How to Ace LSAT Writing—Outlining Your Essay

After taking LSAT Writing about ten times, I’ve found that the simplest structure leads to the most consistent results. Let’s review the Simple Pro and Anti essay, or SPA—then talk about alternatives.

Throughout this example, we’ll refer to the essay I wrote for PrepTest 79.

The SPA: a Simple Pro and Anti Essay

The idea of the SPA is to minimize distractions and maximize your writing time. Specifically, we want to maximize the time you spend on your analysis of the facts. The SPA gives you the best chance of impressing your reader with clean, compelling, logical prose.

Paragraph 1: The One-Sentence Intro

Some online advice-givers would have you summarize the prompt before diving into your argument—as if stating your position is too forward, like asking someone how many children they want on the first date.

There’s nothing wrong with summarizing the prompt, but it’s unnecessary. Always remember that you’re taking a writing exam. Your intro can be purely functional. Tell us your position so that we can follow along in the rest of the essay:

Tacos are the clear choice for Maya’s takeout order.

Stonewall Construction should bid on the Carlene Boulevard expansion project.

If you’re writing much more than that, you’re probably taking time away from the important parts.

Paragraph 2: Pro

The S in SPA stands for Simple; the P stands for Pro. Your first body paragraph is a simple list of pros (as in pros vs. cons). Walk us through the facts that support your choice, spinning them to make your point more emphatic and showing how they fulfill the criteria.

I recommend that you consider both criteria in the same paragraph, as in this example:

If Stonewall Construction hopes to burnish its reputation among potential clients and expand its range, it couldn't do better than to bid on the Carlene Boulevard expansion project, which it has a good chance of winning. In the best of circumstances, Stonewall would finish on time and under budget, providing a windfall of cash and a resounding demonstration of its competence when it comes to large projects. The company could invest its profit in more heavy equipment to increase its capacity for similar operations. But even if Stonewall were to lose money on the project, it would expand its workforce and gain valuable experience, improving its ability to handle large projects in the future.

Paragraph 3: Anti

The A in SPA stands for “Anti.” Just as the first body paragraph marshals the facts for your choice, the second paragraph marshals the facts against the other side. You’ll typically start by acknowledging the pros of the opposing position before mitigating them. You might argue that those pros aren’t as compelling as they seem or that they have an intrinsic downside. If you can’t neutralize the other side’s pros, you can always just explain why they are outweighed by your choice’s cons.

Because the anti paragraph tends to involve more creativity than the pro paragraph, we’ll break it down into parts.

The Beginning of the Anti Paragraph

Use the first sentence of your anti paragraph to telegraph your argument. Here, for example, is the first sentence of my anti paragraph for PrepTest 79:

The Hilltop Road resurfacing project, by contrast, has little to offer Stonewall in the way of profit, reputation, or expanded capacity, even if the construction goes well.

Sometimes you’ll need more than one sentence to introduce your anti paragraph. For example, let’s return to our “pizza vs. tacos” essay, which has two criteria: Flo wants to enjoy her meal, and Flo wants to be heart-healthy. We’ll begin the anti paragraph by acknowledging something that seems to support the first criterion, then pivoting:

Pizza is, admittedly, a tasty dinner option. However, it’s hard to imagine Flo enjoying her meal with the knowledge that each bite brings her closer to a coronary event.

Our strategy there is to dispute the connection between pizza’s tastiness and the criterion of enjoyment. But we could have also left the first criterion uncontested and simply focused on the second one:

Flo would, admittedly, enjoy a tasty pizza dinner, but her enjoyment is negligible compared to the overwhelming havoc pizza would wreak on every cell of her body.

I used this second strategy in PrepTest 86. Instead of trying to minimize or contest the opposing position’s pros, I just emphasized the concomitant cons:

Although the radio observatory is conducive to large, ground-breaking research projects, such projects monopolize the observatory for extended periods of time, making it impossible for other researchers or students to use it.

Formulas for Starting Your Anti Paragraph

To acknowledge an oppositional point and then dismiss it, you may find yourself reaching for the same constructions:

  • X is, admittedly…however…
  • Although…
  • And though…
  • It’s true that…but
  • Despite (some seeming advantage)…

When possible, though, I prefer the simplest possible approach:

  • Option B, on the other hand…
  • Option B, by contrast…(say why it totally sucks)

The Rest of the Anti Paragraph

Later in your anti paragraph, you may repeat the pattern of first invoking and then dismissing an advantage of the other side. In the following example, again from PrepTest 79, we handle two potential arguments for the opposing position before launching a final, pure attack. By “pure” attack, I mean that the last argument doesn’t grapple with an opposing argument; it just states a con of the other side.

The Hilltop Road resurfacing project, by contrast, has little to offer Stonewall in the way of profit, reputation, or expanded capacity, even if the construction goes well. Stonewall already enjoys a reputation for finishing small projects like Hilltop on time and within budget; finishing one more project on time and under budget can hardly be expected to make a difference. And though Stonewall might invest its earnings from the project into heavy equipment, the expected profit is meager. Finally, success on Hilltop Road would come with a cost, cementing (so to speak) Stonewall’s reputation as a company that only handles small projects. Construction firms that specialize in small projects find it increasingly difficult to win large ones. Given Stonewall’s large ambitions, it should avoid these small pickings.

