The Fundamentals: Prephrasing

If you’ve spent much time with Logical Reasoning on the LSAT, one thing you’ve no doubt recognized is that the answer choices, right and wrong, are masterfully crafted.

The test makers are unbelievably skilled at disguising correct answers, and making the incorrect options look extremely attractive. Fortunately there’s a step in the question-attack process designed specifically to help you navigate through the answers: Prephrasing.

Prephrasing is the intermediate step that you should take as you move from the question stem to the answer choices, where you essentially verbalize exactly what you expect to find within the correct answer. So you’re predicting what you know to be true about the correct answer choice before you begin to actually examine the five options presented. Let’s examine the key element of that statement: predicting what you know to be true about the correct answer.

What is most critical about your prephrase is that it is accurate with respect to the correct answer. Remember, your prephrase is designed to provide you with a lens through which the correct answer choice will be more easily recognizable. Literally the credited choice will stand apart from the other options based on its proximity/relationship to what it is that you have predicted about it. So I want to discuss two situations, both of which are quite common on the test, where your approach to prephrasing would differ based upon the nature of the stimulus and question stem and what they allow you to know about the correct answer choice.

Again, we CANNOT stress enough the importance of prephrasing for every single LR question that you encounter on the LSAT. It is a crucial step that you cannot afford to skip. But hopefully you know that already. The purpose of this discussion is to give you some insight into how to become better at prephrasing, to give you a method by which you can gain complete mastery of this critical skill.

Prephrase Scenario I: Precise Prephrase

There are certain times on the LSAT when you have the ability to literally “know,” with tremendous accuracy, exactly what the correct answer choice is going to say. This may be the result of a particular question type, like Justify the Conclusion, where the task given is so exacting that predictive precision is possible (“this new element in the conclusion about X must be connected to this premise idea about Y”), or it may be the consequence of a particular set of circumstances, such as Must Be True with conditional reasoning (“the inference from A → B and B → C is that A → C”). The point is that you will occasionally encounter situations where you can know what the correct answer choice will look like with a high degree of certainty, and you should capitalize on the moments when that certainty is possible.

Prephrase Scenario II: Generalized Prephrase

The majority of the time, however, you will not be able to prephrase with that degree of specificity. Consider a Weaken question with a conclusion, “Thus, we should vote for the mayor’s proposal.” Clearly, the correct answer choice that attacks this conclusion will provide a reason that we should not vote for the mayor’s proposal…but what will that exact reason be? Chances are you won’t know the exact reason the test makers give prior to actually reading it in the correct answer choice. But that does not mean that prephrasing is impossible or should be skipped!

The key in a case like this is that the “truth” of your prephrase encompasses not what the correct answer choice will say, but rather what the correct answer choice will do. So a good prephrase to weaken the conclusion, “Thus, we should vote for the mayor’s proposal,” would be something like, “the correct answer will give a reason why we should not vote for the mayor’s proposal.” Then simply process each answer choice through that filter until you find the choice that satisfies your prediction (“Does answer choice A provide a reason to not vote for the proposal? No. Does answer choice B provide a reason to not vote for the proposal?...etc.).

So often test takers encounter situations like the one described above—“I have no idea what the right answer’s going to say!”—and respond, sadly, by simply moving on to the answer choices without any consideration of the element that can still be predicted: the nature of the correct choice in terms of what it will accomplish. Prephrasing is an absolute necessity if you’re looking to reach your full potential on the LSAT; the good news is that regardless of the question type or context, a prephrase is ALWAYS possible.

Below is a practice drill that will help you gain a real mastery of this crucial skill.

It’s an easily duplicated drill that will make this crucial practice a natural, intuitive part of your LR attack. Take a section of Logical Reasoning, 25 or so questions, and cover every question’s answer choices with a Post-it Note, essentially preventing you from seeing any of the answers. Then go through the questions as you normally would: stimulus first focusing on argumentation (when present) and the strength/nature of the language used, identifying question stems and the task presented, and, finally, making a prediction about what you know the correct answer choice will say or do. However, instead of then moving through the answers to see which choice best matches your prephrase, simply jot down your prephrase on the Post-it covering the answers. Try to make it as powerful and precise as possible, without ever going beyond what you know to be true.

As we’ve discussed, at times you’ll find that you can predict the correct answer almost verbatim; other times your prephrase will only be about the nature of the correct choice and what you know it will accomplish (for Weaken or Strengthen, for instance), the argumentative elements you know it must mimic (i.e. Parallel Reasoning), etc. Regardless, notate your prephrase for each question, and complete the entire section in that fashion without removing any of the Post-its.

Once you’ve got your prephrase written for each question, go back to the first question, remove the Post-it, and, without re-examining the stimulus or question stem, simply use your prephrase notes to evaluate the answer choices. What you’ll find is that for some questions your prediction is spot on and the correct answer will jump out, while for a number of other questions you’ll be able to eliminate a few answers but your prephrase will still leave you a bit uncertain as to which choice is correct. But don’t let your initial performance overshadow the real purpose of this exercise.

The key is that for EVERY question you need to consider what you wrote and what you could/should have done to make it more powerful. Really deconstruct the correct answer choice for each question, and ask yourself how you could have improved your prephrase to better capture the essence of that choice. How could you have been more accurate? How could you have better anticipated the test makers’ actions? Write down your improved prephrase next to your original one and compare the two, considering how far off you were and how you could have been closer. Go through the entire section analyzing your prephrases and comparing them to the credited answer choices, and adjusting them so that they make for a better lens through which the correct choice can be seen more clearly.

Then take another Logical Reasoning section and do it again. And again. And….again.

What you’ll quickly discover is that prephrasing is a learnable skill, like nearly everything having to do with improving your performance on the LSAT. With time and dedicated practice your prephrases will become more accurate and, ultimately, more powerful in their ability to separate the correct answer choice from its competition. And that’s what mastery of this test is all about. It’s not just finding the correct answer, but knowing the correct answer before you even start looking for it.