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The value of checklists

In The Checklist Manifesto , Atul Gawande relates a story about modern airplanes, which is also true about the LSAT.

When airplanes were new, their pilots were Cowboys. They flew with intuition and guts. Doubt was deadly.

Then Boeing came out with a new plane, Model 299. It was massive and complex. It promised to give the Allies air superiority. But it kept crashing and killing the most experienced pilots. It couldn't be flown.

Despite the risks, a group of test pilots kept after the problem:

What they decided not to do was almost as interesting as what they actually did. They did not require Model 299 pilots to undergo longer training... Instead, they came up with an ingeniously simple approach: they created a pilot's checklist. Its mere existence indicated how far aeronautics had advanced. In the early years of flight, getting an aircraft into the air might have been nerve-racking but it was hardly complex. Using a checklist for takeoff would no more have occurred to a pilot than to a driver backing a car out of the garage. But flying this new plane was too complicated to be left to the memory of any one person, however expert.

The test pilots made their list simple, brief, and to the point—short enough to fit on an index card, with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing. It had the kind of stuff that all pilots know to do. They check that the brakes are released, that the instruments are set, that the door and windows are closed, that the elevator controls are unlocked—dumb stuff. You wouldn't think it would make that much difference. But with the checklist in hand, the pilots went on to fly the Model 299 a total of 1.8 million miles without one accident.

Checklists inoculate against two sources of error

  1. We forget steps. Especially while stressed.
  2. We skip steps. Especially while rushed.

To put it slightly differently, there are:

  1. Errors of ignorance: Mistakes we make because we don't know enough.
  2. And errors of ineptitude: Mistakes we made because we don't make proper use of what we know.


You might have found some early success as a Cowboy. And on test day it is essential to be able to trust your intuitions. Doubt is deadly on the LSAT, too. But it is also essential to know in what specific situations you can't trust your intuitions, and to have a plan for those situations.

You can't read from your checklists on test day. But you can consult them in practice until they become automatic.

How to make checklists

You can make checklists for either of two purposes:

  1. To capture what you already do well; and/or
  2. To give yourself exact instructions for improvement.
example checklist #1: approach for medium Reading questions
  1. Anchor yourself in the author's claim.
  2. Eliminate confused answers.
  3. Eliminate too strong answers.
  4. If 1 answer remains, select it and move on.
  5. If 2+ answers remain, go back to support the answer you like.

adapted from this page on Reading question types.

example checklist #2: approach for all Reasoning questions
  1. Identify question type + family + style.
  2. Understand the argument.
  3. Pause to predict.
  4. Eliminate bad answers. Defer on weirdo answers. Select good answers.
  5. If >3 or 5 eliminations, then revise or move on.

adapted from this page on the Reasoning section