Flaw of the Week
This week’s FOTW can show up in a couple of contexts. I’ll describe it briefly, then note a couple of past LSAT questions showing how it might turn up.
The gist of it is this – the premises mention two different categories (of people or things), and then the conclusion, without justification, is based on the notion that there is no third (typically a “middle” – I’ll explain) group.
For instance, in one past LSAT question (somewhat changed/paraphrased for simplicity and clarity), the premises note that reading homework isn’t necessary for students who like a topic- they’re going to read about it anyway. Moreover, reading homework doesn’t benefit students who hate a topic – they’re not going to do it anyway. The conclusion is that there is no point in teachers’ assigning written homework. The conclusion, in other words, operates on the notion that there is no third group – the students either love or hate the topic. But what about students who are indifferent – those who don’t like the subject enough to read about it on their own, but don’t hate it enough to skip homework? That’s what I mean by a middle group. Those students would do the reading, but only if it’s assigned. So there IS a point in assigning such homework.
Another past LSAT question (again, simplified and/or modified) defines some actions as morally good and others as morally bad. It then describes a certain action and claims that it’s not morally good. The conclusion is that it’s morally bad. The flaw, essentially, is that the argument fails to recognize that some actions may be morally neutral. This one is actually written as an assumption question, but it’s the same notion.
There’s actually a fine line between an assumption question and a flaw question. For instance, let’s say my argument is, “John went to Yale. Therefore, John is smart.” I could write that as an assumption question (correct answer: All students who go to Yale are smart) or a flaw question (correct answer: fails to consider the possibility that some students who go to Yale are not smart).
What would the correct answers look like in the above past LSAT questions (assuming they were both written as flaw questions)? It depends…there are different possibilities, but here are a couple of possibilities:
“Fails to consider the possibility that some students neither love nor hate certain topics.”
“Takes for granted that an action that is not morally right must be morally wrong.”
Notice that in the examples there is a jump between the premises and the conclusion. That’s where flaws happen. Premises are facts. They’re evidence presented that for the sake of argument we have to accept as true. Conclusions are interpretations – that’s where the writer of the passage decides what the evidence means. That’s where arguments (potentially) go wrong. You see these sorts of jumps most explicitly in assumption questions, where you might have a premises about students with special education needs, and a conclusion about students with learning disabilities. But not all students with special education have learning disabilities (blind students, for instance, generally fall into the former, but not the latter, category). So remember…it’s the conclusion where the flaw “happens.”
Flaw of The Week
There is a limited number of ways in which an argument can go wrong, and an even more limited number of flaws which the LSAT examiners love to test time after time. I’m going to take a look at a few of them over the next several weeks. The more you’re aware of a pattern the LSAT has exhibited in the past, the better you’ll be able to recognize it when it comes up again.
This one is pretty straightforward – the idea is this: Just because they didn’t prove something is true, that doesn’t make it false. Here’s an example:
Smith’s research team has claimed that carrots cause cancer. This claim was based on his team’s studies conducted last year. However, later reviews of the team’s research has uncovered mathematical errors on their calculations, and Smith himself has said that those studies are not scientifically valid. Therefore, we can be confident that carrots do not cause cancer.
The right answer might be something like:
“It repudiates a claim merely on the grounds that inadequate support has been presented for it.” (slightly paraphrased from Preptest 64, Section 3, Q14 – a question that exhibits the same flaw I’m describing here). The claim is that carrots cause cancer; the fact that we have inadequate evidence for that claim (the study can be thrown out, essentially) doesn’t mean that it’s false; it just means that it hasn’t been proven. It all comes down to something like this:
Atheist: Can you prove that God exists?
Theist: No; it’s a matter of faith.
Atheist: So you admit that it’s impossible to prove that God exists! Therefore, God doesn’t exist.
The atheist’s second line demonstrates the same flaw.
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Say It Ain’t So!
