Malcolm challenges his assistant Camille to the Law School Admissions Test. He gets halfway through, panics, runs out of time, and wonders: why does the legal world want him to rush?
United States


00:00:05Is 8 in the morning on a Saturday a little chilly deep in downtown Manhattan streets are empty.
00:00:18Standing on the sidewalk with my assistant Camille Baptista. I could almost no sleep and I had a nightmare about the LSAT, but I left Forks over I had an exam nightmare from high school.
00:00:43I had a nightmare about the LSAT that I walked out before the test was over. Oh, but my nightmare was just beginning.
00:01:02This is Malcolm Gladwell. I'm back with season 4 of revisionist History my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood.
00:01:17This episode is about what happened when Camille and I took the law school admissions test. We had three number two pencils each small pack of Kleenex a package of trail mix all in clear plastic bags. We lined up outside Pace University with hundreds of other nervous people touching clear plastic bags. Everyone wanted Sunday to become lawyers, except us. We were there in the name of science.
00:01:51Where to go so I've been very traumatic and stressful, but I wanted to get one last thing I would like to get your handicap on your chances of beating. Just tell me what you think your chance to be my chances as unrealistic a 50/50 William but it's it is a large multiple of your age.
00:02:3824-hours Bay Celestial I've been in cognitive decline.
00:02:46talkin to be exposed
00:02:53I got the idea of taking the outside of a man named William Henderson.
00:02:59I read a paper that he wrote it was on my favorite website ssrn, which is where academics from around the world poster papers and they get ranked. If you're a regular listen to this podcast. You'll know how genius I think ssrn is this paper was called the LSAT law school exams and meritocracy the surprising and under theorize roll of test-taking speed.
00:03:27Anything with the word surprising and under theorized in the title, of course is going to be catnip for me. So I read it then I read it again, and then I had to meet him.
00:03:40So just a little bit of background here. I didn't go to law school at 12:35. And so I had a whole career before then. I was a firefighter paramedic. I was a union rep for a Suburban Cleveland fire at the part. I did that for a 9 years and is a kid people and remember Kitty as I went to law school because of those bastard Management in Chinese medicine goes to law school after that. He gets a clerkship with a judge and one day. He's in the shower and a thought occurs to him. What was the Ohio in the shower was what?
00:04:20Was a my God the two most time pressure things I've ever done in my life is taking the l s a t and these damn law school exams. He had been a firefighter paramedic he had raced to the streets of Cleveland to save people on the brink of death and the most time pressure. He'd ever felt was taking the LSAT to get into law school and then taking the exams once he got there and Cass sunstein elements exam my first year of law school was it to our exam used to teach at the University of Chicago, which is where Henderson went to law school. He's a g t s the kind of questions that you can spend months yours thinking about but his exam
00:05:022 hours, that's all you got is a proctor said time and everybody dropped her pencils it in there was this huge hog? Everybody was like groaning that they didn't get more time said to keep on working on Cass sunstein Taliban exam 90 people who all dropped their pants on the claiming the desire for more time than it was a memorable experience. Well, I'm sure this is obvious to you particularly. If you're an American you've been tested a thousand times in your life sat act GRE on and on and every one of those standardized test doesn't just test whether you can answer the question correctly. They test how quickly you can answer the question correctly, but I'm a Canadian. I've never taken a standardized test in my life.
00:05:50It is an outsider. I have to say the whole system seems really weird. Why is quicker better?
00:05:57Bill said is exhibit a it's the single most important thing that determines where you go to law school. Nothing else comes close. And what is it? It's around a hundred and twenty five questions divided among five sections and little reasoning reading comprehension two sections on dissecting an argument and one experimental section. Everything's multiple choice you mark your answers with a pencil by filling in little bubbles on an answer sheet. Like an IBM punch card a perfect score is 180 and if you're a super go-getter and a score below 175 because then you can't get into Harvard and if you can't get into Harvard, you're never going to get an offer from a big Law Firm or get a supreme court clerkship. Your life is over everything the country club the BMW the multiple cases of 2000 Chateau Lafite Rothschild. It hinges on those five sections.
00:06:56How long do you get to spend on each of those five sections 35 minutes at 40. 50 not 55 and if you finish up one section early, you don't get to add that time to the next section when we decide who is smart enough to be a lawyer we use a stopwatch.
00:07:17So that was William Henderson's question. What does putting that 35 minute time limit on a cognitive test like the LSAT do
00:07:27So I said to Camille, let's find out Emma cuz we're both super competitive the whole thing got very involved.
