You should plan to take the LSAT just once, and to do your best on it that one time. In addition to the retake considerations outlined below, students who assume they’ll have a second chance if they blow the first test tend not to perform as well as those who assume that this is the only test that matters. (No, I don’t actually have any statistics to back this claim up—it’s based purely on anecdote and common sense.)
But what happens after you take the test that one time, and things don’t go nearly as well as you’d hoped—should you retake the LSAT? To seriously answer the question of whether you should retake the exam, it’s important to first honestly assess what happened with the first 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, or slack off in the last few weeks? Can you realistically expect to prepare substantially differently in the months or weeks remaining before the next test?
- Did anything happen around the time of the test that might have adversely affected 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 take into account whatever else you might have to balance with test prep during the coming weeks—for those still in school, the last month before the October test is the first month of your semester, and the December test falls squarely during finals. 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 few schools average the score (as LSAC used to recommend, until about 5 years ago), while others 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, 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 at the beginning of the admissions season.
Finally, 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, and how much you’ll pay for it (scholarships are most often based on LSAT scores). But it rarely has the power to determine whether you go to law school at all, and it says nothing about what kind of lawyer you will be. Yes, some schools are more selective than others, at least as far as that can be measured with median GPAs and LSATs. But the 200+ ABA-approved law schools are far more similar than they are different, and all will prepare you well for legal practice. A less selective school is not a lower quality school, not by any meaningful measure: a school’s median LSAT has nothing to do with the quality of instruction, the rigor of its clinical programs, or even its reputation among most hiring attorneys.
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’re a UMass Amherst student or alum and want to talk through your particular situation, please feel free to contact me personally.