The LSAT® is the single most dreaded part of the law school application process. Everyone has heard the stories and the myths surrounding the exam. Listen in as we talk with law school deans of admission, and get some perspective about the test from a current law school dean who served on the Test Development Committee for the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). Our experts dispel some of the popular notions about the exam, including the notion that the questions are designed to trick test-takers. The deans also weigh in on how important the LSAT® is relative to other factors when evaluating your application. Finally, we also hear from two test prep companies about how they can help prepare students to master the material on exam day.
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- Sarah C. Zearfoss, Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions at University of Michigan Law School
- Chloe Reid, Associate Dean for Admissions at University of Southern California-Gould School of Law
- Jeff Thomas, Assistant Director of Pre-Law Programs for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions
- Dave Killoran, CEO and Director of Course Development for PowerScore Test Preparation
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 considering law school, one thing is inescapable and that’s taking the Law School Admission Test, more commonly referred to as the LSAT®. As one of the important factors for getting into law school, it is quite possibly the most dreaded aspect of the law school application process. But while the LSAT® does indeed carry weight, preparation is key and our guest experts provide tools and words of wisdom, which should help alleviate some of the anxieties surrounding the test.
In this segment, “The LSAT®: Everything You Need To Know About The Test,” we speak with two law school admissions deans as well as two test preparation companies to explore all the aspects of the LSAT®, from the many myths surrounding the test, to examining the best ways to study and other sage advice which will aid you in approaching the LSAT®.
But first, the basics. The Law School Admission Council, also known as LSAC, administers the LSAT® and is a non-profit corporation that provides admission-related services to legal education institutions. The LSAT® is a half-day standardized test, administered four times each year at designated testing centers throughout the world. The test consists of five 35-minute sections of multiple choice questions. Four of the five sections contribute to the test-taker’s score. Dave Killoran, the CEO and Director of PowerScore, a test preparation company, and also the author of several LSAT® studying books, elaborates on this. “Every question has the same value. It’s either plus one or zero. On the LSAT®, there are two sections of logical reasoning, so it’s roughly half of your score. There is one section of games and one reading comp, so they’re very roughly a quarter of your score.”
So now you know what you can expect on test day in terms of the administering of it. But what exactly does the LSAT® measure? Sarah Zearfoss, the Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions for University of Michigan Law School, served two terms on the LSAC Test Development [and Research] Committee. She explains: “It is only supposed to measure or predict, rather, a student’s performance in the first year of law school. It doesn’t even predict the second and third years, although it has a very strong correlation with your performance, but that’s mostly because the first year is a great predictor of how you’ll do in the second and third years of law school. It isn’t meant to predict what kind of lawyer you’re going to be; it isn’t meant to predict what kind of person you are, what kind of a student overall you are, just how you’ll perform on the very particular types of classes and work that you have in the first year of law school and it does a very good job at that. It doesn’t do a perfect job at that, but it does do a very good job.”
Now that you’re armed with the LSAT® basics, perhaps you’ve made some assumptions about the test. There are several common myths that surround the LSAT®. Let’s see if our guests, lend credence to, or debunk these myths. One myth is that certain administrations of the test are harder than others. In other words, the October test is harder than ones given at other times of the year. But is there truth to this? Dean Sarah Zearfoss addresses this myth. “It is certainly not the case. I served for four years, two terms, on the Law School Admissions Council Test Development Committee, so I have had exposure, I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve had exposure to a lot of the research, and a lot of the methods that they use to perfect the test, which is an ongoing process. So I feel really well-equipped to tell you that is definitely not the case.”
Perhaps you think that the LSAT is a good predictor of how good a lawyer an applicant will be. Dean Sarah Zearfoss says this is also untrue. “Absolutely not the case. Being a great lawyer involves a lot of different skills. Having done well in law school speaks to some of those skills, but certainly not all. For example, I think most great lawyers will tell you that an essential part of being a great lawyer is being a great writer, great at written communication. The LSAT® doesn’t purport to measure that at all. They’ve actually toyed with the idea of trying to come up with a written evaluation section, but haven’t been able to develop one that’s as good as the rest of the test in terms of its predictive value, so it’s not even attempting to measure that. That’s one of the central skills of great lawyering. Obviously, another central skill is just interpersonal communications, again, nothing that the LSAT® is even attempting to measure.
