We're focused on helping our students improve their LSAT scores. But in that process, we encounter some LSAT advice we think is misleading or unreliable. Our students relay advice they've encountered from other test-takers or LSAT instructors. We see some shaky advice posted online. And we encounter materials from other companies. The LSAT is a big, important test, and there's a lot of advice out there. Unfortunately, we find that this advice varies in quality.
The differences between some pieces of advice boil down to a difference of opinion. To use a phrase you'll hear many times in law school, reasonable minds can differ on the subject.
But there's some advice we find actively harmful to an LSAT test-taker. And that's what we've addressed in our last few blog posts. In these posts, we've discussed misleading, misapplied, or just plain bad advice circulating through LSAT land. In the first post, we discussed why the advice to "avoid outside or background information" on the Logical Reasoning section doesn't apply to most of those questions. We amended that advice to "Stick to the facts on Must Be True questions."
In the second post, we talked about why the advice to take a certain number of practice tests each week misses the point of practice tests. We changed the advice to pull the focus on the review between practice tests, which is the work that can actually improve your score: "Once you're ready to take practice exams, you'll need at least two days of review between each exam."
Today, we'll talk about a piece of advice that we think makes many Logical Reasoning questions more difficult for test-takers. We'll explain how this advice can complicate the Logical Reasoning section. Then, we'll offer a better, similarly straightforward alternative recommendation.
Bad Advice #3: On Logical Reasoning, you don't have time to write anything on your scratch paper.
This advice makes an enemy of your pencil and scratch paper. Nearly everyone agrees that these are trusty allies on the Logic Games section. Not everyone uses them on the Reading Comp section, but most would say they're nice to have and can help you track the argument made throughout the passage.
So, why do some say to avoid using your scratch paper on the Logical Reasoning section? The Logical Reasoning section is a fast-paced section, sure. Most test-takers receive 35 minutes to answer 25 or 26 questions. But you'll feel a similar time crunch on the Logic Games section and, especially, the Reading Comp section, which usually features 27 questions. And sure, in LG and RC you're really doing four sets of questions, with each set of questions referring to one of four games or passages. In LR, you're doing 25 or 26 individual questions that don't relate to one another. So the scratch paper notes you make for one LR question won't help another, unlike LG and RC. But for LR, the amount of note-taking you could do is much less than what you'd do for an individual LG question.
Still, it's not as though the advice to avoid your scratch paper on LR comes from nowhere. You probably don't have time to write notes for all the LR questions.*
But does that mean you shouldn't write notes for any LR questions?
We don't think so.
For starters, the advice to eschew your pencil and scratch paper always overestimates how long it takes to write things out. For an LR question, you rarely have to write anything out more complicated than:
A → B B → C C: A → C
D → E NOT E C: NOT D
Time yourself as you write out one of these two notes. I just did, and it took me about 5 or 6 seconds to write either. If those 5 or 6 seconds helped me answer a question correctly, I'd say that's a pretty low price to pay.
Of course, the above exercise doesn't exactly reflect how you use your scratch paper in LR. On the real LSAT, you won't use your scratch paper to transcribe diagrams written on the screen. You have to create those diagrams yourself, applying your knowledge of "if-then" statements and argumentation to draw connections between facts or to analyze whether an argument is persuasive.
But that brings us to the second reason why the don't-use-your-scratch-paper advice is harmful. When students are told that they shouldn't write notes on the actual exam, they — understandably — won't practice writing their notes at any point in their studies. Why practice a skill you won't use?
But many concepts on Logical Reasoning are much easier with a bit of diagramming on your scratch paper. Arguing with "if-then" statements is a big one. That concept isn't as prevalent as it once was, but it still appears on 3-5 questions in each LR section. And some of the most difficult Logical Reasoning questions are often written in a deliberately confusing way. Writing brief translations can help many students better understand these arguments and correctly answer the question. (Sign up for the free version of the LSATMax account and watch our "Fundamental Skills: Reading the LSAT" video lesson to learn how to do so.)
