LSAT Tips: Understanding Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

If you’ve already started your LSAT prep journey, you’ve likely stumbled across necessary and sufficient conditions.  Just what the heck do these terms actually mean?

Necessary and sufficient conditions are the cornerstone of formal logic and conditional reasoning.  Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds: you encounter necessary and sufficient conditions all the time in real life!  Consider the following:

“If Jack drinks a six pack, then he will get drunk.”

Let’s break that down.  We know that if Jack drinks a six pack, then he will get drunk.  Let’s represent the first part (“drinks a six pack”) with “A,” and the second part (“get drunk”) with “B.”  Now we can write this out as:

If A is true, then B must be true.

or

A → B

So if A is true (Jack chugged down that six pack), then B must also be true (Jack’s drunk). In other words, when A is true, it’s necessary that B must also be true.  So in this example B (“getting drunk”) is the necessary condition.  When A is true, so is B.

So A (Jack drinks a six pack) is the sufficient condition.  That means that drinking a six pack is enough to guarantee that Jack will become drunk.  Think of the sufficient condition like a trigger, switch, or activator.  If we pull the trigger or flip the switch (make the sufficient condition true), then we "activate" the necessary condition.

But is drinking a six pack the only way for Jack to get drunk?  What if he downs that bottle of tequila?  Or knocks back a few White Russians?  Drinking a six pack is just one of the many ways Jack could end up inebriated.  

If we only know that Jack is drunk (that the necessary condition is true), then we don’t know anything about whether the sufficient condition is true or not.  In other words, while drinking that six pack is enough to get Jack drunk, it’s not the only way; it’s just one of many.  It’s merely a sufficient condition.

In sum, when the sufficient condition occurs, you know that the necessary condition also occurs (the sufficient condition ‘activates’ the necessary condition). But just because the necessary condition occurs doesn’t mean that the sufficient condition occurs too.

Let’s recap:

Necessary Condition:  Our necessary condition is the element that must occur, when the sufficient condition is true.  We know that if Jack drinks that six pack, he will get drunk.  If A is true then B must be true.  A → B.  If we know that Jack drinks a six pack, then we know he’s going to get drunk.  So getting drunk (B) is the necessary condition in this example.  

Sufficient Condition: Our sufficient condition, on the other hand, is merely enough to make the other element true.  Just because we know Jack got drunk, that doesn’t mean we know he drank a six pack.  He could have gobbled up a tray of jello shots, or downed a handle of whiskey.  Drinking a six pack is just one of the various things that could get Jack drunk.  Sure, drinking that six pack will get Jack drunk, but so could lots of other things too.

Let’s try another example, and see if you can identify the necessary and sufficient conditions:
 

“To get into Harvard, then you must score above a 170 on the LSAT.”

Let’s reason through this one.  If A is true (I got into Harvard), then what do we know?  Well, we know that I must have gotten above a 170 on the LSAT.  So B must be true too.  But what if I only know that B is true (I got above a 170 on the LSAT)?  Do we know anything else?  No, we don’t!  Just because I got a 170 on the LSAT doesn’t mean I got into Harvard.  What if my GPA was terrible, or I never sent in a personal statement?  There are lots of things I also need to do to get into Harvard, so just because I scored above a 170 doesn’t mean I’ll get in.

So, our necessary condition is: “you must score above a 170 on the LSAT”

And our sufficient condition is: “Get into Harvard”

If we want to write this out in formal logic, we can show that:

if A is true then B must be true

if A then B

A → B

But the following are wrong since the sufficient condition doesn’t have to occur just because the necessary condition occurs:

WRONG: if B is true then A is true

WRONG: if B then A

WRONG: B → A

Now, take a look at this statement:

“If you don’t score above a 170 on the LSAT, then you won’t get into Harvard.”

Looks pretty similar to our statement above, right?  In fact, the meaning is exactly the same! From this statement, we know that if you fail to get above a 170 on the LSAT, then you won’t be able to get into Harvard.  Which is just another way of stating, “If you get into Harvard, you must have scored a 170 on the LSAT.”  Structurally, all we’ve done is negate the sufficient and necessary conditions and then flip them.  This is called the contrapositive.  In formal logic, that means:

if A then B   

(A → B)

Has exactly the same meaning as:

if not B then not A   

(~B → ~A)

(in formal logic a ‘~’ symbol means ‘negate’ or ‘not’)

So, the statement:

“To get into Harvard, then you must score above a 170 on the LSAT.”

Is logically equivalent to:

“If you don’t score above a 170 on the LSAT, then you won’t get into Harvard.”

Whenever you have A → B, you can automatically infer the contrapositive: ~B → ~A.

 

Let’s break down one more statement:

“If Sarah went to the party, then we ordered pizza.”

Necessary condition: “we ordered pizza”

Sufficient condition: “Sarah went to the party”

Contrapositive: “If we didn’t order pizza, then Sarah didn’t come to the party”

In formal logic notation:

A (Sarah went to the party) → B (we ordered pizza)

~B (we didn’t order pizza) → ~A (Sarah didn’t come to the party)

Have you noticed a pattern with the notation? The sufficient condition (A) is always on the left-hand side of the arrow, while the necessary condition (B) is always on the right-hand side of the arrow! You don’t have to use A and B when notating conditional statements. In fact, we suggest that you use letters that relate to the content of the conditional statement. So for the above statement, you might want to write that as:

S → P

Where S = Sarah and P = Pizza.

