Want to Become a Public Interest Lawyer? Focus on the LSAT

By Mikaila Smith

Mikaila is a rising 3L at the University of Chicago Law School. The subject of this post -the LSAT – is an important one for aspiring public interest lawyers. Your LSAT score is one of the most important factors in law school admissions decisions, and where you go to law school is one of the most important factors in determining your options after law school. This post is especially useful for people who cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars on LSAT prep courses and tutoring. If you are in that position, you need to study more, not less. Mikaila explains how she did it.

If you want to work as a public interest lawyer, you should try to get the best LSAT score you possibly can. Pursuing a public interest legal career requires commitment at every turn. The vast majority of your classmates will follow well-tread, lucrative pathways into firm work. If you have a six-figure debt piling up, it will be really difficult to forgo a firm job to follow your passion.

That’s where the LSAT comes in. A high score will not only help you get into a top law school, but also increase your chances of receiving merit aid. The hours you invest in studying for the test could literally save you thousands of dollars in law school debt. The below guide outlines the method that I used to self-study for the LSAT. My test-day score was 12 points higher than my first practice test.

You should also apply to a wide variety of schools. And if a school offers you a substantive scholarship, seriously consider taking them up on the offer—even if it’s a lower-ranked school than some of your other options. You will feel much more empowered to pursue your passion if you have more financial freedom.

It took me four months to figure out how to properly study for the LSAT and see any significant progress in my test scores. My goal is to save you that trial-and-error process so you can start studying with a sense of confidence. I’ve shared my method with a number of friends and mentees, all of whom found this a helpful starting place. Of course, studying is highly individualized: this is just what worked for me, and you may need to adjust as you go along.

This guide is for you if:

1) You are 100% committed to applying to law school 

Dedicating yourself to the LSAT is incredibly difficult. You need motivation and a strong sense of what all the work is for: to help you get into great law schools and (potentially) receive merit-based scholarships. So I don’t recommend studying for the LSAT until you know you want to go to law school. 

2) You have already weighed the pros and cons of applying to law school with the LSAT vs. the GRE

The right answer here depends on your specific goals, but make life easy for yourself. Pick a test and stick with it. 

3) You plan to self-study 

I didn’t take a prep course for financial reasons, but I actually think that self-study is a better option even for many people who can afford prep courses. Studying for the LSAT is an exercise in closely examining how you learn and how you can teach your brain to avoid falling for the same tricks over and over again. You are your own best teacher. That said, prep courses can be incredibly helpful if you know that you will struggle to stick to a study schedule or depending on your particular learning style. And self-studying is still expensive. I spent about $650 total on the LSAT* (textbooks, practice tests, plus the cost of the actual test). 

* I relied on the logic games videos by 7sage in my prep, and I strongly recommend them. They used to provide their logic games videos for free, but now they cost $69/month to access. Also, if you’re on a budget definitely look online (especially Facebook Marketplace) for second hand books and practice tests.

If those three criteria apply to you, then by all means give this study guide a go! I’m always happy to answer questions or hear how it works for you. You can reach me at mikaila.smith@gmail.com.

Step One: Choose the Right Amount of Time

Studying for the LSAT is like training for a marathon. You should plan to take it once, and you should develop a rigorous training plan that will get you to test day with the best score you’re capable of getting. If you make the investment upfront to plan every step of your studying, you will be able to trust the process you’ve laid out for yourself.

So how do you make a study plan?

I based my study plan on hours/day of studying, instead of setting specific goals for each day (like “take x number of practice sections”). I recommend this approach. Make sure your study time is highly focused. Set a timer, and take a short five-minute break every hour.

I studied for three hours every day, six days a week. My study period lasted for 19 weeks. In the last six weeks of studying, I started studying for longer (around four hours) on the two days per week that I took prep tests to make sure I was getting used to the duration of an actual LSAT test. All in all, plan to spend at least 400 to 450 hours studying for the LSAT. The best study plans are consistent and spread out over time. So if you can only do two hours/day, make a 33 week study plan.

You don’t want to study a tiny bit at a time over a very long period because that increases the risk of burnout. I would not recommend studying one hour/day for a year, for example. The most important thing, though, is to be realistic about your ability to fit LSAT studying in with the rest of your obligations. You don’t want to abandon your LSAT study halfway through and start back up a year later, as you’ll lose a lot of progress.

