The LSAT is a really hard test – even for native English-speakers. Can you imagine taking it in a foreign language? Students who learn English as their second language (ESL) face a unique set of challenges, confronting dense reading passages, with subtle nuances in language, and time limits that can hinder performance. If you’re looking to achieve a high LSAT score, and English isn’t your first language, hear what the LSAT test prep experts, and an ESL LSAT student, say can help you prepare for the test.
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- Noah Teitelbaum, Manhattan LSAT, Executive Director, Academics
- Steve Schwartz, LSAT Tutor, Editor LSAT Blog
- Milena Jurca, LSAT student, English as a Second Language (ESL)
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Diana Jordan.
The LSAT is a really hard test, even for native English speakers. Can you imagine taking it in a foreign language? Plenty of people do just that. Students who learn English as a second language are known as ESL students, and they face a unique set of challenges, confronting dense reading passages with subtle nuances in language and time limits that can really hinder performance. Still, you can achieve an excellent score on the LSAT even if English isn’t your first language. And we asked our experts for help on how.
In this show you will hear from a German student, Milena Jurca, who successfully raised her LSAT score. Milena has an unusual perspective about taking the LSAT, as an English as a second language student or ESL. “You can actually have a lot of fun with the LSAT.”
Noah Teitelbaum, who heads up Academics for Manhattan Prep, has advice that might mess up your plans. “For a lot of ESL students, my advice would be to not study the LSAT right now.” But Teitelbaum gives you the way to solve that, as well.
We’ll also hear from professional LSAT tutor, Steve Schwartz, who has a provocative take on how to score over 170. “Learning to love the LSAT – you can’t really master it until you actually enjoy it.”
If English is your second language, and you plan to take the LSAT, you face some special challenges, as our ESL student Milena Jurca discovered. “You just think in a different language, and now you have to take this standardized test in English. And it is a challenge because you don’t know all the vocabulary, you don’t know all the words, you don’t know, maybe, every grammatical little detail of structure, or how meaning changes. And that plays a very important role in the LSAT, so… It doesn’t come naturally, so non-native speakers of English have to put a little bit of extra effort into it, to overcome that obstacle.”
The LSAT is particularly challenging for students for whom English is a second language, agrees Steve Schwartz, who writes the LSAT Blog. “Certainly, being an ESL student presents a major obstacle for taking the LSAT, given that the LSAT uses advanced vocabulary. They sometimes use secondary or tertiary meanings of words, so if one doesn’t have that background it can be kind of difficult to understand the precise terms used throughout the exam.”
For many, the logic games section itself is like a second language. For ESL students, Jurca says, it is even more so. “The first thing that I looked at and I didn’t understand were the logic games. But they actually seemed to be the easiest part; I could make the most progress, the fastest progress, on the logic games. Because once you get to think in that kind of system, and you understand what they want, it’s very simplified. They can only ask you that many different things, to perform that many different tasks, and once you get that system down, basically, it’s fairly easy to make progress. On the other hand, the reading on both the logical reasoning and the reading comprehension parts, they function similarly, but I’d say the game is much larger. You have all these words, all the different vocabulary, and the grammatical structures, and it’s you just have to do so many more things, and it just takes longer to understand the system to get into everything.”
And she says that ESL students lose points because it takes them longer to get through the test, translating and interpreting, versus the skimming native speakers often do. Teitelbaum has the good news and bad news for ESL students: “The good news is that logic games is generally an easier section for ESL students. There’s not a lot of complex text. It’s a lot of almost mathematical inferences, though they’re a little bit more like ordering and grouping than math, generally. So that’s generally their strong suit, though, you know, reading for detail is very important in logic games too. The worst would definitely be logical reasoning and reading comp. Though, now which is the hardest, and I think that would be reading comp. There’s a big wall of text. There can be a lot of, or some, vocabulary that non-native speakers won’t be familiar with. And probably most importantly, it’s not really possible to apply some formula to reading comp.”
If you’re an ESL student, there’s one section that can really present a challenge, Schwartz says. “They probably run into the most trouble on the reading comprehension section because they’re faced with hundreds of words of really daunting text; there are texts that’s difficult even for native speakers. So if it’s difficult for native speakers, of course it will be far more difficult for an ESL student. So you have a massive dense text that needs to be interpreted in a very short amount of time, and you know, as much time as is allowed for one logic game. But a logic game is more abstract, so vocabulary and language aren’t as much of an issue there.”
Focus on reading at first, not studying, says Teitelbaum. Even if you come out of college having done well, you may not be prepared for the rigors of law school, or the LSAT. “It demands a clarity of reading that is often not tested in college. So, for many of you, my advice, unfortunately, is to go and study English at a higher level than you’ve been studying it before. That would be, maybe, auditing some philosophy classes or political science, and participating and writing, and really digging into your ability to think in English, and read in English. That’d be my advice for a bunch of people. Then I, sort of reiterating that for people who are pretty fluent, try to separate your language studies from your LSAT study. You really, when you’re studying the LSAT, you want to use that time for learning this test, cleaning up your thinking, and that sort of thing. If you still are having little issues with language at the same time, you should be working on your language skills.”
