How the LSAT Works

If you want to be a lawyer in the United States, Canada or Australia, you're going to have to take the LSAT.
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So, you want to be a lawyer. You've worked hard in college to keep your GPA high, and you've carefully researched law schools to find the one you'd like to attend. There's only one thing left standing in your way before you can complete your applications: the LSAT. But what is the LSAT, and why does it instill fear and dread in so many students?

The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a standardized test given to all law school applicants. It's similar to the SAT exam you took in high school but is aimed at those looking to enter the legal profession. The test is developed and administered by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), and it can play a major role in getting into law school.


Law schools are accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA), which is a professional organization that represents the legal community. All ABA-accredited law schools in the United States, Canada and Australia require applicants to submit LSAT scores as part of the admissions process. These scores not only determine whether you'll get into the law school of your choice, but can also have an impact on future ABA membership as well as career opportunities.

Contrary to popular belief, the LSAT doesn't measure a person's legal knowledge. It's a test of logic and reasoning, as well as reading comprehension and critical thinking. It indicates the candidate's ability to succeed in law school, as well as in the legal profession.

If this test isn't about all the legal knowledge you've gained in your pre-law classes, how are you supposed to prepare for the LSAT? Read on to the next section to learn about the different study options that are available for test-takers and where you can find official practice tests.


Preparing for the LSAT

With so much weight placed on LSAT scores, it's important to take the time to prepare yourself for the exam before you register. The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) recommends studying for the exam using resources found on the organization's Web site. You'll find practice tests, study guides and a complete overview of the test so you'll know what to expect.

Of course, there are also countless private resources available to help you prepare for the LSAT. Private and group tutoring sessions can be found online and in the classroom. Study guides and test prep books are also available and can help you get used to the material that you'll be tested on. These resources suggest test-taking tips that may help calm anxious applicants.


Because much of the LSAT is based on logic and reasoning skills, many study guides are aimed at improving critical thinking skills. You can do this by working on logic puzzles, which can be found in books similar to crossword or sudoku puzzles. You may also wish to take a logics class to brush up on your analytical and reasoning skills.

One of the best ways to prepare for the LSAT is by taking official practice tests issued by the LSAC. The company always offers at least one test posted on its Web site. This test is an official LSAT from a previous year and is completely free to download. Applicants can choose to purchase additional practice tests from previous years on the LSAC Web site. Each time the LSAT is administered, the test is given a unique identifying number. Test No. 1 is from June 1991, and each subsequent test is numbered in order. This will help you to distinguish different practice tests from one another and figure out which ones you've already completed.

When taking an LSAT practice test, it's a good idea to follow the time restrictions used in the actual exam. Give yourself 35 minutes for each section, and try to complete the entire exam in one sitting. This way, you'll be used to focusing on the test for a full three and a half hours, and you'll be less likely to become fatigued during the actual LSAT.

What if you don't have the time to study, or you feel confident that you can do well without studying? At the very least, LSAC recommends looking over a sample test so you'll understand the format and the type of questions you'll be up against [source: LSAC]. This in itself may spur some test-takers to buckle down and study. For others, it will simply offer insight into the test format, which can help settle nerves before the big day.


Registering for the LSAT

You should plan to take the LSAT during your junior year of college. That way, you can focus on law school applications your senior year without the added pressure of studying for a tough admissions test.
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Ready to take the LSAT and begin your journey toward law school? The first step is to register for the test. Applicants can register by phone or mail, though the easiest method is to register through the LSAC Web site. Most LSAT testing dates require test-takers to sign up at least a month before the exam, though cut-off dates may vary. As of January 2010, applicants had to pay $132 in the United States or $137 in Canada upon registering for the LSAT. This fee tends to change every year, however, so check the LSAC Web site for the most up-to-date rates [source: LSAC].

The LSAT is administered at testing centers throughout the world. These include colleges, dedicated testing sites, military bases and many other types of facilities. While testing centers are fairly widespread, applicants aren't allowed to choose their preferred location when registering. Instead, LSAC will attempt to assign each registrant a testing center close to his or her preferred location. The earlier you register, the more likely it is that you'll be able to take the test close to home. Late registrants can be assigned to testing centers that may be a fair distance from their chosen location, so it's important to sign up as early as possible to avoid a long drive on test day [source: University of Notre Dame].


