If you’re planning to attend law school in North America, you’ll probably need to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) as part of the admissions process. The test is intended to measure the skills critical to success in the first year of law school, like reading comprehension, logical reasoning, and writing ability. There are countless nuances to the LSAT itself, and studying for it is best undertaken as a months-long endeavor–but before you dive into it, there are a number of general points you should be aware of regarding the prep process.
How Crucial is LSAT Preparation?
You should definitely be studying up for this test. Any LSAT tutor can tell you from experience that preparation is effective and boosts scores, but skeptical prospective lawyers might be interested to know that research shows preparing for the LSAT changes the structure of your brain. That’s one of the reasons why I genuinely believe preparing for the LSAT is worthwhile in and of itself, even ignoring the boost your scores will give to your chances of getting into a competitive law school. These structural changes are likely to benefit your future legal career, because your LSAT score is the best single predictor of the grades you’ll achieve in your first year of law school. (It’s more predictive than your college GPA, making it a very well-designed measure of your readiness for law school. The test makers therefore suggest that studying to raise your score may actually increase your readiness to be a lawyer!) Of course, as any first-year law school student will tell you, those first-year grades are probably most critical in lining up a solid job after graduation. While the credentials of a student’s first year summer internship won’t necessarily make or break their future opportunities, positioning oneself as a strong candidate for a wide variety of internship types can allow a student to explore their interests to the fullest. Additionally, students seeking jobs at large firms will often interview with those firms during the summer after their first year of school based on their 1L grades and rankings, and eventually accept offers for permanent jobs with those firms after working for them the following summer.
Of course, at the moment, you’re likely more focused on the usual motivation for taking the test: improving your admissions profile, and therefore getting offers for better law schools, with better merit scholarships and grants. This is, indeed, a worthwhile pursuit–full-ride scholarships to law schools can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a JD program, and graduating from a more prestigious school can easily boost future earnings by tens of thousands of dollars a year. Still, in an environment of skepticism about admissions testing, particularly in undergraduate institutions, some students now question whether schools “still really care” about LSAT scores. That question can be easily answered by reviewing the LSAT score statistics of competitive universities’ accepted incoming classes. With the highest-ranked universities all boasting median scores in the 90th percentile or higher, and the truly elite schools boasting medians near the 99th percentile, it’s pretty clear that these scores are taken heavily into account by admissions committees.
How Soon Should I Start Preparing?
LSAT preppers should start at least several months in advance of their planned first test date. Many law schools begin to accept applications for admission in September of the year preceding a student’s matriculation, and engage in “rolling admissions”. This confers an advantage of sorts to students applying earlier on in the process, all things being equal, because there are fewer spots left to compete for by the end of the admissions window (which can technically end as late as April or May). Because of this, I’d generally recommend that the first test date be no later than August or September of a student’s application year (the year before you plan to attend). Earlier is even better, if possible, but a first test on a September test date allows for a student to retake the test in November if necessary, and getting in your full application by the end of November or December at the latest is a priority.
The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), which writes the test, itself recommends beginning to prep three months before your test as a “baseline”, with students being able to take more or less time based on how intensively they’re able to prep during the time period in question. That said, I see no reason to wait until the last prudent moment to begin. Students who need more time than they allotted will have little recourse and plenty of stress, while students who hit their target score in advance will be done with the process and able to focus on putting together a competitive application package. It’s far better to have too much time than not enough.
How Should I Prepare?
Because the LSAT measures skills, rather than knowledge of a given content area, preparing for it is more like preparing for an athletic competition or artistic performance than most tests in college courses. In effect, your preparation is meant to make you better at taking full-length LSATs, so that when you do go in for your real exam, you have the best possible chance of achieving a high score. Just as with preparing for those athletic or artistic endeavors, there’s a place for learning the basics and drilling fundamentals, but much of your overall improvement will come from actually engaging in the activity itself–in this case, from taking full-length practice tests, with a focus on improving your process.
Luckily, the LSAT has more released, full-length, real tests than any other standardized test of which I’m aware. You can access a free .pdf version of the actual June 2007 test (which still, more or less, accurately represents the current format of individual sections) here. You can purchase, standalone or in paperback collections, or as a large digital collection, 70+ real, full-length practice tests, with several released per year from the past three decades of test administrations.
The best way to get started with your preparation is to simply take a practice test and see how you do. Almost everyone will benefit from prep, but some students start out at a very high level of aptitude on one of the individual sections, and much weaker on another. Taking your first test will give you a sense of what you most need to work on.
“How should I prep?” is obviously the hardest question to cover in a short article–it’s an expansive topic. That’s why there are countless books on the subject, and LSAT tutors who help students to prepare as a full-time profession. It’s difficult to discuss what preparation looks like in greater detail without first understanding the structure of the test itself. The LSAT is comprised, at least for the time being, of the following sections:
- Logical Reasoning
- The Logical Reasoning section offers much shorter passages, mostly in the form of short arguments, with one question associated with each.
2. Reading Comprehension
- The Reading Comprehension section will be most familiar to students having taken lower-level standardized tests, such as the SAT or ACT. It presents a relatively long reading passage, followed by questions students must answer based on the passage.
3. Analytical Reasoning (commonly referred to as Logic Games)
- The Logic Games section is the most specialized, with each passage presenting a set of programmatic rules which students must analyze to determine what may or may not be possible under that paradigm. If you haven’t seen one yet, the best way I can describe the section is as a series of Sudoku-style games, each with custom rules and more than one solution, about each of which you get asked 6 or 7 multiple choice questions.
After taking an initial diagnostic test, students should try to figure out any problematic patterns of behavior they exhibit in taking the test that lead them to make incorrect responses or waste time. They should try to practice strategies that help them to more quickly and effectively get through each section. At the most general level, this can be as simple as “draw slots to visualize what the Logic Games solutions look like” or “look at the questions before reading a passage on Reading Comp”. Once you’ve got the basics down, though, the strategies can be at least as nuanced as “for the Parallel Reasoning questions on the Logical Reasoning section, rewrite the prompt as a set of formal logic if-then statements, but strip out the actual specifics, with single-letter variables representing each premise’s endpoints, then evaluate whether those statements could represent the arguments in the answer choices given analogous premises are mapped to those variables”, so things can really escalate quickly.
The Bottom Line
Because of the complexity that can arise, you should absolutely make use of any resources at your disposal to help you to recognize patterns (in the test and in your most common errors) and learn of strategies that will enable you to improve. If you can afford it, an experienced LSAT tutor is the easiest and most effective resource you can tap into to achieve these goals. As mentioned above, the lifetime financial benefits of a higher LSAT score can provide a very significant return on even a large initial investment. If you can’t swing a tutor, you should strongly consider investing in books or a prep course and, especially, the full set of real tests that LSAC offers. I also wrote a strategy-focused LSAT article for Noodle (three years ago, so mind the dated, four-section paper-based test references) that you may find to be a helpful resource.
If you have additional questions or would like to talk to someone about finding the right tutor for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Noodle Pros.