Correctly identifying the necessary and sufficient conditions, along with the contrapositive, is the core of formal logic!

Next time, we’ll tackle a few more complicated formal logic constructions.  Still trying to wrap your head around it?  Get in touch with us at contact@blackacreprep.com or schedule a free consultation online!

Law School Admissions: Making Sure Your Resume Stands Out
 

Crafting your law school resume can feel incredibly daunting… but it doesn’t have to be!  What should I put in it?  Exactly how long should it be? (one-page-or-bust or three-page-novella!?) Can I just regurgitate my employment resume?  Before obsessing over the details, it’s important to take a step back and think about what your resume is.  Why do law schools want one in the first place?

Admissions officers sort through stacks and stacks of applications looking for students to admit.  As one of thousands of sheets of paper, your aim is stand out.  Be memorable.  Just like your personal statement, your resume is another opportunity for you to show admissions officers why you’re a great fit for their school, separating yourself from the rest of the pack. Think of it like a classic elevator pitch: highlight the most compelling aspects of your academic/professional career, without beating admissions officers over the head with too much detail.  

How long should that be?  Get the old one-page-or-bust mentality out of your head -- what’s true of professional resumes, doesn’t always apply to the law school resume.  On the other hand, resist the temptation to push your resume over three pages.  In our experience exact length can really vary based on the applicant, though it’s rare that a resume really warrants exceeding two pages.  So what do you put on there?

First, remember that admissions officers aren’t computers. With thousands of apps to tackle, they can’t read every single line with a fine-toothed comb (though they do have a keen eye for typos!).  Resist the temptation to pack in every single thing you’ve done in your life.  If your resume is diluted with a litany of mediocre experiences, it can take focus away from experiences that would otherwise stand out to admissions officers. Therefore, paradoxically, listing too many items can actually make the entire resume feel weaker, with your best experiences getting lost in a sea of details.  Impress them quality, don’t overwhelm with quantity.

Second, law schools are looking for people capable of efficiency and concision. On the LSAT, you’re tasked with taking note of the most salient details (see, for example, our blog on Reading Comprehension). The same is true in the law. Legal writing is all about brevity -- getting your argument across in as little space as possible and honing in on the most important information.  A long legal brief is often weaker than one that gets across the same points in fewer pages.  A shorter, tighter, more focused resume shows a capacity to do that and also often creates a more compelling pitch for your candidacy.

What does that mean in practice?  List out all of your experiences, and think critically.  Ask yourself, what does this experience indicate?  How important was it to me?  Sort your experiences by importance and meaning.  Think carefully about whether each experience actually adds anything to the resume or just creates more for the admissions officer to sift through.  If that list is full of truly compelling experiences, don’t be afraid to include them, even if it means spilling well into page two. But remember, your resume is a mini argument about why you should be admitted to their law school -- keep it strong, keep it concise.

Finally,  make sure to research the schools you’re applying to and pay close attention to what the individual law schools say about how long a resume should be, or what they’re looking for. If a school says keep it to a page, then make sure you submit a shortened, one-page version. If, like the University of Chicago School of Law, they emphasize adding more detail, then submit a longer version, if you ended omitting a few entries on your list of ‘awesome things I’ve done’ (but don’t start adding in mediocre details, just because a school indicates three pages is fine).

Need a little more help?  Get in touch with us!

 
LSAT Tips: What to Look for in Reading Comp
 

The Reading Comp section. It’s the most commonly neglected section while studying the LSAT. We’ve all been reading for around 20 years—so why bother focusing on it?  You've either "got it" or you don't, right? Test takers tend to double down on Logic Games and Logical Reasoning, and then sprint through Reading Comp prep right before the exam, only to see their scores end up painfully lower than expected (there are more Reading Comp questions than Games questions!).  What test takers (and even many tutors) fail to realize is that Reading Comp on the LSAT tests a very particular type of reading, one that you may have relatively little practice with: the ability to read for the structure of the author’s reasoning. And mastering this is a skill that requires practice.  

With Reading Comp you have 35 minutes to absorb four passages (well, five, if you count the two comparative passages) and answer about 27 questions. That means you have about two to three minutes to read each passage before turning to the questions. That’s not a whole lot of time to absorb the passage, especially when they’re often chock full of information about subjects you’ve maybe never seen before or can’t stand (oh hi, science passages!). 

Here’s what NOT to do: don’t try to retain every piece of information in the passage.

Don’t do this for two reasons:

1.)   You just don’t have enough time, and

2.)   You don’t need to!

The LSAT makers aren’t particularly interested in testing whether you can memorize the minutiae but rather whether you understand the structure of the author’s reasoning. You need to key into why the author wrote what she wrote in each paragraph, and what purpose each paragraph serves. You’ll encounter a fair number of questions explicitly focusing on this structure.  Plus, understanding and internalizing the passage’s reasoning structure provides a roadmap of the whole passage, so if a question asks about a specific detail, you know exactly where to go to find the answer. That way, you’re not wasting time attempting to absorb every little detail, but you know right where to go to find it, if you need to.

Learning to focus on the right things in Reading Comp is a skill—just like learning to diagram a game or figure out formal logic. Remember, Reading Comp is just as crucial to your score as Logic Games (in fact, on average, you’ll get more Reading Comp questions than Games questions!). Don’t overlook it when you’re studying.