Yet, another myth is that the LSAT® measures natural intelligence, innate skills and basic knowledge, and you cannot improve your score with preparation. Chloe Reid, Associate Dean and Dean of Admissions for USC Gould School of Law, tackles this one for us. “Students can prepare, can study; if that were not the case, then I’m certain the Law School Admission Council would not be in the business also of providing test materials and copies of old tests for people to purchase and certainly study by, and certainly all these testing organizations wouldn’t necessarily be as successful as they are in their ventures in terms of the numbers of people who come to them for prep services. Clearly, it’s to a person’s advantage, if indeed they can afford a course, the testing service and going through the program. Sometime though I tell students that often times you are paying for—I hate to use the term—a glorified timekeeper, but in some ways that’s what some people need in terms of being able to have a very focused study schedule or rigid schedule for them put forth so that they can abide by it and do what they need to do in terms of preparing for the test. Definitely, these organizations also provide other services in terms of teaching students, tactics, strategies, and approaches. Some of which you can learn on your own if, indeed, you’re disciplined enough to able to do that. Most of us are not that way, so going to a course every week, knowing that I’m studying for the LSAT® right now and I’ve got to check in with somebody and somebody is going to be looking over my shoulder, that certainly acts as an encouragement, and enticement, the motivation needed to prepare and perhaps do well in the test.”
Have you ever heard you should leave answers blank on the LSAT® because random guessing will hurt your score? PowerScore’s Dave Killoran has this to say about that myth. “Well, I think this is a holdover from the SAT where they actually take a quarter of a point away from a missed question, but that’s not what happens on the LSAT®, so you should definitely fill in every single question. There is no penalty for guessing, and I think that almost is a statement of some arrogance on the part of the test-makers. They are saying it doesn’t matter if you guess. You’re still not going to change your score appreciably; our test is that tough. The one thing that is interesting is, we study the LSAT® not only from a conceptual standpoint, but from a statistical standpoint. If people are out there and they’re thinking, well what should I guess, should I go A, B, C, D, E or all Bs? What they should do is, they should guess D for every single answer to which they can’t fill in. It’s the statistically most likely answer to appear.
While our panel of experts were all on the same page debunking the myths we’ve discussed this far, this particular myth may have a grain of truth to it, and that is the myth that some of the LSAT® questions are designed specifically to trick people. While the word “trick” is not the word our experts would use, they all agree that the test is nuanced and challenging and that it is written to test a student’s ability to discern these subtle differences. Jeff Thomas, a practicing lawyer and also the Assistant Director of Pre-Law Programs for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, explains it this way. “I wouldn’t say that LSAT® questions are designed to trick people, but LSAT® questions are, by their design — there is one effective and efficient way to answering them. There are multiple ways of answering the questions, but there is one that is most efficient and most effective. The LSAT® is going to reward those test-takers who understand how to approach the question properly. The exam is comprised in such a way that the level of difficulty is going to vary, and every question is created equal in terms of its point value, so a student needs to learn how to identify the more difficult questions and easier questions, needs to understand where within the contents of a section those question are likely to appear, but there are ways that a student can be taught to navigate a section, and approach the more difficult question type properly that they can understand how to improve their performance and get a jump on a bunch of other test-takers.”
While we’ve discussed some common misconceptions, Dean Chloe Reid shares another one which is the belief that prospective test-takers need not worry about their [LSAT] writing sample. “The myth I’ve heard is, oh the law schools don’t read those writing samples. Wrong, absolutely wrong. I’ve had people who have doodled and made little cartoons near the end of their writing samples and we’ve denied people. So it was like, you know, you’re not taking this seriously.”
On that note, this isn’t a myth but something that actually happened. Kaplan’s Jeff Thomas shares this cautionary tale: heed your proctor’s instructions. “I will tell you one potential “horror story”, if you will, that we heard from the last [test] administration, that’s a word to the wise for students in the future. A student was in one of the testing rooms and had not completed all of the first section and students can only work on the section in which they’re being tested on at the time. They can’t go back or ahead to work on a different section, but the way their answer sheet is laid out is that bubbles are kind of next to each other. So this student had left a couple of questions blank with questions 9, 10 and 11 on Section number 1. During Section 2, she didn’t think it would be an issue if she just went back and bubbled in those answer choices. At the end of the section, the proctor gave her a letter of misconduct that is now going to go into her law school application file. The proctor didn’t actually see that student bubble in the answers to Section 1, but he did notice at the conclusion of Section 1, that they were blank, and now at the end of Section 2, they were not. So she must have gone back, and done the work, and bubbled in those answers during the time for Section number 2. As a result of that—it is a very stupid mistake to make—as a result of that, she’s now going to have that letter of misconduct in her file, she’s going to have write that addendum, and it could impede her chances of getting into law school. So students should understand the rules of the LSAT®, take them very, very seriously, and heed all proctoring instructions because they are very, very serious to make sure everyone is going to get a fair administration of the test.”