A new animal reared its ugly head in the Logic Games section a few years ago – the “rule substitution” question, which asks you which of five possible alternate rules would “have the same effect” on the scenario. Essentially, if you swapped out one existing rule for the right answer, the same arrangements would be permitted, and the same arrangements would be prohibited. Here’s a ridiculously simple example:
Six runners, Adam, Brianna, Carlos, Duff, Enya, and Frank, are competing in a race. They all finish the race, and there are no ties for any of the places. The order in which the runners finish is consistent with the following statements:
Adam finishes immediately before, or immediately after, Frank.
Carlos finishes after Adam.
Which one of the following, if substituted for the statement that Carlos finishes after Adam, would have the same effect on determining the finish of the runners?
A correct answer: Frank does not finish after Carlos.
I’ll dispense with making up a bunch of wrong answers, so we can take a look at why the correct answer is correct. Often, in sequencing games, you’ll have a rule such as the first one here, which says that two people are consecutive, without saying which one comes first. The most obvious consequences of this rule are that anyone who finishes before one of the two people must also finish before the other one, and anyone who finishes after either of the two people must finish after the other one.
If that’s a little unclear or abstract, look at it this way. Let’s say you go to a movie with your mom, and you walk in together, either you right before mom, or mom right before you. If I walk into the movie after you, I’m also going to walk in after your mom, right? There’s no room in between you.
So in the original scenario, Adam and Frank are Siamese twins – everyone else either goes before, or after, both of them. Carlos, therefore (per Rule 2), goes after both of them. The correct answer is correct because if Frank doesn’t finish after Carlos, then Carlos must finish after Frank (and also, therefore, Adam). It says the same thing as the original rule – Carlos finishes after the Adam/Frank block. We don’t have to know what order Adam and Frank are finishing in to know this.
Unfortunately, real rule substitution questions are much more difficult than this. They’re generally (by far) the most difficult AND the most time consuming Logic Games questions. They didn’t exist until fairly recently; when they came into existence, they appeared in most exams. Sometimes, though, there was no rule substitution question. When there was one, there was always only one, and it was always the last question on the particular game where it cropped up.
In late 2012, for the first time since rule substitution questions debuted, they failed to appear on two consecutive released exams – October and December (Preptests 67 and 68). It seemed that perhaps the rule substitution question was a thing of the past – an experiment that was being discarded. Preptest 69 (June, 2013) crushed that dream, as it featured a rule substitution question. The most recent Preptest gives a strong indication that rule substitution questions are here to stay – In December, 2013 (Preptest 71), for the first time, the Logic Games section had not one but TWO rule substitution questions. Brutal.
So, what can you do about it? First and foremost, make sure your practice includes recent Preptests. If you’re only working on Preptests from the 40s and earlier, you probably haven’t even SEEN a rule substitution question. The LSAC’s “Ten Actual…” series is a great, cost effective way to purchase multiple Preptests, but the only one that is recent enough to include rule substitution questions is “Ten NEW (emphasis added) Actual, Official LSAT Preptests.” For more recent individual Preptests, go to Cambridge LSAT.
That’s not to say, by the way, that it’s bad to work off of old Preptests. They’re ALL useful; the test doesn’t change all that much. But it does change, and you want to stay on top of those changes, especially when an entirely new question type is introduced.
Second, many people don’t finish the Logic Games section anyway. They’re working on the third game when they get that five minute warning, and they guess their way through the last few questions. If that’s you, DON’T even bother with the rule substitution question(s). They drain too much time, and you might wasted a bunch of time and miss it anyway, because they’re hard. Let’s say you struggle through a rule substitution question in the first time. You might run out of time on question 16 and guess on the last seven questions. But if you’d skipped the rule substitution question, you might run out of time on question 19 and guess on the last four questions (plus the rule substitution question itself). If you’re not going to finish the section anyway, it’s absolutely not worth the time investment to mess with the rule substitution questions.
Hopefully you’ll get lucky and take one of the tests that doesn’t have a rule substitution question! But in case you do…be prepared!
