J.Y.: Hello, and welcome to the 7Sage podcast. I'm J.Y. Ping, and on today's episode, I'm joined by David Busis for a crash course on the Writing section of the LSAT. Yep, you heard me right. We're going to talk about this unscored and much-neglected section.
David, whom you might know from the numerous admissions-related content we release here, is, and this you might not know, is a published writer. His works have appeared in _The New York Times_, _The Wall Street Journal_, and _The Atlantic_, plus he took the LSAT and was admitted to Yale and Harvard, just to name-drop a little, but seriously, I think he is in a far better position than me to teach how to write the essays that you'll have to write for the Writing section.
In this short episode, David and I first talk about what the Writing section is, whether it actually matters to your applications, and then we analyze a real LSAT Writing prompt and construct a response essay, illustrating the principles he teaches. Okay, let's jump right in.
Today, we're going to talk about LSAT Writing, and to start off, maybe tell us a bit about what the LSAT Writing is and whether it matters, because this is not something that I cover a lot in the curriculum, mostly because it's not a scored section of the test, but I think that's probably not fair to the section.
David: Well, I would say that it's half fair. I mean, look, it does not matter as much as the rest of the LSAT, but it matters enough. You should take it seriously and you should study a little bit for it, especially now. The landscape has totally changed because LSAT now allows you to take it asynchronously. So you can take your LSAT without even thinking about LSAT Writing, and then you can go home and treat yourself to, you know, a celebratory dinner.
And then the next day, guess what? You get to study for something else, but you don't have to study much. You can study for LSAT Writing for four, five days, less, maybe three days, and take it after the regular LSATs and do it justice by studying for it. In the old days, you had to take LSAT Writing right after you took the timed test, which means that if you wanted to study for it, you would've had to take time away from the LSAT. So there's not much of an opportunity cost anymore to studying for it. That's what I'm trying to say.
J.Y.: I see, but why study for it at all if it's not scored?
David: Well, it's a good question. It's a valid question. It's not scored, but it does go to every single law school admissions office, and so everybody who reads your application will be able to look at LSAT Writing.
Now, the truth is many of them won't look at it. We did an informal survey. We asked our own former law school admissions officers, and then some former law school admissions officers that have been on our webinar, whether they read LSAT Writing, and to be honest, many of them said that they rarely look at it or that they only sometimes look at it.
But if you look at it the other way, about 70% of them said they look at it at least occasionally, and a good 20% usually look at it. So I just don't think that it's a good bet to hope that they won't read it. It's actually, it's sort of like Pascal's wager. Are you familiar with Pascal's wager?
J.Y.: About the existence of God?
David: Yeah, exactly.
J.Y.: Just in case. Just in case, right?
David: That's right. You want to live piously just in case, because it's just a pretty bad bet to live as if he doesn't exist. Well, you know, same thing with LSAT Writing. Like it's just, it's a pretty bad bet to live your life as if no one's going to read LSAT Writing. They might not, but what do you have to lose? You have to lose, I don't know, couple hours of study time, and you have a lot to gain. Or maybe a more realistic way of putting it is that you actually have a lot to lose if you don't study for it.
The LSAT Writing is one of those things that can probably do more harm than good. You're not going to make up for a bad LSAT score with a great LSAT Writing sample. Maybe it'll inch your admissions reader a little closer to a yes if you write a fantastic sample. But I think the real danger is that they read it and they're not impressed, and it makes it easier for them to say no, because admissions readers in general are just looking for reasons to say no. So if you study for it, you can take away one potential reason for them to say no.
J.Y.: Gotcha. Okay, well, then let's talk a bit more about what's actually on the LSAT Writing. Is there some, like, general format that the test writers follow when they create these things?
David: Yeah. It's actually super mechanical, which is another reason why you should study for it because you don't have to read many of them to understand it. LSAT Writing starts to feel a lot like a Logic Game. It's a writing game, so it always starts with a choice. Somebody has to choose between one of two options. You know, Flo has to choose between tacos and pizza for dinner. A beer brewer has to choose between opening a production brewery or a small, little brew pub.
