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Why 'Knowledge' Is Not Enough

Jonathan WangJonathan Wang Yearly Sage
edited May 2015 in Sage Advice 6839 karma
***Some background here before we start. I love to write, and I don't get to do it enough. I also happen to have a little knowledge about the LSAT and law school admissions generally. With JY’s blessing, I have decide that I will scratch my writing itch on a semi-regular basis by posting long-form blog-style pieces on the forums. For those of you who have the patience to read the huge post that follows, I hope you find it helpful! If you have a topic that you’d like to see me write about, feel free to PM me. And please, discuss the piece freely in the comments below, especially if you disagree – I love to hear other viewpoints and am happy to engage in respectful and reasoned discourse.

I took a linear algebra class in my third year of college.

For those of you who are backing away from me slowly like I’m some kind of alien, relax. It was a required class to ‘upgrade’ my in-progress B.A. in Economics (my second major) into an in-progress B.S. in something known as “Management Science” (a.k.a. “sorry, we don’t actually have an undergrad business major at UC San Diego, so take this thing instead and have fun explaining it to people for the rest of your life").

Well, despite my lack of enthusiasm for math-related things, I actually did pretty well. Actually, enough with the false modesty. I crushed Math 20F. I ANNHILATED it. I studied like a dog for that class, and I earned a solid A competing with a class full of legitimate engineers and hard science majors. And as a result, I couldn’t forget some of that stuff if I tried. If you give me an hour, my old textbook, and some leeway to swear loudly and rapidly, I would probably be able to do 99% of the things we covered in that class right this instant. I’d be rusty, but it’d all come rushing back before too long. I am firmly, and probably forever will be, in the “I know how to do this” camp.

That said, let’s say you had to take a linear algebra exam right this instant, in test conditions similar to your standard college math class testing environment, and if you failed it you’d be forced to listen to Nickelback for 96 hours straight. BUT, you’re allowed a ringer – someone to take the test for you. Knowing what you know about my linear algebra background, would you trust me to take it for you?


Ladies and gentlemen - that, right there, is the difference between knowledge and mastery.

I’ve taken on a lot of what I call “brush-up” students in my time as a tutor – people who have prepped previously and come to me seeking further refinement of their skillset. And no matter where they are on the scoring scale at that particular moment, there is one phrase that inevitably sees the light of day:

“I know how to do everything. I just have (insert issue here)”

Timing is the most common one, but the reasons really run the gamut. Point is, there’s always something holding back the student, and it never seems to be their knowledge. And you know what? They’re usually right. Now let’s be clear - nobody I’ve ever worked with has ever had perfect theoretical knowledge of the test. But, that’s never stopped anyone from missing questions that they really should not have missed given their level of theory knowledge. So it’s not their knowledge that’s holding them back (or at least, not JUST their knowledge). It’s their MASTERY of what knowledge they do have, or lack thereof.

See, here’s the thing about the LSAT. It’s not just a skills test. It’s not much of a knowledge test either. And actually, if you looked at a bunch of 165-168 scorers and compared them to a bunch of 172-175 scorers, I don’t think you’d see all that much difference from a theoretical knowledge perspective. To score past the mid-160s, you simply have to know certain things – how to translate conditional statements, what your valid argument forms are, common methods of reasoning and flawed methods of reasoning to watch out for, how to tackle the various different question types, and so on. And to a large extent, you need to be fluent in them (i.e., no wracking your brain for 5 minutes before “A some B -> C = A some C” comes out; heck, even 5 seconds is probably a few seconds too long).

The difference is in the details - in how fast the 173+ kids are at breaking apart arguments and identifying methods of reasoning; in how razor sharp their instincts are, allowing them zero in on the relevant issues quickly despite unfamiliar context; in how seamlessly and effortlessly theory is invoked at the appropriate time, every time. It’s like magic – the theory just appears when it’s needed, and is tucked safely out of mind when it’s not, ready to be invoked again on a moment’s notice. These kids always seem to look at the right rules in LG, to find the right sentence to refer to in RC, and generally are just humongous walking jealousy magnets. Hell, I’ve been jealous of some of my more advanced students – I couldn’t do some of what they’re capable of when I was taking this thing. And you ask yourself – HOW? How can I be like them? (Pro tip: it's not sacrificing goats. Not that I would know anything about that. Uhh, moving on.)

It’s not that these kids have perfect LSAT knowledge – usually far from it. But, they apply their valid argument forms like you would answer 2+2. They translate conditional statements across groups like you would count to 10. They can give examples of common flawed methods of reasoning in their sleep (and probably do so on a semi-regular basis). And it’s all done with meticulous attention to detail, utterly consistently, almost instinctively. That’s what it means to be a master of a concept. Now, you don’t have to be a master at everything to score decently - most people aren't - but you do need to be a master at SOME things. Those "some" things are usually the core fundamentals. And when you can rattle off ten different phrasings of an A -> B statement off the top of your head; when you can recite the 9 valid and 7 invalid argument forms by heart and articulate the reasoning when pressed; when you reach the point where you will never ever screw up a contrapositive again - when you can do those things, you're on your way.

Put another way - a lot of people are probably capable of doing something right, whatever it may be. But only a select few people in any context are good enough at something that they are literally incapable of doing it wrong. Which camp are you in? And which camp do you expect to see populating the top 1% of an already self-selected sample?

So the next time you hit a wall and get frustrated with your (lack of) progress, ask yourself whether you would really trust yourself to be able to articulate 100 questions worth of LSAT logic if Nickelback torture was the price of failure. With stakes that high, the answer will almost always be ‘no’, but that’s okay. Find out what you’re unsure of, and work on it. Don’t stop until you can do the basics in your sleep, even if it does take some loud swearing and possibly kicking your little brother in the shins in the meanwhile (blame it on me if you need to, I can take the hit). And then, once you’re done with one thing, move on to the next. Slow and steady really, truly does win the race.

