The LSAT is a tough test in any situation, but it’s even harder when English isn’t your native language. Still, there are specific ways that you can build your English skills to prepare for LSAT vocabulary words. And there are some methods you want to avoid because they are not efficient. I’d like to share suggestions for dealing with LSAT vocabulary words with you here.
But first, I want to share my background, in case it gives added credibility. I’ve tutored the LSAT for more than a decade, but I also have a background in teaching ESL. I have a master’s degree in Second Language Studies from the University of Hawaii, with a specialty in Second Language Teaching. So when non-native English speakers ask me how they should prep for the LSAT, I approach the question based on what I know about both the LSAT itself and about language learning in general.
What NOT to do
I’ve seen all sorts of inefficient or ineffective strategies recommended to non-native English speakers, so I want to take the time to tell you what you should NOT do.
Don’t memorize every unfamiliar word you see
You don’t have time for that. And it won’t be helpful because so many of these words are not going to show up again.
There’s a reading comprehension passage about “lichenometry.” Do you know what that is? Probably not. Neither did I. And none of my native English students knew either. If you learn it now, you’re wasting space in your brain. That word is not likely to show up on the LSAT again.
Don’t learn GRE words or Latin/Greek word roots
Learning GRE words would be great if you are taking the GRE. Learning Latin or Greek word roots would help if you are taking the SAT or as part of a general vocabulary strategy. But neither of these strategies are focused on the LSAT. The GRE tests vocabulary much more explicitly than the LSAT, so you need to know words like “bucolic” if you are taking the GRE. You probably don’t need that on the LSAT.
Don’t use the dictionary until after you commit to an answer
You won’t be able to use a dictionary on the real test, so you need to get good at understanding things from context. Practice making guesses about what words mean. Of course, after you finish the practice test or after you finish a question while you are drilling, then pull out your dictionary. Look up what you need. Check whether your guess about the word was right or not. Decide whether or not to learn the word.
Don’t worry about understanding 100%
I’m a native English speaker who scored a 177 on the LSAT, and there are STILL parts of some reading comprehension passages that I don’t really understand. That’s ok. You only have to understand enough to be able to answer the questions. And you only have to understand four out of the five answer choices to be able to use elimination as a strategy. Keep working to build your comprehension skills in your review, but don’t obsess over 100% comprehension while first attempting the question.
LSAT Vocabulary Words
There are several types of LSAT vocabulary words you should learn, but your strategy for each of them should be a little different.
Vocabulary with specific LSAT meanings
There are a lot of words that you’ve already learned before in English that you now need to learn exact LSAT definition words for. These include words like the following:
All LSAT students, whether native or non-native English speakers, need to learn these words. Sometimes you might be surprised about how the LSAT defines them. For example, in normal conversation, saying “Some cars in the parking lot are white” means you probably have at least three white cars. But on the LSAT, it could also mean that just one car is white.
In normal conversation, when we say you get “soup or salad” with your meal, we mean you have to choose just one of them. On the LSAT, “soup or salad” means “only soup, only salad, or both soup and salad.”
A great resource for this type of vocabulary learning is chapter 31 in Mike Kim’s The LSAT Trainer. You can find this book on Amazon, but this chapter is also available as a free sample.
Vocabulary used in question stems or LSAT prep books
No matter what book or course you use to prepare for the LSAT, you’re going to come across certain words to describe question types or the structure of the LSAT.
Examples of words that don’t show up on the LSAT, but appear in prep books:
- stimulus – the paragraph above the question in the LR section
- question stem – the question, not including the answer choices
- sequencing/linear – games that involve putting things in order
- grouping/matching – games that involve putting things into groups
Different books may have different terminology here, and that’s ok. Just know that what one book calls a sequencing game, another book may call a linear game. You don’t have to memorize these words.
Examples of words in prep books that also show up in question stems:
- complete and acceptable
These can be some of the most important words you learn. Take the time to make flashcards. But don’t just learn what the word means in your native language. Make sure you also understand the concept behind the word. For example, make sure you can explain what a paradox is and give an example of it.
Both the LR and the RC sections will have a lot of vocabulary words, and as I said before, you do NOT want to memorize every word you don’t know. But that also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn any of them. You should prioritize the words that are more common, and therefore likely to show up on future tests.
But it can be hard to know what words are “common” when it’s not your native language and you might not know the words in the first place. So how do you know which words are most useful to learn? Luckily, researchers have tackled that question for academic English.
The Academic Word List is a list of English words that appear most commonly in university settings. It skips over the 2000 most common English words (words like “the” or “car” – words that you already know). And it only includes words that are found in diverse academic areas in the arts, commerce, law, and science, which means it won’t include words that are specific to chemistry or art history, for example. What this means is that the list is a good way to make sure you have the foundational vocabulary to complete academic work in English – which includes the LSAT and law school itself.
The Academic Word List is broken up into 10 sublists. The words on sublist 1 are more frequent than the words on sublist 2, and so on. So it makes sense to start with sublist 1, make sure you know all those words, and then move on to another list.
I recommend using this pdf version of the list. This list just shows you the main form of each of the words. If you want to see the different forms of the words (ex: “benefit” + “beneficial” + “beneficiary”) use this version of the list. You won’t find definitions in these pdfs, but you can find a Quizlet version of the list with definitions.
Tone and opinion vocabulary
In reading comprehension, questions about the author’s tone or opinion regularly include vocabulary that you can prepare for ahead of time. These tone words are worth learning. They include words like the following:
You can learn them by creating a list based on any tone questions you encounter. Or use this list here.
Other tips for LSAT vocabulary words
One other way to deal with the difficult vocabulary words on the LSAT is to avoid them as much as possible. Play to your strengths. Build those strengths. That way, vocabulary will have less of an impact on your score.
Get good at games
I had a friend from Korea attending law school at the University of Hawaii. He had gone to law school at Yonsei University in Seoul, then did his LLM in Hawaii before joining their JD program. He shared with me a practice test for the Korean equivalent of the LSAT. There’s no way my intermediate Korean skills are up to the challenge of the Reading Comp section of the Korean LSAT. But the Logic Games – I could do those! (My inner nerd was so happy to be able to combine my interest in language learning with my love of LSAT.)
I tell this story as a way of saying that even when English is not your native language, there will still be some parts of the LSAT that don’t require as much English. Especially logic games. Take the time to get really good at logic games. If you can get to the point where you only miss a couple of questions in the games section, that gives you so much more flexibility in the sections that require more English.
Prioritize in LR and RC
If an LR stimulus or an RC passage is just too tough to understand, find something easier to do first. Some of the passages are really difficult, even for native English speakers. The time you take to figure out those passages is time you could spend on easier questions. Make sure you get all of the easy points first before you devote energy to the questions that are hard to understand.
Then when you review afterward, take the time you need to make sure you understand the LR stimulus or the reading passage.
Don’t get discouraged. The LSAT is a tough test for everyone. If English is not your native language, you might need to put in extra work to prepare, but try not to get frustrated about the process. Instead, think of the inspiration you will be to others when you succeed. So work hard, reach out for help if you need it, and do your best.
If this post resonated with you, I’d love to stay in touch. About once a week, in the form of an email newsletter, I share useful strategies and insights I’ve picked up during my years teaching the LSAT. “LSAT Notes” you can use to study more effectively and raise your score.
Often these are inspired by breakthroughs my students had that week. Other times, they respond to questions students like you have. My goal is to provide motivation and encouragement along with knowledge about the test and advice about how to study.
Learn more about it here, or to subscribe, simply fill in the form below.