Now that we’ve dispelled some myths and revealed some truths about the LSAT®, let’s explore how the LSAT® factors relative to other parts of the law school application. Just how important is the LSAT®? Dean Sarah Zearfoss elaborates on this. “As a general matter, it is just one piece of the pie, and I can tell you from my experience that what we’re looking for is an indication that the person has what it takes to do the work here. The LSAT® is a useful tool for helping us to assess that. But beyond that, once we’ve satisfied that question or satisfied our minds about that question, then we’re looking for all the other stuff that makes a class interesting and a student body great. I don’t think the LSAT® has undue weight in the process at all. I wouldn’t know how to quantify it, and I wouldn’t want to try to go through 5,600 applications without having some kind of apples to apples measure like that, it’s very useful. But don’t think it is the “be-all and end-all” of the process the way students so frequently think it is.”
Both of the deans we spoke with concurred that the LSAT® is not the sole factor of determining whether or not a student will potentially get into law school, but it is a strong factor, and there is a perception that law schools have LSAT® unreported cut-off scores. Dean Sarah Zearfoss says she doesn’t know of any schools that do have them, but there may be some pressure on some law schools to not admit very low LSAT® scores. “First of all, of course, I can only speak with any authority about the admissions process at Michigan. It’s the only one that I know intimately and am responsible for carrying out, and I know there’s no cut-off score. That said, I am also familiar with discussions that other admissions people have expressing concern about bar passage rates. Now, the LSAT® is not meant to predict bar passage rates, but an LSAT® score is correlated with the bar passage rate. It’s not predicting it, but it’s correlated, so if you admit people with high LSAT® scores, you’re likely to have people with good bar passage rates. Not only do you have the median LSAT® score to contend with as a US News or other ranking factor, you have the bar passage rate as a ranking factor, not to mention an ABA Accreditation factor, so there is some pressure there not to admit particularly low scores.”
This leads to one of the most recent changes in how LSAT® scores are reported. In June 2006, the ABA Section of Legal Education & Admission to the Bar changed its policy, now requiring schools to report the highest LSAT® scores of those students who took the exam twice or more. Since law schools now report their highest scores to the American Bar Association, also known as the ABA, the majority of schools now consider only a student’s highest LSAT®, although a small number of schools still consider the average scores. Nevertheless, each law school has its own policy on how multiple scores will be viewed in evaluating an application. Dean Chloe Reid elaborates on how this too adds perceived weight to the LSAT®. “The biggest issue was the multiple-score issue and how schools should interpret the scores. The Law School Admission Council still encourages student, I mean schools, to use the average score, but unfortunately in the era of rankings and people wanting to go to “the best school” based upon ranking, rankings, unfortunately, have driven an over reliance and over importance to the test in the application process.”
This may contribute to the LSAT® having greater significance with some schools and Kaplan’s research seems to back this up as Kaplan’s Jeff Thomas shares. “It is the number one factor of admission according to 70% of all law school admissions officers. We actually interview all law school admissions officers around the country every year, and we ask them that question: what’s the most important factor in law school admissions? The LSAT® is the number one factor 70% of the time.”
So while the LSAT® may not be the sole key to admissions, it is certainly a prominent factor in the application process. Where then does this leave a test-taker who has a bad test day? Well, all four of our guests do recommend taking it once and obtaining the highest score one can achieve as the best policy. However, extenuating circumstances do arise and if they do, there are several approaches one can take. If something horrendous has happened in your life just prior to the test, it’s probably best to not take the LSAT®. If you feel, based on that what you’ve done on your practice tests in prior studying, that your score will not be to par with what you think it should be, you have a few options. The first is to cancel your score. You can do that at the test site by completing the score cancellation section on the LSAT® answer sheet at the test center, or you can send a written cancellation request to the LSAC after the test. Your request must be received within six calendar days of the test. While a cancelled test will show up in your application, a score for that test will not. If you did not cancel and your resulting score does not reflect what you believe is to be the best of your ability, again, this is based on knowing how you’ve scored on practice tests and through your studying; in that case, our experts do advise to take it again. Data on the LSAC website suggests that scores for repeat test-takers often rise but only slightly.
Now, what should you do if you are historically a poor test-taker? The Deans both say it is important to explain your poor score via an addendum. Here is what Dean Chloe Reid advises. “Certainly, there are people who are historical poor test-takers and I will tell students emphatically, don’t just say that in your personal statement when you’re writing us.. Let us — give us some information, some evidence that supports your statement. So if you tested poorly on the SAT, then it would be nice to be able to see that in print because everybody is going to say I’m a poor test taker, of course, if they didn’t meet your median LSAT® score. Providing some proof or demonstrated evidence that, you know what, I have been a poor test-taker all my my life. That just gives more fuel for us to think about. I see students who have a 3.9 GPA and they certainly didn’t meet our median LSAT® scores, but they’ve still been successful in terms of being able to getting admitted to the law school. They may get admitted later, they may get admitted off of a wait-list later, so I wouldn’t necessarily say you know what, you’re totally out of luck or screwed if you don’t necessarily do well on the test. Your undergraduate grade point average means a lot because that certainly tells us what you’ve been able to do over the course of four years. The LSAT® tells us what you can do over the matter of three hours. So I wouldn’t necessarily tell the students to be discouraged, but certainly to provide supporting information in his or her application, and also if there’s anybody else who can attest to the fact that they’ve not performed well on a test in the past to include that information as well.”