He Who Makes the Argument Determines the Scope
A common reason some otherwise attractive answer choices on the LSAT are incorrect is that they go beyond the scope of the argument. Recognizing when answer choices are beyond the scope can take some getting used to, but the trick is to remember that the scope is determined by the person making the argument. If someone attacks the argument with an objection that goes outside that scope, that objection is not valid.
For instance, let’s say I make an argument based on experiments that show that poodles are very intelligent. It’s MY argument, so I get to determine its scope. I might conclude with any of the following:
- “Therefore, poodles are intelligent.”
- “Therefore, dogs are intelligent.”
- “Therefore, small dogs are intelligent.”
Let’s ignore the last one for the time being and focus on the first two. What’s important here is that the scope that I choose determines whether or not an objection is valid. If my conclusion is that “Dogs are intelligent,” then you can undermine it with evidence showing that Irish Setters are stupid. But if my conclusion is “Poodles are intelligent,” then I’ve effectively warded off that objection ahead of time. If you respond to my argument by saying that Irish Setters are stupid, I remind you that I’m only talking about poodles; your claim about Irish Setters doesn’t matter
As the person disagreeing with me, you don’t get to determine whether or not the information you have about Irish Setters is relevant. It’s up to me to make my argument broad enough to be vulnerable to your information (“Dogs are intelligent”) or narrow enough that your information can’t hurt it (“Poodles are intelligent.”) And the scope of the argument is found in the conclusion.
Here’s an example of how this plays out on the LSAT, adapted from Preptest 61 (section 4; question 15). It’s a question that was missed by one of my students who scores fairly well on practice exams (she’s consistently in the 160s):
State Senator: My staff conducted a survey in which my constituents indicated by a 90-10 margin that they do not favor high taxes. So residents of my state will support my bill to reduce the state income tax.
Q. The reasoning in the State Senator’s argument is most vulnerable to criticism on the grounds that the argument
(A) fails to demonstrate that the opinions of the survey participants are reflective of the opinions of the country as a whole.
(B) fails to consider that the State Senator’s constituents may not consider the state income tax to be a high tax.
(C) confuses an absence of evidence that the constituents oppose the bill with actual evidence that they support the bill.
(D) draws a conclusion that is just a restatement of one of the argument’s premises.
(E) treats a result that proves public support for the bill as one that is merely consistent with support for the bill.
The “beyond the scope” answer choice that she went for was (A). The State Senator could have concluded, “Therefore, Americans will support my bill to reduce state income tax.” If he HAD drawn that conclusion, (A) would be a great answer – the fact that residents of one state oppose the bill doesn’t mean that “Americans” (i.e. Americans in general) will support it.
But the State Senator gets to choose the scope of his argument, which we find in the conclusion: “So (conclusion indicator word) residents of my state will support my bill…” The State Senator has limited his argument to residents of his state, so the fact that “the country as a whole” might disagree doesn’t hurt the argument one bit.
The correct answer, by the way, is (B), but the explanation for that would fall beyond the scope (see what I did there?) of this post.
What About the Writing Sample?
Almost whenever I work with a student on a long-term basis, eventually he or she will ask about the writing sample. I get questions like:
- How does it factor into my score? (short answer: it doesn’t)
- If it doesn’t count for my score, why should I care? (see below)
- What should I do?
- What shouldn’t I do?
- How should it be organized?
The first thing you need to know is that the writing sample is NOT part of your LSAT score. So why should you care about it? Because the Deans of Admissions at the law schools to which you’ll be applying will see your writing sample (how much attention they’ll pay to it is another question entirely).
Before getting to some specific ideas about what to do (or not to do) on the writing sample, let’s take a quick look at what, exactly, the writing sample is. They all look pretty much alike. You’ll be given two options to choose from, and two criteria to base your choice on. You’ll be asked to write an essay defending your choice. The key to keeping a good perspective on the writing sample is understanding how an admissions dean is likely to use it in evaluating your application. An admissions dean might have a few thousand applications to sift through, and a few hundred spots to fill. 3,000 writing samples times ten minutes per writing sample is about 500 hours, or close to 2.5 months at 50 hours per week. Your mileage may vary, but I’m inclined to doubt that your writing sample is going to get a 10-minute read, or even a 5-minute read. There are just too many other things that are easier to evaluate (like your GPA or your LSAT score) or more revealing (like your personal statement).
