Three Myths About the LSAT Experimental Section

LSAT Prep

front-logoWe talk a lot with students gearing up for an LSAT about the ideal way to take an LSAT practice test, and one of the pieces we stress the importance of including is the Experimental Section. If you want a thorough discussion of the experimental section, go here, but for now here's a very brief description:

Every officially-administered LSAT since 1991 contains four, 35-minute scored sections--2 Logical Reasoning, 1 Reading Comprehension, and 1 Logic Games--as well as an additional 35-minute, unscored "experimental" section. This section will be either a third LR, second RC, or second LG, and is designed to pre-test questions that could potentially be used as part of a scored section on a future test. Essentially the unscored section lets the test makers determine both question validity and question difficulty before those questions are officially put into play.

There are a few reactions that people tend to have when they learn this. The first, understandably, is anger. 20% of your LSAT efforts (not counting Writing, of course) are devoted to something that cannot possibly help you, and you aren't told when that's happening. You're a guinea pig, and you'll see absolutely no benefit from your hard work. That's frustrating, and even though every tester before you went through the same thing to ensure you take a fair test, it still feels like punishment.

The second reaction is equally understandable, and it's a desire to somehow game the system, to crack the LSAT code and figure out which section doesn't count before, or at least while, you grind your way through it. Imagine knowing in advance, or even just a few questions in, which section isn't scored, and getting a 35-minute break right in the middle of the test!

That's a dream come true, no question, but it's also LSAT doom if you're in any way wrong. So it's this notion that I want to examine more thoroughly here, by presenting three common beliefs about the experimental section, and hopefully setting the record straight well before test day.

1. It's always one of the first three sections

I tell a story on occasion about one of the last times I went and sat for an official LSAT administration, and how instead of spending the weekend prior to that June test hanging at home dodging friends' requests to party, I went to visit my parents in my hometown where I knew I could count on some peace and quiet before test day. To my (mild) surprise, in my test room was a guy with whom I'd gone to high school, a smart kid from what I remembered and someone I felt had a great shot at scoring well assuming he was prepared. I didn't pay much attention to anything but my Scantron sheet for the next several hours, and despite having Reading Comp as sections 1 and 3 (kill me), the day went about as well as I could've hoped for--nothing puzzling or unusual, at least 6-8 minutes to spare in every section, and an overall feeling that a 180 was entirely likely. 

So I leave the testing center and head to the parking lot nearly skipping when I look up and see my old buddy, head down and clearly defeated, shuffling towards his car. I hustled to catch up and get the scoop: "Jon, that was one of the best LSATs I've ever taken! I crushed the first three sections, even the Games in Section 2 were a breeze and that's my weakest area...I was feeling so great at the break! And then I got to Section 4 and it was more Games and...man, I got destroyed. Maybe half right? At that point I knew it was over since my first Games didn't count, so I barely looked at Section 5 and just canceled my score in the room."

In describing this to me he gave some detail about those games in Section 2 he dominated, and then those in Section 4 he didn't, and I only recognized one of the sections from my own, single-Games test: his Section 2. What this meant, and what I reluctantly told him, was that his 4th section, the one that caused him to quit, was Experimental. It didn't count and it ruined his self-described best LSAT ever.

The myth that my poor, misinformed friend* fell victim to is an old one, and one that was actually true for a very long time: the Experimental Section will always be in the first three sections.

Here's the reality: Starting in October 2011, LSAC removed the limitation that the experimental section must be among the first three sections, and allowed the experimental to appear among the final two sections. For example, some October 2011 test takers had scored sections 1, 2, 3, and 5, and had their experimental as section 4. And ever since, test takers like my pal have faced the possibility that their 4th or 5th section may not be scored.

So do NOT assume you'll see the experimental before the break, as all five sections are now fair game.