And then you always get two criteria. Here are two ways that we're going to decide which choice is better. Flo wants her meal to be delicious, and Flo wants to be heart healthy. And finally, you get two paragraphs of information, one paragraph for each choice. So there's a paragraph of information about tacos, and there's a paragraph of information about pizza in our tacos versus pizza example.
Every sentence of that paragraph is a fact that you can interpret as a pro or con by looking at the criteria. It's a 35-minute test altogether and you'll type it on your own computer. I think that's important to know.
J.Y.: So we're always presented with two choices and we're asked to make an argument for one or the other of the two choices.
David: That's right. I should have said that at the beginning. It's a persuasive essay.
J.Y.: I see. And you are making the argument, there are kind of guardrails, right? Like you're guided along based on the criteria that they present.
David: That's right. So in our pizza versus taco essay, you're not going to impress anyone by saying you should do tacos because Shaquille O'Neal likes tacos better. Well, so what? Like you have to refer to the criteria. You have to say, Flo, according to the facts, Flo thinks that guacamole is delicious, and one of her criteria is that she wants to enjoy her meal, so she's likely to enjoy it if it includes guacamole.
J.Y.: Right. So the fact paragraph about option one, tacos, are going to contain some facts that either are pro or anti whatever criteria that they laid out for you. And the same is going to be true with the pizza paragraph facts.
David: Yeah. And in these, they're usually pretty unambiguous, by which I mean it's usually pretty hard to interpret any given sentence both ways. Most of them have facts that are like pretty obviously a pro or pretty obviously a con, but sometimes it's hard.
J.Y.: So you're telling me I can't get this wrong.
David: Yeah. I mean, you can always argue creatively, right? LSAC doesn't provide an answer key. I'm just saying it's probably going to be pretty clear to you how to use most of the facts, but yeah, occasionally, you'll be able to use a fact to argue either for or against an option.
J.Y.: Okay, I see. Great. So now I think I have a general idea of what this task is. Now, in Logic Games, we use a lot of repetitive templates, game boards. Is there something like that for this task?
David: I think the analogy is just choosing the structure beforehand. I did a couple of these LSAT Writings to prepare for an LSAT Writing lesson. To be honest, I was pretty cocky. I thought I was hot stuff, I thought I was a pretty good writer, and it was actually much harder than I thought to write a cogent, compelling essay in 35 minutes, especially when I tried to figure out the structure on the fly.
So I would advise you to practice, I mean, take the test once without constraining yourself to a structure, but then review it and try to apply a structure. And I had the most luck when I applied a really dead simple, pretty obvious structure. I would always state my position in one sentence, that was the thesis of the essay, Flo should order tacos.
J.Y.: Right. And you do want to be very definitive.
David: You do want to be definitive.
J.Y.: Option one, not option two.
David: That's right. Obviously, there's no right answer here. You'll almost always be able to easily argue for either side, which can be a pitfall. If you're a waffler, it may be hard to decide. So I would advise you just to choose what you feel is more compelling, and if you don't have a feeling, just choose the second option. It's the second one you'll read, it'll be a little bit fresher in your mind.
But I always started with a one-sentence statement of my position, and then my next paragraph was just a pro. I would argue for my side. I wouldn't really try to compare it to the other side. I would just extol all the virtues of my side. I would basically walk through the paragraph about my choice and just try to spin every sentence into, you know, a more compelling argument that this best fulfills the criteria.
And then in the next paragraph, I would usually acknowledge a seeming strength of the other choice, and then I would knock it down. It's true that pizza is also tasty, but it's so unhealthy that Flo can't enjoy her meal if she's worried about an imminent coronary event. And then you just walk through the facts about pizza, or the other side, and you say why it's a losing choice, why it fails all of the criteria.
And then even though I advise you to do a one-sentence intro, I would spend a couple sentences on the conclusion. I think it is a pretty good chance to say something memorable and sum up or shore up your arguments in case you were still figuring out what you were trying to say as you wrote.
J.Y.: Okay, so it sounds like at the end of following this template, this structure, you would've used up all the facts in both of the paragraphs, the facts for your side. You highlight the pro facts and then you talk them up, and then you transition into your second paragraph where you're trying to, you know, talk down the other choice. And again, you do that by looking at the facts, identifying the ones that seem to be arguing against it. You just highlight those. And then even the ones that are for that second choice, that other choice that you didn't pick, you know, you try to minimize those facts.
