What makes an LSAT question difficult?

Here’s a fun math problem!

Sample Math problem -magoosh

I am not a mathematician. In fact, I have only taken one math course since high school Calculus, and it was Statistics. Therefore, I consider the problem above to be a bit difficult.

The thing is, I consider that math problem difficult because solving it requires a large amount of knowledge. You need to know what integrals and exponents are. You need to understand how to solve nested integrals, and you need to know some basics of trigonometric functions. In other words, the problem pulls on information you would have learned in at least 3 different math courses (Calculus, Trigonometry, and Algebra), all of which would have been preceded by at least half a dozen years of learning the basics of arithmetic and geometry.

However, once you’ve learned all of those concepts, the actual math required for the problem isn’t that difficult. It’s mostly just plugging in numbers and that can be done on a calculator. There are many concepts involved, but the application of those concepts is not very advanced. This is exactly the opposite of what makes an LSAT question difficult.



Here’s a fun LSAT question! This one comes from the free practice test offered on the LSAC website.
“All Labrador retrievers bark a great deal. All Saint Bernards bark infrequently. Each of Rosa’s dogs is a cross between a Labrador retriever and a Saint Bernard. Therefore, Rosa’s dogs are moderate barkers.

Which one of the following uses flawed reasoning that most closely resembles the flawed reasoning used in the argument above?”
To answer this question, you need to be able to understand the English language in general and terms like all and each specifically. I suppose knowing a bit about genetics might inform your answer as well, but common sense will also do the trick.

Successfully answering this question depends on your ability to think about the argument being made. Does mixing one thing (Labradors) with another thing (Saint Bernards) always mean that you’ll end up with something halfway between the two? If a billionaire marries someone from the working class, do you end up with a middle class family? No, you end up with two billionaires.



Here’s another fun LSAT question from LSAC.org’s free practice test.
“We should accept the proposal to demolish the old train station, because the local historical society, which vehemently opposes this, is dominated by people who have no commitment to long-term economic well-being. Preserving old buildings creates an impediment to new development, which is critical to economic health.

The flawed reasoning exhibited by the argument above is most similar to that exhibited by which one of the following arguments?”
To answer this question, you need to be able to understand the English language generally and the role of the word because specifically. More importantly, a successful answer depends on your ability to think about the argument and its structure.

The central argument is that a group of people should act one way because another group of people with an ulterior motive wants them to act the opposite way. The word because signifies the real reason for the decision. Even though the second sentence might sound slightly more rational, it’s effectively just fluff to support the main justification, that the historical society’s stance is self-motivated.

So, the LSAT makes a question difficult by concealing arguments and introducing qualifiers to convolute simple concepts. They may include tougher vocabulary, double negatives, or extraneous sentences to distract you. Nevertheless, the concepts remain fairly simple: understanding non-technical language, tracing the structure of arguments, and thinking critically.


Cerebral Olympics

You can rest assured that you won’t be asked to do Calculus, define technical terms, or write computer programs on the LSAT. There is little to no prior knowledge of anything outside of the English language that is needed for the exam. Instead, the difficulty of the LSAT lies in testing your mastery of the few, simple concepts it does cover.

That’s why regular, guided practice is the key to improving your LSAT score as much as possible. If you just had to memorize a bunch of new concepts, you could cram at the last minute and be relatively successful. That’s not the case here. Preparing for the LSAT is much more like training for a sport. You can learn the rules and memorize the techniques pretty quickly, but it takes time to teach your muscles to perform the actions precisely.

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  • Travis Coleman

    Travis is in charge of helping students turn LSAT prep into an afternoon with this guy. With a JD from NYU and an English degree from Boston College, he's dedicated his career to fighting the forces of unnecessary legal jargon and faulty logic. When not geeking out on the LSAT, he can probably be found on skis, in water, or in the vicinity of a roller coaster.

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