Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Wisdom for My Son: Five Life Lessons from the LSAT

Every aspiring law student must face one of the most evil monsters in the world: the law school admissions test. The LSAT is a test that tries a student's capacity for logical processing. At first glance it looks like a charming, harmless set of brain puzzles. In fact, sections are divided by cute titles like "Reading Comprehension" (sounds familiar right? like STAR testing in elementary school?), "Logical Reasoning" (sounds a little scary but hey, I do that every day right?), and "Logic Games" (fun! cool! games! I love games! I play games all the time!).

Instead, what lies in wait is a five hour maze of logical treachery, laid by masters of trickery and deceit. They somehow understand the flaws in the human mind and they plant little traps in all of their questions to lead test-takers comfortably down familiar paths of incorrect thinking.

Some treat studying for the LSAT like a full time job, which is understandable because its study requires a high level of strict discipline. The slightest variation of an LSAT score can mean the difference between rejection and scholarship.

Having said all this, studying for the LSAT is an experience everyone should have, whether or not they plan on attending law school. There are fundamental principles inherent in the study of reasoning that, were it understood by everybody, could clear the world of some needless miscommunication. It's shocking, for example, when falsified sensational news stories go viral online when an ounce of thought would prove that said stories simply can't hold water.

But, even putting the logic training aside, the LSAT experience is loaded with life maxim takeaways. Here are the five important lessons I'll owe to the LSAT forever.

1. Understanding the difference between sufficient and necessary conditions

This is one of the most important principles to understand when it comes to thinking logically. It works simply. A necessary condition is a condition that must be present for a specific outcome. For example, good grades are a necessary condition to be accepted to Harvard. Without good grades... good luck getting into Harvard.

A sufficient condition is a condition that automatically brings about a specific condition. For example, being the son or daughter of the president of Harvard would be a sufficient condition to get into Harvard (Ha! Jokes aside, you could argue that if your parent were the president of harvard you would be made to study well and do all the other things necessary to get you into Harvard, thus making it a sufficient condition).

Here comes the boom. A sufficient condition is not always necessary to make a specific outcome happen, and a necessary condition alone is not enough to make a specific outcome happen. In the Harvard example, you certainly don't have to be a child of the president of the university to be accepted (imagine that!) and good grades certainly is necessary, but not enough alone to get you in either.

Understanding these two concepts is awesome because when people are trying to argue their opinion, say, of a political leader, they will often switch necessary and sufficient conditions in order to argue their point. Look for it. You'll start to see this everywhere.

2. Attention to Detail

Among the many horribly confusing wordings the LSAT test makers use to phrase their questions, one of their favorites is placing very important details that ultimately change a sentence's meaning. While studying, it will be quickly discovered that the "eyeing it" approach to analysis simply won't cut it. I got countless practice test questions wrong simply because I did a cursory read through of a question and thought I "had the gist of it".

An example of this detail check is illustrated in a made up LSAT question:

The following are all a negative reason not given by the speaker in the example, except...

I wish this were an exaggerated LSAT wording. The question is really asking:

Which negative reason did the speaker give in the example?

But it'd hard to get there without either a genius intellect or attention to each word that altered the question.

The LSAT's sneakiness is very much akin to real life. There are people out there who try to deceive or gain advantage by simply placing a small, but incredibly important detail just out of plain sight. Paying attention to detail is important. The difference between 100 thousand and a million is a single zero on paper. The difference between life and death is a few millimeters off the surgeon's point. Details.

3. Managing Time

In a world where everything from the wristwatch to the television competes for our time, time management is increasingly important. Time management is the most frustrating part of the LSAT challenge. If test takers were allotted an infinite amount of time, most of them eventually would get most questions correct. The trouble is, to complete each question on the test, no more than about 70 seconds can be spent on any given question. That is just enough time to go crazy.

The idea of taking a big chunk of time and breaking it down into small deadlines for intermediate tasks is one of the great talents of successful people. It can be used for everything from household chores to planning a business trip.

It works like this: Identify how much time you have to accomplish something. Break down your goal into smaller steps. Plan out how much time the smaller steps should take. If something is taking too long, plan on absorbing the time loss somewhere else, or if the current step isn't that important, just leave it behind. Time management is the key to success.

4. The Power of a Teammate

I was really lucky when I studied for the LSAT because my wife was studying for it too! The most effective part about working with her was that, when we reviewed our practice tests, she almost always got my incorrect problems correct, and vice versa. As a result, we had someone to explain missteps every time we got an answer wrong.

No one is infallible and having a teammate, especially one who thinks in a different way than you do, is an invaluable resource. I can't imagine how much time I would have spent going over the questions I got wrong trying to figure out how to do them. By getting someone else on board, eager to work just as hard as you do, you can bump up effectiveness, efficiency and the overall good time.

5. Understand and Analyze Point of View

On the Reading Comprehension portion of the LSAT, there is a myriad of questions that challenge whether or not test takers understood from which viewpoint certain ideas in a text originated. Many of these questions also probed further into analyzing a certain viewpoint's stance on a topic. Understanding who said what and how they feel about it is an imperative skill for anyone one who wants to be considered competent.

Objectivity in news coverage is slowly diminishing. I guess some could argue that it was never really there in the first place. Either way, the general public's access to information is at a record high and there are more informational articles out there than there are people. It is so important to be media literate and to analyze and challenge the things we read. Just because something is followed by a .com doesn't mean it is a credible source. Even if an article does come from a credible source, it doesn't mean it's completely accurate.

Understanding viewpoint humanizes authors, which helps us disagree with them. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell recently has been quoted to say, "Change your mind on something significant everyday." How can we do that without questioning everything we read and hear? Wait-- should we even do that? Who is this Malcolm guy anyway? He seems to like going back and forth on things a lot!

Challenge, analyze, dissect. We don't have to just accept text. Knowledge is power! Educate yourself! Schoolhouse Rock!