How to Find the Conclusion

The first thing I teach new LSAT students to do is “find the conclusion.” That’s because every logical reasoning question on the LSAT is about a logical argument, and every logical argument combines premises into a conclusion.  The conclusion of an LSAT stimulus is what the whole paragraph is about.

Every word, clause, and sentence in a stimulus relates to the conclusion in some way. Typical sentences may introduce the topic to be discussed, provide evidence supporting the conclusion, acknowledge weak points, or describe competing views, but they all contribute to the argument in some way. Once you locate the conclusion, the rest of the paragraph generally falls into place.

So–how does one find this conclusion? More specifically, how does someone who is brand new to the LSAT and completely unfamiliar with logic find the conclusion? This post provides a toolbox of “find the conclusion” tips and techniques.

  1. The “why” test. This is the least useful technique for beginners, but the most useful technique for advanced students. The conclusion is the statement in the stimulus that requires explanation. That makes sense, because every other word in the stimulus provides the explanation that is required.
  2. Conclusion Keywords. The easiest technique is to look for keywords like “therefore,” “thus,” “hence,” “so,” “it follow that,” “and so we see,” “clearly,” and so forth. Most LSAT prep materials provide a comprehensive list of typical conclusion keywords. Be careful about relying too heavily on these keywords, however, especially in a “main point” question where your only job is to find the conclusion. There can be more than one conclusion in an argument, and “main point” questions are notorious for packing them in!
  3. Eliminate the Evidence. Evidence is generally easier to spot than the conclusion. There are evidence keywords (“because,” “for,” “for example,” “since,” etc.) that always introduce a reason for something. (Remember: the conclusion is what makes you ask “why,” so the evidence provides the reasons.) Even without an evidence keyword, you can usually tell evidence because it seems non-controversial. Nobody asks “why” two plus two equals four. It just does. If something is presented as a given, it’s evidence. Once you exclude all the evidence in a stimulus, it’s much easier to pick the conclusion out of what is left.
  4. The position principle. The average writer either starts a paragraph with the point he or she is trying to make, or ends with it. The first and last sentences are emphatic, and most writers want to emphasize the point they are trying to make. Unless someone is trying to bury the conclusion (which LSAT writers often do!), it will typically come first or last.
  5. Sentence type. Kaplan Publishing notes that almost all LSAT conclusions fall into the following six categories: predictions, comparisons, recommendations, judgments, affirmations, or if/then statements. Affirmations (“the sky is blue”), comparisons (“Bob is taller than Sue”) and if/then statements (“If it rains, I get wet”) appear frequently in logical arguments, but the other three categories are rare. If you see a prediction, recommendation, or judgment in a stimulus, it is likely to be the conclusion.
  6. The “some people say” principle. I have written elsewhere about the fact that other people’s statements in an LSAT stimulus almost always point at the conclusion. The conclusion, in almost every case, denies what “some people say.” The conclusion may be as short as “But they are wrong” or as complex as “Romantics who claim that people are not born evil but may be made evil by the imperfect institutions that they form cannot be right.”

The “Should” Principle

The first skill I teach new students is to “find the conclusion.” This is essential but not easy. Until they develop an intuitive sense of what a conclusion is and how it relates to the argument as a whole, students need external cues to help them find the conclusion. One of those cues is what I call the “should” principle.

The “Should” Principle: if the word “should” appears in a stimulus, it will probably appear in the conclusion.

This is a “principle,” not a “rule, because it is not always and necessarily reliable. I haven’t gone through every PrepTest yet. I’m eager to find some counterexamples so that I can refine the principle a little. As of now, however, I have not found a single stimulus with the word “should” in it that doesn’t have “should” in the conclusion. (If you can find a counterexample, please identify it in the comments!)

There are two different reasons for this principle. The word “should” appears in moral arguments but not in factual arguments. One would expect the word “should” throughout a moral argument, especially in the conclusion.

We should obey the law.
The law says we should not drive faster than the speed limit.
THEREFORE, we should not drive faster than the speed limit.

Explicitly moral arguments are relatively rare, however. Arguments about facts are much more common. In real life and on the LSAT, however, a argument about the facts usually has a higher purpose. People may debate whether it will rain this afternoon, but not because they’re abstractly interested in the weather. What they really want to know is whether to cancel the picnic.

Kaplan’s LSAT Premier Chapter 9 lists six types of conclusions: value judgments, if/then conditionals, predictions, comparisons, assertions, and recommendations. When an argument about facts leads to a prediction, judgment, or recommendation, it may easily result in “should.”

The word “should” appears in six stimuli in the June 2007 PrepTest (the only test that is publicly accessible). All instances obey the “should” principle.

  • Section II, Question 10: “should” appears twice in this moral argument.
  • Section II, Question 16: “should” in the conclusion of “Sandra’s” short argument.
  • Section II, Question 17: “should” is the recommendation after a factual argument.
  • Section II, Question 20: “One should not assume” is the conclusion.
  • Section III, Question 14: “should” only appears  once  in this moral argument, in the conclusion.
  • Section III, Question 20: “should” is a recommendation.

A word of caution is in order–the “should” principle is a fast way to find the conclusion, but it is not a reliable indicator of the right answer. The LSAT is full of synonyms for “should.” For example, Section II, Question 10 is a “Main Point” question where the conclusion in the stimulus is “Double-blind techniques should be used whenever possible in scientific experiments.” The correct answer is, “It is advisable for scientists to use double-blind techniques in as high a proportion of their experiments as they can.”

Summing this up in LSAT terminology, “should” is a sufficient condition for a conclusion, but not a necessary condition.

That still doesn’t mean that every sentence with a “should” in it is a conclusion–the principle is narrower and more specific. If the word “should” only appears once in a stimulus, then it is in the conclusion. If “should” appears twice (or more) in a stimulus, then it will be in the conclusion as well as in a premise.