Can the LSAT Make You Smarter?

LSAT guru Steve Schwartz over at LSAT Blog drew my attention to some evidence that studying for the LSAT makes you smarter. Really!

Here's the technical language from the study:

[W]e examined the effects on cognitive performance and brain structure and function of 3 months of intensive preparation for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).... Behavioral and brain imaging data were collected at two time points, spaced 3 months apart, for all participants (N=51). After training, the LSAT group performed more accurately on our transitive inference task.... In contrast, controls’ accuracy did not change across the two time points. Surprisingly.... three months of reasoning training was sufficient to alter resting-state functional connectivity between left IPL and RLPFC.... Our preliminary LSAT study findings... suggest that reasoning training leads to improved reasoning ability through repeated co­-activation and subsequent strengthening of fronto-parietal connections. 

- from "Relational reasoning: Neural mechanisms, development, & plasticity" (PDF p7, 9)

In plain English, as translated by Steve: "The evidence comes from a recent study in which a group of students who studied for the LSAT for 3 months improved their reasoning abilities far more than those in a control group." Read Steve's full write-up here (cool brain images included).

Now, I'm not a scientist, so I can't attest to the study's validity or methodological soundness. I have no idea if it's been peer-reviewed, and I don't have the requisite training to poke holes in the findings. But the findings don't surprise me, because I've long believed that mastering LSAT skills requires you to train some big cognitive muscles (or be born with them), and I'm excited that there might be real and longer-term benefits to that training. (If, like me, its been eons since you took the LSAT, or you've never even seen one, try taking one under timed conditions, no fudging — here's a PDF of the June 2007 test — and see how you score. It's a good reminder of what LSAT takers are facing.)

I've also become convinced over the years that the LSAT measures skills that colleges should be teaching you, but often aren't. How many times have you been required to pull apart and analyze a difficult text, the words, the sentences, the meanings, the structure, the internal logic, the arguments, the correct or incorrect deductions, all at a fairly high level and with relative facility and speed? That's the foundation of the "critical reasoning" that you hear referred to so often in the context of a liberal arts education, and ideally you don't graduate from college without getting pretty good at it. But if your college hasn't made you do that over and over and over again, and do it well, then studying for the LSAT — when done right — should move the needle on those foundational reasoning and analytical skills. 

So good news: Studying for the LSAT is not a waste of time, and it's not just some hoop to jump through to get into grad school, or to get from Point A to Point B on your career trajectory. (I used to think the LSAT was just a hoop; over time, I've come around to this other view.) I know practicing for the LSAT is a hassle. It's time-consuming, it's repetitive, and sometimes steam comes out of your ears from all the mental gymnastics, but the end result is that you've picked up some important skills, and, if this study is correct, your brain has gotten better and stronger. How 'bout them apples?

Does everyone who studies for the LSAT end up with the cognitive equivalent of six-pack abs? Probably no more so than crunches give everyone six-pack abs. But if you do the crunches, your abs are almost certainly stronger than when you started. Maybe the same principle is at work here. So as much as it pains you, you can actually thank your evil genius overlords at LSAC for making you acquire these skills, and thank the good test prep programs for teaching them. (At much less expense than most colleges, to boot.) The LSAT as remedial training could and should be the subject of a book (to be written by someone smarter than I), so I'll just leave you with those thoughts for today. In the meantime, let this study serve as additional motivation for your LSAT prep.

I'm curious to hear what you think. Please comment!

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey), or come introduce yourself and join the conversation on Facebook.