David: Yeah. When I was practicing, I would typically touch on most of the facts. I wouldn't always touch on all of them. I don't think that you're going to get a deduction for failing to use a certain fact. I really doubt that any admissions officer's going to go through with a clipboard and make sure you touched each one.
J.Y.: Okay, great. So this sounds like we have a template for how not to get rejected from law school on the basis of your LSAT Writing sample.
David: Yeah, I think that's the goal. Right? Just don't screw it up. It's not a high bar, but again, it's worth practicing. It can be a little trickier than it may seem. It is sometimes hard to complete the essay in 35 minutes.
J.Y.: Yeah. I think that's really important, just the time pressure and, you know, having to both structure your argument and to add meat to the bones, to write it out can be daunting under the time constraint, so it's a good idea to practice. Now I see what you mean when you said it probably takes, you know, just a few hours, nothing like actually comparing, studying, rather, for Logical Reasoning or Reading Comp. This is probably something you can get done in like several, maybe 10 hours of prep.
David: I don't think you even need 10 hours. You know, nothing bad will happen, obviously, if you study for 10 hours, but I really think if you take at least three practice essays, you're going to hit your stride. And more importantly, you'll have a better sense of what it takes to get to the end of the essay with hopefully a little bit of time to revise, just so that you can spell-check and make sure that you don't have any glaring typos.
J.Y.: Right, right. With that, how about you and I look through an actual writing prompt and we'll try to apply, try to apply this simple, that simple structure.
David: Sure, yeah.
J.Y.: Let's look at, from PrepTest 79, the LSAT Writing prompt. It's about Stonewall Construction. So I'm going to read. It's pretty short. I'll read it out, and David, you can take it apart and apply the template that we talked about.
J.Y.: Okay, so Stonewall Construction is deciding which of two upcoming construction projects to bid on. One of them is resurfacing Hilltop Road or expanding, the other one is expanding Carlene Boulevard. Since Stonewall cannot fulfill both contracts at the same time and bids constitute binding commitments, Stonewall can only bid on one of them. Using the facts below, write an essay in which you argue for bidding on one project over the other based on the following two criteria.
One is that Stonewall wants to enhance its reputation among potential clients. Two, Stonewall wants to increase its capacity to take on bigger projects. Okay, so maybe let's pause here, and David, can you analyze what we've read so far?
David: Yeah. I think one reason it helps to practice a few of these is to learn where you can read quickly and where you should slow down. I think you can usually read that first sentence, the setup, very quickly. It doesn't usually have much substantial information. It just sort of has the labels of the two choices.
So, at this point, if you're reading through it the first time, you really only have to lodge two things in your mind. One choice is Hilltop Road, the other choice is Carlene Boulevard. Very soon, we'll figure out what each of those choices entail, but for now, just pull those out of the fairly verbose setup and then look at the criteria again. And those you do want to try to hold in your mind as you go on to read the facts. So again, the first criterion is that Stonewall wants to enhance its reputation, and the second one is that it wants to increase its capacity to take on large projects.
J.Y.: Great. So now, looking ahead, I see just two more paragraphs, and each paragraph is a set of facts about one or the other of the projects. So the first paragraph says, the Hilltop Road resurfacing is a small project. The potential profit is relatively low. With Stonewall's experience, resources, it is almost certain to win the contract and is highly likely to finish on time and within budget. Stonewall has an established reputation for finishing projects on time and within budget.
Stonewall has specialized in small projects. Construction firms specializing in small projects find it increasingly difficult over time to win contracts for bigger projects. If the project is completed under budget, Stonewall will keep the extra money. If it is over budget, Stonewall must cover the additional costs. Stonewall will use any extra money to purchase additional heavy equipment. Okay. So that was a lot of facts, and I feel like I wasn't even paying that much attention as I was reading it.
David: Yeah. And let me just say that it does feel a little overwhelming the first time you read through this, but even though it's a fast exam, like all the other sections, I think it certainly pays off to take your time and be very patient as you work your way through all this information. I tended to spend about 10 minutes processing this, and then spend the other 25 minutes writing.
