You’ve walked out of the LSAT feeling it was a particularly bad day for you, or you’ve just learned that your score is lower than you had hoped. Your initial instinct might be to just take the test again, but before you register for the next administration of the test, listen to our experts tell you what you need to know to plan your next steps. When should you cancel your score? When should you retake the exam? Should you explain a low score in an addendum? Also find out how law school admissions committees view multiple LSAT scores and how to make your application shine despite a low score.
- Noah Teitelbaum, Managing Director, Manhattan LSAT
- Brad McIlquham, Director of Academics, Knewton LSAT
- Glen Stohr, Sr , Manager of Content Development for Grad Programs, Kaplan Test Prep & Admissions
- Richard Geiger, Dean of Admissions, Cornell Law School
- Sarah Streit, LSAT student
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Diana Jordan.
LSAT test day finally arrives, but what if you walked out of the LSAT and you have this horrible feeling that you blew it. Well, maybe you didn’t. It’s not that cut and dried, as we will learn, in this show about retaking the LSAT. Should you consider cancelling your score? Should you retake the test? There are a lot of nuances that merit consideration, including how schools view multiple LSAT scores. And, if you do retake the test, how can you be sure you don’t make the same mistakes again?
In this show, we delve into this topic and hear from our experts, including test prep providers like Noah Teitelbaum, the Managing Director of Manhattan LSAT. “There’s plenty of reasons to retake LSAT and, now that more and more schools are taking your best test score, more and more people are retaking the LSAT.”
We also hear from the admissions dean at a top law school who shares insight on how multiple test scores can affect your candidacy, and we get some perspective from a student who recently decided to retake the LSAT with amazing results. For this student, once the decision was made to retake the LSAT, she followed some seemingly simple advice and drove her test score from a 166 to a 176. “Learning how to not be perfect and that you can make — you can miss a few things on the test and still do really well.”
You want a great score on your LSAT and just the idea of that is stressful. So, it’s test day. You’re taking the exam or, you walked out of your test center, and you have a bad feeling. You’re wondering whether you can just start over and perhaps cancel your score and retake the test. Manager of Content Development for Grad Programs for Kaplan, Glen Stohr, says there are two ways to cancel your test. “One is you can cancel it on the spot the day of the test. In fact, after section 5 of the test, the proctor will say, ‘is there anyone here who wants to cancel your score?’ and, if you do, sign your score sheet, and check the cancel box or whatever, and they’ll collect your material and you cancel your score right there. The other is that you can send a written note. You can fax it or overnight it. You send written notice to LSAC and say, ‘I want to cancel my score of the test day blah, blah, blah’ and they’ll do it’”.
That said, “Do not cancel on the day of the test. When you’ve finished section 5 of that test, you will feel like you’ve been through the washer and the dryer and you’re in the worst possible situation to assess your performance. You will remember the things that were hardest and the scariest from the test and it’s really easy to talk to yourself into — Oh, I bombed that. Oh, I’m just cancelling right now – so, don’t do it there.”
It’s common for very bright people to walk away from an exam feeling like they blew it. How do you know the difference between that and a genuine disaster? Dean of Admissions at Cornell Law, Richard Geiger says, to define a particular reason why you didn’t do well, seriously evaluate your performance. “Illness would be really an obvious one but even things, you know, that are maybe peripheral and you’re not thinking of, that would be a distraction, like a death in the family or a particularly bizarre event on the way to the exam itself or something that happened in the room, you know, that things were not timed right. It really needs to be some kind of identifiable factor that resulted and you’re not performing up to your best ability.”
Stohr of Kaplan says, don’t be a no show. “This is the way to handle it. If you feel ‘I’m not ready for the test’ is, make that assessment early and before the deadline say, ‘You know what, I’m not ready for June. I’m going to take in October.’ That’s fine. There’s no notification. No nothing. That’s just being a prudent, wise person. If you let that day pass, you’re scheduled for the test day. You’re either going to be recorded as a no show. You’ll be recorded with your score because you sat and produced the score or you’ll be recorded as having taken the test and then cancelling your score. I think schools, by in large, are perfectly fine with seeing that you canceled your score, provided that you write an addendum in your application. You say, I had a 103-degree temperature. My doctor suggested I not go to the test. I did so anyway and I know I didn’t perform very well that day or I had to leave early because I was really sick. They’re going to understand that. Do not make excuses about it, just simply explain it. This is what happened. This is why I canceled my score. If you’re a no show, I think that actually looks worse unless you can say, ‘on my way there I had an automobile accident and, you know, actually, was prevented [from getting there]. And then again, that’s just an explanation, not an excuse, an explanation.”
