We hear these questions again and again: Should I cancel my LSAT score? Should I reschedule my test? Should I retake the LSAT? What if I’m unhappy with my LSAT score? How do law schools view multiple LSAT scores? How do I know what the best score is for me? You’re not alone in trying to figure this stuff out. In this segment, we talk with deans of admission from top law schools and with the premier test prep experts to get you the answers you need.
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- William Hoye, Associate Dean for Admissions and Student Affairs, Duke University School of Law
- Sarah Zearfoss, Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions, Financial Planning, and Career Planning, University of Michigan Law School
- Noah Teitelbaum, Executive Director of Academics, Manhattan Prep
- Jeff Thomas, Director of Prelaw Programs, Kaplan Test Prep
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Althea Legaspi. It’s one of the most common questions we hear about applying to law school, and – no surprise – it involves the LSAT. It might be that you’ve just taken the LSAT, and it just wasn’t your day. So you’re thinking of canceling your score. Or maybe you’ve just received your score, and you’re wondering if you could have done better. No matter the exact circumstances, you’re not alone in trying to figure this one out.
But before making the decision to cancel or commit to sitting for the LSAT again, you really need to get a handle on a few things: Under what circumstances should you cancel your score or retake the LSAT? How do you know you’ve achieved your best score? How do law schools view multiple cancellations or multiple LSAT scores? We rounded up a panel of experts to address these queries, and more, in this Law School Podcaster episode.
First, it’s important to know just how an admissions committee looks at the LSAT. As Duke University School of Law’s Associate Dean for Admissions and Student Affairs William Hoye explains, the science behind the test is sound:
“I think that it’s important for candidates to really understand the science. And that, I think, is something that will help one decide whether to retake the exam at some points. And the science is pretty clear; I mean, the LSAT is a very good standardized test. Good in that it has… it’s really valid, meaning that it’s appropriately measuring what it sets out to measure, and that’s performance in the first year of law school. And it’s also a very reliable test, meaning that if a test-taker takes the test again, using a different form of the test, it’s likely to… that applicant will likely receive a similar kind of score.
“But given that, the LSAT score that one receives is just an approximate measure of that candidate’s true achievement or ability. And that’s where I think candidates might miss the point of this exam, in that the LSAT is not as precise as it feels, or it sounds. You know, you get a score – you’re a 167, or you’re a 170, or you’re a 165 – but we know because no standardized test is perfect, in terms of measuring true ability, that the score is kind of fuzzy as we look at it. And that’s because of the standard error of measurements, and we do… The Law School Admission Council does very important work around measuring that standard error of measurement, the reliability of the test, and the validity of the test. And what it turns out is that with a 68% confidence level, we know that a candidate’s true score – the score that one would earn if there was no measurement error in the standardized test – is within three points above or below the score that one earned on test day. So if you receive a 170 from a particular test administration, your score band, that range where your true score likely resides, is anywhere between a 167 and a 173. And that’s a pretty broad range. So, when we are looking at the scores, we’re not looking at that precise score, but we’re looking in that range of scores, and that gives us an approximate measure of where one’s ability really lies.”
So, we know the science behind the LSAT, but that doesn’t factor in extenuating circumstances that may arise when sitting for the LSAT. Let’s say you’ve taken the LSAT, and you’re feeling like you should cancel your score. Under what circumstances should you do so? University of Michigan Law School’s Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions, Financial Planning, and Career Planning, Sarah Zearfoss, says it may behoove you to let it ride:
“First, I would say almost no one walks out of the LSAT feeling like, I nailed that. It’s a grueling test. It’s a difficult test. So you should not cancel the score based on an amorphous gut feeling that you didn’t do well. A couple of years ago my goddaughter took the LSAT, and was intent on canceling the test. She had really overthought the whole thing and she had this whole theory about, you know, how she was sure she had messed up a key section that couldn’t possibly be the experimental section. And frankly, I’m a professional and I couldn’t even follow her logic because it was so convoluted and intense. I just told her, ‘I think you’re insane. I think you need to calm down! I’m guessing you did well. There’s no reason why you wouldn’t have done well, based on your… you weren’t sick, you know, you were healthy, you were prepared; why…? You know, don’t overthink it.’ And in fact, she scored wonderfully, and so the fact that she felt terrible when she left was not at all predictive of reality.
