Your LSAT score is one of the most important parts of your law school application and applicants worry, plan and strategize about how to tackle this dreaded standardized test. To help you overcome this challenge, we talk with some test prep experts to get study tips so you can learn how to improve from your first practice test, what to do the night before and the day of the exam. We hear from an undergraduate prelaw advisor who guides students throughout the admissions process, and we speak with a law school admissions dean to get some inside perspective to hear how the admissions committee evaluates your score.
- Richard Geiger, Associate Dean and Dean of Admissions, Cornell Law School
- Dr. Rebecca Wood Gill, Assistant Professor and Prelaw Advisor, UNLV
- Noah Teitelbaum, Managing Director, Atlas LSAT Test Prep
- Brad McIlquham, Director of Academics, Knewton LSAT Prep
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Althea Legaspi.
If you’re applying to law school, it’s inevitable that you’ll take the LSAT.Since your LSAT score and your undergraduate GPA are the two most important factors in your law school application, it’s fair to say that a lot’s riding on your score for this one test.That’s no doubt the reason the exam is the source of stress, worry, and dread for so many applicants. Though the LSAT is widely considered the most challenging of standardized tests, the good news is that your score on the exam can respond to preparation.While no one enjoys studying for standardized tests, we have some tips and advice to make sure you’re properly armed and well prepared to do battle with this formidable exam.
Joining us in this segment, Conquering the LSAT: Tips for Tackling the Test, are experts from Atlas LSAT Test Prep and Knewton LSAT Prep, who break down the LSAT components and give specific study tips on how to improve your score from your first practice test, UNLV’s Undergraduate Prelaw Advisor, who guides students through the admission’s process, also imparts sound advice. And, Cornell Law School’s Associate Dean and Dean of Admissions shares insight into how admissions committees evaluate LSAT scores when reviewing and deciding on your application.
While experts stress the LSAT is only one piece of the law school application puzzle, it is also an integral part of it. So, just why is the LSAT so important?Richard Geiger, the Associate Dean and Dean of Admissions at Cornell Law School, has also served as the Chair of the Test Development and Research Committee for the Law School Admissions Council or LSAC, which designs and administers the LSAT.He explains.
“The LSAT is one piece of a fairly complex application that has lots of elements to it.And what the LSAT does, it does very well.It was originally designed to try to measure a couple of skills, a couple of the basket of skills that most people would agree are important to success in law school and even success in the legal profession. And those two things that it tests are reading comprehension, at a very sophisticated level, and logical reasoning. You know, I’ve never met anybody that doesn’t think those are important things to success as a lawyer or success almost in anything. So, it has importance in terms of measuring those two abilities.Now clearly, those aren’t the only things that are important to success in law school. But what it does purport to measure, it actually does measure very well.”
The LSAT is administered four times a year, and there isn’t one best time to take it in terms of the admission decision-making process.However, there is a best time to take the test for an individual, says Cornell’s Dean Geiger.“I always advise people to first, and most importantly, take the test after they’ve had a chance to prepare adequately.So, don’t decide when to take it based on what month do you think, you know, is optimal. Base your decision on what month is going to allow you to prepare the best.So, that’s number one.Now that said, most people take the test in the Fall Administration, October. That’s the largest administration. Some people find that the June test, the summer test, is better just in terms of their ability to get prepared and also have the Fall test then as a fallback if they need it.”
“The December test also works for most law schools. What it doesn’t give you is the ability to have a fallback. If you’re sick, if you have a problem in the exam, or whatever, the next administration which is February is going to be too late for most law schools. So June, October, December of the year before you’re planning to go to law school is usually what most people do and it works out well if they follow my first piece of advice, which was do it at a time that works best for you.The test has a shelf-life as well.So, if somebody is graduating from college and decides he wants to take some time off and they’ve taken the test, it will last for four to five years in terms of your ability to reuse it in the future applications.”