J.Y.: I see. 10 minutes like planning out, processing everything.
David: 10 minutes reading, starting to outline, rereading, or at least trying to mine the paragraph of information for facts that seem to support my side, et cetera.
J.Y.: Okay. So, well, let me finish up then with the final paragraph. The Carling Boulevard expansion is a large project. The potential profit is much higher. It involves kinds of work Stonewall hasn't done before and would require to expand its operation. Because of the overall nature of this project, Stonewall believes it has a good chance of winning the contract. It is uncertain whether Stonewall can finish the project on time and within budget. Even if Stonewall exceeds time and budget constraints, it will gain valuable experience. If the project goes over budget, Stonewall will lose money.
David: One thing to notice is that a lot of these facts are about how profitable the project is likely to be, but that's not actually one of the criteria. So that's going to be an indirect argument for or against one of these projects, because you do have to relate it to the criteria.
J.Y.: Yeah. This requirement being enhancing its reputation among potential clients and increasing its capacity to take on bigger projects. So the facts that we read in either project about profits, you have to do a little bit of interpretation, a little bit of argumentation to get it to be relevant to, I presume it's the second criteria, right? Like, increase its capacity to take on bigger projects.
David: Right, and of course, there is no answer sheet, but I think it's much easier to relate profitability to that second criteria. It's a lot easier to say, well, if they make more money, they can buy the equipment or hire more people to take on larger projects.
J.Y.: That's right. That's right. Okay, so those are the facts that are inviting us to draw some connections. And then there are other facts that are just much more direct.
David: Right. Some facts are directly about its reputation. So we learn in the first paragraph about Hilltop that Stonewall has an established reputation for finishing projects on time and within budget, and we learn that Stonewall is more likely to complete Hilltop on time and within budget. By the way, if you need taglines for these two, because I'm sure it's hard to keep all of this in your working memory, Hilltop is basically the smaller, less risky project. Carlene Boulevard is the bigger, riskier project.
But you can interpret this fact that Stonewall is likely to finish Hilltop on time and within budget two ways. On the one hand, you can say, well, finishing one more small project on time and under budget isn't going to do much for them because they already have an established reputation. Or you could go the other way. You could say, well, it's going to burnish their excellent reputation.
J.Y.: Right. So depending on whether you choose Hilltop or Carlene to advocate.
J.Y.: Yeah. Well, okay. So which one would you choose?
David: Well, I wrote this one and I chose Carlene, and I don't think I had any particular reason. I think it would be just as easy to choose Hilltop, but yeah, I chose Carlene and I ended up making the argument that it just had less to gain with Hilltop. Notice that this prompt falls into a pattern that you will see often. It falls into, you can think of it as an upside versus downside pattern because Stonewall is contemplating two enterprises that are both uncertain, that both lie in the future.
It doesn't know whether it's even going to get either bid, let alone whether it's going to complete either project on time or within budget. So you're weighing a set of risks and potential rewards against another set of risks and potential rewards. You're not weighing two straightforward benefits against each other.
J.Y.: Right. So for the Carlene Boulevard, it is just a higher risk-reward calculation.
David: Yeah, but I tried to say there's more upside and less downside, or maybe that the upside outweighs the downside.
J.Y.: Yeah. Whereas with Hilltop, it says that they're almost certainly to win the contract, so there's like very little probability involved. It's like pretty much a sure thing, but it's, you know, it's a small project, so low risk, low reward.
David: Right. There's not that much to gain, and I think you can go farther than that. I think that you can say they actually have something to lose if they gain the Hilltop project, because they give us this fact that construction firms specializing in small projects find it increasingly difficult over time to win contracts for bigger projects. So it's like best-case scenario, they win the bid, they do an amazing job, and then it's still harder for them to get a bigger project.
J.Y.: They pigeonhole themselves into that kind of construction company. I see. So that would go into the anti paragraph. You'd open with your decision: Stonewall should bid on Carlene. And then the first paragraph, you would go into all the pro, all the reasons for it.
David: Right. Talk about all the upside of choosing Carlene. Because we don't know if it's going to complete either of these projects on time and under budget, one way to analyze each choice is to say, well, what happens if they do nail the contract, if they finish on time and under budget, and what happens if they don't?
