How I studied for the LSAT without Kaplan

Good Monday morning!

Many law school hopefuls are gearing up for the June LSAT, and many more will be taking the test this fall. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with various people about what to expect, what works, what doesn’t… and it’s much too much to fit into a 15 minute conversation at work or in the halls between classes. So I’d like to take the blog in a retrospective direction today and detail exactly how it was that I studied for the LSAT, and specifically, how I did it without an expensive test-prep agency like Kaplan.

Before I begin, just a note to say that I don’t claim my method is the only method or the best method, but it worked very well for me and I don’t think anyone can be hurt by having too many ideas about what might work for them. I also have nothing bad to say about test-prep services. Constance and I took the test at the same time, started studying at the same time, and stayed within 1-2 points of one another through the entirety of the process. She took a course, I studied independently. To Kaplan or not to Kaplan, again, is about what’s best for you. I think an important consideration is self-discipline, but money plays into it.

So, how I took the LSAT . . .

1. I took the June LSAT.

I think taking the June LSAT definitely contributed to my success. Being finished with finals in the first week of May, I had a solid six weeks to study. I can’t imagine having to do it over again and having to study while balancing school work, papers, tests, and my real job.

I should also quickly address a rumor that Constance and I heard, which was that the June LSAT is harder. I guess I can’t say for sure if the October test that year was way easier or anything, but I know we were both thrilled about the logic games selections on our test.

2. I started with a comprehensive introduction to the LSAT (LSAT for Dummies).

It doesn’t have to be LSAT for Dummies. There are, as you can imagine, several on the market. (Barron’s Passkey was only $10 new at Hasting’s.) But I read it cover to cover, including the introductory remarks, etc. Until you understand the test, you can’t start planning to study the test. Dummies was great because it talked a little about a section, then supplied a few practice problems just to get a feeling, then explained the practice problems. Once I understood the test (sort of)…

3. I made a plan.

As I said before, I think the Kaplan/self-study question hinges quite a bit on how disciplined/organized you are. I love to organize. After I read the book, I made a huge wall calendar with my projected study plan, and crossed out each day. I put stars on days I would take another practice test, and I wrote my score down after I took it. I had a folder for my practice tests, and one morning I spent a few hours plotting all my individual section score averages on a chart.

Shortly before my commitment to an asylum.

Shortly before my commitment to an asylum.

It doesn’t have to be very complicated. The actual plan consisted of one practice test per week. (Occasionally, I would do two.) When I took my first diagnostic, I determined which section I was performing the worst on, and dedicated the next week to it. I would take another diagnostic at the end of the week, and then dedicate the week after to the new low scorer (because the weak section would inevitably improved!).

Test early, test often.

Test early, test often.

Depending on what section type I was working on, I mixed timed sections with unstructured practice. When doing unstructured practice (practicing a handful of problems at a time, without a timer, and then checking the answer), I went from easy problems to very hard problems when possible (some materials, e.g. Kaplan, indicate the difficulty). In the beginning, most of my section practice was unstructured, so that I could just focus on getting good at the problems. Over the six weeks, I gradually transitioned to doing more and more timed sections, until that was almost all that I did towards the end.

Idea for timed sections:

Give yourself 23 minutes instead of 25. An extra 2 minutes on test day feels like forever.

But, as you can imagine, it can get boring studying one type of problem for hours a day, so…

4. I was flexible with my schedule and methods.

The process doesn’t have to be punishing. I took vacation days. And I was kind to my frazzled brain even on study days. Sometimes I would get really bored with reading comp, so I’d play logic games for an hour, and then get back to it. If you don’t like logic games, maybe read a magazine to unwind a little bit, but practice your “active reading” by taking notes in the margins and circling/underlining key phrases. I also found the writing sample prompts to be easy/somewhat fun, so I would mix those in.

5. I was open to other types of practice.

This ties in pretty closely with the previous point. Practice problems can get awful. Be creative (and forgiving of yourself) by making up new ways to study that are more fun for you (even if you only dedicate a little “break time” to them). Barron’s Passkey had a great tip for improving reading comprehension (RC) that was similar to the advice above.

Tip from Barron’s Passkey on improving RC:

Read the op/ed column in your local paper daily. The letters are similar in length and content to an RC passage. Read actively and then summarize the article in a few lines. What was it about? What was the author’s main contention? Did the author respond to criticism or provide examples?

I would also take old logic games to work. As a waitress it worked for me because if I wasn’t finishing in the 7-9 minute window, my customers would get antsy.

also found a recording online (Thanks, PadawanLaw!) to help build up my tolerance to noise. This was probably the weirdest thing I did.

For best results, remove Kitton Mittons.

For best results, remove Kitton Mittons.

6. I made sure I had the right materials (10 Actual, Official LSAT Preptests).

One book you must buy is 10 Actual, Official LSAT Preptests. Buy the most recent version, and only take diagnostics out of this book. The LSAT has gotten progressively more sophisticated (read: difficult) in its 50 years of terror. I once experienced a 5 point jump after dedicating the entire morning to a test, only to find that I had mistakenly taken Preptest 19 (June 1996).

7. I saved money on materials by soliciting friends and reusing problems.

Save a bunch of money by begging your friends for their old materials. I inherited two sets of Kaplan books from political science students who had taken the test before me, and used the problems for untimed practice. You should also do exercises in pencil and buy a fat eraser. I did some problems three times over (with some time in between, of course).

You can also save money by not going to law school.

You can also save money by not going to law school.

8. I spent money on new material when I needed to.

Especially when identifying your weaknesses, be ready to sink some money into this process. While a Kaplan course costs a ton, I still ended up spending about $200 on books, including a last-minute panic-purchase: Kaplan’s Reading Comprehension, $50. That was a waste, only because I hadn’t been studying with “the Kaplan method,” so I spent an hour or so debating whether I was going to try and learn their system or just keep on keepin’ on. This was a week away from the test.

So don’t go crazy. I made a trip to the bookstore probably once a week and bought every logic games book I could find (Kaplan, Princeton Review, and McGraw-Hill, which is the best value). At a certain point, however, the books are all emulating the same restricted set of problems (say, the logic games from the past 12-15 tests?). So while multiple sets of A, B, C, D, E, F, and G all have different names/meanings, and the “scenarios” are different, they will all need to be sorted into 3 categories, and will all have the same restrictions (A->BC, D=F, G#F,D). I was incredibly pleased to make a perfect score on a logic games section (once), but that was only because I had seen the same pattern of restrictions in another book.

Look familiar?

Ask yourself: does this look familiar?

9. I simulated conditions as much as possible.

When taking practice tests, it is a waste of a test and your time not to time it correctly. I also made sure to go somewhere besides my desk at my house (the library, mostly) and sit down to take it. I gave myself the 1 minute breaks and the longer break in the middle. Again, saving money is dependent on discipline. LSAC offers simulated test days, but you can save yourself some bother if you trust yourself.

I would also recommend doing the writing sample a few times. Anyone who says they did it every time is a liar, because it sucks. It’s not graded and you’ve been testing for hours. But even though I felt comfortable with my writing skills, I did feel like I needed to practice writing while exhausted.

10. I rewarded myself afterwards with an hour-long massage.

This was Constance’s idea and definitely the best part. We also had a fancy dinner, so I guess I really spent about $400 on the test. But it was way better than a Kaplan course, I can promise you that.

If you have any more specific questions or good tips, leave them in the comments! Thanks for reading!

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