Sentence-by-Sentence Key:

  1. Topic sentence
  2. Handles the argument (which we never state explicitly) that the Hilltop project will burnish Stonewall Construction’s reputation
  3. Introduces another opposing argument
  4. Handles second opposing argument
  5. Final, pure attack on Hilltop

Paragraph 4: The Conclusion

Don't skimp on the conclusion. This is the last impression you'll make on your reader, and is therefore more important than the intro. It's also easier to write and, usually, more substantive.

At a minimum, your conclusion should simply restate your arguments:

Stonewall Construction has every reason to bid on the Carlene Boulevard expansion project, where success would carry huge rewards and failure would come with the consolation prize of valuable experience. Stonewall would reap meager rewards, on the other hand, from the Hilltop Road resurfacing project, and the best-case scenario—finishing on time and under budget—would ironically lead to the worst result, typecasting Stonewall as a company that specializes in small projects and circumscribing its hopes for the future.

If you can add a bit of rhetorical pizzazz to the end of your conclusion, so much the better:

Tacos are the right choice for Flo's mouth, her stomach, and her beating heart.

Alternative Structures

The Simple Pro and Anti essay considers the alternatives one at a time: your side’s pros, their side’s cons. Sometimes, however, you may want to compare both choices in a single paragraph. Instead of stating why your position is good and the other position bad, you’ll argue that your side is better and the other side worse. You might structure the essay like this:

The Basic Comparative Essay

  1. Intro
  2. Comparative pro: Your side does a better job of fulfilling the criteria
  3. Comparative anti: Your side fails the criteria less severely
  4. Conclusion

Here’s a short example of a comparative essay in which I argue that Flo should order the tacos over pizza given that she (1) wants to enjoy her meal and (2) wants to be heart-healthy.

  1. Intro: Flo should order tacos instead of pizza.
  2. Comparative pro: Although Flo likes the taste of both dinner options, tacos afford her a better experience overall. Hard taco shells have a delicious crunch; soft tortillas feature a melt-in-your-mouth savor. Both have a more appealing texture than a sweaty triangle of melted mozzarella. Thus Flo is more likely to enjoy a meal of tacos.
  3. Comparative anti: Neither pizza nor tacos are as heart-healthy as, say, celery, but tacos are less likely than pizza to end Flo’s life precipitously. Most taco meats have less trans fats than pizza cheese. What’s more, spicy tacos may make Flo jump out of her seat, giving her an aerobic workout.
  4. Conclusion: Flo will enjoy tacos more than pizza, and tacos are less unhealthy than pizza.

You can also mix “simple” arguments, in which you only consider one of the alternatives, with comparative arguments, in which you consider both. I find myself reaching for this structure frequently:

The Simple Pro and Comparative Anti Essay—An Example

  1. Intro
  2. Simple pro: Tacos are tasty and enjoyable
  3. Comparative anti: Tacos are less unhealthy than pizza
  4. Conclusion

Stepping Back from the Taxonomy

In practice, these structures may bleed into each other. For example, you could write, “Tacos are super tasty and, unlike pizza, great vehicles for hot sauce.” Is that a simple or a comparative argument for tacos?

Nobody cares!

We’re not pinning essays to a cork board and affixing scientific labels. We’re just reviewing mental models that may help you outline. The difference between the “SPA” and the “comparative” essays boils down to a basic framing question. Should you consider a single alternative in a given paragraph or both alternatives at once?

I never wound up asking this question as I drafted an essay, but the framework helped me figure out a better approach to the exam. After discovering that I wrote cleaner essays and finished more quickly when I stuck to simpler structures, I decided to make the SPA my default and to write comparative paragraphs only occasionally.

One More Framework: Risk vs. Reward

LSAC’s Writing prompts often ask you to bet on an uncertain future. Our favorite example, PrepTest 79, asks us whether Stonewall Construction should choose project A or B even though we don’t know whether it will finish either project on time or under budget. In fact, we don’t even know whether Stonewall will win either bid. Prep Test 80, to take another example, asks if Tony should invest in a brewery or a pub even though we don’t know whether either venture will succeed.

In such prompts, you can’t argue that one option will be better than another no matter what happens. You can only say that one option is more likely to satisfy the criteria in the long run, and that it has a more attractive set of risks and rewards.

Risk vs. reward—or upside vs. downside—suggests another way of structuring your essay:

  1. Intro
  2. Upside: Your option has bigger potential rewards than the other option
  3. Downside: Your option is less risky than the other option
  4. Conclusion

This structure is a specialized version of the comparative essay. It’s just as easy to add risk-vs-reward logic into a simple pro and anti essay:

  1. Intro
  2. Your option has big potential rewards and little risk
  3. The other option has small potential rewards and lots of risk
  4. Conclusion

This is exactly what I did in my essay for PrepTest 79.

Final Word

I recommend that you do a bit of experimenting to figure out which structure tends to work best for you. Make that structure your default to save yourself time on the exam.

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