The Law School Admission Council notifies law schools of cancelations. Dean Geiger says there are some situations in which you should explain why you canceled. “Candidates don’t really need to explain the cancelation. We know that things happen and you know a cancelation is often the best choice in that situation. Now, if it’s a pattern of cancelation and, if there’s somebody who has canceled the exam four times, then I think, you know, it might be worth an explanation because otherwise it can look like, you know, poor judgment or something like that and you don’t want to create that impression to somebody reviewing your file.”
In short, our experts say if you get sick and pass out, cancel. If you usually finished all the sections but this time you just can’t, consider cancelling. Or, Managing Director of Manhattan LSAT, Noah Teitelbaum says, if you line up the bubbles wrong, definitely cancel. “But what I recommend overall is to get use to predicting your score. So, every time you take a practice test, go ahead and think, before you grade it, how well do you think you did. And, getting that ability under your belt is great because then, after the test, you’re not just going off a sort of a vague sense. You’re going off a vague sense that you’ve honed a bit to be able to say how well you’ve done. And, if you know you’ve done well under the minimum score you’d be happy with, then it behooves you to cancel.”
When it comes to assessing your performance on test day and deciding if you’ve achieved your goals, there are a few guide posts. For example, you should aim to take the LSAT just once, and Director of Academics at Knewton, Brad McIlquham, says that score should be close to your practice test scores. “The best way to handle the LSAT is take it once and take it when you know you’re going to get the score or you’re pretty, pretty sure you’re going to get the score you need and the way you’ll do that is to prepare and practice and track your progress, so you’ll know. Listen, I need a 160. I need a 165 to get into whatever school I’m applying to. The week before I took the LSAT, I got a 165. That’s pretty consistent. I’ve made good improvement. I will probably do well on this test. If you’re under that, then you either need to consider applying to different schools or retaking the test in a future administration.
Manhattan LSAT student Sarah Streit scored a string of practice tests in the mid 170s. Then, she took her first LSAT. Streit says on test day she got too excited and didn’t focus enough. She walked out of the room thinking she did fine until she got her score of 166. “So, I immediately decided that I needed to retake the test and do up to what I think was my potential. And, I think what I did differently the second time was just to really step back and say, okay, I’ve learned everything. I’ve studied as best as I could and I just need to learn how to relax and go in to things and then apply what – what I’ve learned.”
If you get nervous, Teitelbaum says, likely it’s a comfort zone issue. “Well, a lot of times the nerves are from lack of familiarity and it also often is from lack of practice under real testing conditions. So, one issue is that when you take a practice LSAT, they’re published with four sections, but when you take the real one, they’re five sections. So, you need to do practice with a 5th section, which I would put actually first or second to mimic getting exhausted, maybe even do six sections. Go crazy. I’ve heard about this one guy who did two LSATs in a row. So, nerves are often the symptom of other issues. So, you want to think about why you got nervous, not just say I got nervous.”
Our student, Sarah Streit, says that was her issue. She says she came across Manhattan LSAT, sat in on an online class and signed up. She says Manhattan LSAT helped. “Learning how to not be perfect and that you can make — you can miss a few things on the test and still do really well. So I really took that to heart when I started preparing between the first and second test and said, okay, you know, I might not get everything right, but I’m just going to do the best I can and I think that really, really helped for my second one.”
If you have a dramatic improvement in your score after a series a low scores, Kaplan’s Stohr says, you may want to explain, but never give excuses. Stohr says law schools see all of your scores, but they consider them differently. “The vast majority of schools take your highest recorded score within whatever their band for accepting testing scores, usually that’s three years, that they will take your test anywhere from three years up to the day of your application and – and they’ll look at the highest score. If you take the test multiple times, they’ll look at the highest and not average. There’s few that average. If you’re concerned that, ‘oh, is my dream school one of the ones that averages?’ just go to their website. They almost always have an FAQ on there that says, ‘here’s what we do with your LSAT.’”
