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Taking the Zen Approach to LSAT Analytical Reasoning Problems

Remember the Zen approach — live in the present. Each section contains four Analytical Reasoning problems. Make each problem the sole focus of your being for the time it takes you to work it. Don't think about anything else. Ignore the other problems, the rest of the test, your hopes and fears about the future, and your dinner plans for that evening. To help, pretend that you're a computer, and the fact pattern is a program. You're an old-fashioned computer, too — you can run only one problem at a time. But after you load that program into your memory, you command it completely. You understand how the rules apply to the characters, and can spot impossible situations. (What, you say a computer isn't very Zen? Tell me, what exists more in the present moment than a computer? You'll never catch a computer getting distracted by irrelevancies.)

When you walk into the room where you'll take the LSAT, leave your baggage at the door. Forget your preconceived notions about the LSAT, law, and standardized tests. Everything you need to answer all the questions on the test is contained in the test booklet. Don't read anything into the questions. Focus your whole being on the page in front of you.

Every question in every problem can be answered. Really.

Staying calm

Panic destroys some potentially brilliant LSAT scores. A student starts to work on a problem, doesn't immediately see the relationships between the characters, looks at the clock, realizes she only has five minutes left and seven questions left to answer, looks back at the problem, gets increasingly flustered, looks at the clock again, sees her future sinking into the mire, and suddenly she's blown the whole thing. It happens all the time.

Guess what? That approach doesn't help! Sure, it's nerve-racking, facing down this scary test amidst a roomful of strangers, and knowing that your professional life could be on the line. And your life may well have issues that deserve panic. But Analytical Reasoning problems don't have to be one of them.

Getting lost in the cosmos

Every Analytical Reasoning puzzle is like a little world all its own. The way to succeed is to immerse yourself in that world and become totally familiar with its rules and possibilities. In fact, while you immerse yourself into this problem's little world, you want to leave all your knowledge about the subject at home.

In order to become as familiar with that world as possible, take your time setting up your diagram before you start attempting the questions. Explore the rules, savoring the possibilities like a connoisseur with a mouthful of fine wine. Make sure you understand what the rules say and consider what they don't say. Draw any conclusions you can. The better you prepare yourself, the easier the questions will be.

Deciding which problem to confront first

Each Analytical Reasoning section has four problems. You don't have to work them in order. You can work the second problem first, and then the fourth, the first, and the third if you want to. No one cares — just as long as you answer them all.

How do you decide which problem to work first? Some test-prep courses suggest that you first skim all four problems and rank them in order of difficulty. Then you work them in order, from easiest to hardest. Don't do this. Why? Because deciphering at first glance which problems are difficult and which ones aren't isn't easy and takes away from time you could be using to solve the problems. Some problems that look hard are actually easy when you bite into them. You can waste a lot of time ranking your problems that would be better used simply working them.

Here's a suggestion: Work the problems with the most questions first. If you have one problem that has eight questions and another one that has five, work the one with eight questions first. Each fact pattern takes about the same amount of time to figure out, so if you choose the problem with the largest number of questions, you'll maximize the payoff from your investment.

Working one problem at a time

Whatever you do, don't skip from one problem to another without finishing all that problem's questions. If you do, you're wasting time and unnecessarily addling your brain. Think about it — for every problem, you need to hold in your head a fact pattern that allows you to answer its questions. Sure, you write down notes and a diagram, but the most important information is in your brain. If you leave one problem unfinished to work on another, intending to come back to the first one, when you do come back, you have to relearn the facts. Your brain can only hold so much information at once. Given the time it takes to figure out the facts of one problem, you can get a better score by finishing three problems and skipping one than by frantically trying to hit parts of all four problems.

After you finish a problem, forget about it. It's over and done with, and you need the brain space it occupied. Be Zen — live in the present. Leave the past in the past.

After finishing a problem, take a break. Breathe, twist your head around, and look around the room. In the spirit of this whole Zen strategy, do a little meditation. Do whatever it takes to clear your mind for the next problem.

Remember, every Analytical Reasoning problem on the LSAT can be solved. The test-makers have checked to make sure. They're also trying to trip you up, though, to make you stumble under pressure. You don't have to let that happen.

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