 

2. Everyone has the same experimental section

This is another belief that has only recently become fiction! From the release of the first LSAT of the "modern era" in June 1991, every administration had just a single experimental section. So if one test taker could determine that their first section was unscored--perhaps it was Reading and their fourth section was also Reading; perhaps they had two sections of Games and their first section had games that other test takers didn't have; perhaps Section 1 was a section where all three section types were presented for different test takers, something that used to only happen on the section that was unscored--then everyone else who took that exam also had an experimental Section 1. For instance, the June 14th, 2004 LSAT had an experimental Section 3 for all test takers, regardless of their other section order, and regardless of whether they had Games, LR, or Reading as their Section 3. In December 2006, all test takers had their experimental as Section 1. And so on.

That's a tremendously powerful bit of knowledge, less because it would help you during the exam (you would need to look around the room and see the other two section types during a section to know it didn't count, and, well, that's cheating), but because it would allow everyone post-test to know which sections counted and which one didn't and make a much more informed score prediction/cancellation decision.

And this went on for the first sixteen years of the “modern era" LSAT! Like most good things, however, this came to an end, and it happened with the June 2007 LSAT (the same LSAT that introduced Comparative Reading passages, interestingly). On that exam, LSAC began using test forms that gave different experimental section numbers to different students. They still restricted it to the first three sections (as discussed above, that lasted until October 2011), but introduced variability within those first three: some test takers might have section 2 as their experimental whereas other examinees might have section 1 or section 3 as their experimental for that same test.

So now not only can the experimental section be any of the five, but your experimental and and your neighbor's may very well be different sections altogether.   

 

3. It will be identifiable when you get to it (or at the conclusion of the test)

This seems to be the most pervasive of all, presumably because there is no definitive evidence (aside from repeated failed identification attempts) to dissuade it. It's a "feel" belief, and that's often much more difficult to disprove outright.

I hear all the time that "I knew section 2 didn't count because it felt weird," or "the Games in my section LG section were different/harder than anything I'd seen before, so I know that was the experimental," or even, "the Reading Comp section with only 26 questions wasn't real because if it counted the test would've only had 99 total questions." 

First, the test makers are masters of making the familiar feel strange, and vice versa. The impression you get from a section or even a single game/question/passage, or how closely you feel it does or does not align with past experience, is precisely the kind of thing they are experts at manipulating to begin with. So your ability to detect what they've pre-determined will or won't count based on that impression should under no circumstances be trusted. Simply put, how you feel is about as reliable as rolling a five-sided die. Not to mention, they are under no obligation to replicate anything to the point that you'd find it immediately recognizable or common--see: Circular Game in Feb 2014; Pattern Game in June 2014--so this little "litmus test" is mostly a waste of time.

Secondly, there are several instances of LSATs with 99 scored questions, numerous tests with 100 or 101 questions, and, while rare, even LSATs with 102 questions (December 2010 begin the most recent). So trying to calculate the experimental after the exam based on question totals is, in a word, impossible. 

 

What this all means is that there is no longer a reliable way for individual test takers to predict or determine their experimental section number during, or even immediately after**, the LSAT. It is possible to narrow it down to two (if Games or Reading Comprehension is experimental) or three sections (if Logical Reasoning is experimental), but with the test makers potentially placing the experimental section as any of the five, not limiting it to a single section for anyone, and not including definitively unusual elements or question numbers, it is essentially impossible to determine the specific section that is unscored by just considering your own sections and experience. 

The moral of this is that you must now treat each section as though it could be experimental, and do your absolute best to dominate everything you encounter from the first question to the last.

 

*there's a happy ending to my friend's story: he rallied, retook the LSAT, and ended up at Georgetown where by all accounts he's doing exceptionally well.

 **I mean here, of course, that you can't determine the experimental after the test by knowing only what you encountered. You CAN figure it out once you know what other test takers faced, by using their real content as a baseline for what did and didn't count on your exam. For instance, if you had two sections of Logic Games (one being experimental), and a test taker with only one LG reports seeing certain topics in that section, then you can compare those topics to your own and know the section with those same games on your LSAT was real. Ditto RC and LR: knowing what was guaranteed to be real for others let's you make deductions about your own test. 

Have any additional questions or comments about the Experimental Section? Let us know below!

 

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