Worried about your LSAT performance? Here's food for thought

Prospective law school student Rebecca asks LSAT expert Ross Rinehart about a possible poor performance: 

I just took the July 2018 LSAT, and according to multiple forums it was a repeat of the Feb 2014 LSAT. I found it to be exceptionally challenging because of the two logic game sections. One was a circular question type - the likes of which I have never seen before. I typically score between the high 160s and the low 170s, but I do not think that I did anywhere near those scores this time.

Let's say for arguments sake that I got a 155 on this, my first LSAT, and a 170 on the September one. Will the large difference between the scores have a negative impact on my admission prospects to T20 law schools? In summary, I would like to know your opinion on whether or not cancelling the score is a good idea if I am pretty sure that I can do better on the next test, with a clearer head.

Hi Rebecca,

I’m sorry to hear that the July 2018 didn’t seem to go as well as you hoped. I can definitely empathize with working hard for months to prepare for an exam, only for the exam to include something super rare like a circular ordering game. That said, unless things went really, really poorly on the exam — such as having a medical emergency or a you completely messed up the bubbling in the answer sheet — I generally try to dissuade test takers from canceling their scores.

For this July LSAT in particular, you’re not alone in thinking it was very difficult. Nearly all the post-exam online chatter and the anecdotes I’ve heard from test takers suggest that they also thought this was a brutal exam.

Although a test takers’ subjective perception of how they did on the exam isn’t always a reliable indicator of how hard the exam was, when there’s a very broad consensus like this, it usually means the test was very difficult. And when a test is very difficult, the “curve” of that exam is more forgiving. Meaning, you can answer more questions incorrectly to receive a given score.

Here are some more detailed explanations of how the “curve” works (which isn’t technically a “curve” per LSAC’s terminology — hence the scare quotes), in case you’re interested in learning more. Although the “curve” on nondisclosed exams like February 2014 and July 2018 don’t get released to the public, I would anticipate the curve of this exam to be very forgiving — it wouldn’t surprise me if you could miss as many as 13 questions and still receive a 170. So if there’s any silver lining to this July exam, it’s that the curve may allow you end up getting a score that’s consistent with your practice exam scores, especially if the only thing that went poorly was one pesky circular game. Not all hope is lost!

But to stipulate to the terms of your argument, let’s say you do get a lower-than-average score on the July exam. In that case, you definitely should retake the test in September. And the vast majority of law schools will not hold taking the exam more than once against you.

Students who take the exam more than once often worry that law schools will average multiple LSAT scores or otherwise hold a multiple LSAT against an applicant. As if one errant low LSAT score would capsize the application of someone who had another very high LSAT score, a 4.0 GPA, a stellar record on the speech and debate team, and spent a summer building wells for schoolchildren in western Kenya.

That’s not how it works today. Although most law schools take a holistic approach to your application — and can see every LSAT score, withdrawal, and cancellation you recorded — nearly every law school will simply appraise your application based on your highest LSAT score. This includes nearly every school in the top 20. But don’t take it from me: here’s what the top law schools said on the matter.  

There is a reason the myth that law schools average their tests persists: before 2006, this is what law schools did. The American Bar Association, or ABA — which is in charge of making sure law schools meet certain minimum education standards as part of their accreditation process — required that law schools report the average of each incoming student’s LSAT scores. This average score would then get reported to publications that rank law schools, including that leviathan of higher education, U.S. News & World Report.

But then, in 2006, the ABA lifted the requirement that law schools average their matriculating students’ LSAT scores. And, slowly but surely, nearly every law school stopped averaging their students’ LSAT scores, and started assessing applicants based on their highest scores instead. They did this not because they suddenly became more beneficent or merciful, but because it was in their self-interest to take the highest score.

In the most transactional view of the process, law schools want to accept applicants who will help the school maintain or improve their rankings. And one criterion that is really important to publications that rank law schools — and especially important to U.S. News & World Report — is the incoming class’s median LSAT score.

If a law school elects to average applicants’ LSAT scores, it’s choosing to depreciate their incoming class’s median LSAT score … and it’s choosing to depreciate its ranking along with it. Admissions deans generally prefer not to be responsible for a massive dip in their schools’ rankings, so they tend not to average applicants’ LSAT scores. Assuming you do earn a 155 and 170, it’s not only in your interest that law schools view you as a 170 earner and not a 162.5 earner, it’s in the law schools’ interest as well.

So whether or not you canceled your July score by the deadline, I’d bank on the September score as the score law schools will use to assess your application. Assuming that you do get a 155 on the July exam, you’d have to retake the test again to have a shot at the T20 schools anyway, since that score wouldn’t cut it. But you can rest assured that the 155 won’t be held against you once you secure that competitive score. That said, if your LSAT score increase is more than what would be considered a typical applicant’s range of LSAT scores — if it increased by 6 or more points — you should include an explanatory essay in your application that addresses why the higher score is more reflective of your academic mettle.

Best of luck in September, Rebecca!

Ross Rinehart graduated from UCLA with a degree in English and Political Science and went on to secure a J.D. from USC Law. After getting a 170 on the LSAT, a 98th percentile score, Ross began teaching for Blueprint LSAT Prep. Having taught for Blueprint for almost 4 years, he has helped countless students improve their LSAT score.