As an important aspect of a law school application, a good place to start tackling the LSAT is to explore what the LSAT covers. Brad McIlquham, Knewton’s Director of Academics walks us through the test sections. “So the LSAT has six-timed sections. Four of them are multiple-choice-scored sections, a fifth is an unscored multiple choice section, and the sixth and the final, and it’s always the final section, is an unscored writing sample. All of the sections are 35 minutes. The four scored sections come in three different varieties. One is logical reasoning and you’ll have at least two sections of logical reasoning. Those are the arguments.You get about 25 or 26 of them per section and you’ll get questions about those arguments – how they’re structured, how to strengthen and weaken them, what inferences you can make from them.”
“The second type of section you’ll get, multiple-choice section, is reading comprehension. You’ll get four passages and you’ll have at least one of those sections.And typically, it runs about 27, 28 questions.The final section is the least important but it’s also the most feared for LSAT students, and that’s the analytical reasoning section, which is commonly referred to as logic games.You get about 22, 23 questions across four different games in that section. And it’s really unlike something that most students have ever seen before.”
“A lot of students walk into their LSAT preparation or into the actual LSAT if they haven’t done any preparation and really have no idea what to do with the analytical reasoning section. But it is the least important section on the test because it has the fewest questions that actually count toward your score.And you can actually do really well on the test even if you blindly guess at that section.”
“The fifth section and it usually comes sometime before the break, sometime in the first three sections, is an unscored section where the LSAC just tests out future questions for the LSAT. It can be any of the three section types.You have no way of really determining which section it is, so you should treat every section you take on the test as the actual test, and beyond that you’ll be okay.”
While most everyone has come across a standardized test at some point during their academic life, the LSAT is specifically designed to measure skills that are essential for success in law school. That said it’s geared towards students who have analytical, critical reasoning, and active thinking skills. Atlas LSAT Test Prep’s Managing Director, Noah Teitelbaum, explains.“The LSAT is a – from a test prep geek’s point of view – is a great test. It is very much aligned with what it’s testing which is, can you be successful in law school?And compared to many other tests, it’s pretty predictive. It’s about as twice as predictive as the GMAT is for your success in business school, and that’s why law schools count on it so much.”
“So, each section is strongly linked to something you’ll be doing in law school.So for the logic games, which is probably the hardest section to connect with law school, you’re often facing lots and lots of different intersecting rules, laws, administrative issues, and different facts in a case, and you have to organize all of these and make sense of them which is very similar in what you’re doing in a logic game.For the logical reasoning, crafting arguments is critically the heart of being a lawyer and being a law student.And reading comp is very much testing your ability to read like a law student, which means reading tons and tons of cases and figuring out the salient issues in those cases.”
“In terms of whom the LSAT is suited for or oriented towards, it’s a very big shift for a lot of people because a lot of people who are going to become lawyers studied some sort of humanities in college where they were expected to write papers about what they think. In one way or another, you had to say, here’s what I think and here’s why and don’t you believe me.On the LSAT, you are not at all asked about what you think. You are asked to see what is actually there and understand an argument and analyze it. Your personal opinion, your creativity is not at all tested. And that can be a big shift for people who’ve been very successful with writing papers and things like that.”
Though the LSAT is considered challenging throughout each section, there’s one area that merits a lot of discussion when it comes to difficulty levels from test takers and that’s logic games. But as Atlas’ Teitelbaum outlines, it’s an area most students can improve upon with practice. “I find that the logic games section is the one that people can master the most easily because it’s something to learn. It’s a new game, literally. And there are ideas that often people just don’t know about.So, they learn them and they can do quite well.Some people can’t, some people really don’t think that way. But most people can improve a lot on a logic game. So even though it’s the one most of the time you hear people complaining about, it’s often the one that people make the most improvements on.”
