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September 17, 2014

52 Weeks to College — Week 12: Really Short Answers

 

This week we're sharing tips and tricks specifically around the questions on the Common Application (or any other college application) that require really short answers. We're defining that as an answer not much longer than a text message, tweet, or Facebook post. You should be able to own these — they are tailor-made for your generation!

But approaching these questions can feel tricky for many applicants. Are admissions officers trying to trap you when they ask about your favorite author, what historical moment you wish you'd witnessed, or your nutty idea for a gadget? Do they really care that Toy Story is your favorite movie? YES, because that gives them a window into your genuine personality. If you're answering these questions correctly, you are not too focused on what you think an admissions officer wants to hear (which rarely ends well), but rather you're focused on having an authentic answer, because that's the answer they're really looking for here. That's how you "think like an admissions officer."

Week 12 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

  • Finalize your 3rd application.
  • Revise your 4th application.
  • Draft your 5th application.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, and exercise judgment about whether to include them at all. (See Week 4.)
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions representatives will be coming to a place near you. Sign up, and add those meetings to your calendar.
  • Draft your 3rd scholarship application.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. (See Week 6.)
  • Take the ACT.

Tips & Tricks

1. Link to your story. So how do you "be yourself" in the context of really short answers? As always, go back to your story from Week 3. Use your really short answers to emphasize or reinforce a particular theme about yourself in your application, or to bring out a side of yourself that hasn't yet made it into your application but that needs to be there.

2. Personalize the clichés. Do you think you're the only applicant naming blue as your favorite color? Not a chance. But that's perfectly OK, as long as you personalize your answer. Examples:

  • "My favorite color is the blue of my mother's eyes."
  • "My favorite color is royal blue."
  • "My favorite color is blue because I am red-green color blind, and blue is the only color that I see as others see it."

There are infinite ways to personalize your answers. You can check out some other techniques in chapter 9 of our book.

3. Watch your tone. Tone can be problematic with really short answers. What might strike you as sophistication or dry wit might strike an admissions officer as arrogance or negativity. You don't want the admissions officer to draw the wrong inferences about you just because of tone. The best way to check your tone is to ask someone who knows you well to read all of your really short answers together. You've struck the right tone if that person starts smiling and responds, "That's so you!"— in a good way.

4. Revisit your essay. Now that you've finalized three applications, consider whether you want to revisit your essay in order to realign it. All the pieces of each application should fit together to tell your story. Is there anything you could be tweaking in your essay to make the parts of the application fit together better?

5. Sleep. That's right. Sleep! Sleep is the secret weapon for performing better on standardized tests.

 

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley, 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application, 52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

September 15, 2014

MBA Admissions Tip: Word Limits

With applicants for the round one deadlines putting the finishing touches on their applications, the question of how strictly applicants need to adhere to word limits is perhaps more popular than ever.  MBA candidates naturally have a good deal of information they want – and need – to convey in their materials, and getting the important ideas down under restrictive word counts is a difficult task.  While it might be tempting to run a bit beyond the guidelines to slip in that one extra thought, it’s important to keep the reasons for word limits in mind.

In addition to being a forum for explaining your goals and sharing your story, the essays also serve as a test of the applicant’s ability to communicate clearly and concisely, not to mention follow directions and answer a question.  Because business schools and post-MBA employers place a premium on all of these elements, adhering to word counts ultimately works to the candidate’s advantage.

The other consideration is the reader’s time.  Because of high application volume and the need to give every applicant fair and thorough consideration, schools are forced to limit the amount of information in each file.  If you consistently extend your answers beyond the suggested limits, you are essentially asking the reader to give you more time than they are devoting to the other applicants.  In other words, if you were to ignore the word limits and overshoot by 30% throughout, this might imply that you consider yourself to be 25% more interesting than everyone else who applied.

That being said, there is some leeway.  For the vast majority of programs, it’s generally acceptable to exceed the word limit by 5%.  There are, of course, a few exceptions:

Caveat #1: If a school gives you a range (e.g., 250-750 words), you should ideally stay within that range.
Caveat #2: If a school gives you a page limit (e.g., 2 pages), you should stay within that limit – without excessive margin manipulation or font size reduction.

