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How Top Students Prepare for the LSAT Your Study Options

The LSAT is a formidable exam that calls for intense preparation. Not only is the LSAT quite tricky, but along with your undergraduate GPA it is also the most important factor that law school admissions offices use to evaluate your application. Obviously, the "payoff" for studying hard can be significant. Students often put in 80-120+ hours preparing for the LSAT. It's best to avoid cramming for the exam, so give yourself 3-6 months to prepare for the test. Remember, the exam is given only four times per year--September, December, February, and June, so think about when you'll have time to prepare. Also, if possible, schedule your exam so that you can take it a second time in case you are dissatisfied with your first score (an increasing number of law schools now take your best score instead of averaging all of them).

The three most common ways to prepare for the LSAT are an In-Person Course, an Online Course, or Self-Study. Take a moment to consider which one is best for you:

Online Classes

Let's start by talking about online classes since most people are unfamiliar with what these really look like. First of all, there is a difference between online recordings of classes and live online. Live online classes (or "virtual classes") are actual classes in which you participate in real time with an actual teacher. Each member of the class has a microphone and set of headphones. The instructor can call on students, and students can ask questions by either requesting "the mic" or by typing into a chat window. On your screen you'll generally see a whiteboard on which the instructor will show questions, write out explanations, and display diagrams. Some online classes offer streaming video, but this may slow down your computer so that you lag behind the class, and it turns out that looking at a talking head on your screen is not that interesting!

Many people worry that online classes will be boring, but if the instructor knows how to use the technology to his or her advantage, these classes can be quite engaging. Some companies have two teachers in the "room" -- an obvious plus in terms of personal attention. The technology also allows teachers to ask questions that everyone privately answers, helping the teachers pinpoint who is struggling with a particular topic. The convenience of online classes can be significant -- imagine attending class in your pajamas -- but make sure that you really set aside class time for class. Don't surf the web, answer the phone or check e-mail during class; otherwise you will find you have wasted precious time.

When choosing online classes, look for an experienced teacher, make sure you will be able to sit undisturbed at a computer with high-speed internet during class time, and consider whether you have the discipline to focus on your class and not your TV, phone or e-mail. Classes with two quality instructors are generally more effective since you can ask questions to one while the other is teaching.

In-Person Classes

In-person classes follow a format you're no doubt used to: a teacher in a room with a number of students. That said, be aware that some in-person "classes" are really lectures. Class size is a good indication of whether a class will be a seminar or a lecture. Lecture-style classes can be useful for gaining a general understanding of a test and some test-taking strategies, while well-run seminar-style classes offer you the chance to ask and answer questions and dig deeper.

In-person classes are useful for those who are unable to attend online classes because of limited computer access, who need to see a teacher's face to remain attentive, or who recognize that they are not disciplined enough to focus on an online class (instead of e-mailing, searching the internet, etc.). In-person classes generally cost more than online classes in order to pay for the physical space in which the class will meet.

When choosing an in-person class, consider the quality of the teacher, your schedule, and the size of the class. If you thrive on in-person attention, look for a class size limit under 20. As you'll see when you compare companies, there's a lot of discussion of the number of hours of instruction that each company offers. It has actually become somewhat of an LSAT prep arms race! While you obviously want to make sure your class will cover all the topics you need to learn, some companies may offer more than you really need. Also notice whether the number of hours a company boasts includes hours spent taking practice tests. Practice tests are, well, practice tests, so they should not be counted towards class time.

Self Study

Some people set out to study for the LSAT on their own and do quite well. To do this effectively, you'll probably need the following:

•  A set of books covering the 3 sections.

•  Practice exams (a lot of them!)

•  Self-discipline (a lot of it!)

Self-study works well for those who can easily learn from a book and who are sure they will set aside time to both read the books and take practice exams. Some companies offer live assistance or recordings of classes to help you while you study, and these can be useful for exploring some trickier question types that may stump you.

If you do the self-study route, avoid simply taking test after test. While your score will probably increase, you may be missing chances to learn important lessons from the work you will have done. It's important to learn and practice specific strategies and it's just as important to learn from your mistakes. Use a book to learn strategies you might not develop on your own, keep a list of all the problems that you find difficult or get wrong, and review those questions deeply. Notice which problem types stump you most often and develop concrete strategies for them. And, of course, be sure to practice with a stopwatch -- it's easy to give yourself a bit more than 35 minutes per section -- but rest assured that will not be the case on test day!

Other options

If you can afford it, tutoring is a great way to improve your LSAT score. In terms of personal attention, nothing can match an extended series of 1 on 1 tutoring sessions. While 1 hour of tutoring should teach you more than 1 hour of class, don't expect to be ready for the LSAT after just a few sessions. Also, while there are many great tutors out there, it's safer to use one who also teaches classes and has an understanding of a complete LSAT curriculum. It's easy for amateur tutors to get tangled in specific questions and not move you along a path towards mastery. That said, make sure your tutor is tailoring your work to your needs -- nothing is worse than having a tutor simply walk you through a set class, regardless of your individual needs. At a minimum, a good tutor will assign you homework on specific topics.

Finally, if you are on a budget and the choice is between a regular course (online or in person) or working with an amateur tutor, if the class is well taught, you'll generally get more for your money in the class.

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