“Logical reasoning is often a harder one to improve upon and often even more important because it’s half the test. So if you were to have, say, an average of five wrong on each logical reasoning section, that actually means 10 wrong for the entire test.So, that’s a really crucial one to improve upon and often more difficult. A lot of times people just rely on their intuition.They, in one way or another, think well, I’m a smart guy.I can understand stuff.So, I’ll just think really hard instead of learning what the test is like, what the questions they’re asking, what are the tendencies, and learning real strategies.”
Many of those preparing for the LSAT may take the reading comprehension section for granted because they’ve seen this kind of section on other standardized tests.But make no mistake. Like the rest of the exam, one cannot cram preparing for it.Knewton’s McIlquham says improving one’s reading skills is the single most important area to focus on when approaching the LSAT.“The single most important skill to master, in my opinion on the LSAT, is your ability to read well, to actively engage passages, to ask questions of the author in your mind, to predict where the author is going with his or her point or his or her argument, to understand when she’s giving an opinion versus just delivering background facts or details, to understand the common ways that people tend to structure arguments.If a passage starts out with the line most people believe that the sky is blue, as crazy as it seems, the author is going to disagree with that because if the author believed that the sky was blue, she would own that opinion. She would not qualify it with what most people believe but it would be her opinion.”
“So understanding when he or she is talking to you, understanding when he or she introduces conflict or contrast into a passage or an argument, and being able to distinguish that opinion from fact is easily the most important thing that you can do.To do that, you have to read.You have to get out there and work on those reading skills. As crazy as it sounds, join a reading group.Pick on your friends. If you study by yourself and you don’t have any friends, talk to the passage; ask questions of yourself as you’re reading the passage.”
“There’s a book that I like. It’s called The Duck that Won the Lottery. It’s a logic puzzles book. It’s a logic riddles book. It will help you start sort of thinking a little bit more actively about the logic and the assumptive reasoning and the deductions that are inherent on the LSAT. But you just got to read and you have to develop those critical reading and critical reasoning skills.”
Now that we’ve broken down the sections, Knewton’s McIlquham delves into how the LSAT is scored.“Each question is worth one point.The correct answer is worth one point.There is no wrong answer penalty on the LSAT.So, you should guess.You should always answer a question.Never leave something blank.But at the end of the day, the LSAC is going to take the four-scored sections and add up all of your correct answers and that becomes your raw score. So, it’s somewhere between 0 and 100 or 101, however many questions are on the actual test that are scored.And that raw score then is fed into sort of their scaling algorithm and they scale that across the entire test-taking population for that administration. So you are ranked, percentile-wise, on how well you did, compared to everyone else who took that exact same test that day.”
In other words, there’s a curve of sorts in play when it comes to your LSAT score.Knewton’s McIlquham also says not only have test takers occasionally answered every LSAT question correctly but that you don’t necessarily need to do so to get a perfect 180.“Maybe a handful of people, every administration get all of the questions right. But the interesting thing is, the test is so difficult, you don’t need to get all of the questions right to get a perfect score.You can sometimes miss one or two and once or twice in the past you’ve been able to miss three questions on the test and still get a perfect score.You still have done in the top one-tenth percentile of the test administrators that way.”
“So it’s – and that’s something that students should know that going into the test, it is a difficult test. You are going to miss questions. And just because you encounter something that you’re not certain of the answer to or you’re pretty sure you missed, that’s okay.You can and are expected to miss questions on this test.It’s how well you handle the things that you should know that really matter in the long run.”
You can also use your LSAT score to help you gauge which law schools you might consider.By assessing admission profile grids, your score can help you determine which schools may be in reach given your raw score and grade point average. UNLV’s Prelaw Advisor, Dr. Rebecca Gill, says the grids can serve as a good reality check, but it doesn’t factor in everything. “This is a really helpful tool for students who are looking to narrow down their search for a law school. It uses the previous years’ admissions details for each law school to predict the chances that a student will be admitted this year given that student’s GPA and LSAT score. So if you have a 166 on the LSAT and you have a 3.2 GPA, do you have any hope of getting into Harvard Law? The answer is not really. And trust me, this is an important insight for students to have.I really hate to be the dream dasher, but students often come to me with these unrealistic ideas about where they’ll be going to law school.”
