If you are like most prelaw students, trying to choose the best prep option feels like a shot in the dark. If I don't spend $1800 on the top name, am I shorting myself? Should I just follow the example of friends who did it on their own and got in? What about the lesser known companies that sell stuff on the internet, the "Learn the LSAT While You Sleep and Build Stronger Abs for $49.95" type materials? Don't I just need to practice a bunch of tests to get better anyway?
I'd like to demystify your options by talking about what effective prep should do. I've been working with students on the LSAT since 1991. I've talked with people who have tried anything you can imagine. As I've worked closely with each of over a thousand students, I've learned what really works for people from a wide range of backgrounds. I've also discovered the hidden patterns of the LSAT that are critical for you to understand if you are to improve. I have experimented with and refined what I feel to be the most effective approach to learning the LSAT. So what follows below is from my perspective.
Let's divide prep options into these categories:
The Pluses: Provide a lot of structure. Can handle a lot of students. Instructors are usually very bright and have probably done very well on the test.
The Minuses: THE biggest drawback is that the instructors rarely teach for more than one or two seasons. Even those who have taught for several years or more only do so very part time. As a result, I find that these instructors - from my perspective of many years of full time, daily one on one work with students - do not have a deep understanding of the nature of the test or of the various ways that students learn.
The primary complaint I hear from students who have taken Kaplan, Princeton, etc., is that, when they are down to two answer choices, they ask the instructor why one is better than the other and the instructor says something vague like, "Well, B is just better. You have to get the feel for it." This is not the true picture! The fact is that one of those answer choices is dead wrong! I have found that there is a specific reason exactly why one answer is right and why the others are wrong. This is exactly the key to learning to do better. Anyone can get down to two answers. To go beyond that takes real insight into the test.
More Minuses: Even if you find an instructor in one of these programs with 10 or more years experience and a deep understanding of the test, if you don't have access to as much one on one help with that person as you need, you will have a hard time getting the guidance you need. I've found that it is the one on one guidance that really makes the difference for most students. Be aware that Kaplan in particular offers little or no one on one help.
Classroom materials usually have been written by the company. For copyright reasons they do not usually use actual LSAT questions in class. These simulated materials typically do not accurately represent the patterns of the test and can be misleading to study from.
Beware of Weekend Courses. Weekend or one or two week courses do not, in my opinion, give you the kind of long term follow up that you need to succeed at the test. Many students spend 4 to 6 months getting guided help. If you are paying more than $100, you deserve at least several months of support.
Questions to Ask Them: If you are considering these programs, ask to speak with the person who will teach it. If they can't do that, it's a bad sign. Either they don't have a teacher yet or the person is not accessible. If you do speak to them, ask how many years they have been teaching and how many students they have worked with individually, not just in the classroom. Ask them their approach to determining why each answer is right or wrong. Ask how they approach timing issues. Find out how much one on one help you can get, what hours they are available, if you can call and ask questions or if you have to make long appointments, and what the extra charges are for individual help.
Final Note: These big and often expensive programs often
give the impression that you are getting the best prep by paying the most
to the best known names. There is an implication that because they
have enrolled thousands of students, they do the best job. It is
more realistic to say that the quality of the instruction you get is based
pretty much on the experience of your teacher, not the reputation of the
company. The fact is that these companies by nature must sacrifice
quality and individuality in order to deal with the numbers of students
The Minuses: The minuses above also apply to these programs. I've seen a few good programs around the country but most of these types of classes are taught by a well meaning professor who only sees the test at face value, i.e. teaches some speed reading skills or formal logic and has you do some practicing. Often these teachers have little real in depth understanding of the hidden patterns. Since they are often teaching out of the goodness of their hearts, they usually cannot spend much if any time with you personally.
If not taught by a professor, they are typically taught by a grad student - maybe from the English or Philosophy department. The basic problem here is that the test is not simply a matter of learning some reading skills and has little to do with formal logic. It is based on its own agendas and patterns.
Questions to Ask Them: Same as above. It doesn't
matter much if the price is good and the schedule convenient if you are
not getting the insights and the personal attention you need.
