Don’t Panic: Next steps after a disappointing LSAT score

If you just got disappointing news about your September 2017 LSAT score, this post is for you. First up, don’t panic. This does not mean the end of your law school dreams. But you do have some decisions to make:

What’s next — a retake in December (or February), applying with the September score, or putting off law school for another year or more? 

NOTE: If you’re not already signed up for the December LSAT, you need to make this decision relatively quickly—the regular registration deadline for the December LSAT is Wednesday, October 18th, and the late deadline is Wednesday, October 25th (and entails an additional late fee).

To seriously answer the question of whether you should retake the exam, it’s important to first honestly 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 and reviewing several full-length practice tests? Or did you kind of blow off your prep, especially during the last month, what with school starting back up? Can you realistically expect to prepare substantially differently in the weeks remaining before the December 2nd test (especially given that it falls right before finals)?

  • 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 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 25-30% 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 statistics available here.) Also note that that December test is scheduled just two weeks before final exams begin (if you’re 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 few schools still average the score (as LSAC used to recommend, until a few years ago), but most give you the benefit of the higher score. So a 4 point jump, at a handful of 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, in general, more successful than later applications. If you take the December test, your score will be available after the holidays, so your application will not be reviewed until January (assuming you complete the rest of your application by then). With your current score, you can apply right now, just as admissions officers are returning from their recruiting trips and beginning to review applications. Over the last several years, due to the continuing significant decline in application volume, we saw the admission seasons get extended at most schools. Even though the decline in application volume may have reached its end, there’s still a good chance that the admission cycle will continue to be on the longer side. Earlier is still better, but perhaps not as much of an advantage as it once was. (If you’re thinking of taking the February test, then you really are disadvantaging yourself for the current admission season, in terms of timing—some schools do not even accept the February score for that fall’s admission.)

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 determining the likelihood and amount of any merit-based scholarships you might be awarded). So it is without doubt a very high stakes test.

That said, 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 disappear pretty much altogether at 145 or below. 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 many (if any) scholarship offers 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 score of around 153, 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? 

If you’re well above the median but worried about your chances at the most selective schools, again, you want to step back and consider carefully why you are aiming for those particular schools. Is it because they are well matched to your specific career goals—either because your desired career niche is pedigree-sensitive, or because they offer unique programs unavailable elsewhere—or because you are feeling seduced by the brand name or the vague and largely obsolete lawyer advice “go to the best [i.e., highest ranked] school you get into!”? It’s important to remember that scores many points shy of those that will gain you admission to the most selective schools will gain you admission plus substantial scholarship to pretty much every other law school.

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 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 student or alum), please feel free to contact me or (for current students) just go ahead and set up an appointment .