Recently, I read a blog post about how an “LSAT master” doesn’t read the question stem first (as most major test preparation programs recommend in the Logical Reasoning section).
Conventional reasoning is that when you read the question stem first, you know what you’re looking for going into the stimulus. This directs your focus as you read the text, and frequently saves you from having to go back and re-read the same content after you’ve read the question stem and know what you’re looking for.
The premise of this recent post was that when you truly have a command of arguments and the Logical Reasoning section, you’ll
automatically zero in on what’s wrong with the argument and won’t need to have read the question and determined what the test writers were looking for in advance. There’s quite a bit of truth to that, too. When you have a solid understanding of how arguments work and you’ve seen enough Logical Reasoning arguments, it’s impossible to read one without automatically zeroing in on the gap in the argument.
Still, I have a couple of reservations about this, “Don’t read the question stem first” advice.
- Probably, you’re not an LSAT master. It sounds persuasive to tell you that you shouldn’t employ a particular strategy because that’s not what the pros do. But really…NASCAR drivers reach speeds of nearly 200 mph while circling a track in heavy traffic. That doesn’t mean taking it up to 180 mph will make you a better driver. No matter what the task at hand, top experts probably employ some shortcuts—and novices (or, even, mid-level performers) who attempt those same shortcuts are likely to see negative consequences.
- Honing in on what’s wrong with the argument isn’t always your job. Yes, a significant number of Logical Reasoning questions revolve around the gap in the argument. But, as you know if you’ve taken even one practice test, “a significant number” is not “all”. For example, honing in on the gap won’t help you answer a straight Parallel question, nor will it provide the key to an Argument Strategy question…and the list goes on. In many cases, an Inference question won’t even include an argument, and when it does, focusing on the gap won’t help you answer the question. Your score depends on answering the question that was asked, not indiscriminately showing off how quickly you can identify what’s wrong with an argument.
For what it’s worth, I read the question first. I don’t know what that blogger’s definition of an “LSAT master” is, but it takes me approximately 20 minutes to answer all of the questions in a Logical Reasoning section correctly—and that’s been consistent (with a very occasional -1 in a section) for more than 15 years.
At worst, reading the question stem first is harmless. You have nothing to lose by doing so (except, apparently, bragging rights). Far more often, it’s the key to efficiently attacking a stimulus that—just in case those experts forgot—isn’t always an argument.
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