Getting to Yes on the LSAT

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Before you start law school, the one book everyone will tell you to read is Getting to Maybe. As its subtitle How to Excel on Law School Exams might suggest, it’s a tract on how to excel on law school exams. Its essential thesis is that up to law school, most exams lavishly award students who can identify the “right” answer. But a law school exam — in which complex fact patterns are devised with no clear “right” answer, requiring students to apply legal analysis to both sides of an issue — is a different beast that requires a different approach. The book describes how to live and thrive in this land of “maybe” in which law school exams exist.

Before you start law school, of course, you also have to take the LSAT. And on the LSAT, well, there is a right answer. Not to blow your mind or anything, but there’s one right answer choice, and then four wrong answer choices. Which, I know, that’s a no duh statement if there’s ever been one. But think about what that means. For one — I’m not a math person, so someone might need to check my work here — it means 80% of the answer choices are wrong. It also means that 80% of the answer choices have at least one concrete, articulable reason why they’re wrong. It also means that questions do not feature more than one right answer, with one being “more right” than the other.

In other words, unlike law school exams, the LSAT isn’t a test that exists in the land of “maybe.” It’s a land of a “right”/”wrong” binary. And yet, in my experience, most students still approach these answer choices with “maybe” on their minds.

Some of us are fortunate enough — for the sake of our performance on these kinds of tests, anyway — to self-identify as someone who is “good” at standardized tests. But others self-identify as someone who is “not good” or even “bad” at standardized tests. There are a multitude of factors that might distinguish these two types of people, but after teaching many students and trying to pick their brains as they approach a question, I realized one of the most common traits shared by students who profess to struggle with standardized test related to how they approached the answer choices. It isn’t the case that they are less intelligent or conscientious than their standardized test-slaying peers. Their struggles have more to do with their generosity towards the answer choices.

Here’s what I mean: someone who tends to struggle on standardized tests like the LSAT will look at each answer choice through the lens of “maybe.” They’ll see answer choice (A) and think, “Hmm, there are definitely some things I don’t like about (A), but there are some things I like about it too. It’s maybe right, so let me look at (B) through (E) to see if any are better than (A).” And then they’ll look at (B), and think, “Well, (B) is maybe worse than (A), but it has some redeeming qualities, too. (A) is still the best, but I still want to compare (C) through (E) to (A), and maybe (B) as well, for good measure.” And then they apply the same analysis to (C), and (D), and (E). And usually they’re left with two or three answer choices. And then they’re forced to debate which one is “better.” And then they leave that question thinking they “maybe” got it right.

This is the exact wrong kind of approach to have on the LSAT. It’s not a test of “maybe” or of comparing the relative merits of answer choices. Those who self-identify as “good test takers” instead approach the answer choices by saying, simply, “Yes, this is correct” or “No, this is incorrect.” They don’t have to compare one answer choice to another. They don’t have to look for the redeeming qualities in otherwise problematic answer choices. And if you’re someone who struggles on standardized tests like the LSAT, this is how you should approach these answer choices too — with a “yes”/”no” approach.

You should be unsparing in your assessment of these answer choices. Remember, most of them are wrong. You should approach each answer choice as an opportunity to articulate why it’s wrong. And as soon as you see a problem with an answer choice, eliminate it. You don’t have to think about why it’s maybe redeemable, as if to spare the answer choice’s feelings. You can be incredibly harsh and dismissive to these answer choices, and they won’t take it personally. Trust me, I’ve been saying mean things about answer choices to classrooms full of people for years, with nary a peep from these answer choices.

Having this “maybe” approach might seem like careful and thorough analysis, but it really just slowing you down, wasting your mental energy, and putting you in a position to make all-too-common test mistakes. Approaching the answer choices with “maybe” means you’re given a full and complete analysis to every answer choices. Often more than once. If instead you approached these answer choices with a “yes”/”no” approach, you’d only have to look at each answer choice, at most, one time. And sometimes, when you find an answer choice you can say “yes” to early on, you don’t necessarily have to look at the remaining answer choices.

Comparing answer choices’ relative strengths and weaknesses also means you have to keep more than one answer choice in your head at a given time. So you’re keeping a lot of data in your head as you look at each answer choice. This overstresses your mental bandwidth and makes it harder to process new information. You’re making an already difficult question more difficult.

And when you’re in this land of “maybe” you’re increasing the likelihood that you’ll commit one of the most common mistakes on the LSAT: finding the right answer, looking at the remaining answer choices, getting distracted by something appealing in a wrong answer choice, and choosing the wrong one instead. If you just went with the answer choice that looked good initially, you would have gotten that question correct and saved some valuable time.

Instead of approaching answer choices with “maybe” mindset, you want to approach them with a “yes”/”no” mindset. Or really, a “no”/”yes” mindset. An answer choice carries an 80% probability of being wrong. It’s probably wrong. Look for problems with it. As soon as you see an issue with that answer choice, eliminate it. Even if the problem seems kind of minor — like, sure, this answer choice talking about what is morally unacceptable, and the question was talking about what is not morally virtuous, can I say those two are the same thing? — do what D.A.R.E. taught you and just say “no” to that answer choice.

If an answer choice doesn’t have any problems — or, better yet, if your answer choice matches what you anticipated to be correct — say “yes” to it. Select it, and be confident in your selection. Give a cursory look to the remaining answer choices if you must — again, quickly looking for problems with each answer choice. In my opinion though — and I should mention that this is a point on which reasonable minds differ — any time spent looking at the remaining answer choices is at best wasted time and at worst an opportunity to get tempted into selecting a sucker answer choice.

Of course, you won’t get every question correct with this approach. You’ll sometimes say “yes” to wrong answer choices and “no” to the right ones. But even when that happens, it’ll be a learning opportunity. You’ll be better able to retrace your mental steps through the question and figure out what led you to thinking an incorrect answer choice was correct. It’s a lot easier to figure out what you were thinking when you had a simple “no”/”yes” approach than if you had a super complicated approach that involves comparing and contrasting answer choices. And when you’re better able to figure out what led you to make a mistake, you’ll be less likely to make those mistakes in the future.

So for every question you do, approach the answer choices with a “no”/”yes” mindset. One exercise I’ve found useful: look at each answer choice by itself. Use note cards to cover the other answer choices. And make a decision about whether it’s right or wrong. You only get one opportunity to look at an answer choice, and you have to say “no” or “yes” to it. Once you say “yes” to an answer choice, check to see if you got it right, even if you haven’t looked at some of the remaining answer choices. You’ll find on most occasions, your first “yes” is the right answer. This will make feel more confident in your approach, and less likely to default to unhelpful “maybes.” And once you’re able to say “yes” to the answer choices, you won’t leave questions not feeling like you “maybe” got it right. You’ll feel like “Yes, I just earned that point.”

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