“Now, if you have some very solid reason for thinking you performed quite badly – for example, being sick, or having a very distracting setting, or you know, just not having been prepared, or having had some kind of agitating experience right beforehand – then maybe it’s worth canceling. On the other hand, you can also roll the dice – because most schools put more weight on the highest score, you’re not going to be at a terrible disadvantage if your first score is low and then you retake. And at least it gives you some important information about how well you perform in a bad circumstance.”
If you’re still considering the route of canceling your score, there are a couple opportunities to do so. As Manhattan Prep’s Executive Director of Academics, Noah Teitelbaum, explains:
“Well, you can cancel a score very dramatically right there during the LSAT. There’re a couple of bubbles you fill in, you sign your name, and you walk out. And people envy you, or feel so proud that they haven’t done what you’re doing. And so you can do that, but I don’t recommend that. I think even if you’re having a horrible day and you know you’ve blown that test, why not just finish the whole test? Just see it out and cancel a couple days later; you have six days until after the exam. There’s a sort of process that’s explained on the LSAT website. Just make sure you know the rules and you’re going to meet the deadline; it’s not very difficult. So you have some time to think it over. I recommend that everyone, even if you’re sure you’re going to cancel, finish the test and walk out, and cancel later. You might as well get the experience under your belt.”
All of our guests tell us that one cancelled score is nothing to worry about. You should be careful, however, about canceling multiple times. Duke’s Dean Hoye explains why:
“Multiple scores, I think it depends on how many and over what period of time – the Law School Admission Council does restrict the number of times that you can take a test – but you know, a couple of cancellations, I think, are likely just fine. Once you see a pattern, though, where one has four or five or six times cancelled the score, that would just raise some questions that would need to be addressed in the application. One, for instance, doesn’t have the opportunity to retake a law school exam many times over. And so we’d like to understand a little bit better about what prompted someone to take that kind of approach.”
Duke’s Dean Hoye expounds on how law schools view multiple scores: “It’s a complicated answer, in that two things are happening. One is that law schools are trying to use the LSAT in the way that it was intended, and to really understand the science behind the LSAT, and use it in a way that’s appropriate in making decisions for law school. And second, we also have obligations to our accrediting body – that’s the American Bar Association – in that we report data after the end of each year about our entering class, and some of the data that are reported are LSAT medians for an entering class. And that’s important information; it’s consumer information; and so all schools, of course, cooperate with that. Many years ago, the American Bar Association asked law schools to report the average of multiple test scores. Yet, a few years ago a change was made, and the ABA now asks law schools to report the highest score that a candidate received if he has taken it more than once. But that’s a very different consideration than how we use the test and why we use it in the way that we do.
“So what’s important to understand is that the science behind the test shows that when an applicant has taken the test more than one time, in most cases the average score is going to be a better predictor for law school performance in the first year than the high score or any of the scores – and that’s on average. And so we know those data, and so that means that the average might be something that we consider. But I think, even more important than that, we’re trying to understand every element of the application file. So we’re looking at the average score, we’re looking at all the scores individually, and then we’re trying to put all of that into context with everything else we see in the application. Because for me, when I’m reading a file, the LSAT really doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning in and of itself, unless I put it into the context of one’s academic performance in college, and other kinds of abilities and preparation that we think are important for success in law school.”
Now that we have the scoop on how multiple and cancelled LSAT scores are perceived within the context of your application, let’s examine what you should ask yourself when considering retaking the LSAT. Kaplan Test Prep’s Director of Prelaw Programs, Jeff Thomas, says to ask, “Did I prepare properly and earnestly?”
“The first question any student wants to ask themselves when contemplating retaking, and importantly, re-prepping for a subsequent LSAT exam, is did he or she truly prepare properly and earnestly for the exam? The LSAT, unlike any other standardized exam, [probably] unlike virtually any other test students take in their entire undergraduate career, is entirely a skills-based test. And therefore, the only approach to master skills is to practice skills. It’s like learning how to play any sport, or like learning how to play any musical instrument. And so a student really has to ask themselves, ‘Did I give my 110% here, and prepare and practice as diligently as I otherwise had planned to do when preparing for the exam the first time?’ On average, we find it takes students approximately two to three months of time, working for 10 to 15 hours a week, including in-class time, to prepare for the LSAT. Now, given its skills-based nature, that time can vary. It may take some students a lot longer, and it may take some students shorter, but that’s about the average. So if the student is way off from at least that baseline, chances are there’s a lot more they could have done to get themselves ready. I don’t like to scare students, but I often remind them that often this exam that they spend four hours completing on test day counts for as much in many admissions officers’ eyes as what you do for four years as an undergraduate student. So you think about all those papers you were up late working on and tests that you crammed for, et cetera, and you take that, all [of that you did] for four years, that’s about the baseline of preparation that you should really put into getting ready to take this test to fill out your application.”