I firmly believe that you can’t possibly submit a writing sample that is good enough to get you into any law school, or even significantly improve your chances of getting into any particular law school. What you can do is write one that’s bad enough to keep you out of a law school. Put yourself in the shoes of that poor admissions dean who is trying to figure out which 300 students to accept, or, conversely, which 2,700 students to reject. (S)he isn’t going to look for a brilliant essay on where to locate a hypothetical museum in search of any must-have students. Would you? Of course not. You’d skim the writing samples over, hoping to find some that are so obviously bad that you can take them out of that hugs “maybe” pile and put them into the “no” pile, thus leaving you fewer applications to sift through.
In general, what might be so bad about a writing sample that it could be dismissed out of hand? We’ll talk specifics in a moment, but in general:
- Not following directions
- Inability to formulate a logical argument/train of thought
- Poor writing, including but not limited to (good lawyer phrase) poor grammar
By way of a golf analogy, you’re not trying for a hole in one. You’re trying to keep the ball out of the lake. A great writing sample isn’t going to help you much (if any) more than a good, or even a decent one. But a bad one can kill you. ok, enough generalities. Let’s talk specifics:
- DON’T agonize over which side to pick. You’ve got 35 minutes; pick a side, spend a little while outlining (I’ve seen 10-15 minutes suggested, which I guess is ok, though 15 seems a bit long. This is more a matter of style than anything else), and get to it. The admissions dean doesn’t care which of the two options you select. The prompt will have support for both. Choose the one you like, and have at it.
- DO pick a side. If there’s one great way to use the writing sample to destroy your chances of getting into law school, it would probably be by turning in a writing sample that shows how both sides have plusses and minuses. You’re going to be a lawyer. You’re going to argue for a client. This is not the time to show how open-minded you are and demonstrate your ability to see both sides of an issue. Seriously, can you imagine in court? “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this is a very close case. On the one hand, my client has two witnesses that say he was in the library at the time of the crime. On the other hand, like the prosecutor said, his fingerprints were on the murder weapon. There’s good evidence on both sides…” This is a persuasive essay. Nobody cares which side you pick, but you’d better pick one.
- DO stick to the bullet points. The next best way to mess your chances up is to substitute your own criteria for those provided to you as the basis for your decision. There’s a reason they’re in bullet points. Those are the reasons upon which your choice must rest. Period. If you think of some brilliant additional reason that would bolster your choice and you just can’t resist, then give it ONE sentence in your conclusion as a little icing on the cake, e.g. “Therefore, based on both of the reasons important to Jeremy, the store should be located downtown in the mall. Moreover, this would give him an opportunity to cross-promote, by offering, for instance, discounted movie tickets with each purchase.” I don’t even recommend doing that little, unless it’s just a BRILLIANT idea.
- DO acknowledge any glaring weaknesses to your side. This one actually bears a little resemblance to practicing law. If your side has any obvious weaknesses, you lose credibility with the judge and the jury if you simply pretend they’re not there. You have to bring them up, then show why they don’t matter. As a for instance, one writing sample from a past LSAT asks you to recommend between two restaurant locations, one downtown, and one just outside town. One of the criteria involves the limited startup capital the owners have. The downtown location has a rent of, as I recall, $500 per month, and the other location has a rent of maybe $300 per month. If you choose to recommend the downtown location, you can’t ignore the fact that in the face of the owners’ limited financial resources, you’re suggesting that they choose the option where the rent is almost twice as expensive. The way to do it is twofold: First, you bury that unfortunate fact in the middle of a paragraph. If you want to emphasize something, you lead with it or close with it; if you want to de-emphasize something, you hide it in the middle. Second, you immediately show why it doesn’t matter. For instance: “It is true that the rent is an additional $200 monthly, but the high visibility in the downtown area should generate more than enough foot traffic to pay for the additional rent, which works out to less than $7.00 per day.”