And the advice that you shouldn't use scratch paper doesn't just overestimate how long it takes to write things out. It also overestimates how easy it is for most of us to hold multiple pieces of unfamiliar information in our heads. Trying to remember two or three different, recently learned facts sets us up to make mistakes. Easily referenceable visual diagrams will help us avoid those mistakes. So, scratch paper can make many questions easier. But implying that students don't need scratch paper for these questions removes a tool that could make these questions easier.
Once we get a lot of practice making these scratch paper notes, some of us may eventually realize we no longer need them. That's cool. It'll save us a little time. (Although probably not as much as some people think).
But experience shows that many of us will continue to benefit from these notes, even on test day. And if we've spent months practicing making these notes, we can be confident that we can use them, when necessary, on test day. If we were told we shouldn't bother making these notes, we probably didn't practice note-making enough to realize we no longer need them. And without that practice, our skills won't be sharp enough to make those notes effectively on test day. You don't need to chart anything on your scratch paper to realize that'll result in some missed questions.
So this advice needs a little nuance. Something that shows that diagramming can help us and is worth practicing while conceding that we probably don't need to make scratch paper notes for every Logical Reasoning question. Most of all, the advice should acknowledge that some test-takers need to note-take more than others. That brings us to …
Better Advice #3: On Logical Reasoning, read the passage and the question stem before deciding whether you need to diagram
If you make this part of your Logical Reasoning process, you are in the driver's seat. The decision to make scratch paper notes isn't made for you by someone else. You get to decide whether you diagram.
Do you see some "if-then" statements? And do you see that the question stem asks you to connect those statements or analyze why the argument made with those statements is unpersuasive? And do you know that diagramming those "if-then" statements will make that task easier? Go ahead and diagram!
Does that passage seem very confusing to you? Are you having trouble understanding what it's even saying? Does the question stem suggest that you'll need a solid understanding of what's being said to answer the question correctly? And has translating these complicated statements into your own words helped you decode these confusing passages in the past? Then go ahead and use your scratch paper to do those translations!
Or, have you done enough of those "if-then" questions to feel confident that you can do this problem in your head? Or, can you translate without scratch paper? Or, does this question stem suggest you might not need to worry about using those "if-then" statements or developing a deep understanding of the passage (for instance, on questions that only ask about the argument's structure)? Then don't diagram!
Your scratch paper is a tool that the test-makers gave you. In giving you that tool, they conceded that you may need it. If an instructor or curriculum tells you that you definitely shouldn't use that tool, they're arguing against the test-makers' concession. Worse still, they're not treating you like an individual.
This tool has helped and will continue to help many test-takers. And the person best equipped to decide whether it'll help you is you. Preferably, you with months of practice using that tool.
So, make the decision to use your scratch paper part of your process on Logical Reasoning questions. You might overuse that tool at first, but that's OK. That overuse is just more practice. That practice will make you more adept at using that tool and give you a better idea of when that tool most benefits you.
As you do more tests, you may decide you need to save a little bit of time by using that tool less often. That's OK too! Removing a task you no longer need is always much easier than adding a task you realized, too late, that you need.
So, let's just acknowledge that the tool can help you and is worth practicing. Practice using it a lot. And then you won't need to worry about what anyone else said about when you should use that tool. You'll be the authority on when to use your scratch paper and pencil.
*Then again, most Logical Reasoning questions have between 150 and 250 words. The average adult's silent reading speed for non-fiction is clocked at about 238 words per minute for non-fiction and 260 words per minute for fiction. The typical LSAT-taker — college educated, near the peak of their mental processing powers — may be able to read even faster than that. You have an average of 1 minute and 24 seconds to do each Logical Reasoning question. Do the math. You have some extra time to do each question. It will take you less than a minute to read the passage and answer choices on many questions. You could spend some of that extra time using your scratch paper, if that helps you.