How Many Practice Exams Should You Take?

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If you were tasked, by some cruel and capricious force, with completing a piano recital at a theater full of people, would you start preparing for the performance by attempting to complete the recital, from beginning to end, over and over again? Most of us who don’t know the first thing about pianos could not start this way; those who would have to endure our discordant performances might also prefer we didn’t.

Or, if you were compelled to prepare an elaborate, multi-course meal for a gathering of friends, would you work on your cooking skills by preparing a series of over-the-top meals for your friends? For most of us who lack finer culinary skills, we could not start this way without wasting a tremendous amount of food; plus, our friends who would rather not develop gout by eating a lot of bad meals might prefer we didn’t.

Or, if you were enjoined to complete a complex medical procedure, would you prep by simply throwing on some scrubs and gloves and trying to complete this procedure on unsuspecting victims? For most of us who found remedial biology classes a bit too complicated, we could not start that way; moreover, our state or province probably has some laws that express, in no uncertain terms, that it also would prefer we didn’t.

And how many sweaty recitals, burnt entrées, or botched procedures would you have endure before you were “ready” to do the thing satisfactorily? Speaking for myself, there are not enough malpractice attorneys on this planet to rectify all the wreckage in my path to get “ready” to perform a pancreatectomy.
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Plainly, trying to do a bunch of full performances, or cook a bunch of full meals, or fully botch a bunch of surgeries would not be the best way to prepare to do any of these tasks. These tasks require a refined set of skills, knowledge, and experience. Doing these tasks obviously requires the slow accumulation of skills and knowledge, and once accrued, the careful and considered application of those skills and knowledge. We’re only ready to do these tasks satisfactorily after we gain all that knowledge and experience.

Those first paragraphs probably didn’t blow your mind (at least if you didn’t wonder what they might be doing in a blog about LSAT practice exams). Of course we want doctors to get a little knowledge and experience before committing to intensive surgery. We, like, make them go to school for that. We all know this. But then, when we start studying for something else that requires the application of a refined set of skills, knowledge, and experience — the LSAT — so many of us sort of forget that. We say, “OK, let’s get to taking some of these LSATs.” We ask, “How many practice LSAT exams do I have to take before I’m ready to take the LSAT for real?”

The latter is a question I hear all the time. I imagine nearly every student with the thought bubble reading, “How many practice exams should I take?” But this is an impossible question, with no correct answer. The answer is different for everyone. As you’ll soon learn to say in law school in response to so many hypothetical fact patterns proposed by your professor, the answer is really, truly, “It depends.”

It depends, largely, on whether you are starting with the refined set of skills and knowledge that the LSAT tests. If you asked a concert pianist or a professional chef or a licensed surgeon how many practice attempts they’d need to get ready for, respectively, a recital or an elaborate meal or a complex procedure, their answer would certainly be, “Zero.” They already have the skills, knowledge, and experience. Likewise, there are some (truly loathsome) people who sort of naturally possess the skills and knowledge needed for the LSAT. They don’t need any practice exams to get ready for the LSAT. For the rest of us, we might need quite a few more.

But there’s no magic number of LSAT practice exams you should schedule. Some students are able to earn excellent scores with only a few exams. Some take literally every available practice exam and still don’t acquire that satisfactory score. The number of exams people take isn’t that strongly correlated with the score they eventually receive. Whether these students took the time to master the concepts and strategies tested on the LSAT is a far greater predictor of success.

I sympathize with people’s desires to start taking practice exams as soon as possible, and with their ambitions to take as many exams as possible. Most people start their studies with an initial diagnostic exam — which almost inevitably goes poorly — so they want to redeem themselves as soon and as frequently as possible. But this is impulse you should try to curb. When I’m customizing a study plan for a student after they took their first diagnostic exam, I don’t even have them do any timed practice until I know they’ve acquired all the skills and nailed down all the strategies for this test. I don’t have them take a full, timed exam until they’ve gotten a least a few weeks’ timed practice, slowly and incrementally easing into the speed required by a full exam. Then, and only then, will they take a full practice LSAT.