“So, students can get a reality check by seeing their chances right there in black and white. But I wouldn’t say that this grid will actually tell you which law school is right for you.It only tells you your rough chances at getting admitted to these law schools. It helps you identify the three big categories of schools to which you should apply. The first are the schools that you’ve got some chance of getting into, even if it’s a long shot. Those are your dream schools. Then there are the schools that you’ve got a solid chance at getting into, the realistic ones. And finally there are the schools that you could go to if all else fails or that you’d be more likely to get a juicy scholarship from.”
“So once you’ve compiled this list, then it’s really time for the student to do his homework.You want to narrow this down based on the school that’s a good fit for you. This might include rankings. It nearly always does. But it should also include considerations about the location of the school, how much it costs to attend, how much it costs to live there, the availability of the programs, and things of that nature.”
But how do admissions committees use LSAT scores? Well, Cornell’s Geiger says he can’t speak for all admission committees, but he says, the LSAT is only one part of a very complex process.“I think I can speak broadly in terms of how committee should use the score. They should use it as one piece of a fairly complex and subtle decision-making process. It measures reading comprehension and logical reasoning. Those are important attributes for a law student.But it doesn’t measure anything else.So, you really have to sort of keep it in perspective when you’re looking at it as a committee member.”
“And you also care about things, the other things that defines success in law school, things like hard work, ability to be organized, listening skills, the ability to synthesize concepts and ideas, how you take criticisms, how you react to that, all of these we find critical to success in law school.But the LSAT doesn’t give us any information about that.So that’s why there’s all the other parts of the application as well. And in most cases, it turns out that all of the pieces of the application are critical to the ultimate decision.”
So, how should you start prepping for the LSAT? Our experts tell us it’s smart to begin prepping two to four months prior to taking the LSAT. Atlas’ Teitelbaum says taking a practice test is the first step to the process.“So I always recommend people start with a diagnostic. But they need to take that diagnostic under timed conditions, which is 35 minutes per section and only one break. And that when I say there’s no other breaks, that means between section one and section two, there’s literally no break.If section one is over, section two has begun.”
“So, a new student should take a diagnostic to see where they’re at and there also needs to be a little bit of forgiveness because a lot of people get thrown for a real big loop when they take that diagnostic. And people should realize that a lot of people start pretty low on the LSAT, far from where they want to end up often because of that logic game section that they’re not used to it. So people should sort of forgive themselves for that.And they should plot out a lot of time and a real commitment to improving their score. If you want to just raise a few points, you just take a few LSATs just to expose yourself.If you want to make substantial improvements on your score, you’re going to need to dig deep.”
Don’t stress too much if you score low on your first practice test as most will and do. Knewton’s McIlquham says you can increase your score from that first test by heeding this advice. “If you just take test after test, then you’re just going to score the same, and that’s the nature of standardized test.They’re used in the admissions process because they’re standardized. The board expects them to give a true reporting of how you would do on this test.And so if you take one today and score 155, then next week when you take another test you should score a 155.”
“So to improve, you really need to understand the concepts that are being tested on the LSAT.And the great thing there is there aren’t that many concepts really being tested on the LSAT because there’s not really any math on the test. Though I think some people would argue that the analytical reasoning section is actually math. But there’s not really any true math. There aren’t that many concepts. There are probably – I think at Knewton we’ve identified somewhere about 100-120 concepts for the LSAT. And if you can master those, and then you understand which ones are the important ones, which ones do you absolutely need to have down cold and how they fit into the structure of the standardized test, then that’s going to set you along your path to improving your score. The last thing you have to do is cycle in that timing element.”