As far as organization, just keep it logical and simple. My own writing sample was a basic 5-paragraph college essay, minus one of the body paragraphs:
II. Criterion One
III. Criterion Two
First the intro, then talk about whatever the first bullet point is (wrapping that paragraph up by saying that based on the first criterion, your choice is better than the alternative). Then talk about whatever the second bullet point is (wrapping it up the same way). Then conclude, by pointing out that since by either of the two stated criteria your option is better, then obviously the overall choice is clear. I wouldn’t over-write the conclusion, either. Short, sweet, and simple.
Law school exams are essay exams. As I recall, I had one multiple choice test in three years of law school. Show the admissions dean that you can write coherently and follow directions, and you’re in there with a fighting shot.
Low-Cost, High-Quality LSAT Classes!
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Cambridge LSAT’s new website
Morley at Cambridge LSAT has totally revamped the website, and it’s looking awesome. If you’re preparing for the LSAT and you haven’t been to Cambridge LSAT, you’re missing out.
My New Book for LSAT Prep
Greetings, future law students. I’m dusting off the old blog, and I’ll be maintaining it. I’m starting off with a shout about my new book, LSAT 60 Dissected. I spent dozens of hours writing and editing this book, and I’m quite happy with the result. I can’t give you an unbaised review of it (but my biased review is…it’s great!) but I can tell you what’s in it:
As you might expect, it’s a detailed analysis of Prep Test 60 (June, 2010). It’s 160 pages long, and it tackles LSAT 60 question by question. It’s sort of a look in my brain as I’d approach each of the 99 questions from scratch, working for both accuracy and efficiency. Each question starts with a “Forethoughts” section – What am I thinking as I note the question type, read the passage, etc.? Then we evaluate each answer choice in turn, exploring the possibilities in some detail, choosing to eliminate it, select it, or defer a choice until we’ve looked at other choices. Finally, each question ends with an “Afterthoughts” section – what are the most important takeaway points from each question? What can you learn from that question that will help you a lot on other questions? What were the hints that suggested the right answer, or the traps that might have misled you to the wrong answer?
In the Logic Games section, there are multiple diagrams for each game, and in the Reading Comp section, there’s a general “Forethoughts” section not only for the question, but for the passages. At 1.6 pages per question, the questions are examined quite thoroughly, and I’ve tried very hard to highlight the most important things, and leave out the distractions and time-wasters. As an LSAT tutor/teacher, I’m very aware that you’re battling not only the test, but the clock.
Note that the book DOES NOT include Prep Test 60. To make use of the book, you have to have a copy already. If you don’t have a copy, you can download it at http://www.cambridgelsat.com or get it in the book “10 New Actual, Official LSAT Preptests with Comparative Reading,” by Wendy Margolis, which includes tests 52-61. The reason that I didn’t include the test itself is that I would have had to pay licensing fees for the test and past those costs on to you, and some of you already have Prep Test 60. Moreover, because I’m only getting a percentage of the sale price, I would have had to raise the price of the book by more than you could by the test for, just to break even. So it’s cheaper for you this way, either way. It’s also kept the book at just $25, which is quite low as LSAT Prep Tests go.
It’s “only” an analysis of a single test, but it has information and is written in such a way that you’ll be able to apply the principles and ideas to any number of similar question types, games, etc. For instance, you get a lot of information on, say, attacking assumption questions in the Logical Reasoning section; you just get those tips in the context of the particular assumption questions that appeared on LSAT 60. But it’s all stuff you’ll be able to apply to assumption questions on any test. When I do private tutoring, typically, my students work on past exams, and when we get together, they’ve highlighted questions they missed or struggled with, and we talk through them. That’s pretty much the idea behind this book. If you’ve done LSAT 60 (or if you do it in the near future), then for any question you missed or struggled with, you’ll be able to get my thoughts on how you could have avoided the answer you chose – why it’s not as good as the credited answer – and also how you could have recognized the right answer when you saw it. I wrote the explanations as if, each time, a student had missed that particular question, and wanted to go over the question and each answer choice from the beginning.
