This summer will mark the tenth anniversary of one of the greatest achievements in the history of sport, the mind-blowing 8-gold medal performance of swimmer Michael Phelps at the Beijing Summer Olympics. The upcoming anniversary got me thinking about what an LSAT student might learn from Phelps’s incredible achievements. One critical discipline that gets a little less attention from LSAT students, but that serious swimmers think about regularly (trust me, I remember this yearly exercise from my competitive swimming days), is goal-setting. Don’t get me wrong. I think most LSAT students have some notion about the score they’d like to attain in an ideal world, and some (maybe slightly vaguer) notion about how that score connects to their larger career goals. But I don’t think many LSAT students do what a disciplined swimmer like Phelps did when he prepared to conquer swimming’s Mount Everest. That is, they don’t set detailed goals, both long-term and short-term, that will motivate their study efforts and keep them on the path to ultimate success. Let’s see what we can learn from Michael Phelps’s goal-setting that applies to the LSAT preparation process.
1. Think Long-Term: Setting Your Goal Score
Phelps started swimming when he was 7 years old and within a year he was already setting ambitious long-term goals for himself. At the ripe old age of 8, Phelps’s goal-sheet states, “I would like to make the Olympics.” Pretty gutsy for an 8-year-old. He first achieved that goal seven years later, at the age of 15, when he swam in the Sydney summer games (finishing fifth in his specialty event, the 200-meter butterfly).
Thinking “long-term” in relation to the LSAT isn’t just a matter of thinking about the number you want to achieve on test day. Look at Phelps: his first long-term goal wasn’t a number, even in a sport as numerically driven as swimming. Ultimately, the highest number on your LSAT score sheet is only a tool to get you something bigger. Think long and hard about what that “bigger” thing is, and then work your way backwards from there. What kind of legal career do you really want? What are the law schools that can realistically get you there? These aren’t easy questions with simple answers, so make sure you talk to a trusted advisor, colleague, friend, or family member about them. Make sure you research the career outcomes at various law schools. Once you have a reasonably clear picture of your long-term career goals and the law schools that will get you there, the question becomes what LSAT score you’ll need to be admitted to, or receive a scholarship at, those schools. That’s your goal score, sensibly connected to something bigger and more significant than a one-time performance on a four-hour test.
2. Be Concrete: Break your Goal Score Down, Section-by-Section
When Phelps was getting ready for the 2009 world championships in Rome, he had some unfinished business. He wanted another world record in his specialty event, the 200-meter butterfly, and he had a specific time in mind, to the tenth of a second: 1:51.1. But his goal was even more specific than that: he knew exactly what time he needed for each of the event’s four lengths of the pool, exactly how many strokes he needed to take for each of those four lengths, and exactly how many underwater kicks he’d execute off the start and each of the turns.
An LSAT student needs to break down her goal score with the same specificity, and the same eye for detail. The final scaled score (the number between 120 and 180) that appears on your score sheet is a product of your raw score (number of questions answered correctly) on each of the four scored sections of the test. You need to know specifically what total raw score generally produces your goal scaled score (see here for common correct and incorrect raw score answer counts for certain scaled-score benchmarks). For example, if your scaled-score goal is a 170, then you will likely need to answer between 87 and 93 questions correctly (most commonly 89 or 90). You also need to determine what raw score you’ll likely need on each individual test section to produce your total raw-score target. Section-by-section raw-score goals naturally vary somewhat from student to student, even for students with the same scaled-score goals, because of differences in which sections students find easier. Finally, you need to have specific timing benchmarks in mind for each section that will allow you to reach your raw score target on that section.
3. Think Incrementally: Set Realistic Short-Term Goals to Lead You to Your Goal Score
Looking at Phelps’s first goal sheet, we can see that (even at a young age) he was keenly aware that he had a number of intermediate steps to work through before he could reach his long-term goal of making the Olympics. He had goal times for each of his events that were attainable for an 8-year-old, but that wouldn’t by themselves be sufficient to get him to the Olympics. Attaining an ambitious long-term goal involves movement through a series of short-term, incremental goals. Creating a clear and realistic picture of those short-term goals is key to reaching the bigger target.
There are a variety of short-term goals critical to reaching an ambitious LSAT goal score. Writing them down, and constantly monitoring your progress toward them, will help ensure that by test day you feel confident and ready to give a performance that yields your goal score. These should include:
- Test-content milestones
- We have a number of self-study resources to help you structure your studying and mastery of fundamental test content. Use those resources to set a basic study schedule. You should also use early self-assessments to identify particular test content to prioritize. Do you struggle with logic games? A particular type of logic game? Weaken questions? Conditional reasoning? An early practice test or two can help give you this information. Once you’ve identified these areas, set additional test-content milestones for them. Commit to the dates by which you’ll have studied the ins and outs of particular reasoning types, question types, or game types, and by which you’ll have mastered them to the best of your ability.
- Section-by-section timing and accuracy milestones
- Once you’ve mastered foundational test content, you must build your speed and accuracy on timed sections. Using a recent practice test, set goals designed to build speed and accuracy incrementally. First, determine what percentage of questions you’ll need to answer accurately on each section to attain your goal score. Then determine (using your early practice tests) how many questions you are presently able to answer within 35 minutes while attaining that goal percentage. Let’s say your score goal requires 80% accuracy on each section. It’s unlikely when you begin that you’ll be able to attain that 80% accuracy while answering all 22-28 questions in a section within 35 minutes. So, do a few practice sections to determine where, in a 35-minute section, you have to stop working to attain that magic 80% accuracy. Let’s say it’s 15 questions. On a weekly basis, work to build speed by adding a question or two to your current capacity. In weeks 1 and 2, try to build to 80% accuracy while answering 17 questions. In weeks 3 and 4, extend that to 20 questions. Keep going until you can reach your goal percentage for the entire section (and remember, not every student has to answer every question in every section, so if you find in a particular section that you need to guess strategically on a few questions, that’s perfectly fine). If you find yourself reaching a breaking point where you can’t answer additional questions accurately, work on your own or with a tutor to identify exactly what it is that’s holding you back. Drill those issues until you can get your blend of speed and accuracy to that ideal point for your score goal.
4. Don’t Forget the Importance of Accountability
Phelps has talked about how critical it was to have his goals written down (not just in his head) and posted or kept in a place where he’d see them every day. Not only that, but he wasn’t the only one in on the secret. His long-time coach, Bob Bowman was also a part of helping Phelps set his goals. Another current American swimming great, Katie Ledecky, said the same thing after her record-setting performance in the Rio 2016 Olympics: she had goal times written on a pull buoy, a piece of swimming equipment she used every day. Only she and her coach knew the secret meaning of the numbers she’d written there. This kind of accountability is crucial to staying motivated for the hard work our goals require.
For each of the long- and short-term goals discussed above, write them down. Keep them somewhere you can see them regularly. And make sure you’re not the only one in on the secret. Tell your significant other, some family members, a few close friends, or your LSAT tutor about your goals. Ask them to keep you accountable. It’ll do wonders for keeping you on track on those days when you feel like taking it easy or throwing in the towel.
The goal-setting process outlined above may sound rigorous and time-consuming, and it likely will be. But, as the experience of successful performers like Michael Phelps shows, that process is a tool with the potential to yield huge dividends.Have a question? Please post it below!
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