Once you know how many weeks you need, pick a test date and work backwards to determine when you need to start. Pick the day that you’ll take off each week, and then start to fill out the rest of your study plan.

Step Two: Make Your Study Plan and Ration Your Practice Tests

The best way to study for the LSAT is to practice with previously administered tests. I took two full practice tests/week, one on Wednesdays and one on Sundays. My rest day was Saturday. PLEASE commit to taking a rest day. The LSAT is consuming and difficult. You need at least one day per week where you are not thinking about it at all, both for your mental health and for your eventual success on the test!

Plan to take the most recent practice tests right before your test day. Determine which days you will take practice tests (keep them consistent every week) and then count backwards from your test date. You should take around 34 full timed practice tests.

Why not 38 full timed practice tests (2/week for 19 weeks)? Because you should use the first ~40 hours of studying to simply familiarize yourself with the test. That brings us to step #3:

Step Three: Familiarize Yourself with the Test

You need a framework to engage with the LSAT—a way to categorize the different question types and the logic tricks deployed by the testmakers. I recommend buying the PowerScore LSAT books (e-books are fine, and you should use the most recent edition) for all three sections.

For the first ~40 hours of studying, just focus on understanding the PowerScore approach. Read through the books and take detailed notes—handwritten if that helps you learn better (it does for me). Do the exercises. Make flashcards. Treat these books like a textbook, and commit to learning their method. But don’t take too long doing this, because the practice tests really are the most important part.

On the real test you will have to switch between sections, and I recommend beginning this very early on. Don’t spend a whole day dedicated to reading comprehension. Instead, if you’re studying 3 hours/day, spend an hour on reading comprehension, an hour on logic games, and an hour on logical reasoning. As you get closer to test day you can adjust this approach to focus on the sections that are most challenging for you.

Step Four: Review Practice Tests Effectively  

I often speak to people who have been studying for the LSAT for a long time and feel like they’re getting nowhere. They keep taking practice tests, and they’re not getting better. That’s a really frustrating place to be.

In most cases, people in this situation are not deploying effective strategies to review their practice tests. Many people take a practice test, grade it, review the questions they got wrong, and move on.

This method of reviewing is a missed opportunity. Here’s how to effectively review your practice tests:

1. As you take a practice test, mark all the questions that you feel unsure about.

2. After taking the test, do not grade your test or look at the answer key! Just set the test aside. The next day, slowly and methodically work back through the test and go back to every question you were unsure about. If you decide to change your answer on any of the questions, keep track of the answer you originally put down during the timed test, as well as your new answer.

3. Now grade your test. You should have two scores: the original timed score, and the score after you reviewed your test and (possibly) changed some of your answers.

4. First review the questions that you got wrong in the original but got right after changing your answer. Make sure you understand what happened in these questions.

5. Next (and this is the most time-consuming part) review the questions you got wrong. For each question, write out the following (again, I handwrote because it helps me digest the information. You can type, too.):

            – The question itself

            – Your original, incorrect answer

            – The right answer

– In your own words, why your answer was wrong and why the right answer is right.

Then, go onto https://forum.powerscore.com/ and find the appropriate test, section, and question and then read through the forum. This is where other test takers and the PowerScore staff discuss the rationale behind each right answer and practice question. If you find any of the explanations helpful, incorporate them into your written notes on that question.

Manhattan Prep also has a free forum of explanations for logical reasoning and reading comprehension that are worth looking at: https://www.manhattanprep.com/lsat/forums/.

For logic games, it’s most helpful to watch the explanation videos made by 7sage: https://7sage.com/logic-game-explanations/. Unfortunately, these explanations are no longer free, as they were when I studied.

6. Once you have done this for each of the questions you got wrong, create a shorthand that notes how many questions you got wrong in each section and what type of questions they were (using the PowerScore method of categorizing question types). This way, you’ll be able to see over time what sections and question types are trickiest for you. You can use this information to identify patterns and weak spots as you study.