Until you get to that point, I don’t think taking a practice exam is a terribly productive use of your time. If you take an exam before that point, you’ll probably repeat many of the mistakes you made on your first diagnostic exam. Your score won’t materially change. You’ll probably be discouraged. And you’ll have wasted a better part of an afternoon.

But once you get to the point, you don’t need all that many practice exams, to be honest. After you get to this point, use whatever time you have remaining until the LSAT to take some exams, review them carefully, try to pinpoint areas you can review and improve upon. For Blueprint students, we like to give them 13 practice LSAT exams with explanations, and then use the rest of the questions from the other released exams in their homework. There are certainly some students I would recommend taking a greater number of practice exams. Those who experience significant testing anxiety, for instance, can benefit from a lot of practice exams (especially if they take those exams outside their homes in less-than-ideal testing conditions). Those who need to build the mental endurance to stand up to a nearly four-hour exam can also benefit from a lot of practice exams. Even if these sound like you, though, you should still wait until you’ve mastered the skills and approaches required by this test before you start taking those exams.

I mean, you wouldn’t embarrassment by performing a recital before you knew how to play the piano, you wouldn’t waste food by preparing an over-the-top meal until you knew how to cook the dishes, and you wouldn’t countenance criminal charges by operating a patient without first becoming a licensed medical professional. Likewise, don’t rush into practice exams until you’re ready.

BONUS: While we’re talking practice exams, here are four of the biggest misconceptions about taking practice exams:

1. The more the merrier: With practice exams, quantity doesn’t trump all else (… that was kind of the point of this blog (if you missed that … hooo boy, Reading Comp isn’t going to be fun for you)). Focus on quality instead. You should be well-rested for each practice exam. You should try to replicate test conditions as closely as possible (which entails doing the exam outside your home). And you should thoroughly review each exam. A single quality practice exam will help you more than multiple of haphazardly taken exams.

2. The score tells you everything: The scaled score (the number between 120 and 180 we’re all freaking out about) tells us only part of the story of a practice exam. Frankly, the score is a dumb, brutish number. It won’t tell you how you’re improving or which areas you need to review. To get the full picture of your performance, you have to dig a little bit deeper. Get some blind review of the practice exam. Try to take stock of the types of questions you’re improving on, and which questions you still need some work on.

3. Anyone can “practice test” their way to a great score: The dirty secret about practice exams is that they don’t, in and of themselves, really improve your score. Practice exams are great for a few things: measuring your progress, giving you experience working under the time constraints imposed by the exam, and working out testing strategies. But they don’t help you understand the material on the exam and they don’t really improve your accuracy. In fact, given the duress you’re under while taking the exam, exams can sometimes hinder your accuracy. To help improve and maintain your accuracy, it’s important to mix in untimed review in between your timed practice exams. By the way, you may hear from many people on the internet [cough, Reddit forums, cough] who claimed that they simply took X number of practice exams and then earned a great score. In all likelihood, these people are the previously mentioned, potentially loathsome people who already possessed an intuitive understanding of this material. They came to the test already with the skills and concepts; they just needed a little bit of experience through the practice exams. It’s important to remember that these people are the exception and that most of us need to start with and continue to work on understanding the foundational concepts of the LSAT.

4. You can expect your score on the real test to drop by at least a few points: People meet or exceed their practice exam scores on the real test all the time. Those who say you should definitely expect your PE scores to drop a few points on the real test are, in the parlance of the internet, telling on themselves. The real test will be, in all relevant ways, the same as any practice exam you took. Sure, the conditions might be a little less hospitable, but the same strategies that work on those practice exams will work on the real exam. The only reason you should expect your score to go drop would be if you didn’t master the bedrock skills before taking the test, but instead relied on things easily shaken by a change in testing conditions, like your intuition. (And if you just took diagrammed and took the contrapositive of that statement to figure out why those people who told you to expect a score drop on the real test experienced a score drop themselves, congratulations. You have at least some of the bedrock skills required by this test).

One Response

  1. Rachael says:

    The person who wrote this definitely isn’t a concert pianist!

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