Test preparation companies have a different approach to the poor test-taker question. Whether they liken it to learning to drive a car or learning how to play a musical instrument, they believe that, like with any skill, you can learn to become a better test-taker. Kaplan’s Jeff Thomas elaborates. “I hate it when students say that I’m a poor standardized test-taker because the thing that they know about standardized tests is that the content is standardized. As I said, this is isn’t a content-based event; it’s a skills-based test. So it’s one that we can improve a performance on. It’s not like some body of a mathematical knowledge or vocabulary we have to have coming into it. That’s not the case at all. The LSAT® is a little different in that regard.”
With that said, what is the best way to prepare for the LSAT®? Our guests are all adamant in saying this is not the kind of test for which you can cram. They all strongly urge students to prepare several months in advance of the test. Their approach to studying, however, will depend on the student’s situation. Questions to ask yourself are: How well do you study independently? Are you someone who needs more structure or a looser environment when it comes to learning concepts? Do you prefer classroom engagement or do you excel when you have one-on-one tutoring? Knowing what kind of student you are will determine the best way to study for the LSAT®. Test preparation companies offer a variety of test prep courses from traditional in-class instruction to video on demand online and virtual class online instruction. Both the test preparation companies we spoke to say only you can make that decision.
PowerScore’s Dave Killoran says there is a strategy to taking the LSAT®, and there are a variety of different levels of that strategy they give you in their courses. “When we go out and we teach this, we try to look at it on all sorts of different levels. The foundation level is really the logic that underlies it. Then there’s the question level: How do you solve certain types of questions? How do you recognize certain types of concepts? What can you do in response to those? Then there’s this section level on top of that where we say right now, we built it up through the trees, let’s look at the entire forest and think about what the entire test-taking experience is about, and that’s where we get into things of like, timing strategies, we’ve been talking about guessing strategies, even test mentality plays into that. So I think it depends on what level you’re looking at, but we try to bring everything together and create one entity that’s completely solid and cohesive.”
Another issue that potential LSAT® takers may face is a limited budget which precludes them from enrolling in a course. For those with economic challenges, the LSAC provides a free LSAT® test along with sample questions and explanations on their website, plus they offer past tests for purchase. There is also an LSAT® fee waiver form for qualified applicants on its website. Kaplan offers free events, including proctored LSAT® practice test events which will simulate the testing environment, so you may gauge your test taking skills, and PowerScore offers study books for purchase. All of these methods are more economical than taking a course.
And both of our deans attest that there are students who have scored well on the LSAT® if they are disciplined enough and learn the strategies, without taking a course. In these cases, Dean Chloe Reid first refers students to past LSAT® tests provided by LSAC and also recommends they speak to pre-law advisers on their campus. They are a free resource and can provide more information. She also makes this recommendation. “Second thing I say to them is you have got to put yourself on the time schedule. You cannot expect to do well on the test by a haphazard approach to studying for the exam. So I will say to them, you know, back yourself up six months and start studying then and put yourself on a pretty rigorous schedule, that you’re going to review test questions and figure out. If you’ve gone through all the test questions that LSAC has done in the last 15 years, I think they make [them] available, you’ll see that there’s certainly test questions that pop up, [where] the names may change and the dates may change but the type of question and the answer is going to be the same. So it’s being able to quickly read the question, figure out what the call of the question is, and figure out what the strategy and what the approach is going to be. If you’ve done that enough, then you’ll learn how to take the test. Then also if you practice doing some writing samples, that too, is important.”
Whether you prep for the LSAT® by taking courses with the test preparation company or go it alone, our guests all assert that preparation is key. Dean Sarah Zearfoss imparts these final words of advice. “I think it’s important to prepare as well as possible and take the test and try and have the best day you can, all the ways of getting enough sleep and being as relaxed as you can. If something goes wrong, take it another time. Beyond that, just do everything you can to make the rest of your application as strong as possible.”
Now, perhaps you’ve heard stories about a marching band interrupting an LSAT® test or even a motorcycle convention. These things, some of our expert say, have actually happened. With every LSAT® test administration, there are many stories. But remember, distractions do not negate your score. While you can’t control the testing environment, the one thing that is in your power, is to be as prepared as possible.
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.