In terms of the other end of the length issue, it is likely unwise to consistently fall more than 5% below the word limits, as this is valuable room in which to share further information about your candidacy (and might signal a lack of effort, experience, or accomplishments).

Best of luck to all those working on their application essays!

About Clear Admit:

Ivey Consulting is proud to partner with Clear Admit to provide comprehensive admissions information and consulting services to business school applicants. Learn more about Clear Admit here.

September 10, 2014

Another Admissions Myth in the New York Times

There's a myth out there that you have to do a lot of fancy internships and extracurriculars in order to be attractive to admissions officers at elite schools.

That is FALSE. 

Yes, that deserved all-caps. Why? Because that myth might prevent people who come from more modest backgrounds, people whose parents aren't well off or well connected, or people who have to work to support themselves, from bothering to apply to elite schools. And that's a terrible outcome.

Here's an example of that myth in action:

A column in today's New York Times talks about how high school students are shying away from "grunt" jobs, like waitressing, flipping burgers, or folding shirts at the Gap, because that would take them off the fast track to fancy colleges. 

Here's the problem though. That article interviewed a former Yale professor about why students might be working fewer of those jobs:

Mr. Deresiewicz [author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which I reviewed here] told Op-Talk that admissions offices don’t give any weight to the kind of low-wage part-time job that Ms. Waldorf performed or that Mr. Ruhm and Mr. Baum studied. Instead, extracurricular activities and internships are a staple among applications and consistently impress admissions officers.

That simply isn't true. Ask any current or former admissions officer of an elite school and you'll get an earful. And from personal experience, I can tell you that when I was an admissions officer, I would always have preferred the person who worked at McDonald's over someone who did an internship that had been lined up by dad calling in favors with his golfing buddies. That's all else being equal, though, which it rarely is. But show me otherwise decent qualifications? No brainer.

Deresiewicz doesn't have any real admissions experience. He should stick to things he knows about, and it's a pity that the New York Times offers up his assumptions about elite admissions as authoritative. 

I'll end on a happy note. Years ago, I was advising someone who wanted to go to a top graduate school. She had worked her way through college (where she had done remarkably well) by managing a fast food restaurant. She, too, had reservations about listing that job on her resume. Would admissions officers look down their noses, she wondered? Would it look bad that she hadn't had time to do lots of fancy extracurriculars?

Instead of hiding the fast food job, I persuaded her to showcase it, because of all the great things it demonstrated about her: she knew how to balance her work schedule with a demanding academic program; she knew how to manage and train people who, in many cases, were older than she was, and whose English skills were limited; she was trusted with a sizeable cash till and with payroll; she was willing to push up her sleeves and work a decidedly unglamorous job in order to reach her long-term academic and career goals.

I knew admissions officers would be very impressed, and I was right. She ended up going to a top graduate school.

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting. She and her team help college, law school, and MBA applicants make smart decisions about their higher education and navigate the application process. She is the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions and How to Prepare a Standout College Application, and also serves on the leadership team of the non-profit Service to School.

September 9, 2014

What Can Janeille Do For You? Take a Look

A great testimonial from one of Janeille's clients:

Janeille is phenomenal! I went into the law school application process worried that I wouldn’t receive an offer of admission from a top-twenty law school. Although I graduated summa cum laude from college, I struggled on the LSAT. Janeille never stopped having faith in my abilities and helped me prepare a strong application.

So much of the law school application process involves soul searching. Janeille helped guide me through this process and enabled me to highlight strengths I had overlooked. I went through nearly five different topics before I found the perfect topic for my personal statement. I then revised my personal statement over ten times. Janeille was always a phone call or email away if I ever needed her. She could have easily advised that my application was good to go after the fifth or sixth draft, but she was invested in my success and was patient throughout the process.

I am currently at a top-five law school, despite the fact that my LSAT was nearly ten points below my law school’s 25th percentile. I truly would not be at my law school today if not for Janeille. I have excelled in law school, and I attribute most of my success to Janeille. The skills that Janeille taught me were not just useful in the law school application process, but in law school and job searches as well.