The Pluses: If you're lucky, you might get some instruction equivalent to reading one of the commercial books.
The Minuses: If you are unlucky, you might get some pretty lame stuff in a high tech package. Assuming that you have done some research, checked out the materials and talked to the support people before you buy, there are a couple real issues to consider. Basically you are getting into an independent study situation. You may or may not have a support instructor.
Will you have the structure and discipline you need to work on your own? Many people do. Some don't. Do the materials go into any more depth than a commercial book? If not, you are only paying for a high tech presentation. Now, there is nothing wrong with paying a little more for something like computer based practicing with some high tech learning features. However, for copyright reasons, these materials are not actual LSAT questions and do not represent the actual patterns of the test. They can be misleading and I always advise my students to stay away from such materials.
What kind of support do you have with the program? I would not
recommend a program with no support at all. Instead I'd suggest buying
a book for a fraction of the price. If there is support, phone support
is ideal. Email support is cumbersome and impersonal. By the
time they answer your question and you ask them to clarify and they write
back and ask what you want clarified and you write back and explain, etc.,
etc. You get the idea. Finally, who is the support person you
will be working with? This really comes down to the basic problem
with most commercial programs. Most likely it is a hired person,
maybe even a recent law graduate, with very little real understanding of
the test. Ask the questions I suggested above. With these programs
there is the additional problem of whether you will get a different person
each time you call.
The Pluses: You are working closely and individually with someone who has a deep understanding of the underlying patterns and agendas of the LSAT, who can work with a variety of processing styles, who has strategies for test anxiety and timing and for people who are not good standardized test takers, and who basically has experience with the wide range of issues that come up for people trying to get into law school, including advice for what else to do if your LSAT score is not as high as you'd like.
The Minuses: The pluses are an ideal. Many people
offer to tutor on the LSAT but it is only one of dozens of things they
tutor. True LSAT experts are rather rare. They will probably
not be in your immediate area and you will have to be comfortable working
by phone together. My own program costs less than most of the programs
described above but other experts may be out of the price range of all
but the wealthiest.
If your diagnostic test is a little or a lot below where you'd like to be, you will probably not get the improvement you need on your own. If you have the time, you can work like crazy for a couple months and look at the improvement. If it's not there, you will probably need help.
"I'm a sharp person. Why do I need to hire someone to teach me the LSAT? Why can't I just practice it myself?" I'm glad you asked. I mentioned before that there is a specific reason why each right answer is right and why each wrong answer is wrong. But this is almost impossible to spot without some help. In fact I find that most of the instructors in commercial programs cannot spot it. Why? First, there is a fundamental hidden agenda, a foundation for what makes something right or wrong. They don't tell you what it is. It took me a full year of analyzing the test to discover it. And I had already read all of the commercial books without finding even any mention of this problem. After I discovered what they were really looking for, I could then for the first time start to understand that the questions were all built on particular patterns. Once you spot a pattern, you will see it again in later questions. There are hundreds and hundreds of patterns and they are not easy to see without some guidance from someone already familiar with them. This is the main reason why it is difficult to get beyond this point on your own.
"I resent having to do this test. I'm a bright person with
decent grades and yet I've gotten poor scores on practice tests.
I know this doesn't reflect who I am." I agree. Why does
this happen? My feeling is that the test is designed for people with
one particular type of processing style, the classic academic brain.
People whose strengths lie in different kinds of processing can end up
doing poorly on the test. In the modern world it is more and more
important that we have many different kinds of minds contributing to society.
In this sense the LSAT is doing a disservice. However, it is possible
to learn what the test is looking for, how to think the way the test writers
think, how to use your time as effectively as possible, and if necessary
how to prove to them that you are an excellent candidate even if your LSAT
scores do not rise as high as you would like.
Best wishes for your success!
Jay Cutts is the director of the Cutts Graduate Reviews.
He works with students nationwide through his innovative Cutts Personal LSAT Tutorial.
A free copy of his acclaimed booklet "How to Get Accepted to Grad School - A Take-Charge Approach" is available at his web site at http://www.cuttsreviews.com/jcutts/lsat/
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