00:07:36The first thing I would like to do is to understand on a very very granular level what time pressure means for the way people take the test strategies. They use the kinds of mistakes. They make specific. Everyone told me that there was no way I could do well on the LSAT without getting some coaching. So I went to one of the top new educational technology startups in America a company in New York called noodle started by John katzman who before this was one of the founders of the famous Princeton Review test prep company. I sat down with katzman and two of his top people in a big block building on Union Square Manhattan katzman Fritz Stuart and Dan Edmunds. I'm very anxious not to lose to Camille. She born in the US or in the UK.
00:08:36But I'm sad you ask her UK US I'm too old and I'm from the wrong country. It was not an encouraging start. I've done things under time pressure before of course. I read newspaper stories on Deadline. I run exams in college in those cases though. The task required me to be me only with a sense of urgency. But the first thing to Doodle guys told me was the LSAT didn't require me to be me. It required me to be someone else a lot of it is about helping people understand they don't get to do this at a comfortable speed. It's Dan Evans in order to finish these sections. You have to do it at the speed. It's a little uncomfortable, which means you have to hone your instincts.
00:09:27By the test rules that by your rules, what does it mean to read it a comfortable speed for me? It means that if there's something like in a reading comprehension passage, if I hit a paragraph that I don't fully understand. I don't get to go back and reread it. I just kind of have to accept the parts that I understand and move on the noodle guys approach the LSAT like Pathologists approach a cadaver for me. I'm like, all right, I didn't get that bud. But if the question asked about it, I will go back but it doesn't bother me as long as I understand the topic sentence of the paragraph and the overall thrust of the author's argument if I miss a few details here and there are even a chunk of the argument. Am I alright find who cares? I'll go go. Go go go get out exactly when I need to wait. It's okay to miss a chunk of the argument. So I don't even a team for 11 love what we would normally call comprehension and I first read I am out to process the information not on.
00:10:27Standard, I don't get any points for understanding it I get points for bubbling in the right question. But there's no me and her time on the LSAT. There's no digression time me and her and aggression are my whole Mo that's what I do for a living. What do you think this podcast comes from?
00:10:52John katzman gave me a sample question. What I would have you do is read this and then for each of these questions tell me the two stupidest answers.
00:11:062 stupidest look at the two that you know are wrong. This is what I'm saying. You can't keep longer. I've just been told but I don't need to understand it. I don't need to comprehend it. It's okay. If I missed chunks of it. In other words. I supposed to read it without reading it and place it there puzzling about this the three of them debate right in front of me how long this reading without reading should take John said a minute for it said three tops. Dan said, it depends on the person who's reading. The only thing they all agreed on was that I had to hurry fly get the bones of the argument.
00:11:49And now feel free to spend the time on the question cell. And again, all you're trying to do is tell me the two worst answer to our senses and you're just so it was on page 142 stated opinion surveys often give answers. They believe the opinion survey are wants to hear and swear this reason it's something in surveys do not reflect. The actual views of those being certed however, well-constructed surveys. The question to the word is supposed to provide respondents with no indication of which answers the surveyor might expect after the passage there were multiple sets of questions to test my understanding of what I had just not read it would pages of them survey respondents desire to meet so there's expectations has no effect on
00:12:49Chevy's results is questionable in that the argument overlooks the possibility that
00:12:58Let me say A and B are.
00:13:04Just just crossed my up and move on that. Okay. Those are the worst. You're the worst.
00:13:12The clock is ticking. I'll pass it Shine through Jesus bananas.
00:13:21This is what they meant when they talked about uncomfortable reading. I was being forced into a kind of altered frenzied state where they used was breathless. You should be a little breathless. They said I was breathless. I kept asking how much time is past the tell me my heart would accelerate I started to panic.
00:13:45Okay. Okay. I've no idea what I did great timing on that 7 minutes 20.
00:13:52So this section is how long in minutes 35 minutes 35 minutes and we just did one two, three, four, five six seven questions. You would have had 10 minutes.
00:14:11And that's four and a half of 7.
00:14:23Which is another question I was convinced TNC was be it was say I could feel Harvard slipping away. Thank you. Didn't Camille. Do you want the honest answer that. I think you're in real trouble, buddy.
00:14:47Are the day of the LSAT? I sat in a little classroom and one of those fixed half desks that I last had in grade school. We got our test packets. I raced through Reading Comprehension with time to spare sections two and three. I was right up against a deadline then came and lyrical reasoning.