September 9, 2014

52 Weeks to College — Week 11: Interviews

Interviews are wildly different from every other part of your application. Whether you’re being interviewed by a student on campus, by an alum at a local Starbucks, or by an admissions officer via Skype, it is a direct exchange between you and another person, and that dynamic changes everything. There is information that gets shared in conversations that would never come out otherwise, and there are observations about behavior and demeanor that make lasting impressions. What happens in an interview is so distinctive that it always either helps or hurts; it is never neutral. Below are our top tips to get ready for your interviews.

Week 11 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

  • Finalize your 2nd application.
  • Revise your 3rd application.
  • Draft your 4th application.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials. (See Week 4.)
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions representatives will be coming to a place near you. Sign up, and add them to your calendar.
  • Finalize your 2nd scholarship application.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. (See Week 6.)
  • Prep for interviews.

Tips & Tricks

  1. Understand the difference between types of interviews. Is the interview evaluative or merely informational? An interview is "evaluative" if it will become part of your application file — those are the ones that really count. The school website or admissions office should be able to tell you whether it's evaluative or not. If evaluative interviews are optional at any of your schools, we recommend you do them, assuming you will do the necessary preparation.
  2. Prepare to answer four types of questions. You won't know the specific interview questions ahead of time, but make sure to prepare for questions around four topics: your academic/intellectual abilities and interests, your accomplishments in activities outside the classroom, your personal background and character, and your interest in the college. You have already worked out answers to those questions in your story, your resume, and your “Why College X” essays in previous weeks, so you do not have to reinvent the wheel. Here's a chance to work smarter, not harder!
  3. Do your homework and have your questions ready. At some point, your interviewer will likely ask you, "Do you have any questions for me?" (Often that happens towards the end of the interview.) Figuring out the right questions to ask your interviewer takes some thought, so think about them in advance. The interview is not the time to ask questions about the admissions process or to ask the most basic questions about the college. Instead, you want to ask questions that actually get to the deeper, more interesting information about the college.
  4. Practice. It is easy to practice interviewing. Recruit a parent or a teacher or some other adult to serve as your interviewer. Give them sample interview questions and a sample evaluation form (found at the end of chapter 20 in our book) and go for it! For the best kind of practice, conduct the interview in a setting as close to the actual setting for the interview as you can manage. 
  5. Do the follow-up. Immediately after your interview, write down your impressions and add them to your personal research notes about schools. Send a thank-you letter to your interviewer, and notify the college admissions office that you have had your interview.

 

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley, August 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application, 52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

 

September 8, 2014

MBA Admission Tip: MBA Application Data Forms

With MBA programs’ R1 deadlines past or just around the corner, we wanted to offer some words of advice about an often overlooked element of one’s file: the application data forms.  All too often, we see candidates leave these online application forms for the last minute, even rushing to enter all the required information from work on “deadline day.”  The truth is that a weak effort on these forms can do serious harm to one’s candidacy, as it might reflect poorly on the applicant’s professional polish or commitment to the application process.  This being the case, here are a few tips for those who are in the midst of completing this component of the application:

1) Don’t be lazy.  We know that many applicants feel “burned out” from their essays and that it’s tempting to zip through the application data forms and provide a bare minimum of information.  While it’s fine to use your resume as a starting point, make sure that you think beyond this ready-made content and consider other information that might be of interest.  In many cases, the forms are a great opportunity for you to list outside activities in depth, offer a quick explanation of a bad semester, share the significance of some professional awards you’ve received, and so on.  In fact, your application forms will often be the starting point for the admissions officer’s review of your file, so it’s important to put your best foot forward.

2) Follow instructions.  If a school asks you to list activities in order of importance to you, then do not list them chronologically (as you may have done for another school).  If the school asks for a contact person, title or the number of hours/week, do not leave these fields blank.  As attention to detail is very important, spell-checking is another important step in this process.  In fact, many admissions officers have stated that they use the application forms as a way to see whether or not candidates have the ability to follow instructions and show attention to detail.

3) Make everything clear.  The last thing you want is for your reader to have to play detective in understanding your career progression, making sense of gaps in employment, or evaluating your undergraduate performance.  If your listings are not clear, the reader may assume you are hiding something – a conclusion that could seriously damage your chances.  By the same token, you should avoid using industry jargon and be sure that all of your statements will make sense to a reader who is not familiar with your industry or function.  Given the level of competition in the applicant pool, the admissions office can afford to dismiss files that are confusing or difficult to follow.