Preparation is key, and ESL students will have to spend more months studying than do other candidates. Schwartz explains, that’s to gain use and recognition of extra vocabulary, so the lack of understanding doesn’t slow them down when they take timed exams. There are several things an ESL student can do. “One of them would just be to read challenging material, aside from the LSAT itself. Even though it might not be fun, it really is important just to lay the groundwork. You know, as they’re reading they can look up words that they might not know, which everyone always says to do, but very few people actually do it. You need to have a dictionary near you; you need to have the Internet near you so you can refer to the words as necessary, or you can just keep a running list – and look them up later.”
Advice for ESL students, Teitelbaum says, do a lot of dense and difficult reading in English, and study with others. “Choose to study with other people – I think ideally a teacher who knows how to listen and probe and push – but with anyone really, so that you’re discussing this test. You want to talk about it, because just as reading and thinking are interconnected, talking, reading and thinking are also interconnected. So if you have to discuss the complexities of questions in English, you’re going to improve your ability to think in English, and read in English. And that’s why in our classes we are asking students all the time to explain their ideas, so that they’re cleaning up their thinking through discussion. The other thing I would suggest is to not read in your native language while you’re studying for the LSAT, if possible. You should really immerse yourself in English, and also, you know, in your bathroom or by your bed, wherever your books and magazines are, I would throw in some more complex texts, academic journals, Smithsonian, Foreign Affairs, the Journal on International Politics. You know, get some things on science, Scientific American, things like that, so that you’re really shoving your brain to understand complex English texts.”
ESL students should pay special attention to the different phrases that the test makers use to refer to the same concepts, or the same question types, because these may be presented in a variety of ways. “They will use different phrases to refer to the exact same concepts. So you have, in your own head, you have an idea of what they’re asking you for, with a particular question type. But then if they refer to it in an unfamiliar way, you might be thrown off and not know how to approach the question. So, ahead of time, test takers need to make a list of those different questions [they ask] – the questions they ask either for reading comprehension or logical reasoning – and then know what they’re actually asking you to do, so that you can then spend your time focusing on the source material, either the reading comprehension passage or the logical reasoning stimulus, and then get into the logic of that question itself. So you can spend less time figuring out what they want you to do, and more time actually doing it.”
Native speakers should take at least three months to study for the LSAT, recommends Schwartz. For ESL students, even more. And Teitelbaum agrees. He adds that your goal is to read what’s there, versus what you think is there. “For reading comp., we have a process we call PEAR, which is that after every paragraph you Pause, you Evaluate what you’ve just read – think, you know, what was really important there? – and then you Anticipate what’s coming next. And then the R is for after the next paragraph you Reassess, you know, Well, was my prediction right? And this is a very sort of awkward formal process for reading. But a lot of people don’t actively read. They read as if they’re reading Twilight or, you know, some novel where you just are sort of absorbing the plot, and it’s, you know, leisurely reading. And here you want to be wrestling with the text as you’re reading it. And the pitfall for really everyone, native or ESL, is that they start reading, and they say, ‘Oh, I think I know where this is going,’ and then they make the rest of the text fit into that. They have some sort of category in their mind and they throw it into that. And so that’s a very dangerous thing to do because the LSAT asks such specific questions. So, we have a lot of other techniques for improving active reading, but this is a big focus that ESL students should have particularly. For logical reasoning, it’s cutting out all of the clutter of argument. There’s almost always a very essential or simple argument in the center of this whole passage. And you want to get down to it – what’s the conclusion? What is the point? And why are they saying that? And then once you’ve gotten to that you can start actually thinking about it. So, learning to cut through the clutter, getting to what we call the core, is an essential skill.”
If you find yourself regularly looking up words, then you’re not ready for LSAT prep, just for language prep. And Teitelbaum says you can begin with GMAT and GRE tests. “GMAT and GRE passages are generally slightly easier, and would be great for ESL students to use as their initial introduction to pretty complex standardized test reading comp. passages. So I would use a lot of those, get used to those questions, and then switch over to LSAT to take it to the next level.”
LSAT test-takers who score over 170, Teitelbaum says, know the script. “In terms of what sets the top test takers apart, I’d say it’s an understanding of what the LSAT is doing to you, what questions are asking of you, where the passages are possibly or probably going. But at the same time, these test takers are keeping a strong eye on when the script goes off-script, so to speak, when some twist happens, and they’re ready to adapt. So I think flexibility is really key. But flexibility based on a deep understanding of logic and of the test.”