Take the time to truly master the basics and you will be rewarded.


  • brna0714brna0714 Alum Inactive ⭐
    1489 karma
    Thanks for writing this. I found it very helpful. Do you have a website (or a link to another forum post) where you detail the tutoring options that you offer? Thanks!
  • DumbHollywoodActorDumbHollywoodActor Alum Inactive ⭐
    7468 karma
    Love this. Printing this out
  • emli1000emli1000 Alum Member Inactive ⭐
    edited April 2015 3462 karma
    This was needed! Thank you!
  • J.Y. PingJ.Y. Ping Administrator Instructor
    13839 karma
    Thanks Jon, this is great advice!

    @brna0714 You can PM Jon!
  • brna0714brna0714 Alum Inactive ⭐
    1489 karma
  • ENTJENTJ Alum Inactive ⭐
    3658 karma
    One of the best things I've read to date on 7sage. Thanks Jon!
  • JustinaJJustinaJ Alum Member
    223 karma
    This was truly amazing advice! Thank you for posting!!!!!
  • WillJayKWillJayK Alum Member
    163 karma
    This is great! Thank you for thoughtful pieces of advice.
  • sdiaz2030sdiaz2030 Alum Member
    28 karma
    As someone trying to push past the mid 160's scoring for good, your vision of what a 170+ scorer is like, and the difference between the two, is really helpful. Thanks Jon!
  • nicole.hopkinsnicole.hopkins Inactive Sage Inactive ⭐
    7965 karma
    @"Jonathan Wang" "Slow and steady really, truly does win the race. Take the time to truly master the basics and you will be rewarded."

    Legendary. And, full of practicalities that firm up the ground for walking in hope. There is too little of this kind of wisdom across the LSAT universe. Too much of the "4 months to victory" claptrap that, while it might describe the experience for some, fails to deliver the "bad" (but really, good) news you've presented here. The bad news is, it's really quite simple (that it might really just take a damn long time to max out your potential—longer than you think you have). The good news is, it's really quite simple (the tools are readily available, especially given 7sage's price point and affordability of the best materials, and the reality that commitment to fundamentals will yield rewards in the long term).

    No easy 10-steps to success; but a much surer course for whom those programs have failed to deliver.
  • ENTJENTJ Alum Inactive ⭐
    3658 karma
    Well said Nicole! :)
  • nicole.hopkinsnicole.hopkins Inactive Sage Inactive ⭐
    7965 karma
    This has really been sinking in over the past few days. I'm really grateful for it. @"Jonathan Wang" I hope you write more articles of this variety in the near-ish future. Wisdom very much needed in LSATland.
  • Jonathan WangJonathan Wang Yearly Sage
    6839 karma
    Glad you folks are finding it helpful. Like I said above, if there's anything in particular you'd like to hear about (or anything that just grinds your gears), feel free to pass it along and I'll see what I can do.
  • jyang72jyang72 Alum Member
    844 karma
    @"Jonathan Wang" reminds me of how Michael Jordan polished his basic dribbling skills in high school. That's how he became a legend.
  • bobaliciousbobalicious Member Sage
    127 karma
    @"Jonathan Wang"said:
    It’s like magic – the theory just appears when it’s needed, and is tucked safely out of mind when it’s not, ready to be invoked again on a moment’s notice.
    That's a good way to put it.
  • blah170blahblah170blah Alum Inactive ⭐
    3545 karma
    This post reminds me of Outliers so much. Love it :)
  • SerenityFalconSerenityFalcon Alum Member
    86 karma

    Giving this awesome post a good bump.

  • LCMama2017LCMama2017 Alum Member
    2134 karma

    Thanks @SerenityFalcon ! That was really a really good read.

  • Seeking PerfectionSeeking Perfection Alum Member
    4423 karma

    You can feel free to take the Nickelback linear algebra exam for me. I struggled through Calc 3 and 4.0'd it recently enough to take the 96 hours and run rather than studying math for many many times longer. And who knows, you might pull it out.

    That said I do think that the idea of gaining flawless almost instinctual knowledge of the LSAT is helpful to getting a tip top score.

  • Eric25Eric25 Member
    720 karma

    @SerenityFalcon said:
    Giving this awesome post a good bump.

    Thank you for that!

  • Jonathan WangJonathan Wang Yearly Sage
    6839 karma

    @"Seeking Perfection" said:
    You can feel free to take the Nickelback linear algebra exam for me. I struggled through Calc 3 and 4.0'd it recently enough to take the 96 hours and run rather than studying math for many many times longer. And who knows, you might pull it out.

    A brave soul! Misguided, but brave. Prepare your eardrums...

  • westcoastbestcoastwestcoastbestcoast Alum Member
    3788 karma

    Great post!!

  • rnwangumarnwanguma Alum Member
    160 karma

    Good effin' post!

  • NovLSAT2019NovLSAT2019 Alum Member
    620 karma

    You can’t build a two story house without a solid foundation. Thank you for the humbling post. I needed this.

  • kwdardiskwdardis Alum Member
    155 karma

    Love this post (though I struggled with having to even read the words linear algebra multiple times. Yuck.)

  • ATLsat_2019ATLsat_2019 Member
    455 karma

    this is awesome

  • keepgoing.keepgoing. Member
    365 karma

    bless your soul

  • NotMyNameNotMyName Alum Member Sage
    5320 karma


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