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Pattern Recognition

A quick sports aside

It turns out that professional baseball players don't have faster than average reaction times. In fact, no human being has reflexes fast enough to respond to a 90 mph fastball.

So how does anyone hit the ball? By predicting where it's going to go. Every time a baseball player swings, they're making a guess.

Better hitters make better guesses.

Top baseball players (1) see through the pitcher's attempts at disguise to (2) notice the tiny clues that actually matter, and (3) immediately know what those clues mean about where the ball is going.

Source: paraphrased from David Epstein's the Sports Gene

Pattern recognition is the key to speed on the LSAT. To recognize patterns you must...

  1. See through the fluff to
  2. Notice small clues, and
  3. Know automatically what those clues indicate.

There are three methods to improving your capacity to recognize the LSAT's pattern.

Ranked from worst to best they are:

  1. Brute Force
  2. Reading about the test
  3. Curiosity + Flashcards

Brute Force

This is the hard way. It involves doing every question you can get your hands on and hoping to absorb the LSAT's lessons as if by osmosis.

To be clear, a certain volume of practice is required. Seeing lots of situations exposes you to the many varieties and disguises of each pattern. But volume itself is not enough. Volume is necessary, but not sufficient.

Without introspection and reflection, you're unlikely to learn from your practice. In fact, you're more likely to build bad habits.

Reading About the Test

The lowest level of reflection is looking up how an expert solved the problems you got wrong.

Free sources of expert solutions
  1. Manhattan Prep Forums
  2. LSAT Hacks

This can be useful for seeing what patterns or clues helped the expert. It can be helpful when you feel completely stuck.

There's no shame in asking for help. But seeking out an expert should be your last move because it deprives you of the opportunity to figure it out for yourself.

More risks of learning from LSAT experts

The person who wrote that explanation probably scores 170+ and spent 30 minutes agonizing over all the nuances of that one question. Most explanations set an unrealistic standard for understanding. You will not see all that nuance on test day.

The authors of books about the test (including this one) are nerds for the LSAT. This means that we are intellectually stimulated by the hard stuff. Which means we're easily tempted into spending your time and energy on the rarest and trickiest problems.

Puzzling with Curiosity + Flashcards

Struggling through problems, aka puzzle practice, is

  • a more active, and thus a more effective way to learn,
  • a way to make takeaways customized to your personal brain, and
  • an important skill for hacking through extremely hard questions on test day.

Curiosity allows you to see your mistakes

It's hard to notice what you didn't notice. The key to identifying patterns while puzzling is by getting curious. Curiosity helps you get past the cognitive and emotional barriers that prevent your brain from recognizing your errors.

Open up space for curiosity by being generous with yourself.

  • Give yourself time. If you redo a question immediately, you'll probably do it the same (wrong) way again.
  • Give yourself credit. You can figure this test out. There's always one right answer and four wrong answers; and you're allowed to know which is which before you start puzzling.

flashcards make pattern recognition automatic

flashcards are the key to quickly recognizing those patterns in the future.

To be useful, pattern recognition needs to become automatic. It's not enough to learn the material, you also need to internalize it.

Thinking is expensive

You cannot afford to waste time on test day half-remembering and re-discovering how to do everything.