After November: Should you retake the LSAT?

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The November LSAT scores are out, and some of you are perhaps disappointed in your scores. How should you think about your next steps?

First things first: it’s going to be okay, I promise. This is not the end of your life or even your law school plans.

Your next step is to make a decision about a possible retakeyou have until Tuesday, January 7th to sign up for the February 22nd sitting (registration for the January test has passed).

There is no universal right or wrong about this decision—it is all about you, your test experience, and your career aspirations. So here are some thoughts to help you make that decision.

It’s important to first honestly and realistically assess what happened with this test administration:

  • Did you prepare as well as could have been expected, given all the other constraints on your time — learning the exam inside out, repeatedly practicing individual sections, and taking several full-length practice tests?  Or did your prep take a backseat to the other demands on your time? Can you realistically expect to prepare substantially differently in the eight weeks before the February 22nd test?

  • Did anything happen around the time of the test that would adversely affect your performance — a breakup, illness, family crisis, extraordinary lack of sleep, a monumental hangover? Did you lose focus over the course of the semester?

  • Did you face serious unexpected test anxiety, unlike anything you had experienced in prior standardized tests? Shaking hands, inability to focus, paralyzing nervousness?

In the absence of obviously inadequate preparation, an unforeseeable disaster, or unexpected serious test anxiety, you are unlikely to increase your score by more than the 2-3 points that is the LSAC average for retakers. More sobering is that, historically, as many as 20-25% of retakers who scored 140-159 on their first test received either the same or a lower score the second time around. (More detail on the retake data available here.) Indeed, of the UMass test-takers for whom November’s test was a retake, half received the exact same score or went down.

Also note that much of your prep time for February will coincide with the holidays (for those who celebrate in late December) and the beginning of the Spring semester (for those still in school)—can you realistically maintain your focus on LSAT prep during that time?

Beyond the questions above, you need to consider how law schools regard multiple LSAT scores. A handful of schools still average the scores (as LSAC used to recommend, until a few years ago), while most give you the benefit of the higher score. So a 4-point jump, at some schools, becomes only a 2-point jump. All schools see all scores.

Next, you should weigh the potential benefit of a higher score against the potential cost of getting your applications in later in the admissions season. Most law schools make decisions on a rolling basis, and earlier applications are generally more successful than later applications. The February score release has not yet been scheduled but is anticipated for mid-March—much later than ideal, and past the deadline (or preferred LSAT date) for many schools. On the other hand, with your current score, you can apply now (or as soon as the rest of your materials are complete). Or you could consider waiting to apply to law school until next year when you’ll have more options for possible retake dates, and can apply much earlier in the admission cycle.

You should also take a minute to step back from the consideration of this one facet of your application process to think again about why you are applying to law school in the first place, and what you hope to get out of the experience (and investment). Your LSAT score has an impact on where you to go law school, certainly, and how much you might pay for it (the LSAT plays a large role in the awarding of merit-based scholarships at most schools). So it is without doubt a high-stakes test.

But your score itself is unlikely to determine whether you’ll be admitted at all. Based on what we know of law school admissions in recent years, your chances of getting admitted to any law school diminish greatly with a score below 150, and largely disappear at 145 or below (although there are exceptions even in this range). It’s important to understand that admission is only part of the calculus—you must also consider potential scholarship offers, which go up with your LSAT score. Under 150, you’re unlikely to receive much if any scholarship money and should therefore consider carefully whether it’s worth it to you to attend law school at the full tuition price. (Need-based scholarships are hard to come by these days; almost all schools have put the overwhelming majority of their scholarship money into attracting high LSAT scorers.) This is a difficult question, and one you should take very seriously.

Above the median, you’re more likely talking about which school and at what price, rather than whether you’ll attend law school at all. That’s the backdrop against which you’re making the retake decision: in effect, will the realistically predicted change in your score have a significant impact on your admission or scholarship offers at the schools you’re considering? 

Finally, please remember that the LSAT says nothing about what kind of lawyer you will be (indeed, LSAC doesn’t even make that claim for the test). It correlates with performance in certain traditional first year courses and on the bar exam, but with nothing else. In short, your lower than expected LSAT score might send you to a different law school from the ones you’d been contemplating, but it has no necessary relationship whatsoever to how successful you’ll be as a law student or lawyer.

If you want to talk through your particular situation (and you’re a UMass Amherst student or alum), please feel free to contact me.