7. Next, on your study plan mark the days that you will next review the questions you got wrong. You want to give yourself enough time to forget what the right answer is. About two weeks was usually enough for me. Make sure that you erase the ‘right’ answer indicator on the test itself, so that when you come back to that question two weeks from now all you will know is that you got this question wrong before. Then see if you get the question correct, or if you fall for the same trick. If you get it wrong again, plan to come back to that question again two weeks later.

Yes, this method is time consuming and slow. But it is highly effective. The test makers of the LSAT use many of the same tricks over and over again, so you want to go for quality, not quantity, when reviewing the practice tests.

Step Five: Have an Excited and Positive Mindset

Before I turn to the mental aspect of the LSAT, here’s a quick recap of what a week of studying looked like for me:

– Sunday: Take a full timed practice test, in test conditions (See https://www.powerscore.com/lsat/help/how-to-take-an-lsat-practice-test.cfm)

– Monday: Review that practice test in depth, using the method in step 4.

– Tuesday: Use older practice tests to do timed practice of your weakest sections, review those sections using the same method as step 4, review your PowerScore notes if you feel like you’re hazy on the method, or review questions you’ve previously gotten wrong.*

– Wednesday: Take a full time practice test, in test conditions.

– Thursday: Review, using the method decribed in step 4.

Friday: Same as Tuesday—adjust based on how your studying is going.

Saturday: Rest day. Don’t think about the LSAT at all, and do something fun!

* If timing is something you struggle with, use Tuesdays and Fridays to do untimed practice, at least for the first couple of weeks that you study. Gradually begin to transition to doing all of your prep in timed format. Always take your full practice tests timed.

To decide whether you struggle with timing, look at the difference between your original score and your second score in step 3 of my review method. If there’s a big difference, it could indicate that you are feeling rushed in your timed tests and miss questions that you would otherwise get right. That’s a sign to trust the process and do untimed prep on Tuesdays and Fridays until you start to feel a bit more comfortable.

Now, the most important aspect of my LSAT studying was having the right attitude. Protect your mental space at all costs. Three keys to this:

Notice and reward small wins.

Did you see a 1 point increase in score? Did you manage to finish a section within time? Did you avoid a test maker trick that you previously would have fallen for? CELEBRATE! Make it a big deal and a sign of progress. Keep yourself excited about how well you’re doing, and when you (inevitably) backslide or plateau, Do. Not. Freak. Out. Do not succumb to a doomsday mindset. Trust that your study method is effective and going to get you to where you need to be by test day, if you just keep following it. A plateau or backslide in scores is a very normal part of the process. Believe in yourself and have patience, patience, and even more patience. Your score will go up if you are taking care of yourself and following your study plan.

Avoid negative thoughts and statements.

I took this to an extreme, and it really helped me. When people asked me how LSAT studying was going, I would always say, “Actually, it’s going really well! The test is really fun to study for, it feels like learning a new language. And I’m getting better every day!” I did not complain about the LSAT, either externally or internally. Fake it ‘til you make it.

When you do feel doubt or worry creeping up, give yourself the time to feel that, but make it limited. Set a five-minute timer and write down all of your concerns. Be as dramatic as possible. But when the timer goes off, set your journal aside, dance to a good song, and then keep studying.  

Last thing: please do yourself a favor and stay off of reddit or other toxic chatrooms. Reading other people’s griping (or, even worse, their probably-fake stories about how they scored a 175 after six weeks of studying) is not going to help you, and in all likelihood will hurt you. Protect your mental space and energy.

Have a plan, and be flexible.

I found comfort in having every step of my studying planned out. I made my 19-week study plan, and then every day after I finished studying I would take a few minutes to plan the next day’s study time in more depth. You don’t want to spend your focused study time wondering if you’re doing the right thing, you want to feel confident that you have a good plan.

This is why it’s so helpful to track your progress over time in a succinct way. You can look at how you’re doing and adjust your plan based on your results. Take it one day and week at a time, and trust the process. It is normal to have a wide variation in scores at some point, and it’s normal to backslide. It’s especially normal to experience a big decrease in the last week or two before test day. The last timed practice test I took was eight points below what I scored on test day. Nerves set in! That’s actually a necessary part of the process. Don’t let anything freak you out, and trust that all your hard work will pay off.

YOU CAN DO IT!

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