In the 1990s, LSAC implemented a fingerprinting policy at all testing facilities. This policy was put in place after a few test-takers hired others to sit for the LSAT in their place. Since then, all applicants have been required to submit to fingerprinting upon arrival at the LSAT testing facility. After privacy concerns were cited, this restriction was lifted in Canada, but it's still in place in the United States and Australia [source: LSAC].

One of the biggest questions that applicants struggle with is when to take the test. The LSAT is administered four times a year, in February, June, September and December. Experts recommend taking the test about 15 months before you plan to apply for law school. For most students, this means that the test should be taken in June of their junior year. Because the test can be retaken up to three times in a two-year period, this gives applicants time to study and retake the test several times before the law school application is due. It also takes some of the pressure off students, allowing them to focus on law school applications during their senior year instead of worrying about the LSAT [source: University of Notre Dame].

There are many different theories as to the best and worst times to take the LSAT. Some postulate that the test is easier during some months and harder in others. Because test scores are scaled by the LSAC to ensure fair testing conditions, some people believe that sessions with the fewest test takers will have a skewed scale, resulting in lower scores. As of January 2010, September was rated the most popular time to take the test, while June was the least popular. According to informal studies conducted by LSAT Ninja and Blueprint Test Prep, the month you take the test makes no difference in your scores. Rather than trying to time the testing environment, plan to take the test when it best fits your schedule. Consider study time and other scheduling conflicts when determining the best time to register.


What's on the LSAT?

While it's impossible to predict the exact questions you'll face on the LSAT, the LSAC makes no secret of the test's format. The test consists of five multiple choice sections followed by a single essay section. Test-takers are given 35 minutes for each section, bringing the total testing time to three hours and 30 minutes.

Two of the five multiple-choice sections are aimed at testing logical reasoning skills. There's a single section of reading comprehension, which also includes questions on comparative reading. While reading comprehension tests your ability to understand a single selection, comparative reading requires the test-taker to compare two sets of information and understand distinctions between the two. The fourth section tests analytical reasoning and is sometimes referred to as the logic games section. Here, you'll find questions along the lines of the classic logic puzzles where you use the information given to deduce the answer to a question.


Every LSAT contains a fifth multiple-choice section of miscellaneous questions that test reasoning, logic, analytical skills and reading comprehension. This section is unscored, and is used to help the LSAC test new questions for future exams. Most LSAT prep books suggest that the unscored section is always among the first three sections on the exam, but there's no documented proof of this assertion [source: LSAC].

The order of each section is constantly changing, and the LSAT given in January will likely be completely different from the one given in June. This means that if you happen to get an especially challenging combination of questions the first time you take the test, you may have much better luck during a subsequent testing session.

After the first five sections are complete, applicants are given 35 minutes to complete an essay question aimed at testing reasoning skills. This essay isn't graded by LSAC but is sent to law schools along with LSAT scores. Law school admissions boards may review this essay to see how you think under pressure, but most understand that the essay doesn't represent the candidate's best writing ability.

While the LSAT can seem like a vastly different experience for test-takers, there are some universal testing tips that apply to all applicants. Because so much of the test is based on logic and reasoning abilities, it's almost always helpful to brush up on your puzzle-solving skills as you prepare to take the LSAT. This can be as simple as working on some logic problems in a puzzle magazine or as complex as delving into theories and principles of logic study.

Another great LSAT tip is to answer each question based only on the information given in the test. Never let your own personal knowledge on the subject influence your answer. The LSAT is designed to test logic, reasoning and reading comprehension. Some questions may be designed to trip you up by presenting information that contradicts well-known facts about a topic. Don't be fooled by this kind of trick, and stick to the information given in the test to help answer the question [source: LSAT Exam Practice Tests].

Finally, don't forget that there's no penalty for wrong answers. If you have no idea how to answer a question, take a guess. Your guess may be correct, but a skipped question will always be wrong.


