How to Better Simulate Testing Conditions
The reason for doing loads and loads of practice tests in preparation for your LSAT is that you want taking an LSAT to feel as natural as possible. You want to be able to sit down to take your actual LSAT and be thinking, “been there, done that, no problem”.
This isn’t just about building LSAT skills – it’s also about building comfort level. The more “in your comfort zone” you are, the more easily you’ll be able to think clearly and draw on your mental abilities. For example, have you noticed that sometimes when you are talking to someone you’ve only just met, you are less quick and witty than when you are talking to someone you’ve known for months or years?
This is because you don’t feel 100% comfortable with that person yet, and your mind is at least partially focused on that. Once you know a person well, you’re fully within your comfort zone, and you’re more likely to be able to draw on the full extent of your conversational abilities.
As humans, we are subconsciously, and often consciously, afraid of changes, no matter how subtle.
For this reason, it can be very useful to simulate your actual testing conditions as much as you possibly can when you take practice tests. The more you can be feeling “been there, done that” when you’re taking your actual LSAT, the more at ease you’ll be and the more effortlessly you’ll be able to draw on your practice to comfortably think through questions.
It may seem silly, but even the most minute changes can make a difference – and every point counts on the LSAT, so you’ll want every leg up you can get. Here are a few suggestions for ways to better simulate your actual test when you practice:
- Using a pencil and a scantron
On your actual test, you’ll have to read questions on one page and pencil in the answers on a separate page. Many people, when they take practice tests, have the tendency to just circle the answers right on the LSAT page. Penciling in the answers on a separate page takes a few more seconds and also requires a bit of strategic planning (do I pencil after each question? Each page?).
I’ve found the best way of doing this is circling the answer to each question as you solve it, and then at the end of each leaflet, before turning the page, copying the answers onto the scantron. It has the added benefit of giving your mind evenly spaced breaks from logical thinking throughout the section, which can allow you to approach the next leaflet with more clarity. Especially on Analytical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension, giving your brain a chance to “reset” before the next game or passage can be helpful.
- Using an analog watch instead of a smartphone timer
As you know, you shouldn’t be taking your practice tests “timed” in the usual sense, but you should ideally still be timing yourself to measure and record how long the section takes you. Eventually, you’ll be trying to get quicker, and you’ll get used to looking at the time as you progress through the section.
Since you’ll have to use an analog watch or timer for your actual LSAT, doing that for your practice tests will allow it to feel more natural on test day. I don’t care how long you’ve been reading analog clocks for – it still takes you at least a split second longer than reading the time in digits. I know sometimes in the heat of the moment when someone on the street asks me the time, I flinch even though I’m wearing a watch. This may sound stupid, but when your mind is under pressure, it’s very easy to accidentally skip over a unit of 5 minutes on an analog watch and misread the time, especially considering your LSAT could begin at an odd time like 9:47 which would compound the difficulty of keeping track of time. Do yourself a favor and get used to keeping track of 35 minutes on an analog watch.
Ideally, get used to using the same watch you plan to use for your actual LSAT. People have thought of everything so there are even 35-minute LSAT watches you can get that meet the LSAC standards for acceptable watches.
(A note regarding looking at your watch throughout the LSAT: once you’re hitting your target score and you’re trying to focus on timing, it’s important to keep track of the passage of time throughout each section, but you must remember that each time you look at your watch, you gain and you lose. You gain in that you have a clearer idea for how to budget your time, but you lose in that you get a little bit more nervous and distracted each time you do so. Keep this in mind and look at your watch sparingly – learn to instinctively keep track of time.)
- Taking your practice tests at the time of day of your actual test
This is much more relevant if you’re planning on taking a morning test. Your brain goes through physiological changes throughout the day in accordance with your circadian rhythm, so when someone claims not to be a “morning person” or a “night person”, there’s something to it. Also, getting up very early, if you’re not used to it, can have a significant impact on your mental abilities, particularly for the first half of the day.
If, on the day of your test, you’ve never done the amount of intense thinking needed for the LSAT at 9:00 in the morning, it may be very tough for you. The more tests you can take at the right time of day leading up to test day, the better.
Obviously, this can be tough for people who work or are in school during the day. Not all of your tests have to be at the right time, but perhaps doing this for at least a few practice tests is doable.
- Adding in the experimental section
This is obviously the biggest one. Most people feel pretty braindead by the end of a full LSAT, and for most, the amount of mental endurance it takes to make it through 5 sections is markedly more than that of 4 sections. While it’s a good idea to be within your target score range before you introduce the experimental section to your practice, make sure you have taken 5-section practice tests at least a handful of times, with the experimental section at different points within the test. Make sure your performance on the experimental section is roughly within the same range as that of the other 4 sections.
Why this logic doesn’t apply to imposing a 35-minute limit
You might be thinking (as conventional wisdom preaches), “if my goal is to make my practice tests as similar as possible to my actual test, then why not impose the 35-minute section time limit?”
Time restraints are the one exception to the rule, since the only way to comfortably learn how to do something very tough is without a seemingly impossible time limit. Rather than getting used to taking the test in a rushed and harried state, thinking through many of the questions incorrectly, you’d much prefer to get used to taking the test calmly, comfortably, and correctly. As you get better, you’ll naturally get faster.
Like I said above, you’ll still be timing yourself on each section and recording how long it takes you. But until you’re hitting your target score, your priority is accuracy, not time. Once you’re happy with your score, then it’s time to start focusing on doing it a little bit quicker each time.
The bottom line
While you don’t have to stress about doing all of these things right away, it’s something to think about as you progress in your practice. You could think about adding one of these things each week or month, for example. The more similar you make your practice tests to your actual test, the more comfortable you’ll be on test day. And the more comfortable you’ll be, the more likely you’ll be able to navigate through those really tricky questions without making mistakes.
Oh, and if you haven’t already, be sure to check out the very affordable interactive MasterLSAT online course, which simulates 1-on-1 tutoring, and will turn you into an LSAT genius.