Manhattan Prep’s Teitelbaum adds to also consider, “What am I going to do differently?”
“Well, if I’m going to retake, what am I going to do differently? If it was just a bad test day, you’re going to… if it was an external factor, you’re just going to have to be hopeful that, you know, that the ceiling doesn’t crash this time, or whatever it was. If it was a case of the jitters or something like that, you know, ‘What am I going to do to prepare so that I’m not going to be nervous on test day?’ In terms of your preparation for the test in terms of the content, if you just took a bunch of prep tests, are you really going to commit to learning some strategies, of practicing them, you know, pushing your brain to get smarter about this test? There’s this old saying, you know, it’s the sign of… it’s just insanity to do the same thing and expect a different result. So I think that clearly applies here.
“So that said, one caveat is a lot of people have a plateau after an initial rise. And sometimes people just need more time to sort of intellectually mature vis-à-vis this test. So also, if you feel like there was still stuff for you to learn with whatever program or books or whatever you were using, you know, keep at it. If you can recognize, oh, I see the light, but I’m not there yet, keep pushing towards it.”
Another question a potential LSAT retaker may ask is, “Did I have a bad day on exam day?” Kaplan’s Thomas says to examine what a “bad day” really means.
“Yeah, so what’s a ‘bad day’, right? That’s sort of the question. And I would say a bad day isn’t a day in which I didn’t get a score I wanted; but candidly speaking, sometimes students walk out on test day, and they just feel like it didn’t go well. [And yet it excludes] the nature of the exam, by and large precludes that as even being a possibility. And frankly, it’s irrelevant how you feel when you walk out of the test. It’s how you performed versus everybody else who took it. Some exams are naturally going to perform easier or harder than others, and despite the best efforts [of the LSAC to scale] the test, it’s sometimes gauge… to gauge your own… it’s tough to gauge your own performance when you first of all [have that test on test day]. [Then] you should consider, well, it was just a hard test for me. That’s really irrelevant.
“The definition of a bad day on [test day] is really if something happened during the administration that severely affected your timing. If you found yourself not getting, for example, to all four logic games, or only completing three of the four reading comprehension passages, or having to insanely rush through the last five or ten questions in a logical reasoning section, when previously in classes that had not been the case, then that’s the definition of a bad day. Any LSAT student will tell you the single most difficult part about the LSAT is time. It’s not logic games; it’s not logical reasoning – it’s timing. And so when one’s timing gets affected on [test day], then we can truly know that likely my performance was adversely affected. And so if you sat and you took the test, and you found yourself having trouble getting through the material at the pace to which you were accustomed during your practice, then you can probably conclude that, yeah, I had a bad day, and therefore retesting is really in my best interests.
“If that wasn’t the case for you on test day, and you got a score that you’re just not happy with, then it really means that your approach to the questions, the way you need to build your skills up, is really what is [the greater demand].”
Kaplan’s Thomas says to also ponder, “What are the highest versus average polices of your target schools with regard to LSAT scores?”
“Now, if your score is not at that median level of the schools to which you’re choosing to apply, you ought to look at the rest of your application and see if there’s something else there that’s going to give it that confidence – and it may well already be there. And undergraduate GPA is another good correlation, so if you have a terrific GPA that’s a couple tenths of a point above the median for the schools to which you’re choosing to apply, guess what? That’s probably going to buy you a point or two on the test. It really is.
“Conversely though, if you have a lower than median GPA, you’re going to need to really prove your merits academically to the school by virtue of LSAT [scores], so it becomes a little bit more difficult a conversation if I’ve got a low LSAT score and a low GPA, based upon my school’s median. At that point, you know, a student might say, ‘Oh, I’ve got great work experience. I had an internship at a law firm.’ That’s not going to be the thing that gets you over the edge. But it’s your entire academic package that matters, so if just the LSAT is not there, but we do have those other great factors, [such as a] great GPA, that can still be okay. It is often worth a conversation with admissions officers [at two or three] individual schools. I’ll tell you, by [rule] they’re an incredibly friendly bunch. They’re an incredibly helpful bunch. Their job is not just to accept students – their job is to recruit students.”