Is it the best book ever written on the LSAT? Probably not. But it’s pretty good.
Great LSAT Prep Resource
Cambridge LSAT (www.cambridgelsat.com) is in the process of categorizing the LSAT Logic Games, and offering specific game types for sale. I’ve already been recommending this great LSAT resource to my private students, and I’m happy to give it a plug here. If you’ve been doing any sort of LSAT prep, the odds are strong that you’ve found some sections harder than others, and some types of questions harder than others. Most vendors of prep materials offer “whole test” packages, which either leaves you short of the materials you most need, or results in you spending a ton of money on stuff you don’t really need. No longer necessary!!
Cambridge LSAT offers tests (licensed by the Law School Admissions Council) for download, so there’s no shipping cost or time; you can put them on your computer and print them out at your leisure. Better than that, though – you can download individual sections. If you’re fine on Reading Comprehension and Logical Reasoning, but having trouble with Logic Games, you can download a section of Logic Games (choose any section from any past exam, so you can be sure you aren’t getting one you already have) for just $1.75! And it’s getting even better – if you’re having trouble with, say, Grouping Games, soon you’ll be able to download just a batch of Grouping Games. Or Linear Games. Or any other type. This sort of specialization is already in place for Logical Reasoning, by the way – you can get just the question types you need to work on. www.cambridgelsat.com – An outstanding, cost-effective, super-targeted approach to working on past exam questions. Strongly recommended!
Should you cancel your score?
If you walked out of the test thinking it went really badly, you may be considering cancelling your score and retaking the LSAT. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this big question, but here’s a quick look at some of the relevant considerations:
* Will it set you back a year in your application(s)? Check the deadlines of the schools you’re planning to apply to. If you can retake the LSAT and still get your score back in time to be considered by the schools you’re looking at, one of the major downsides to taking a later test is eliminated.
* If it will set you back a year, how important is that year? How big a hurry are you in to go to law school this year? Are there job or school opportunities for you to take advantage of if you wait a year?
* Be honest – How likely is it that your score will improve? Are you just having post-text anxiety/remorse, or is there a real reason to expect a better score? One of my students recently took the LSAT. As she was checking her work on the first section, which was logic games, she noticed that she had misinterpreted one of the initial conditions, which had almost certainly caused her to mess up several questions. Worse yet, she didn’t have time to re-solve the problems with the correct conditions. Worse YET, because it was the first section, she was stressed about it for the rest of the exam, which resulted in her being distracted, not getting through the other sections, and missing problems. She cancelled her score, and I think it was a good call – I’m sure her re-take will result in a markedly higher score. But if you’re just generally beating yourself up because you’re a perfectionist, or because you’re remembering 2 or 3 questions you should have answered differently, it’s probably not worth it.
* Do you have one or two schools that you’re just dying to get into? If you have a huge preference for a school that’s going to be tough for you to get into, you might need every last LSAT point you can get. If you have a number of schools you’ll be applying to, and you know they’re within your range, and you don’t really care which one you get into, it might be better to just send out your applications. Or if you have a job lined up with your cousin Vinnie; you just need a diploma and a bar card.
Ultimately, the considerations are fairly straightforward – How likely is it that you’ll do better; how important is it that you’ll do better; will the re-take set you back a year; and if so, how critical is that year. Bear in mind that most people who take the LSAT multiple times don’t experience dramatic increases in score. So unless there was a specific reason you think you did poorly, you’re probably not looking at a huge difference in score. On the other hand, if you’re a borderline candidate at School X, even a small difference can be important. Ultimately, it’s an individual system, and your situation may dictate a different answer than someone else’s.