And so my argument is that best-case scenario, for Carlene Boulevard, they nail the project, they get a windfall of cash, they can invest it in more equipment so that they can successfully bid on and complete large projects in the future, and they establish a reputation for doing large projects.
J.Y.: That's the first criteria.
David: Right. Well, it's both. If they make a lot of money, they increase their capacity for bigger projects, because they can buy more equipment, and they establish reputation for big projects. And then on the other hand, if they don't finish on time and under budget, they gain valuable experience, and I took that right from the facts. I mean, that is sort of interpretive on LSAC's part, but they give it to us. Even if Stonewall exceeds time and budget constraints, it will gain valuable experience.
J.Y.: Yeah. That's just explicitly stated.
David: Yeah. So that's the argument for Carlene Boulevard. And then the argument for Hilltop Road, you sort of do the converse. You say, well, best-case scenario, if they get it, we've already talked about this.
J.Y.: Yeah, we talked about that. Yeah.
David: Worst-case scenario, they get nothing. There's a big opportunity cost.
J.Y.: Yeah. And then in the final paragraph, are you just rehashing some of the points?
David: Yeah. The final paragraph is really more rhetorical than functional. I'll just read it. 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. So I didn't add any new logic there.
J.Y.: Yeah. All right. And, you know, looking over everything that you wrote, it's not that long. I mean, we said it's three paragraphs, and we're talking about, in total, maybe like 13, 14 sentences?
David: Yeah, that's right. This was one of my shortest essays, but I think this was probably the most successful one, and I think it's because I really set out to write the simplest possible essay. In some of the other ones that I wrote, and I put them up on the course so everyone can see, I went through contortions of logic, which, if it were like a gymnastics competition, maybe I'd get more points for the difficulty of the routine, but it's not a gymnastics competition, and I'm not going to get more points. I think in the end, they just are a little harder to follow and they fall more flat.
J.Y.: Yeah. This one just seems super simple, like definitely bid on Carlene, here's why you should, and here's why Hilltop Road sucks. And then that's it. Wrap it up.
David: Yeah, that's right. Keep it simple. There's, you know, the logic that we applied to this essay sort of applies to writing LSAT Writing in general, but maybe in reverse, like there's not much to gain by writing an amazing essay. There's just, no way is an admissions officer going to read this and say like, holy cow, this man sounds like Abraham Lincoln on LSAT Writing. We need them in the class. It's just, it's not going to happen.
J.Y.: I used to think that the admissions officers just would not read it because, you know, LSAT Writing used to be done by hand, and then, you know, just to like decode people's chicken scratch. I don't know, just call me cynical, but I just don't think many admissions officers would do that. But now it's all typed up, so it's very, very low cost for them to take a look.
David: Right, it's easier. I mean, I think there's a big swath of admissions readers who are checking it, who are not reading it carefully or closely, but they're making sure that you didn't dog it, and then I talked to a lot of admissions officers who told me that they're using this as corroboration if something else seems fishy, if the personal statement is too good, or if they're, you know, if they're wondering about somebody's English skills.
J.Y.: So like, would you say particularly for international students, this might be something that they need to pay attention to?
David: Absolutely. I think it's much more likely that admissions officers will read the LSAT Writing of an international student.
J.Y.: Yeah, that makes sense, right? Because this is the constrained, real-time test of English. I mean, I suppose the other sections of the LSAT definitely also test English, but this is a generative kind of test.
David: Right. And in some ways, it's probably closer to what you'll actually have to do in law school.
J.Y.: Yeah. All right, well, David, this was really informative, really constructive. Thanks so much.
David: Yeah, you're welcome.
J.Y.: Thanks for listening. David created a full set of lessons covering the Writing section with many more sample prompts and essays. The whole course is designed to be pretty short, so you'll probably be able to get through it in one or two sittings. You can access the entire class on LSAT Writing on 7Sage.com for free. Yep. For free. Because remember what we said about this section. We don't want this to be the reason that your application gets dinged. So please have a look at the lessons.
Okay, that's it for this episode. Take care of yourself, and see you next time.