ESL students can close the gap by approaching the LSAT playfully, and studiously, says Jurca. “Practice and challenge yourself. Take full-length tests as much as you can. And also, yeah, just kind of stay in an LSAT mindset. You can actually have a lot fun with the LSAT. You can read a newspaper article and approach it with the mindset of what does the LSAT want?, and all these questions that always come up in the reading comprehension section. Or you can have… you can actually have lots of fun analyzing TV commercials for like implicit unstated premises or flawed argumentation and stuff like that. It is a challenge, but you can make it fun. And you do learn to think, studying for that test. And you do learn to read, so that’s a skill that’s always good to have. And yeah, just embrace that. Don’t see the test as a chore or obstacle that you just have to take.”
She says confidence in your skills and having a proactive attitude differentiate a 170-plus test taker. Her top tips for practicing: change it up and take the position of the test makers. Read a lot. Acknowledge your specific challenges. Don’t take the test before you’re ready. And maybe take a break between LSATs. Teitelbaum’s tips for ESL students begin with taking a diagnostic test, and focusing on the language over the LSAT. “I would encourage people to talk about the LSAT with other studiers. Discuss questions. Get used to verbalizing these complex ideas. Similarly, talk to yourself when you’re reading. So it’s a sort of self-talk, where you’re digesting what you’re reading, and commenting on it. I would do a lot of this, and so maybe go study somewhere where you won’t feel embarrassed about this. But I think it’s going to really help. And maybe read quietly out loud to yourself. Some people learn better if they hear it. Then you have to train yourself to read out loud silently, if that makes any sense, where you’re sort of imagining yourself doing it. And the last one would be avoid your native language while you’re studying for the LSAT. Immerse yourself in English.”
To obliterate test day anxiety, Schwartz says, become familiar with your situation. “They’re going to want to, you know, visit their test center beforehand, become familiar with the layout of it. Devote enough time to properly studying for the LSAT over the course of that, you know, minimum three months that I was talking about. They’re going to want to plan out everything the week before, the night before. Feeling adequately prepared as possible is essential to then focusing on the material of the exam itself. So someone who is an ESL test taker and has the added stress of taking a very difficult exam that’s not even in their native language, they’re going to want to take care of all those other things that go into making it a stressful experience, so they can just focus on tackling that tough passage itself, and letting all the distractions just kind of melt into the background.”
Jurca suggests getting a good sleep the night before the test day. “Another thing that I noticed, taking the test, is a lot of people don’t use the break wisely. I’ve seen a lot of people just like sitting on the floor and chatting, like friends, like sharing their feeling or their experience about the test, or the half-test, that they just took. That’s nice, but I believe the break can be used more effectively to like recharge your batteries, to make sure you get enough nutrients in your brain, to eat, basically, and drink. And like there’s some power foods that worked for me, like nut bars are good because they nourish your brain, and they give you some protein and some fats, some fatty acids. Also, if you’re… if you like to do that, it’s… chocolate gives you like some sugar high and… yeah, get good chocolate. Get like 90% coca chocolate; it makes you focus.”
And Teitelbaum says on the day of the LSAT, warm up with a game or passage you’ve already done. Set your goal to match the score of your practice test, so you can take more risks. And he has some more advice for test day anxiety: “Don’t have your cell phone on. Make your timing… be very strict with it – there’s only a 10-minute break between sections three and four. And I would also maybe add in a sixth section every once in awhile, just to really push your brain to be able to last through the whole test. And in terms of concentration, I would also recommend – and here again, I’m going to tell people to go talk to themselves – is to talk to yourself during the test. And that would be silently though, of course, because you don’t want to interrupt other people. But it’s easy to start sort of hyper-mentalizing, like, Oh my God, I’m, you know, I’ve been thinking, and now I’m here and I’m still thinking, and now I’m doing this test. Will I go to law school, and what will I… maybe I should go to medical school… oh my God, but my dad, he’s a doctor… You don’t want to get into those. Instead, ask yourself questions about the test. So, you see yourself going off-topic…alright, wait, what’s the conclusion of this argument? Or, Okay, what was that last paragraph about? Ask yourself a question about what you’re doing, and answer it, and bring yourself back into the test.”
A dose of reality for after test day, from Schwartz. He says, a score is a score, no matter who takes the LSAT. “A 170 from an ESL test taker means a lot more than a 170 from an native speaker. But at the same time, unfortunately, due to the influence of things like the US News rankings, scores are scores at the end of this, and it’s not like this is an exam that was administered under special conditions, where there’s going to be an asterisk next to that test taker’s score.”
Here’s some key advice on the test for ESL students from Jurca, who has been there already: “Good luck. Fall in love with the test. Give yourself time. And yeah… yeah, take the test when you’re ready. Take it once, and take it when you’re ready.”
Read…read…read. Our guests say that reading dense magazines and scientific books will familiarize you with the tough tight writing you will see on the LSAT, and will close the gap between you and native English-speaking law school applicants. Remember to start your LSAT prep a few months before your non-ESL colleagues, who will probably begin three months before test day. And several of our guests suggest you might just need to fall a little in love with the LSAT – or at least appreciate it.
For more information, a transcript of the show, or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit www.LawSchoolPodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. I’m Diana Jordan, with Law School Podcaster. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest, to help you succeed in the law school application process, and beyond.