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The Difference Between Practice LSATs and Actual Test Day

LSAT practice tests are a great idea. They help you build stamina, hone your pacing, and pinpoint exactly where you need to continue practicing. In the right circumstances, they can also be valuable tools to prepare for some of the less obvious challenges you’ll face on test day. So, here are the top 5 differences in practice LSATs vs the actual test day. Trying to incorporate these into your future practice tests will make you all the more comfortable come test day.

1. The Experimental Section

One of the five multiple choice sections you’ll see on test day is an unscored, “experimental” section. That section is not released to the public after the test day, so it does not appear in any of the official LSAT PrepTests available for purchase. Likewise, most test prep books and courses don’t include an experimental section in their practice materials, and that’s why you might be used to seeing only four multiple choice sections thus far. Stand assured, there will be five full-length multiple choice sections on the actual test day, and you will not be able to tell which of them is the experimental section, so it’s important to prepare to treat all five of them as scored sections.

2. Snifflers

Unless you’re taking your practice tests through an organization that offers proctored group events, you probably have the benefit of privacy and silence during your practice tests. No so on the real thing. You will most likely be packed into a crowded classroom with anywhere from a dozen to a hundred other students. Chances are, at least one of those students will have a cold. That’s easy to ignore when a professor is talking or you’re watching a documentary. It is harder to ignore in a room full of people taking a standardized test. You can hear every noise around you, including sniffling, coughing, heavy breathing, flipping pages, and even pencils filling in bubbles.

How to cope? Try taking a practice test at a library instead of at home. The sounds there are very similar to those you’ll hear on test day. When something starts bothering you, put down your pencil, close your eyes, and just listen to it for a few seconds. Sometimes, accepting the noise and familiarizing yourself with it will actually allow you to move past it.
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3. Space (or lack thereof)

Classrooms are wonderfully unpredictable places. Unfortunately, the desks that fill them are also unpredictable, but rarely wonderful. If you’re lucky, you might get a whole table to yourself on test day, but that’s unlikely. Instead, you’ll probably either share a table with someone else or you’ll get one of those elementary school desk/chair combos.

Sharing a table with someone is probably the better option. It tends to give you enough room to spread out a little bit and have your test booklet and your answer sheet side by side. The only downside is that your table buddy might be a space hog and drift into your zone. If so, don’t accommodate. Use your best judgement and either quietly ask your neighbor to move over in between sections or raise your hand and ask the proctor for some assistance.

If you get stuck with a desk/chair combo, I feel for you. They are too small, they are uncomfortable, and if you’re left-handed, well, good luck. Get to the test center early and try to be one of the first people into the room. That way, you can find a left-handed desk if necessary, or at least pick a comfortable location in the room. Beyond that, I’d recommend practicing at least once or twice in a confined space. You’ll need to master the art of laying out your materials in the least inconvenient way possible.

4. Timing

If you’re like most people, you have a tendency to take that extra second or two to fill in that last bubble on your practice tests. Or just as likely, you finish a section five minutes early and go grab a snack from the kitchen. Unsurprisingly, that’s not going to fly on test day.

When the proctor calls time, you need to stop writing immediately. That means you’ll have to allot about 30 seconds at the end of the section to make sure you’ve bubbled in and/or erased everything you intend to. Better yet, just do it as you go. If you need to skip a difficult question, bubble in a random answer and circle the question in your test booklet. That way, if you lose track of time and never get back to that question, at least there isn’t a blank spot on your answer sheet. As an added bonus, this also helps avoid the nightmare mistake of misbubbling all your answers because you forgot to skip a spot on the answer sheet.

For those of you who tend to finish early, it can be both boring and tiring sitting quietly for 5 minutes at the end of each section. My advice is to slow down. Unless you’re the type who benefits from a little meditation to clear your head (and that’s legit), there’s really no upside to finishing early. Double check your answers as you go and glance at the clock now and then. If you’re getting ahead, take your quick meditation break midsection rather than at the end. The clearness of mind will probably benefit you more on the second half of the current section than on the first half of the next one.

5. The Great Race

When you take a practice test alone, there is no one else in the room to whom you can compare yourself. On the real test day, there will be dozens of opportunities to overthink what everyone else is doing.

The Writing Sample is the best example of this. On test day, the proctor will say “begin,” and you’ll hear 10 or 20 pencils hit the page immediately. What could they possibly be writing that early into the section!? Maybe a title for their brainstorming area?

In any case, ignore them all. If you’ve been preparing for the exam rigorously, you know what works for you and what doesn’t. Chances are, you’re one of the most prepared people in the room and everyone else should be following your lead. So, don’t change your plan of attack just because you hear or see other people in the room moving at a different pace than you.

Personally, I’m usually one of the last people to start writing on standardized tests. I also flip the pages way more than everyone else because I never do the questions in order. So, be yourself, be unique, and don’t be surprised when the people around you don’t test the same way you do.

Life is full of surprises

And so is the LSAT. There are plenty of horror stories about test days gone wrong, but that’s not the norm. Chances are, you’ll have a smooth, quiet experience and you’ll be out the door in the early afternoon. You can never be fully prepared for all eventualities, but you can be more prepared than everyone else in the room. So, treat your practice tests not only as opportunities to master the exam content, but also as opportunities to master the test environment. Try a library, talk a friend into sitting next to you and reading, or figure out how to fit into a tiny desk. That way, whatever happens on test day, you’ll be the last one in the room to be thrown off balance.

As always, happy studying!

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