag about their average percentile scores, but the fact is that they are not going to take the exam again, and certainly not for you. If you ever feel that your time is being wasted or that you cannot utilize the skills you are being "taught," make sure that you bring up the issues you have and ask for more personalized options. The best test-takers can rarely convey those skills to another person, so make sure you are able to generalize your teacher's or tutor's success to your own. If not, find someone else or practice the Zen way on your own, as that's by far the most cost-effective way to score in the 99th percentile.