LSAT Facts - 8 Misconception - Test Prep - 4 Important Points - Testwiseness

Frank X.J. Homer, University of Scranton

Copyright © 2000 Northeast Association of Pre-Law Advisors. All rights reserved.
Revised: April 5 , 2001 .

Facts About the LSAT

The LSAT is a five-section, multiple-choice, standard-scored "aptitude" test, followed by a 30-minute writing sample. Taking the test requires 3 hours and 25 minutes, not including rest breaks and the time needed for the distribution and collection of test materials, as well as other test center procedures.

The five multiple-choice sections, containing a total of about 120-130 questions, are separately timed at 35 minutes apiece, with a brief (usually 10-15 minutes) break in between the third and fourth sections. There are three different question-types:

Reading Comprehension--Typically, a section of this type will include about 26-28 questions, arranged into four sets, each containing a passage followed by 6-8 questions.
Analytical Reasoning--Also called Logic Games of the "matrix" type, they typically come in sections containing approximately 24 questions, arranged in four sets of analytical problems or "setups" with 5-7 questions apiece.

Logical Thinking--Typically, a section of this type will include around 24-26 questions that are not for the most part grouped into sets.

One section of both Reading Comprehension and Analytical Reasoning and two sections of Logical Reasoning questions are used to produce your LSAT score; a non-scored section, that can be of any type, is included in each test but cannot be identified as such while you are taking the test.

The LSAT score is a three-digit number ranging from 120 to 180, determined by the number of correct answers on the four scored sections, generally covering a total of about 96-104 questions.

LSAT scores are not absolutes: a 180 does not necessarily mean that every question is answered correctly (you could have as many as 2-3 incorrect answers on the four scored sections and still have a score of 180), nor does a 120 necessarily mean you answered every question incorrectly. Generally, you will need approximately 15-17 correct answers before your score moves above a 120. Once you reach that "threshold," each additional correct answer will help raise your score with, roughly speaking, about two points gained for every three additional correct answers.

While the four scored sections used for each administration of the LSAT are most likely to be the same for each test at every test center, there are different editions in which the non-scored section is not the same and the order in which the scored sections appear will vary. After the five-section, multiple choice test has been administered, and after a second short (c. 5 minutes) break, the writing sample will be administered. The writing sample is unscored; however, copies of your sample will be sent to each law school to which you apply.

Eight Common Misconceptions about the LSAT

1. The LSAT works only 16 percent of the time.There is a great deal of confusion about the meaning of correlation-study results. Correlations are reported on a scale of -1.0 to +1.0, with -1.0 representing a perfect inverse relationship--as one measure goes up the other goes down--and +1.0 representing a perfect positive relationship. The national correlation between LSAT scores and first-year grades tends to be around +0.4. By comparison, the national correlation between undergraduate and law school grades tends to be around +0.25. The correlation for both variables combined is approximately +0.5.
The relationships among LSAT scores, undergraduate grades, and law school grades are all fairly strong, particularly when one considers all of the many and varied personal factors that have an impact on performance in law school--factors that include study habits, determination, work or family obligations, quality of instruction, and many, many others. The LSAT is used to make admission decisions, not to explain performance variance. These two purposes are very different. The bottom line is that the LSAT, although limited in its utility, is the single strongest numerical predictor of success in the first year of law school that is available to an admission committee when admission decisions must be made.