4) Don’t go overboard.  Admissions officers typically review several files in a sitting – devoting much less time than you might imagine to each file.  With this in mind, avoid listing 18 activities, 22 awards and 17 publications – especially if some of those items date back to high school (or are more than 10 years old).  Stay focused on the elements of your background that are most relevant, while following the instructions that have been outlined.  Remember that the application process is an exercise in marketing, and that the schools appreciate applicants who are discerning about what details to share and know how to present themselves most effectively.

As always, best of luck to those of you who are applying!

About Clear Admit:

Ivey Consulting is proud to partner with Clear Admit to provide comprehensive admissions information and consulting services to business school applicants. Learn more about Clear Admit here.

September 3, 2014

52 Weeks to College — Week 10: Working with Your Recommenders

Now that your senior year has started, it's time to line up the third parties who are your key allies in the application process: your recommenders. Your core recommendations typically come in the form of a school report from your school-based college counselor and two academic recommendations from your teachers. (The number of teacher recommendations might vary among your colleges.) Recommendations make a difference, and it is up to you to make sure that the recommendations you get will make a positive difference for you and influence the admissions officer in your favor.

Week 10 To-Dos

This Week and Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

  • Finalize your second application. Finalizing is the crucial last step before submission.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials. Supplementary materials are portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like. Note: very few of you should have this to-do on your list because you are following Week 4's advice about exhibiting restraint when it comes to these kinds of materials.
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions/college representatives will be coming to your school, your community, or a place near your home. Note these visits on your calendar and do your best to connect with the admissions representatives then.
  • Set up a meeting with your school counselor:  If you haven't already met with your counselor, do that now.
  • Secure your teacher recommendations: Confirm your individual colleges' requirements for teacher recommendations (how many and in which subjects) and make appointments to meet with your recommenders if you haven't already done so at the end of 11th grade. Look out for specific requirements that might influence whom you ask to be a recommender. Ask for any scholarship recommendations at the same time.
  • Draft your second scholarship application.
  • Check whether there are new scholarship opportunities. Add the deadlines to your calendar and block out time to work on them.
  • Secure any recommendations necessary for scholarships. You can ask for these at the same time that you ask for your application recommendations.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. In Week 6, you made a test prep schedule for yourself. It will only work if you work it! So go to it. 

Tips & Tricks

  1. Help your counselor help you. Admissions officers place a lot of weight on what school counselors have to say about an applicant in the school report, and a negative report can be the kiss of death. What the admissions officer learns from the school report will have a direct bearing on your academic rating by the admissions officer. In other words, your school counselor is an important ally in the process, so respect the role he plays. Follow the rules and work within the system (your counselor is bound by school policies as much as you are), give your counselor as much lead time as possible, and take any opportunity to let the counselor get to know you. You can read more advice about the school report, including specific tips for international students and homeschoolers, in chapter 18 of our book.
  2. Choose recommenders who can help you tell your story best. Go back to your story that you wrote in Week 3. Although you don’t always have a choice when it comes to your recommenders, when you do have a choice, you want to choose the recommenders who can help you tell your story best. Pick recommenders who know you well, who can speak about your positives and negatives based on direct experience, and who like you. If you have significant negatives to overcome (very low grades, a disciplinary or criminal record), choose at least one recommender who can address these negatives either because of the recommender’s position or because of the recommender’s knowledge of and experience with you. Read more tips about choosing and working with recommenders in chapter 19 of our book.
  3. Waive access to your recommendations. Under the law, you have the right to see your recommendations (and all other application materials that remain in your student record) after you have been admitted to and enroll in a college, unless you waive that right. The recommendation forms give you an opportunity to waive your rights to access. Typically, the only reason applicants decline to waive access is when applicants are concerned about what the recommender might say and want to discourage the recommender from saying anything negative. That creates a new and equally serious problem: a recommendation that will not have much heft. When you do not waive access, you are not only sending a signal to the recommender, you are also sending a signal to the admissions officer, who might conclude that this recommendation cannot be fully trusted because the recommender could not be completely frank. Choose a different recommender instead.
  4. Be prepared for visits from college representatives. It's fine to treat these visits from school reps as an information-gathering exercise on your part rather than an official interview. You don't have to sell yourself overtly, but be mindful that any contact you have with a school representative (whether an admissions officer, an alum, an administrator, or the secretary answering the phone) will make an impression that could affect the final admissions decision. You want to come across as an applicant who has done her homework about the college that is visiting your turf, and express genuine interest in that college. You want those college reps to leave feeling excited about the prospect of receiving an application from you.

