Mistake #5: "Oxymoronic" LSAT Advice

See previous – Mistake #6: "Help my GPA has fallen and it can't get up"

Here you have it – two pieces of advice that are not only going to contradict a great deal of what you read online, but which also seem to contradict each other:

  1. If you retake the LSAT your score is not likely to go up substantially or beyond the measurement of error for the first test.
  2. You should likely retake the LSAT.

In a vacuum the above makes an interesting pair and would make an odd quote without an explanation. So let me explain.

For starters, there is a good deal packed into statement (1) above. Before everyone points out that they know someone who knows someone who jumped up 20 points on their LSAT retake, or that someone on top-law-schools told of their story in which they went from a 165 to a 177, etc., let me assure you I have seen it too. I have seen hundreds of cases of LSAT scores going up over 10 points. It happens every year and the data supports that. What the data supports with much more certainly, however, is that such a jump is unlikely. Indeed, while most test takers do score higher on a second attempt increasing over the Standard Error of Measurement of the test (2.6 in the year provided and roughly around 2 for most every year) is hit or miss.

Here is the most recent publically available data from the test year’s of 2010-2011, from LSAC:


I reference the above, including the data from LSAC , for the following reason: Every year I talk to a great deal of applicants who bank on jumping up considerably in their LSAT score. They literally count on it. In other words, their strategy is something along the lines of “I scored a 150 but should get a 165 or above on the LSAT next time or I am not going to apply to law school.” I hear and have heard some derivation of that statement innumerable times for the past 13 years and the data does not support that such a jump should occur. There are many good reasons to decide not to go to law school, including concern of lack of scholarships or job prospects at graduation, which indeed may be somewhat of a function of scoring well on the LSAT, BUT there are also many reasons why an LSAT score alone should not be the sine qua non of your decision whether to attend law school or not.  Just looking at the job prospects at graduation, research by Indiana Law Professor William Henderson correlates LSAT performance negatively with networking ability. Being that the vast majority of students these days are getting jobs through networking, I certainly would not rely on an LSAT in the 90th percentile to correlate highly with job prospects. Indeed, such a score only correlates moderately with first year law school performance.** The bottom line: most applicants score slightly higher on retakes and most applicants score slightly lower on the gameday LSAT than what they have been most recently pretesting at. Substantial jumps are uncommon and, partly because they are so uncommon, are actually investigated by LSAC. All of that said, there is an overwhelming good reason to retake the LSAT,  two lines below in bold letters.

Statement #2 needs to be expanded, of course, but involves one of the most damaging misconceptions in the admissions process. So let me just dive in.


Yes, they see all your scores. They even see your cancelled test, it looks like this on a CAS report “/” and is about as meaningless on a multiple score report as this “120.”  Law schools can and do certainly say “we look at all scores,” “we view all scores holistically” etc., etc.  Technically, unless you have the best and most selective of tunnel-vision, it would be impossible not to say that. But the data points to the one simple fact that your admissions prospects as they relate to the LSAT are entirely derived from your highest LSAT score. Why is this? Wouldn’t an average of all LSAT scores yield a more meaningful glimpse at your true LSAT? Here is the all-important reason why.

Around 5-6 years ago the ABA changed reporting procedures so that they stopped collecting all LSAT scores from each law school and only asked for the high score; the immediate impact was that at that moment (and continuing to date) USNWR started only getting the highest LSAT score for each matriculate at each law school. You can see where this is going… the pressures on admissions offices to maintain or improve the three input metrics of USNWR ranking, especially in this environment of decreased application, are enormous. Moreover the highest weighted of these metrics is the LSAT. For no other reason than self-preservation, the strongest of human urges, it makes sense then that admission deans care only about your highest LSAT score. And they do.

Data, however, points to the fact that the majority of test takers will only take the LSAT once. Indeed LSAC by and large approves of this “one and done” philosophy:


For a certain group this makes sense, e.g. you score right around or above where you were at pretesting and/or you feel confident or have been admitted to the range of law schools you are interested in. Additionally, it costs money and is not a particularly fun way to spend the day. But, and let’s go to the direct source from LSAC ,“ data show that scores for repeat test takers often rise slightly.” Just think on this for a second. An improvement of 1 LSAT score above the median of your “dream” school, for example, from a 169 to a 170 at Duke, can have a tremendous impact on your likelihood of admission. Indeed, given the same example, an improvement of 2 points will take you from way from Duke’s 25th percentile to their median and an improvement of 3 points from their 25th to their 75th! A few extra correct answers and you may go from “deny” to “$$$$$”! So before you shrug off the median or say “well that Spivey guy says I am not likely to go up significantly” keep in mind that you are likely to go up, and even an increase in 1 point can be very significant.

Finally, I am acutely aware that this kind of broad level talk often elicits individual sensitivities. If you go on to an investment board and say something along the lines that, “statistically speaking it is possibly that Warren Buffet may just be very lucky, indeed with the hundreds of millions of investors this is bound to happen to a few people” you get all kinds of disproportionately upset responses, even when you are not really speaking about Buffet, per se, but rather very large numbers. In just about every arena were there is vested interest, speaking broadly is often misinterpreted as speaking individually. Let me be clear: this data does not relate to YOU in particular when I say “it is unlikely to jump up more than a few points in the LSAT.” There is no need to send me an email proving that you did so – again I have seen it happen many, many times. At the broadest level, though, any one applicant should not plan on that happening. Indeed, the best admissions strategy is always to look at worst case scenarios first, see which you are comfortable and which you would reject and then build upward from there.

Outlier of Interest: For the 2010/2011 admissions cycle note that one person who initially scored a 180 took the LSAT again. What, what??

** Again, this has to do with macro-level data. I know plenty of people who both aced the LSAT and are wonderful networkers.

Up next — Mistake #4: The Waiting is the Hardest Part