September LSAT disappointment—now what?

So that September LSAT didn’t go as well as you’d hope. It’s really going to be okay, I promise. This is not the end of your life or even your law school plans. Let me tell you why, and what you might want to do next.

Your first step is to make a rational decision about a possible retake —you have 24 hours to sign up for the November 25th test (but there are caveats!) and if you’re already signed up for October 28th, you have longer to decide whether to withdraw that registration (the limited refund period is long past). So let’s step through that decision.

The retake decision is all about you, your test experience, and your career aspirations.

Before anything else, it’s important to 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 you kind of blow off your prep, what with the semester starting, summer distractions, and whatnot? Can you realistically expect to prepare substantially differently in the two (!!) weeks remaining before the October 28th LSAT or the six weeks remaining before the November 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 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 your remaining prep time before October or November will take place during midterms and/or preparing the rest of your application—do you have the time to focus on prep?

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. This is not a big concern if you take the October LSAT, which is still early enough in the admission cycle not to make a real difference. If you postpone your retake until November (or beyond), you should take into consideration that most law schools make decisions on a rolling basis, and earlier applications are generally more successful than later applications. That said, the November score release is likely to be mid-December (as of this writing, the exact date hasn’t been announced yet)—assuming you have your applications ready to go at that time, your timing is still good, if not quite as ideal as applying earlier. (See below for additional information about the November test.) With your current score, you can apply now, or in the coming weeks.

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.

That said, your score itself is unlikely to determine whether you’ll be admitted at all. In recent years, upwards of 75% of all applicants have been admitted to one or more law schools. For applicants with scores above the median, the overall admission rate is even higher. However, 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 likely to receive little or no 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; 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 national median score of around 152, 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 possibly 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.

Regarding the November 2019 LSAT: As you may already know, applicants have encountered numerous problems finding available test centers for the October and especially the November test. As of this writing, the closest available test centers to Amherst MA are in Binghamton, NY and Syracuse, NY—each nearly 4 hours away. Is that something you can manage in terms of your time, transportation resources, and missed work/school? More seats may become available if applicants cancel their earlier November registration, but there’s no guarantees.

On the upside, the law schools are aware of the LSAT scheduling problems this fall and at least some of them are taking this into consideration as you they review applications, perhaps slowing down the rolling admissions process a bit. If you have concerns about LSAT timing, you should definitely contact your target schools directly and ask them how a later score (and therefore later completed application) will impact your application.

Will a January 13th test score be too late? In a typical year, it would not be advisable to apply so late in the cycle (January test scores will likely come out in early February). This year, it’s not clear how much more slowly law schools be processing their rolling admissions, but it’s still worth asking yourself whether applying this year is so important to you that you’d rather risk a lower chance of admission instead of simply waiting to apply next year, earlier in the cycle.

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