 

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley, August 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application, 52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

 

 

 

September 2, 2014

Out After Curfew — Do You Have to Disclose?

Our friends at Blueprint Test Prep sent along this question from one of their students:

Three days before my 18th birthday, I was caught being out at night after curfew. There was no drinking or anything like it involved. The police made me wait for my parents to come get me, same with my friends.

The told me they were giving me a warning, but I never received any type of documentation so was led to believe it was verbal. I was also under the impression that since I was turning 18 in three days, that warning would be taken from my record anyway. Is this something that needs to be disclosed [on my law school applications]? And how do I find out if it was actually a written warning? Thanks

Because each law school words its disclosure questions differently, you'll have to read them very carefully to determine whether you have to disclose this incident on your applications. You might have to disclose for some schools but not others.

Many applications ask whether a particular incident happened — that's different from asking whether it's on your record. So don't assume you can ignore it on your applications just because you were under 18, or just because it may have been expunged, or just because it may have been an oral warning versus a written one.

Look for any language in the disclosure questions that creates an exception for juvenile incidents (under age 18), or any exceptions for incidents that were expunged from your record. Also look for any language that distinguishes between convictions and charges, and any language that distinguishes between felonies, misdemeanors, citations, and warnings.

Questions for you to research: Was the warning ever in your record? If so, was it expunged? You'll have to find out exactly what happened and exactly what's in your record by contacting the police department that caught you and issued the warning. Keep records of whatever they confirm one way or the other (even if it's just to confirm that there is no record at all). You'll likely need that information again when it comes time to apply for the bar.

For applications that do require you to disclose this incident, this one is pretty small potatoes, and I doubt very much that it will stand between you and a law school acceptance. If you fail to disclose something when you should have, on the other hand, there can be much more serious consequences. So if in doubt, go ahead and disclose.

You can read more advice on these kinds of topics here:

Good luck!

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting. She and her team help college, law school, and MBA applicants make smart decisions about their higher education and navigate the application process. She is the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, which is downloadable as an e-book.

September 1, 2014

MBA Admissions Tip: Know Your Audience

As Round 1 deadlines approach fast, applicants are coming to understand that applying to business school is an incredibly demanding process.  In addition to taking the GMAT, assembling academic transcripts and providing recommendation letters, candidates are required to draft multiple essays, job descriptions, lists of activities and more.

With the obvious incentive to save time wherever possible, it’s understandable that many applicants simply cut and paste content from an existing resume and write about their work in the manner that comes most naturally.  However, in doing so, countless candidates each year assemble their materials without ever asking a fundamental question:

Who will read my application?

While the answer to this question may vary from school to school, one thing is certain: It is unlikely that the person reading your file will have an intimate level of familiarity with your specific industry or job function.  This being the case, if you use industry-specific jargon or assume prior knowledge of your field on the part of the admissions officer, you undoubtedly will lose your reader.

It’s also important to keep the big picture in mind; many applicants become so mired in the details of their own work and role that they fail to provide sufficient context for a company outsider to understand the importance of one’s efforts to the department or organization as a whole.  The solution is to write about your experiences in a way that the average person will understand.  While this is easier said than done, it underlines the importance of sharing your materials with an unbiased advisor (ideally not a work colleague or family member) to make sure that you aren’t off-base with some of your assumptions.

To learn more about who will actually read your essays at the various schools, or to inquire about our application editing services, simply contact Clear Admit with your CV/résumé and sign up for a free initial assessment.

About Clear Admit:

Ivey Consulting is proud to partner with Clear Admit to provide comprehensive admissions information and consulting services to business school applicants. Learn more about Clear Admit here.

