That was not what I was hoping for: the June LSAT disappointment

Does it feel like you just scored a goal against your own team in a the last seconds of a semi-final match, ending your country’s World Cup finals hopes, in front of millions of worldwide viewers?

No, probably much worse, because receiving a disappointing June LSAT score happened to you, not some random English soccer player. And now you have some decisions to make: a retake in October or December, applying with the disappointing June score, or putting off law school for another year (or maybe forever)?

So let’s talk LSAT, not soccer.

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 several full-length practice tests?  Or did you kind of blow off your prep, what with end-of-semester demands and whatnot?  Can you realistically expect to prepare substantially differently in the months remaining before the October 3rd 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 last month of preparation for the October test coincides with the first month of the semester (if you’re still in school)—can you realistically maintain your focus on LSAT prep at 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. This is not a big concern if you take the October LSAT, which is still early enough in the admission cycle not to make much of a difference (although you should double-check the LSAT deadline for schools’ early admission programs). If you postpone your retake until December, 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. 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 (June 2015) score, you can apply right at the beginning of the admissions season. During the last several admission seasons, this timing question has become significantly less critical, with law schools extending their seasons to make up for the dramatic decreases in application volume. All the same, earlier is generally better.

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 increasingly determines the likelihood and amount of any merit-based scholarships you might be awarded). 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. 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 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 back drop 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 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. I’m here through all of July and most of August.