00:15:07Logic games and it looked at the questions and what I had to figure out and realized that there was just no way I was going to finish in 35 minutes. I needed to slow down and it wasn't allowed to slow down.
00:15:21I glanced behind me and there was Camille would like a death stare in her eyes ruthlessly dispatching question after question.
00:15:30I looked around some more and saw all these kids half my age beavering away full of purpose because all you Americans apparently except as gospel. This idea that the smart person is not the person who gets the right answer. The smart person is the person who gets the right answer the quickest.
00:15:52Mercifully it ended.
00:15:56At 1:30 chameleon, I stumbled outside into the sunshine clutching are plastic baggies are producer Jacob Smith was waiting the lawyers. First of all, that was a shock Camille cheated because she she packed my red to have these plastic bags. She black back by Blood to grab me but she gave herself like apples and like really really nutritious snacks.
00:16:25I did the same thing. So you add fresh fruit and Malcolm.
00:16:31but but
00:16:36pack your little tissues in case your nose runs away now after both taking it like what's your honest opinion? Who do you think is better?
00:16:46Oh, I think it's Camille dit.
00:16:48I was I did so poorly I was fine. I got really cocky and then I hit the logic games and basically I think I got zero right? I had no idea what to do. I sat there and I was like either that sell complete panic I have I was untested until this moment and now I have been tested America has taken its measure of me and I'm it's pretty it's pretty humbling experience.
00:17:13Why do Americans do this to themselves do they play Scrabble with a stopwatch in literature class? Do they get extra points for reading tolstoy's War and Peace overnight? Is there an Oscar that goes that every year the movie that got shot the quickest? I really don't get it.
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00:19:35Okay time to meander and digress. I become a Grandmaster 15. So I think I'm becoming I am right after I turn thirteen. I was a grand master of 15. So that that was very very good at the time. That's Hikaru Nakamura grew up in Westchester County outside New York City. He's in his early thirties. Although he looks about half that age. He's one of the best chess players in the world. How much chest were you playing as a kid? Pretty much all the time. So I was playing the Marshall at least I would say 2 or 3 days every single week and then I also be playing Blitz on the internet chess club. I would say at least five to six hours every single day years ago. I met Magnus Carlsen who is the greatest chess player in the world and how much you use to chess board versus how much he just worked through chess positions in his mind and he said, oh I practice mostly in my mind. In fact, I'm working on an opening.
00:20:35Now Hikaru Nakamura is a little like that. He's incredibly gracious and humble. But even when he's giving you what seems like his full attention, you get the feeling that there's a whole separate part of his brain breaking down a Bobby Fischer match from the early 1970s. The first thing I did after my disaster with the L said was call up a Caro, but I didn't want to talk to him about Chess. I wanted to talk to him about time. So my first question about this would be what would happen within reason if there was no clock. What is the way that you approach game of chess change if I remove the time constraint entirely. All right. So if your move time entirely from the game of chess every game of chess would be drawn because without without time if you have an endless amount of time to think about any given move if I could think for 30 minutes on every single move. I do not think I would ever lose a game of trust to a human take computer. I would still
00:21:35But I don't think I would ever lose to Magnus. This is why chess games have a time limit. Otherwise, it's not a game tournaments would go on for months and everyone would end up tied for first. It will be like little league everyone. We get a participation trophy.
00:21:54So there's classical chess which is the kind played at the World Championships classical a lot 90 minutes for the first forty moves then 30 minutes for the rest of the game-winning at classical chess involve calculation working through many possible scenarios before deciding on a move then just Blitz chess. That's what he called. It was playing for 5 or 6 hours a day growing up in Blitz each player gets 5 minutes for the whole game when you play Blitz chess is very much becomes about finding moves that look good that are not blunders that you can play almost in slavery use a couple of seconds in classical. How many moons would you go deep normally be about five to six moves in about three or four branches. It's a fantastically complex mental exercise has probably at least I would say close to a hundred different different permutations of moves or a sequence is it you're looking at for every single move in Blitz.
00:22:54We've truncated that process everything about Blitz and classical is the same same pieces. Same board. Same players same choreographed openings, but the time limit to different and what happens when you Tinker with a time limit you get a completely different set of results a classical chess Magnus Carlsen is number one. He's also never won a blitz because he's a genius Hikaru right now is Xi in the classical rankings, but a blitz. He's number two in the world. Why because he's really really go to the rapid pattern recognition is necessary for Blitz and he's not quite as good at the complex calculation that's necessary for classical.