August 26, 2014

How To Use Practice Tests In Your LSAT Prep

Today’s advice comes from our friends at Blueprint LSAT Prep. Blueprint students can enroll in live LSAT prep classes throughout the country, online LSAT courses from the comfort of their own home, or self-study with Blueprint’s new Logic Games book

Practice tests are (and should be) an important component of any LSAT study schedule, but they’re also commonly misused. Sure, anyone who takes dozens upon dozens of practice tests as quickly as possible will improve simply by virtue of increased familiarity with the LSAT. But that person likely won’t improve as efficiently or to the same extent as someone who uses practice tests more strategically. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the right and wrong ways to use practice tests when studying for the LSAT.

If you’re taking an LSAT prep course, some practice tests are likely built into your study schedule. For instance, Blueprint LSAT Prep students take six proctored practice tests throughout the course. You’ll want to take additional practice tests on your own, but it’s best to ask your instructor when you should start doing that. We recommend waiting to self-administer practice tests until all of the new material in the course has been covered; until then, it’s a better use of your study time to focus on mastering the new concepts.

If you’re self-studying for the LSAT, the general philosophy behind using practice exams will be similar. You want to take a few strategically placed tests throughout the early phases of your studying in order to test your understanding of the concepts you’ve already learned. Your timing will likely be a total mess, and you shouldn’t stress the question types you haven’t covered yet; instead, take a close look at the question types you have learned (and that you had time to attempt). If you notice an area you’ve already worked on that you’re still struggling with, you should take some extra time to go back and review that concept. In other words, your early practice exams should be used to make sure that you really have learned the things you think you’ve learned.

As you get closer to Game Day, you’ll want to ramp up taking practice tests. However, even at that point, there’s such a thing as too many. If you do practice test after practice test without taking the time to learn from them, you’ll continue making the same mistakes, and you won’t see much score improvement. It’s paramount to review each practice exam before you take the next one.

Here’s the general review strategy you should be using: 

1) As you take a practice exam, make a note of any questions that you guess on or are unsure about.

2) After you score the test, go back and thoroughly review the questions you got wrong, and any questions you marked in Step 1. When I say “thoroughly review,” I mean that you should be able to explain the question to someone else - both why the answer you chose was wrong, and why the right answer is right. Furthermore, you should think about what tricked you the first time around, so that you can avoid being similarly tricked in the future.

3) Once you’ve completed Step 2, analyze the questions you got wrong to determine if there were any trends. For instance, perhaps you stunk at implication questions (e.g. “which of the following is most strongly supported…”); perhaps you struggled with question types that require you to identify flaws in the argument, like Flaw, Strengthen, Sufficient Assumption, etc.; perhaps Logic Games were your weakest section.

 4) Once you’ve found that weakness, take some time (like, at least a day) to drill it. You should be doing question after question of that type until you understand them all inside out, upside down and backwards. You should become a merciless Flaw Question Terminator (or whatever question type you were drilling). Then, and only then, are you ready to take another practice test.

Wow, that’s a lot of steps between each practice test! And when people use practice tests the wrong way, they often skip at least one (if not all) of those steps. The simple act of taking a practice exam is not enough to really improve your performance on the LSAT; it’s important to learn from each test as well.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the tests you’re taking should be in strict test-like conditions. One reason that people often underperform on test day relative to their practice exam scores is that they weren’t strict with the timing or they always took their tests in their whisper-silent bedroom with their favorite smooth jazz playing in the background. You can avoid those pitfalls by setting a timer for each section and following it religiously (or using an app like the one found on the Blueprint website to keep track of time for you), and by taking at least some of your practice tests in an area with some light ambient noise, such as a library.

Lastly, you should save the most recent practice exams for closer to test day. The LSAT has subtly evolved over time. There’s still a lot to be learned from the older tests, but more recent tests will give you a better sense of what your test will be like. So take the older tests earlier in your prep, and save the newer ones for your final weeks of studying.

Prep tests are necessary but not sufficient for success on the LSAT (see what we did there?). So use them, but make sure you’re using them wisely. By the time the big day rolls around, you’ll be taking full-length LSATs like a champ.

For more study tips from Blueprint visit their LSAT blog, Most Strongly Supported.

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