Another consideration is, what’s my timeline like? Manhattan Prep’s Teitelbaum explains:
“People have to think about their timeline, but I will say I notice that people put a lot more weight on this than I think is useful for them. I think what happens to a lot of people is they get an idea in their head, ‘I’m going to take this June LSAT. I’m going to get this score. I’m going to get into law school. I’ll be a lawyer by the age of 25. You know, a white picket fence and dog and a husband or wife or whatever, by the age of 28.’ And they have this whole plan in their head, and then suddenly it turns out they’re not ready for the LSAT because they were so busy with finishing college or whatever it is. And they have trouble getting out of that plan.
“So my first and primary bit of advice here is be flexible. You know, we’re living long lives, so whether you get into law school at the age of 24 or 25, or you know, 38 or 39, really doesn’t make a difference in the long term. But whether you get into a school that fits your goals, your professional goals, that does make a difference in the long run. Whether you get a score that will get you some scholarship money, that makes a real difference. Having a huge debt coming out of law school can affect your experience for a long time. So I would really highly recommend that people try to be flexible with these timelines. But if you have some timeline that can’t be moved, retaking can be a problem if it sort of messes up when you can apply.
“The other thing to think about is if you’re going to retake, you need to restudy. You know, even if you just had a bad test day, you’re going to have to stay in shape and ideally try to get a little bit better-prepared even than last time, so you’re going to make… you need to make sure that you have some runway, some clear time for that prep.”
In addition to the top five considerations Manhattan Prep’s Teitelbaum and Kaplan’s Thomas discussed, Michigan’s Dean Zearfoss suggests these five when considering retaking the LSAT:
“One, how many times have you taken it? Because you want to make sure you’re not taking it more than three times, as a rough estimate. So what’s your highest score? Do you have a good reason to think you’ll do better? Not just sort of optimism, but an actual informed reason. What’s the rest of your application like? And then finally, what’s at stake? If you are… if your current score is very far from your dream school’s 25th percentile, that suggests you probably won’t be able to get in – and then maybe you should retake, because you don’t have much to lose. But you know, if it’s closer than that, then I think you should give it a whirl and see what happens. And you know, see what the outcomes are for the admissions season and only then think about retaking if at the end of it you’re not happy with your outcomes.”
Of those five, Michigan’s Dean Zearfoss says the question ‘what’s the rest of your application like?’ is at the top of the list.
“People think that the LSAT is the be-all and end-all of the application process, but that’s a vast oversimplification. If you have a great undergraduate record, if you have some interesting and strong work experience, if you have wonderful writing, if you have strong letters of [recommendation] – any of those things will be very important facets of your application. The LSAT will carry less weight the more you have any of these other categories, relatively speaking. And that’s an important thing to think about, and you can… and much of that is under your control, particularly the writing and the work experience and the letters of rec. These are elements that you, as the applicant, have a lot of control over. And you might be better situated putting effort into making sure those are as strong as possible.
“On the other hand, if you have a really strong reason for thinking that you could do better, because you were sick, because there was a marching band outside, you know, because you got lost on your way to the test and you were very agitated by the time you got there – then yeah, maybe you want to retake.
“Often, people say to me they want to retake because their scores on the practice tests were much higher. And that’s a relevant consideration. Certainly, if your practice tests were the same, you should view that as a sign that you’re not going to do better on a retake. But often people are more generous with themselves timing-wise on a practice test than in the real setting. So you have to be assessing that carefully, too – is your practice test really reflective of test conditions? Because that alone may not be a good reason for retaking.”
Something else to keep in mind, as Michigan’s Dean Zearfoss notes, your LSAT score is a pertinent factor when it comes to scholarships, as well:
“Not all schools give merit aid, and all schools have their own processes for how they assess it. But the LSAT is likely to be at least a significant if not the primary component of how merit aid is assessed. And financing law school is, of course, a very important consideration for people. So that’s another question about what’s at stake, as much as getting into the law school, but how are you going to finance it?”
All of the guests we spoke with say gaining or losing a couple points on an LSAT retake is not going to mean much. In fact, retaking the test numerous times and getting the same range in score can also be a detriment. There’s also hard data to think about when considering retaking the LSAT. Michigan’s Dean Zearfoss says you might want to hesitate if you have a score of 165 or higher.