2. The LSAT is biased against test takers who cannot afford expensive coaching courses.LSAC strongly counsels candidates to familiarize themselves with the test format and question types in order to perform at their best. This does not mean that expensive coaching courses are necessary to maximize students' performances. The well-publicized claims of huge score increases from commercial coaching courses typically compare students' unprepared performance to their performance after a course. They do not compare the results a student could achieve through self-study, or other less expensive alternatives, to coached results. Moreover, it is likely that the subset of test takers who take commercial courses differs from the general LSAT population in some as yet unknown ways, thereby making generalizations from their results problematic. What we do know is this: most LSAT takers do not take a commercial course. In 1996-97, for example, slightly less than one-third of all test takers reported that they had taken a commercial coaching course. This number is consistent with other, independent measures of coaching-course volumes. White test takers are slightly more likely to take a commercial coaching course than black test takers, but both proportions are close to the overall average--35 percent of white candidates reported having taken a commercial course compared to 28 percent of blacks. Moreover, the difference in mean LSAT scores between those who did and those who did not take a commercial course is about 1 point on the 120 - 180 LSAT score scale.
3. If you take the LSAT a second time, you'll boost your score by three points. On average, candidates who take the test a second time earn scores 2.7 points higher than their first scores. But this number is an average--many test takers achieve greater gains and many test takers actually earn lower scores. For example, among those repeat test takers who earned a 150 on their first LSAT in a recent test year, 628 earned a higher second score, 51 earned a second 150, and 211 earned lower scores. Coincidentally, the average score gain for all test takers (2.7 points) is equal to the standard error of measurement for the LSAT, although these two numbers are not related.
4. LSAT scores and undergraduate grades equal merit. The LSAT is a helpful tool, but it has limits. LSAC long has urged schools to take a variety of factors into account when making admission decisions, and most schools do. Yet schools that place undue weight on test scores and grades are engaged in misuse of those measures, just as the opponents of affirmative action over rely on test scores and grades to make their legal arguments. The LSAT measures only a limited set of skills that relate to success in law school. The list of other factors that play a role is nearly endless. The challenge for admission policy makers is to identify the qualities that they seek in a student body and then gather information about those qualities from their applicants. There is no entitlement to a seat in law school, regardless of one's test scores and undergraduate grades.
5. There is a meaningful difference between scores that are one or two points apart.Admission decision makers who face the difficult task of admitting only a fraction of their applicant pools necessarily search through files to find factors that will tip the scales. This is particularly true once the bulk of decisions have been made and the remaining files are those for which there may be no truly distinguishing factors in the files, and no clear right or wrong decision. At this point, it may be tempting to place great significance on LSAT score differences of one or two points. Such reliance is misplaced. LSAC recently began reporting LSAT scores with confidence bands around them--bands that typically range from three points below to three points above the actual score. The bands are meant to be a visual reminder that LSAT scores, like all test scores, have measurement error associated with them, and to encourage score users not to place undue weight on differences that have very little statistical meaning.
6. Some LSAT forms are easier than others.Each LSAT form is written to a common set of test specifications--specifications that describe both the content of questions and the distribution of questions across the spectrum of difficulty levels. Each scored LSAT question is pre-tested twice--once to gather data about how the item functions on its own, and a second time as part of an intact test section. Data from these pretests allow LSAC to 'equate' each LSAT form. Equating is a statistical process through which the very slight differences in difficulty across LSAT forms can be mitigated, thus allowing direct comparison of results from different tests. Therefore, a December 1998 LSAT score of 150 means the same thing as a 150 from the October 1995 administration, or from any administration since June 1991.
7. The LSAT is graded to a curve, so your score can be influenced by the other test takers with whom you test. Some candidates mistakenly believe that they will be graded on the LSAT in relation to others who take the test with them. In fact, all LSAT scores are equated back to the original base form, given in June 1991. It is possible, although extremely unlikely, for everyone taking the test on the same day to earn a score of 180. Effectively, an individual test taker's performance is compared to the performance of all test takers since June 1991, except those taking the test at the same time.
8. There is little or no research that supports the use of the LSAT.

Since 1990, LSAC has produced more than 75 research reports touching on the performance of the current test or potential designs for a future LSAT. All of these reports are sent to LSAC-member school libraries and are available free-of-charge from LSAC. Numerous external researchers also have made use of LSAT data, publishing their findings in refereed journals.
The LSAT is the single best numerical predictor of first year performance in law school, that the LSAT is superior to undergraduate grades as a predictor of law school success, and that the two measures when combined, are superior to either one standing alone.

Preparation for the LSAT

The LSAT seeks to measure not what you already know but, rather, how well you might respond to training in law, so it goes after your basic skills and abilities along certain lines, testing all of the following:

critical and accurate reading
dispassionate, flexible, intelligent, inferential thinking
distinguishing fact from opinion and the relevant from the irrelevant
stability under pressure
tolerance of ambiguity and of abstraction
quick adaptation to unfamiliar procedures and strange circumstances

There is no standard prelaw curriculum. Therefore, the test-makers cannot assume that any applicant has a common body of knowledge or discipline with any other applicant. They can only assume that you read and write English at a suitable level. Applicants can help themselves by working with an elementary logic text, learning to recognize common fallacies, many of which may exist in their own thinking.

The LSAT consists of a series of demanding, often strange intellectual games, at times having little to do with real life or academic subjects. Preparation consists of learning the game rules, both those set forth in the different sections of the test and those implicit in its construction and scoring method.