Dean Geiger says you should learn a school’s designated scores and ranges. “Developers of the test, experts in psychometrics will tell you that if you take the test twice, the average score is going to be the best predictor of how you will do in law school. And so, we keep that in mind when we look at multiple scores that, any one score is really just estimation — of what you want to think of it as is an estimation of your true score. So, the more examples that you have of that estimate, the better you can sort of hone in on what the true score might be and it happens that the average of multiple scores tends to be the best predictor.”
The scores are reported automatically from LSAC to the schools. McIlquham also says to check out the schools’ websites and you’ll know your goals. “Anywhere in your Top 25 law programs, you’re going to need at least a 95th, 97th percentile score. So, you’re looking at, you know, 168 and above to really start being considered for the schools and you got to back that up with extraordinary grades. [Also, you need] a very strong academic record; we’re talking 3.8s, 4.0’s. Once you get out of the Top 25 or so, you’re still looking at above 90th percentile scores around the 161 point.”
Manhattan LSAT’s Teitelbaum suggests that you have a score that’s above the median of the school you want to go to. “In general, if you want to go to a Top 20 school, you’re looking to have a 165 or higher. If you’re looking to go to a Top 10 school, you’re looking to have a 170 or higher. You know, these are basic benchmarks that we focus on. But on the LSAC website, there’s a calculator where you can put in your undergraduate GPA and an LSAT score and it will tell you your chances at every single law school that they have in their system and that’s a very addictive activity, so please use it with moderation.”
Teitelbaum says there aren’t a lot of good reasons to retake the LSAT, unless you prepare differently. “If you realize you didn’t do the preparation you could of and realize you can go a lot further, that’s a good reason. Another issue is maybe you do pretty well. Your applications are going in, but you have a feeling you can do even better, that’s a great reason to retake. But, I will say that statistically, people don’t do that much better on average when they retake. So, unless you just happened to have like a really bad day or like, you know, every single one of your pencils broke, you know, in a freak-pencil catastrophe, chances are you’re going to do the same. So, you’re going to have to dig deep in your preparation to do better. People are often delusional about what happened on test day and they also discredit stress and they think oh, I just got stressed out on that test day. I won’t get stressed out the next time. The act of saying that doesn’t end up making you not stressed out the next time. So, if there’s a medical issue, then you need to go see a doctor and deal with that. You need to learn some relaxation techniques. Whatever it is, you need to put a plan in place that’s going to change the way you take the test if you’ll go in and retake it.”
Associate Dean Rick Geiger says you should ask yourself key questions to determine how to improve, figure out where you are weak and concentrate on that. “So, if it was nerves or if it was something like that, then it’s a little harder to figure out what to do except to try to set things up, so that they’re familiar to you, so that you know where the room is. You’re not late, you’re not stressed when you’re getting there, you know, so that when you go, you sort of maximize the familiarity that you have with the whole situation. And I think that’s one of those things that will probably go a long way towards resolving even something like nerves.”
Be tough on yourself when you’re practicing, says Teitelbaum. “Are you being strict with the time? I think it’s very tempting to say something like, ‘oh, I’m going to give myself an extra minute because during the test my dog barked and you know that won’t happen during the real test,’ but I assure you that there will be a dog barking. There will be a tractor-trailer backing up. There will be a jack hammer. There will be your proctor messing up and saying time is up and then go ‘oh I’m sorry no, it’s not actually up’ or I heard one person said that their proctor was cutting roses at the front of the room. So, there’s going to be some distraction. So, you’ll want to be extra, extra strict during your practice test. Make them as realistic and mean as possible. You’ll only get one break after three sections. It’s like 10-minute break or so and don’t go and grade sections that you’ve already done. Then, there are two more sections without another break between those. So, make it as realistic as possible so that your practice tests do relate to the real thing.”