Knewton’s McIlquham also adds there are few good ways to study for the LSAT.“One is that focused through concentrated practice of singular concept focus, and you’ll pick out assumption-based questions and just do those over and over again. You start to see the trends and the patterns in those arguments and you start to really understand what good answers look like, what bad answers look like, what common wrong answers look like, and you can master those things.And then do, instead of full-length practice, section practice, because the test itself is really, should be considered in five or six, 35-minute quizzes because that’s the time frame you have to work in.”
“So, you have to be able to get it into the 35-minute time frame. So section practice can – it serves a couple of purposes.One, you get to focus on one section at a time, which is great.You don’t have to take as long in doing this whole practice test. It doesn’t eat up a lot of your day. And so it saves that time to review the work that you’ve done.And that’s by far the most important thing that students need to learn to do.”
Because the LSAT is a timed test, often test-takers panic under the time constraints.Atlas’ Teitelbaum says there are a few strategies to help manage and even earn time. “There are a couple of reasons that people can struggle with timing.One of them is lack of exposure to the test.So, that should be handled by obviously exposing yourself. The other is not understanding the question types.There’s another problem — which is that people simply don’t move fast enough. And you’ll see this – I think the best analogy is jogging. That everyone has their jogging pace and everyone is very comfortable within as you say, hey, go or run around the block, that’s the pace they’re going to run at generally. But you can simply speed up by willing yourself to move your feet faster.And people can speed up, and this is particularly on reading comp and actually all the sections, you can speed up by willing yourself to do it. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s over repeated practice tests. But saying, I’m going to move faster doing a mini set.I’m going to do 10 questions.Can I do the 10 questions in 10 minutes?Let me go for it.”
“At first, the accuracy is going to dip. But if you keep at it, you eventually bring your accuracy back up.The other thing is to know when you’ve been beaten on a question. So knowing when you’ve been beaten, taking a dive to earn time for other questions is a really smart move that a lot of people who are type A can’t do.”
And while it’s always best to guess rather than leaving an answer blank, Atlas’ Teitelbaum also says there’s a good strategy to picking an answer.“Obviously you want to take a dive on some questions that you know are going to suck up lots and lots of time, put a star next to them, come back at the end of that section if you have some time.But overall, when you’re studying for logical reasoning and reading comp, you want to become a master of the wrong answers.You actually want to work from wrong to right, which is slightly different than using the process of elimination.What we suggest is that you actually look for wrong answers and learn how they write them, so that they’re obvious to you.”
“And whichever answer choice is left standing is your correct one.And if that’s your attitude, you’re often going to find yourself down to – instead of left with guessing between four, you’re guessing between two or three if a question is really difficult.So, becoming a real master at how the LSAT crafts the wrong answers.”
By the time it’s about three weeks to LSAT test day, Atlas’Teitelbaum says students should shift gears from section study and mastering fundamentals to overall review in preparation.You want to be ending with your prep, let’s say the last three weeks, with lots of LSATs and lots of review of those LSATs.So, that might be two a week, four a week, something like that. The last week, I hesitate to give blanket advice to everyone.But the last week, I generally suggest to people to increase the amount of review and decrease the amount of new exposure because there’s not a lot you’re going to learn in that last week.But what you can do is set your timing and set your rhythm.And remind yourself of the things you’ve learned because the thing you want to avoid is that you do lots and lots of preparation and then the minute the test starts, you throw that all out the window. Suddenly, you’re going to hit a homerun. You’re not going to give up on any single question and you go for it and then you do worse than you really could do.”
“So what you want to do on test day is score your best score.You’ll want to switch up your strategies. So that last week is time to set your strategies and set your timing. And probably some people won’t like hearing this. I wouldn’t drink the week before the LSAT.I would also – exercise a lot. The brains and muscle, it thrives on oxygen.It’s proven that exercise increases the number of neural connections, which helps you change how you think which is really crucial for the LSAT.”