00:23:40Tell who's an example of good example of the opposite Fabiano Fabiano. Caruana is actually he's probably the best example, I can't even think of anyone else. Who is that much better at classical Chason. They are at Blitzen rap. Why do you think he's not going to put some rap it? I think I think with Fabiano he's it's the other way. He's very very good at calculation. So when he gets positions, he's very good at calculating and understanding what the possibilities are with with more time. Where is when he doesn't have time to calculate the long sequences all the way through his intuitionist take over and is intuition a natural feel are not as good as as everyone else is a tortoise slow and steady is a hair yours back Speedy you construct your chest that favors the tortoise or you construct your chest so that it favors cares.
00:24:38I think you can see what I'm going with this if we had a blitz tournament for the world championship, you know in 2 months, where would you put your odds of winning? Probably around 20% I would say I put magnets in about 60% I put myself at 20% soup pretty good just arbitrarily we decided that the standard for National Tournament chess oughta be Blitz. Yes, it would it would change probably wait. There's a third variation bullet chess in bullet you get 1 minute for the whole game. And decaro is the king of bullet. Are you better than Apple?
00:25:25A boy has a boy has so what's why wouldn't Magnus if he's if he's so serenely Superior at all kinds of Chess. Why can't he beat you a bullet in charge of the calculation what he does his like the store the way that he fine tunes of the way thinks about I think it takes a little bit more time to come to the conclusions which strikes me is that the chest hierarchy formal chest hierarchy is an arbitrary function of the amount of time. We have decided to spend on a chess match. Yes. Like I said, I think you can see what I'm going with this.
00:26:08Kokoro is a hair not a tortoise. And what is the LSAT? It is a test that rewards hairs over tortoises, which means that if the LSAT ran the Chess World they would consider hit Karu the greatest chess player in the world. They would crown him Champion over Magnus.
00:26:27LSAT logic is it the best player is the one who solves the hardest chess puzzles quickest and that's Hikaru. But that's insane. Not even Hikaru thinks he's better chest send Magnus. What's a car would say is that he's a different kind of chess player than Magnus and I haven't even mentioned puzzle Rush. It's an online game where you get a series of endgame in chess positions and you have to get to check mate as often as possible in 5 minutes puzzle Rush is insanely popular. So what's your score my high score is 55 and what's the second highest? I think there are two people with 54 and then there are a couple was 53 it falls off from there. We have most of the top players in the world play puzzle Rush.
00:27:27Any award for being the number one on puzzle Rush Radio avocado crushing puzzle Rush on YouTube. It is 130000 views.
00:27:46This actually might be the most hotly-contested form of Jesse never played. You never played something where Millions people are in the same tournament right here right now. You can make an argument. This is your greatest accomplishment accomplishment is we've arbitrarily decided only to honor chest plate under these archaic rules in a tournament atmosphere that puzzle Rush is a it mean if we decided to say that's what she just said. It was really decide. Yes, that's true. It allows the entire world to compete against the entire world and you want I don't know. Yeah. Yeah, I never thought about that but yes that is true with one thing comes out of the back.
00:28:46Order in which people finish in any cognitive task is an arbitrary function of how much time is given to complete that task. You can make it fast while you can make it slow. The Chess World has chosen to reward the tortoise. The LSAT has chosen to reward The Hare and the car is at the world cannot have us play classical and reward Fabiano.
00:29:16What does the legal world have against Fabiano?
00:29:24Step inside drop everything at the door wreaths. I believe that's the feeling of home home is the most comforting where there is parachute believes that when we take care of our home it takes care of us. That's why they make premium quality sheets towels robes rugs soft and wonderful, visit parachutehome.com Gladwell for free shipping and Returns on parachutes, very comfortable Home Essentials. That's parachutehome.com. Well for free shipping and returns
00:30:09As I mentioned earlier, there's going to be a second part to this examination of the L set. Why would I Rush In The Next Episode? I'm going to visit with the folks who administered the L set the law school admissions Council of Newtown, Pennsylvania, but that can wait. Let's go back to William Henderson who started me wondering about time and tests.
00:30:36The great justification for the LSAT is your score is supposed to be a useful indication of how well you will do in your first year of Law School.
