The LSAT is not a static exam. Rather, it varies slightly from year to year and even from test to test, as LSAC explores the full scope of what’s allowable under the rigors of “standardized” testing. And while those metrics are indeed restrictive—introduce significant deviation, and the measurements themselves become unreliable, as I’ve written about previously—even the tiniest of tweaks can have a profound impact, turning a typical test day into a singular success…or something equally unique in the opposite direction.
So what exactly do I mean then by variability, why do subtle shifts in emphasis matter, and how can you best anticipate what’s coming on test day?
First, let’s define “change,” and let’s do it by noting what won’t: the test as a whole. The LSAT, while always in flux, is still remarkably consistent large-scale! You’ll always have five multiple choice sections with four scored and one experimental. Those four scored sections are comprised of two Logical Reasoning, one Logic Games, and one Reading Comprehension, guaranteed. You’re going to face four individual games, as well as four RC passage sets (three single and one comparative). Count on it. And so on, as we check the big picture boxes of what every LSAT must be.
Ditto for what every LSAT must do, by which I mean the skills required to score at the highest levels, and the ways in which those abilities are measured section by section. This is always and inescapably a test of reasoning, assessing how quickly and accurately you can process information and how appropriately you can respond to it.
Instead, “change” in the context of this discussion is all about the individual items that appear within each section: how the test makers choose to construct not the test, but its component parts. Will you see three Flaw questions in this section, or six? What Family of LR questions—Prove, Help, Hurt—is going to feature most often? Are you in for four common game types, or is some outlier like Pattern lurking?
The trouble, of course, is that there’s no way to know in advance. Try as you (or I) might, this permanent uncertainty is a hallmark of the test, and one of its most confounding aspects.
So even though I can’t pretend to know exactly what you’ll see as you move through your upcoming LSAT, that doesn’t mean we’re blind. By closely examining the most recent exams, you can get a good sense of what LSAC is prioritizing (and de-emphasizing) of late, and thereby make more informed choices about what to prioritize yourself as you continue studying. Understand the current mindset of the test’s authors and you can sneak a peak behind the curtain as they build your copy.
So that’s my intention here. Below I’ve broken down the last year’s worth of released sections and noted any trends or tendencies that seem to be prevalent, in hopes that these points of emphasis carry over to your test, as well. No promises that they will, sadly, but when it comes to predictions this is far and away your best bet.
LR variance needs to be measured by question type (and occasionally by reasoning type, like Causality or Formal Logic) frequency, not the appearance of a single, section-altering item like a Mapping Game or a dense Science Passage. We’ve charted the question types by appearance count before, and that’s what I’ll use as a baseline here…it’s also what you should continue to use as a rough approximation of likelihood.
A few items jump out at me. For one, Method of Reasoning-Argument Part questions were extremely common on both the December 2015 LSAT and the June 2016 test. Four to five on each, which is really heavy. September 2016 only had two, but on all three of these tests Method-AP was more common than standard Method of Reasoning. Lesson: go review Method-AP and make sure you’re comfortable.
Next, both Cannot Be True and Evaluate the Argument—two types both on the fringes of use—have made something of an, admittedly tepid, comeback. Expect to see at least one of each on the test, and quite possibly a total of three or four (collectively, as with June’s two pairs).
Also making its presence felt: Resolve the Paradox. Despite this types historical tendency of around 5-7%, the September 2016 LSAT had five of these questions, or about 10% (twice the average). Fortunately, Resolve can be mastered with some practice, and if the trend continues that practice should pay off handsomely.
Assumptions too have been creeping steadily upward in frequency, with a whopping eight on the September test! In fact, Second Family questions (Strengthen, Justify, Assumption, and Resolve) were somewhat surprisingly more common in September than First Family (Must, Flaw, etc). Granted, it was 24 to 23, but still that’s a crucial uptick and together those two Families dwarf Weaken and Cannot at just three questions total.
While it’s always a fairly safe bet that you’ll encounter the faithful few in LG—Sequencing, Basic and Advanced Linear, Grouping, and (particularly of late) Grouping/Linear Combination—a savvy test taker is aware of four notable exceptions (and a general reemergence of oddities on the whole).
First, Pattern games appeared in each of the last two years—June 2014 and December 2015—but (unless reports from this past February are mistaken) not so far in 2016. I’d review the games from those two exams to be sure you’re prepared, just in case.
Second, and speaking of February, it’s been a little while now and we don’t have a copy of the test to verify, but it seems near certain that a Circular Game was tested a few Februaries ago. It’s an exceedingly rare type, but again if you’re covering all bases I’d put Circular on the list.
Lastly, and for my money most alarmingly, the fourth game from the September 2016 LSAT was a true head scratcher. For the uninitiated this is the somewhat beastly Computer Virus game that gave people fits a few months back. I’ve explained this game in great detail on our Forum (in video form, no less), so while I doubt you’ll see its like again so soon, you’d be well-served to review it nonetheless.
In short: spend your time on the “guarantees” mentioned above, but don’t get complacent once you have the basics covered. Chances are better than ever that the test makers could throw you a curve ball. Be ready for it.
This is perhaps the most challenging section for “trends,” since both difficulty and outliers are hard to objectively quantify. However, consensus among many seems to be that RC is getting harder. Take the Eileen Gray (Lacquer) passage from September 2016 as just one example: this was almost unanimously considered the toughest passage on that test and, while I’ll admit this is anecdotal, it caused about as much online outrage as I’ve seen in recent memory.
So I recommend reviewing not only that passage, but any that have given you particular trouble on recent (recent-year) practice tests. Odds are you’ll see at least one of similar difficulty on the next LSAT.
In conclusion, the sectional analyses above are all about recent points of emphasis and notable trends, and should be treated as such. There’s no guarantee that LSAC stays the course and repeats these patterns, but by using their behavior to better determine yours you give yourself the best possible shot at a thoroughly predictable test day.
Questions or comments? Let us know below!
Image: “Trona Star Stack” courtesy of Dan Eckert.