Knewton’s McIlquham advises there are also a few things you should do to keep it together the day before and the day of the test to reduce your stress levels.“You should already know how long it’s going to take you, what the parking situation is like, and basically have your routine planned out for you. The night before the test, you should lay out all of the things you’re going to need, most important of which are your admissions ticket from the LSAC, photo identification. And the day of the test, get up early, have a good breakfast.If you’re the type of person that needs coffee, then drink.Don’t screw with your routine but also sort of scale back on the caffeine a little bit.Try to remain calm. Try to, again like I said, if you’re going to do anything, get something you’ve already done like in logic game you did well on that week and just walk yourself through it, put yourself in the right mindset.”
“And then get to the testing center early. You’re going to be waiting a long time. It’s a lot of waiting to start the test. It’s a lot of nervous waiting. Try not to talk to too many people. You might have friends that are taking the test that day but it’s really not going to help you to talk to them. There’s a lot of nervous energy. And so being able to remain composed and put a section behind you and look forward and focus on the task at hand, the next section, that’s instrumental to doing well on the test.”
Once the test is completed, there are circumstances when one might receive a lower score on the LSAT than they hoped. When should a student consider retaking the LSAT?Our experts advise that it should only be retaken with good reason, such as illness or you believe you mis-gridded answers.UNLV’s Dr. Gill says to proceed with caution when it comes to retaking the LSAT too many times. “A student should certainly take the LSAT on the assumption that they’ll only be taking it once. You should never take the LSAT just to see or when you’re otherwise unprepared.But that said, sometimes students score lower than they’ve been testing on their practice test and they’d like to try again.The committees usually recognize this.And the single retake is probably not that big of a deal.But a word of caution is appropriate.Students need to be very honest with themselves before retaking the test.”
“First of all, you can only take the test three times in a two-year period.But more importantly, many students with low LSAT scores actually don’t improve their score on the next retake.And the committees start to look critically when students have several retakes in which they consistently score the same or where the score actually goes down.”
Cornell’s Dean Geiger says, you may also explain a low score in your application.“It shouldn’t be a long-winded, whinny kind of explanation. It should be here’s the facts.There was a band practicing outside the room where I was taking the exam and it distracted me.And I think that score wasn’t representative of my true ability.That kind of stuff can be helpful.”
An LSAT taker can also choose to cancel their score on test day and within six calendar days afterwards. A test taker may opt for this if they’re sure they’ve done poorly or there were extenuating circumstances. When an LSAT score is canceled, neither the test-taker nor the schools to which they’ve applied will ever know what that cancelled score number was.But it will still be reported as a canceled score to schools. Cornell’s Dean Geiger says one canceled score should have little impact on the application process.
Keep in mind that while important, the LSAT is but one part of your law school application.One thing UNLV’s Dr. Gill advises not to do is to approach the LSAT blindly. “The biggest piece of advice I can give to students is don’t take the test until you know what your score is going to be.I have so many students who I don’t even see until after they’ve taken the LSAT once or twice or three times. And people, they do, they take it just for fun or just to see.And it’s not fun.So, I don’t really understand the logic behind that.It’s not a fun test. It’s expensive. It’s uncomfortable. It’s long. It’s stressful. It’s early. So, I don’t really understand the logic behind that. But I think a lot of students, you know especially at kind of places like where I am where there are a lot of first-generation college students and they just don’t know. They think that it’s like taking the SAT or something. But to understand that you can prepare yourself for this test and you must.”
There’s no escaping taking the LSAT if you’re planning to go to law school.And there isn’t an easy in to acing the LSAT either.And while there’s no one magic tip that will get you the score you seek, by taking our expert’s advice to plan your study and apply smart strategies to give it the time and effort that’s necessary to improve the skills required for the LSAT, you can have the confidence that you’ve done all you can to conquer the LSAT.
For more information, a transcript of this show, or to register to receive more law school podcasts, visit lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. This is Law School Podcaster. I’m Althea Legaspi. Thanks for listening and stay tuned next time when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.