Here’s why: “There’s a phenomenon called ‘regression to the mean’ or ‘regression threat’. Once you get up in that very high territory of 165 and above, you are as likely to decrease your score as to increase it on a retake. And there is a lot of LSAT data on that point. It probably won’t hurt you a lot if you go down a point or two. It’s very unlikely that anyone’s going to penalize you for that, but it certainly isn’t going to advantage you. And every once in awhile, I see people who retake it once and twice and three times after they’ve gotten one good score, and they keep getting basically the same score or a point or two lower, and I think that really raises a red flag for me about that candidate’s ability to self-assess. It tells me they’re a little unrealistic. And that’s a warning sign for success in law school. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and having the emotional intelligence to know realistically what those are really helps you succeed in a challenging environment like law school. And contrariwise, not understanding what your limits are is a recipe for disaster.”
When considering retaking the LSAT, you may also ask, “What’s a good score, anyways?” Well, as Kaplan’s Thomas says, “That depends.”
“Well, what’s a good LSAT score is completely dependent on the schools to which you want to choose to apply. Certainly, when we talk about a 175-plus, we’re in… yeah, we’re in the top quartile of scores for every law school in the country, and so that is a… that is by definition a pretty good LSAT score! But for many students who may be looking to get into a local institution that’s important to them for the career path they’ve set out for themselves, you know, it could be a score in the mid-150’s, low 150’s, mid-150’s, entirely contingent.”
In terms of knowing when you have maximized your LSAT score, there are two ideas Manhattan’s Prep’s Teitelbaum says to keep in mind:
“One is having an initial increase, going through a plateau period, and then having a second increase. And some people have multiple plateaus. But make sure that that happens. I see that as your brain ‘cooking’ a little bit – you know, things are settling in, and you’re absorbing ideas. And that takes time, so the more time, the longer your prep can be, the better, because it gives you time to assimilate these ideas.
“The second idea I’d like to plant in your head is that a real sign of mastery is the ability to explain something to someone else. And I know that for me, having to learn to teach the LSAT, I actually got much better at the test itself. You should consider working with someone else, and trying to explain things to that person. If you can put it into plain words, then that’s a good sign that you really know what’s going on.”
There’s also the option to postpone taking the LSAT altogether, whether it’s on a retake or your first time. Manhattan Prep’s Teitelbaum gives details:
“You can withdraw up until about three weeks before the exam, and get some of your money back. But you can also just withdraw before midnight the night before the test. So that’s a nice kind of safety valve, you know, ‘I got the flu; I better withdraw.’ The other thing to think about is, are you really going to go in and get a score that’s worth getting? It’s very rare that people go and get a significantly better score than they’re getting on their last two practice tests. If that’s not a score you want on your record, don’t bother going in. You end up using one of your three test-takings per five years, so you want to sort of reserve those. And what’s the point in having a bad score on your transcript if it’s just going to perhaps cause problems if you apply to schools that are looking at all your scores?”
Finally, one noteworthy advantage on whether or not to retake the LSAT is that perseverance is a valued trait when it comes to law school, as Duke’s Dean Hoye relays: “Persistence matters. And one way to demonstrate that you have persistence is by retaking the exam. And as I said, it translates well to performance in law school, because there will be times when a particular area of the law that you’re studying, particularly in the first year, is just not going to come as easily as many other subjects. And many students have experienced that in college. And yet, in order to be successful in law school and in the profession, you really do want to get to a place where you master, and get to a level of proficiency across the board. And so you’ve got to stick with it. You’ve got to keep working it. And to demonstrate that you’re willing to… you have that attitude, you have that can-do attitude, by retaking the LSAT, because there are probably sections in the LSAT where you’ve done really well, and maybe less well. And but yet to push forward and try to master all those sections, and achieve a significantly… a statistically significant higher score, is a good accomplishment.”
Whether or not to retake the LSAT is something that should be given serious consideration. Assess carefully whether your reasons for retaking the LSAT are sound. Ask yourself, “Did I prepare properly and earnestly? What am I going to do differently? Did I have a bad day on exam day?” What are the highest versus average policies of your target schools with regard to LSAT scores? And, “What’s my timeline like?” Also, keep in mind how law schools view multiple test scores or cancellations. Remember, the LSAT is only one factor for getting into law school. How strong is the rest of your application? If you examine these considerations and find that there’s strong evidence that you can achieve a significantly higher LSAT score, then retaking the LSAT may be the right thing to do.
For more information, a transcript of the 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.