You need to prep, according to McIlquham. “As long as it is an LSAC released prep test, they should relate it to the real thing because those are the actual tests that were administered, you know, last year or two years ago or three years ago or whatever. And beyond, that though you need to time yourself. You need to adhere strictly to those timing constraints, 35 minutes per section, and you need to do it in sort of an actual test-taking environment, you know. You can do it at home, but do it in a quiet room. Do it to avoid any distractions. Don’t take breaks unless it’s between the third and fourth section. Give yourself a 10-minute break. As long as you adhere strictly to the testing procedures, practice tests can be a very reliable indicator of how well you are scoring on the LSAT.”
Dean Geiger says the practice tests don’t duplicate the real thing. “Because they don’t duplicate the actual testing circumstances, they don’t create, you know, the nervousness, the stress and stuff that can exist during the exam. Most practice tests are sort of not designed in the same way that an actual LSAT form would be designed, in terms of specifications of the test-makers applied to it. So for all those reasons, I think, in general, you would find that most of the practice tests given by test prep companies are going to over-predict the LSAT score high a little bit.”
Timing is critical. Apply as early as you can, Teitelbaum says, and with the best scores possible. “In law schools, they have some seats at the end that they’re holding for that special candidate who just shows up at the end. You don’t want to be competing for those seats, you want to compete for the seat with the rest of us, the masses, so you want to apply earlier; you’ll have better chances. But, if you have a score that’s well below the median of the school you’re interested in, your chances are very, very slim. So, it behooves you to get your score up and maybe just think about applying next year. You know, most of us are living to 78 now. So for most people listening here, they’re probably in their early 20s. You’ve got time. So, taking another year before you go to law school to get in to a better law school is not a crazy thing to do.”
If your strategy is to improve your test scores, you might take classes with a test prep company. Be sure you’ll choose a test prep company with a guarantee that allows students disappointed with their scores to retake the test and continue to take courses or use the prep materials. And even then, Knewton’s McIlquham says, your scores may not improve dramatically. “I’ve seen as high as 19, 20, 23 points on the test here. I’ve seen as low as 1 or 2 points. I’ve seen people regress. It really depends on how much work you’re going to put into it as a student. If you come in to it seriously, if you really focus your efforts on changing your test habits, understanding the concepts and the strategies and mastering the structure of the test, then, really, the sky is the limit as far as improvement is concerned.”
You don’t need to hire a test prep company to help you, says Dean Geiger. “You can prepare beautifully for this exam on your own with available materials at a much lower cost than you’ll be if you, you know, have to go to the test prep group. However, there are some people who, you know, aren’t going to be able to do it on their own. Just, you know, for whatever reason, they’ve got a lot going on their lives, and they need the structure of a class, and in that situation I think test prep companies are a good option.”
Streit got in to T14 School after researching schools’ websites to discover whether schools take the highest scores. Most do, and she wrote an addendum to those schools that wanted an average score. “I think the biggest thing is to just go in to the test relaxed, prepare as well as you can beforehand, but realize that it’s not the end of the world if things don’t work out the first time. You can always retake, but go in with a relaxed attitude and also take the test as soon as you can. In retrospect, it would have been good for me to take it in June, so I’d have the fallback of October, versus wait until October, and have a fallback in December, which really made my applications late, and I think I would have had better success at some of the schools if I had taken the LSAT earlier.”
Teitelbaum has seen big increases, mostly because students become more familiar with the LSAT. He likes when higher scorers fine-tune their thinking and that’s reflected in their scores. He says you can do a lot better. “It’s really possible to go beyond just the improvements that come from exposure. It’s possible to study in a way where you actually get smarter. You clean up you’re thinking, speed up your thinking. You just increase the number of neurons that are operating – or are connected and go through that. It’s really possible to get smarter and to do better on this test.”
Dean Geiger says the LSAC usually notes small score changes, but he has seen a few scores jump from the low 160s to a 178. [But,] your goal should probably be to take the test once only. “Prepare well, go in feeling at your best, well rested. Take the test. That’s probably going to be a representative score and you should go with that. If you need to take it again, if something happened or whatever, the same thing applies. Prepare well, go in rested and ready and make that score be the best score you can get. It’s not the kind of experience that you want to have multiple times and taking the test certainly shouldn’t be your hobby.”
For more information, a transcript of this show, or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit www.lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. I’m Diana Jordan with Law School Podcaster. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.