How LSAT Scoring Works

To walk the hallowed halls of this law school library, you'll need to make a decent score on the LSAT.
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Now that you've made it through the LSAT, it's time to review your score. The LSAT is scored on a curve, or scale, which helps to standardize differences in scores that may be caused by testing irregularities or more difficult test questions. Raw scores are translated into a final score ranging from 120 to 180. The median score is 151, with a score of 172 representing the 99th percentile of all test-takers [source: Empire State College].

Applicants can elect to receive scores by mail or online. If you've registered to receive scores online, expect your score to arrive around three weeks after you take the LSAT. Those waiting for scores in the mail will have to wait a little longer, with scores generally arriving about four weeks after the test. Once you apply to law school. all LSAT scores from the previous 5 years will be sent to the schools you've selected. If you took the LSAT more than 5 years ago, you can send a written request to LSAC requesting that older scores be also released to the schools.


LSAC will send all of your scores individually for each LSAT exam you've taken, along with an average score of all exams combined. It's up to the individual school to decide whether the average or highest score will be used to determine admission.

So, what do you do if you show up for the test and suddenly freeze? Or you start taking the exam and realize that maybe you should've studied a little more? Luckily, LSAC allows test-takers to cancel scores with no penalty. Applicants must send written notification to the LSAC within six days after they sit for the LSAT. The score is then cancelled and won't be sent to applicants or law schools. As your subsequent LSAT scores are reported to schools, the cancelled exam will be listed, but no score will be shown [source: LSAC].


The LSAT and Law School Admissions

There's really no way to get into law school without taking the LSAT. All ABA-certified schools require LSAT scores from applicants. Even international countries beyond the United States, Canada and Australia have similar testing requirements for admission to most graduate and legal programs.

The LSAT plays an important role in helping law schools decide which candidates will be a good fit. Studies suggest that LSAT scores are more indicative of a person's chance of success in law school than GPA or other academic data [source: LSAC]. The LSAT also helps level the playing field, so to speak, in terms of grades. A student with a 4.0 GPA at a college with less rigorous curriculum may not be as qualified for law school as a student with a 3.0 GPA at an Ivy League school, for example. The LSAT helps to standardize the entrance process, making the admissions process fair for all candidates.


When it comes to weighing LSAT scores, however, law school policies can vary dramatically. Some schools look at the highest score only, ignoring the average. Others focus only on the average score, ignoring dramatic highs or lows. Most scores look at some combination of LSAT scores and GPA when evaluating applicants. Many use a weighted average, with LSAT scores counting for as much as five times the weight of the GPA [source: LSAC].

In addition to these scores, law schools will usually look at the candidate's essay from the LSAT exam. Most colleges realize that this essay was completed at the end of a grueling exam, and because of this, the essay generally holds much less weight than other writing samples submitted with the application.

While the median score of 151 is good enough for the average school, it's not enough to get you into a top law school. Just like the top 10 in college sports teams, the top 15 law schools represent the cream of the crop. Graduates from these schools often obtain jobs at the country's best law firms, and are able to benefit from powerful networks within the legal community. Harvard Law is considered among the best of these schools. A person with a score of 169 represents only the 25th percentile of Harvard Law's accepted applicants, while an applicant with a score of 175 represents the 75th percentile [source: Harvard Law School]. A similar range of scores can be found among applicants at other top schools, such as Columbia or Yale [source: Yale Law School].


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Blueprint Test Preparation. "Finding the Easy LSAT." 2009. (Dec. 31, 2009)
  • Empire State College. "LSAT Sample Score Percentiles." 2004. (Dec. 31, 2009).
  • Harvard Law School. "Frequently Asked Questions." Harvard University. 2009. (Dec. 31, 2009).
  • LSAC. " Law School Admission Information Book." 2009. (Dec. 31, 2009).
  • LSAC. "Preparing for the LSAT." 2009. (Dec. 31, 2009).
  • LSAT Ninja. "Is There an Easier Time to Take the LSAT?" June 23, 2009. (Dec. 31, 2009).
  • LSAT Exam Practice Tests (Independent Web site). "LSAT Logical Reasoning." 2009. (Dec. 31, 2009).
  • University of Notre Dame. "The LSAT." 2009. (Dec. 31, 2009).
  • Yale Law School. "Entering Class Profile." Yale University. 2009. (Dec. 31, 2009).