Are you frustrated with your progress on the LSAT? Or wondering why it feels like you’re always taking two steps forward, one step back? Typical improvement on the LSAT unfortunately isn’t always linear, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. In fact, there can be some very good reasons why you may be seeing those fluctuations and dips in your score even though you are making progress.
What we wish typical LSAT improvement was like
We all wish that we could take a diagnostic, start studying, and see our scores increase step by step on every single practice test we take. we would be able to calculate exactly when we could reach our target score, and it would be clear that our improvement would be proportional to the time and effort we put into it. Unfortunately, that’s not the way life or the LSAT works.
What typical LSAT improvement is really like
Improvement on the LSAT typically involves starts and stops, increases, dips, and plateaus. It’s perfectly natural for your score to stay at a certain point for a while. It’s also perfectly natural to see one section go down while another section goes up. Sometimes you’ll see a big leap in your score, only to find that your next practice test settles back down into familiar territory. And sometimes you’ll totally tank a test.
It can be frustrating. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress.
The nature of non-linear progress
We often believe that progress is linear, but the reality is that progress is actually a much more messy process.
One of my favorite illustrations of the reality of progress can be found in James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. In chapter 1, give the example of an ice cube sitting in a cold room. in order to melt the ice cube, you have to raise the temperature of the room from 20°, to 21°, to 22°, and so on. You won’t actually see the ice cube start to melt, however, until you pass 32°, but that doesn’t mean that all of the prior efforts you put into raising the temperature up to that point was wasted. It was valuable progress, even though the effect of that progress can’t be seen until a certain tipping point is reached.
Typical LSAT improvement is similar. The efforts that you are taking ARE worthwhile, and you likely ARE making progress, even if you can’t see it yet.
In the rest of this post, you’ll learn some specific ways that your progress on the LSAT may not be linear.
Progress =/= points
The progress you make while you are learning how to tackle certain questions or game types doesn’t always immediately result in points gained. But it might still be real progress.
For example, you may have started out more or less guessing on certain question types. But now you have a better idea of what you’re doing, and you’re usually able to eliminate two answers with confidence. That’s progress! You may still be missing questions, but you’re a lot closer now to getting them right.
Or you may have started out with the logic games feeling impenetrable. But now you’ve learned how to diagram most of the rules, even if you often mess up one of them. Or even if the questions themselves are still hard. That doesn’t negate the progress you’re making, though!
Keep at it, because just like that ice cube is going to melt eventually if we keep raising the temperature in the room, your progress WILL turn into points soon.
The learning curve
Another way that progress can manifest itself is actually as a score decline, oddly enough. Consider this LSAT-esque paradox question:
You’ve learned a lot about LR, and so your accuracy on LR questions was much higher on your last practice section. However, your total number correct in the section went down.
Which of the following, if true, would resolve the discrepancy above?
The correct answer is the following:
In order to achieve your high accuracy, you took more time on each question, leading you to answer fewer questions on this practice section than on your last.
This is a natural learning curve. When we first learn to do something, we’re not super quick at it at first. Speed comes when we proceduralize and automatize the process.
Think of a baby who is actually pretty fast at crawling. When they first learn to walk, they won’t be able to get around as fast at first. But give them some time, and soon they’ll be running a lot faster than they ever could have crawled.
In this case too, your best bet is just to keep at it. Don’t focus too much on your speed. Just work on building your accuracy and your skills. Speed will come naturally as you internalize the process. And once that happens, there will be no doubt that you’ve improved.
As much as we want to think of a 154 and a 155 as being two totally different scores, they’re actually within the range of natural statistical fluctuation. Standardized tests aren’t exact sciences. It’s normal for scores to fluctuate a few points. In fact, you should view every score as a rough ballpark of your true ability.
Say you score a 155 on a practice test. It’s hard to know whether that is a high or low estimate of your ability. Your true ability may lie somewhere between a 153 and a 157, for example.
A corollary of this is that a string of 155s may actually show progress. Perhaps the first 155 involved a decent amount of luck, and so the score is an optimistic, overly generous portrayal of your skill. But if you test again after studying hard, you might get the same 155, but this time, perhaps you were unlucky on most of your guesses. In this case, the 155 is a conservative estimate of your skill.
It might not look like you’re making progress, but if you keep at it, eventually even a low estimate of your score will be higher than a high estimate of your previous score. And that’s when your LSAT improvement will definitely turn into points.
Trade-offs between sections
Often when we study, we focus on one section for a while before shifting our focus to another section. In other words, we’ll work hard on improving our games until we feel like we have a better handle on them. And then we’ll switch back to LR.
When we take a practice test, then, we may find that improvement on the section we’ve been focusing on is canceled out by a dip in the sections we’ve allowed to get rusty.
This is also a normal part of progress. When we’re still in learning mode, it’s hard to focus on everything. As our skills grow and our processes become more automatic, though, we gain the ability to switch our focus between sections more easily. Once that happens, we should see fewer trade-offs between sections.
The mind game
Finally, real progress you’ve been making on the LSAT might be hard to see directly if your performance on test sections is strongly affected by the psychological aspect of the test. These psychological aspects could include test anxiety, stamina and focus, overthinking, rushing, lack of confidence, distraction, tiredness, and more.
There have been plenty of times a student of mine has been upset by a dip in their practice test score. But when I ask whether there could have been anything affecting them while they were testing, sometimes there’s a very real, legitimate reason for the dip. Here are some real answers I’ve gotten:
- I had just had a fight with my dad and I remember replaying the fight in my head during section 3.
- I took the test on a plane. (Note: Tests on a plane are never a true indication of your ability.)
- I started the test around midnight. (Fun fact: When I was prepping for the LSAT, I started a test around 10pm once. I was literally nodding off during the RC section. I guess the passages must have been pretty boring! That test was obviously not my best work, but since I didn’t plan to take the real test at 10pm, I didn’t worry too much about it.)
- I was worried about my timing, so I tried to rush through and do the RC questions without looking back at the passage.
It might sound a bit like we’re making excuses, but that’s not really the goal. Instead, the goal is to recognize what affected your score so that you can try your best to prevent that same thing from happening again next time.
I hope that this discussion of why typical LSAT improvement isn’t linear was encouraging to you. I know LSAT prep can get pretty discouraging and frustrating sometimes, but it helps to have a more accurate and realistic picture of what true progress might look like.
It’s one of the reasons I advocate pausing regularly in your studies to reflect on your progress. It’s also why I include reflection in the blind review process that I advocate to students. (The LSAT Practice Test Review Guide I created has pages specifically dedicated to this reflection process, as well as space for you to log any external factors that may have impacted your performance on a particular practice test.)
So next time you get discouraged, try looking for the progress you’ve actually made:
- Are you getting closer to answering the questions correctly?
- Did timing naturally suffer because you are focusing on accuracy?
- Might luck have played a role, either now or on your previous high score?
- Did you make gains in one area, even if not overall?
- Did something external to the test affect your performance?
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