The power of prephrasing has been discussed in previous blog posts here and here; in this post, I'll briefly review the basic approach, why it takes some practice, and how this seemingly subtle shift can have profound effects on your understanding of the questions and your overall control of the test.
What is prephrasing?
In the most basic terms, this approach calls for a prediction about what the right answer is likely (or even certain) to include. Some students are surprised to learn that after reading the stimulus, the correct answer can quite often be predicted with some degree of accuracy; even when this fact becomes more obvious, it can still take some real discipline to prephrase at every opportunity.
What's so difficult about prephrasing?
If you haven't already tried this approach, it might be hard to see the difficulty. When I teach an LSAT class, if I don't specifically request that students physically cover up the answer choices as we create a prephrase, the temptation to glance at the answers seems almost irresistible—it just seems like since the answers are right there, simply selecting the right one shouldn’t be so difficult. But this test is very different from the multiple choice tests you might have seen in high school or even college, where a multiple choice test was often welcome news.
Teachers are not professional, full-time test-makers. In my high school, there was one teacher in particular who could be relied upon to create the same format for every set of answer choices on almost every quiz. Among five choices, three answers were clearly irrelevant, and the two choices that remained would include the correct answer and something that looked like a cheap knock-off of the correct answer. Science is not my strong suit, but those quizzes were almost enjoyable. Even if your teachers weren't quite so predictable, you may still have found on such tests that among the choices there was often an obvious right answer surrounded by several seemingly arbitrary (and similarly obvious) incorrect answer choices.
So, how is this multiple choice test different from other multiple choice tests?
The LSAT is made by professional test-makers; that is what they do, and they are very good at it. They are not satisfied by providing one right answer surrounded by several arbitrary wrong answers. Instead, LSAT questions in both Logical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension often surround the correct answer with several choices that are often very cleverly designed to distract.
Why is prediction so valuable?
Pausing to create a prephrase might seem like a small change, but in reality doing so can change your entire approach to the question. When you can create a decent prephrase, your next step is to quickly scan the choices looking for what you know will be part of the right answer. During this analysis, incorrect answer choices that go off in different directions can often be glanced over with little or no consideration. If, on the other hand, you don’t take the time to prephrase, every wrong answer choice starts to require a bit more consideration; at this point, as you begin more carefully considering each and every answer choice, those clever wrong answers are far more likely to lead you off the path.
The challenge is that the value of this approach is tougher to see in the abstract than it is to recognize in retrospect. If you are going to apply this approach successfully, you should practice until consideration of a prephrase becomes an automatic part of your response. As you look at any question in Logical Reasoning or Reading Comprehension, physically cover the answer choices—with a piece of paper, or a post-it, or your hand—every time, until your immediate response to every question includes a brief pause to answer on your own, before moving on to the answer choices. Prephrasing whenever possible will make you a more efficient test taker who is less likely to be drawn in by the test-makers’ clever tricks.
Questions? Comments? Post them below!