00:30:46It's a predictor but Henderson's great question was what if BL said only predicts law school grades because law schools make the same mistake that the LSAT does it most law schools grades are based in large part on how well students do on exams where they are. Deliberately not given enough time. You take Cass sunstein elements exam where you engage with the ideas of a legal genius and you have 2 hours. That's it Henderson. Wondered if a law school doesn't rely so heavily on its students doing things quickly if the school will eyes instead on take-home exams and essays what happens to the usefulness of the LSAT as a predictor?
00:31:30And you found that its usefulness declines. I'm quoting the data showed that the LSAT was a relatively robust predictor of in class exams and a relatively weak predictor of take-home exams and papers. In other words. Once you stop racing against the clock then the people who do well on the LSAT, no longer are the best Bosco which is exactly what every chess player in the world would have told you what happened.
00:32:01So what did William Anderson do when he became a law professor at Indiana University students? He started placing more emphasis on take-home exams and when he gives an exam in class, he makes it for hours. Not too that's completely open book and I give out one of the questions and it in advance. So I say here's three questions. I'm going to test you on one. So you've seen one of the questions already and then 4 hours is plenty of time to do the the issue Spotter and I give a word limit in the you know, and I did that as a direct result of that lshe study that I did because I was cutely aware that you change the ordinal ranking when you when you pick a test message and I say, you know, I don't think anybody will need all four hours. But if you if you want to take four hours here, you're free to take 4-Hour not long after he started grading that way a student came to see him. This kid got an A on the exam and and so he comes
00:33:01He wants to talk about exam. This is it said that I've been here for three years. I've never done this well on the exam before I want to know why this well and I pulled out his exam and it was an 8 hour take home. And I go look at your first paragraph you hit every single issue here in the first paragraph. It's just a well-organized pearl. The light bulb went on for him is his like if I had had more time all my exams would have been disorganized. You have a student who the system declared was it average ability the student believed it. Why wouldn't he but then someone came along someone by the way with the great benefit of being a firefighter from the suburbs of Cleveland who had the freedom to think a little differently and he said wait maybe you aren't average ability. Maybe you only think your average because we have chosen an arbitrary system to evaluate your ability that makes you look average.
00:33:58You are Fabiano and we have been making you play puzzle Rush on the LSAT. No, stop racing ahead. You are engaged in uncomfortable listening. You'll have to wait until the next episode what I want you to think about is that student of William Henderson and his miraculous Revelation that he really was a good student after all there are a ton of tortoises like him out there not just taking the LSAT and sitting in Law School classrooms, but competing for places at any number of schools and professions that have decided to tell their applicants apply that they are or are not any good at what I don't understand is how the hairs got to set the rules. I thought the whole point of the story of The Tortoise and the Hare was at the tortoise one.
00:34:56Clearly the kind of person who is most disadvantaged by this system is the tortoise. I realized after my experience with the noodle guys and my time with a car that I'm on the side of the tortoise, I feel for the tortoise. I might be a tortoise I come from tortoises and we've all met tortoises in Our Lives who will not my mother is a little bit of a tortoise. She will not be rushed under any circumstances. She will not she does not make mistakes. She goes over things five times to make sure they're perfect. She is ideal for a certain kind of work. She should have a problem with the LSAT. She would say why you rushing me and she would get oh and she wouldn't finish and she would never guess. I guess she's incapable of guessing. So my mom could never the profession is putting up a barrier to my phone.
00:35:51You put a stopwatch on thinking whatever you read the system. So Camille wins fine. But when you go after the gladwell's then it's personal.
00:36:12History is produced by Meat Loaf Ln Jacob Smith with Camille Baptista. Our editor is Julia Barton engineer fact-checking by Beth Johnson original music by Luis Guerra special. Thanks to Carly migliori Heather Fain Maggie Taylor myoclonic and Jacob Weisberg revisionist. History is brought to you by Pushkin industries by Malcolm Gladwell.
00:36:47Camille Camille is like a smarty pants. She's going to do don't you think she's going to do she she'd naturally prepared and is naturally persistent and determined so I think because things will really help her a lot. Should I be worried?
00:37:17I think you should be worried. I think you should be worried. Yep.
00:37:23I have a new book coming out this September called talking to strangers the tools and strategies we use to make sense of strangers often lead us to misunderstandings and conflicts. Why do we keep getting this wrong in my book? I tell you what we should know about the people. We don't know talking to strangers will be published by little brown and Company and is available for pre-order now and hardcover ebook it also this amazing new kind of audio book The Wave created wherever books are sold.

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