Four Important Points to Remember

Scores are determined entirely on the basis of the number of correct answers only. Nothing is deducted or subtracted for wrong answers. There is no penalty for guessing. Never Leave a Question Unanswered!
The LSAT is deliberately "speeded." You will often find you do not have enough time to complete every question. It is not unusual to find you are not able to finish each section of the test without a certain amount of guessing.
While individual questions do vary in difficulty, each correct answer makes the same contribution to your score regardless of how easy or difficult it may be. No Question Is Worth More Than Any Other!
Within each section, questions are not arranged in order of difficulty. You should not assume that the next question or set of questions will necessarily be either more or less difficult for you to answer than earlier ones.
The rest is practice on specific types of problems, but it must be practice of an analytical, self-teaching nature. There are two warnings about compulsive practice:

It can become a kind of wheel-spinning, sinking you deeper into the same old ruts; the very fact that the answers are in the back of the book supplies a crutch you won't have during the test and actually encourages lack of concentration: the habit of making certain kinds of mistakes can be reinforced rather than broken.
In any case, you must be sure you're practicing the right game. The only fully reliable practice material is the disclosed-part LSATs, available from Law Services in the form of individual Prep Tests.

Testwiseness - Some Pointers

Prepare to concentrate immediately, intensely, steadily, and to your utmost. The passive test-taker gets nowhere. There's no time to reread. Attack the problem actively the first time around. And be in condition to keep this up for 3 1/2 hours.
Take time to understand the directions. You're being tested on following difficult and unexpected directions. Pay particular attention to the exact wording of definitions. Some of these are very strange, too.
Don't misread, don't skim, don't "speed-read." The time pressure comes from the required speed of thinking, not of reading. Read carefully for exact wording, exact meaning. Underline key words.
Never Answer From Your Own Knowledge or Experience-that's not what's being tested. Never answer from your own opinions or prejudices, or because you think one answer is more socially acceptable than another. (You'll often be invited to do that.)
Read Nothing Into Any Problem. Deal only with what has actually been said. Beware of thinking you recognize what's going to be said ("Oh, I know that.") because chances are good that you'll miss the actual point. Don't get involved with what you think must also be true, or must also have happened, unless you've been asked to do that. If "if's" and "but's" come into your mind, forget them.
Omit Nothing From Any Problem. Read all the options. Read every sentence in the stimulus material. It's true you're sometimes given irrelevant material, but don't dismiss it until you've actually assessed it in terms of what you've been asked.
Work With The Test, Not Against It.
Work steadily and methodically. Have a method of attack on each type of problem. Avoid galloping off bareback. (Remember the hare and the tortoise.)
Use the Four Important Points to Remember listed above. Taken together, they tell you the following: work as fast as possible consistent with accuracy; don't allow yourself to get stuck on any question; don't rush to get the harder problems, thus possibly missing easy ones, since they all count the same; guess where necessary; and Leave No Blanks!!
One, and only one, of these options is correct in terms of the question. Accept this; don't fight it. All problems have been thoroughly tested. Every word is there on purpose, and every needed word has been included. Ambiguities are deliberate, and a solution has been supplied.
Avoid oversubtlety-don't make the test harder than it is. (People who fight certain questions, as in point c above, tend to be oversubtle.)
As you select answers, be aware that one of the benchmarks of the good, professionally written question is the frequent presence of an option that is almost, but not quite, right: the "attractive" distracter.
Keep track of time but don't be possessed by it. Resist pressure by working at the fastest pace that is productive for you. Many people don't finish. The score comes from getting questions right, not just from getting them answered, and a correct guess is as good as a right answer, whether you like it or not.
Don't waver about guessing. Decide quickly, once you recognize the possibility. Then do it and forget about it. There is no pattern of right answers, so it doesn't matter what option you pick. Don't sit there wondering if you could answer it if you took more time; you've already taken too much time if you worked long enough to get stuck.
In general, try to take the questions in order, but that's Not a hard-and-fast rule. Your main concern is maximizing your score by getting questions right, so it often pays to skip around, locating the types of questions you personally favor. Just make sure you get back to the others.
Manage the Answer Sheet. Avoid stupid, nerve-wracking mistakes such as getting answers in the wrong column (picking A but marking B) or reversing the wrong number (answering #22 in slot #23). This is more common than you might believe. Have a System. And to insure yourself against panic if you do catch yourself misplacing answers, always mark you answers in your test booklet before transferring them to the answer sheet.
Finally, do try to keep a sense of proportion. This test is a difficult and important set of games. It's not a final judgment about your worth as a person or your potential as a law student. You're not the only one, by any means, who makes a lot of mistakes or who might not finish all sections. Don't waste time during the test worrying about things like that. Just do your job and take the test.

Based on material originally prepared by Dorothy Clerk