A Complete Overview of the LSAT

Law-School-Admissions-Test

While future graduate students prepare to tackle the GRE, anyone who wants to go to law school needs to prepare for a different exam—the LSAT.

The Law School Admissions Council (the makers of the test) claim that 98.5% of all law schools require the LSAT for admissions to their Juris Doctor (JD) programs. It’s right in the name—Law School Admissions Test.

The GRE and LSAT have some things in common, but most law schools won’t accept GRE scores. Both exams have challenging reading and writing sections, but the LSAT is specially crafted to test your reading comprehension and verbal reasoning skills as they would apply in a legal context.

Most people have at least heard of the bar exam, which ultimately determines if (and where) you can practice law. But the LSAT is intended to test your readiness for the classes you’ll take in your first year of law school—not your readiness for the bar exam or legal practice. The exam itself is testing your ability to apply skills you’ll rely on in legal practice, not your knowledge of legal practice itself.

We’re going to walk you through the major sections of the LSAT and the key things you’ll need to know, but first, here’s an overview of the test.

Quick facts on the LSAT

Eligibility requirements: none

Length: three hours and 30 minutes, plus breaks

Number of sections: six (35 minutes each)

Kinds of questions: multiple choice (five sections), essay

Cost: $180

Score range: 120–180

Average score: about 150

Every year, more than 100,000 prospective law school students take the LSAT. This isn’t a test you “pass” or “fail.” The scores you need completely depend on the schools you’re applying to.

When can you take the LSAT?

The LSAT is offered six times per year. See this year’s test dates here. Exams are usually administered on Saturdays, but interestingly, there are separate test dates exclusively available to Saturday Sabbath observers (you have to have a signed letter from a rabbi or minister to be eligible).

You can only take it at an official LSAT test center.

What does the LSAT measure?

The LSAT primarily tests your ability to decipher and distill complicated written information. You’ll be expected to breakdown arguments and identify assumptions and principles a position hinges on, and in some cases, you’ll expose alternative interpretations of the same information. Your stance on any particular issue is less important than your ability to analyze, defend, or pick apart a position.

What happens if you don’t pass the LSAT?

If you don’t pass the LSAT, you can retake it—but you can only take the test three times in a two-year period. You should also know—your score report includes an average score from all of the times you took the test. Some schools use these for admissions instead of the most recent score.

Every year, about 25% of the total people taking the LSAT are retaking it.

Which majors perform best on the LSAT?

This may come as a surprise, but the majors that score the highest on the LSAT come from a mix of humanities and STEM programs. “Classics” majors (Latin or Greek literature) perform the best, but they’re followed closely by other majors which develop a strong foundation in either interpretive skills or logical reasoning.

One of the more interesting majors to consistently do well on the LSAT is art history. According to Dr. Derek Muller, an associate law professor, art history was the fourth highest scoring major of the 142 he surveyed. Criminal justice majors had the lowest average score—143.1.

Sections of the Law School Admittance Test

The LSAT has six sections that last 35 minutes each. Five of them are multiple choice, and one is an essay. One of the multiple-choice sections is basically a fake test. These are questions the Law School Admissions Council is considering for future tests, and it won’t count towards your score. (You won’t know which section this is during the test.)

The sections are logical reasoning, analytical reasoning, reading comprehension, and the essay. There are two logical reasoning sections, so this is the area that will have the greatest impact on your score.

Here’s a breakdown of each major section in the test:

Logical reasoning

Number of questions: about 50 total

The logical reasoning section focuses on your ability to deconstruct an argument. Generally, there’s a single passage for you to read, and then one question about the passage. On rare occasions, there are two questions for a single passage.

You’ll need to be able to:

  • Identify the parts of an argument
  • Compare reasoning methods
  • Choose conclusions with the strongest support from the passage
  • Recognize flaws, logical errors, and misunderstandings
  • Apply given principles to a passage
  • Determine how new evidence affects the argument in the passage
  • Notice assumptions
  • Use analogies

A background in logic is helpful, but you won’t be expected to know logic terms. For example, understanding logical fallacies can obviously help you identify flaws in an argument, but you won’t ever be tested on terms like ad hominem. The LSAC is more concerned about whether or not you can follow and break down an argument’s reasoning.

Here’s what the makers of the test say about this section:

“Logical Reasoning questions evaluate the ability to analyze, critically evaluate, and complete arguments as they occur in ordinary language. The questions are based on short arguments drawn from a wide variety of sources, including newspapers, general interest magazines, scholarly publications, advertisements, and informal discourse. These arguments mirror legal reasoning in the types of arguments presented and in their complexity, though few of the arguments actually have the law as a subject matter.”

Logical reasoning questions may have multiple answers that are technically true but don’t directly answer the question. You might also find that you disagree with an answer based on your knowledge of the subject. But you’re not being asked to choose a “true” response or the one you agree with. You’re being asked to choose the answer that most directly and correctly answers the question based on the information provided.

Analytical reasoning

Number of questions: 25

The analytical reasoning section focuses on your ability to apply a set of rules to a given situation. You’ll be provided with a set of conditions, principles, or rules about the relationships between people, objects, or concepts. These are often presented in an “if, then” format. There are multiple questions connected to each passage, and each question asks you to apply the information from the passage to a particular scenario.

Here’s what the makers of the test say about this section:

“Analytical Reasoning questions are designed to assess the ability to consider a group of facts and rules, and, given those facts and rules, determine what could or must be true. The specific scenarios associated with these questions are usually unrelated to law since they are intended to be accessible to a wide range of test takers. However, the skills tested parallel those involved in determining what could or must be the case given a set of regulations, the terms of a contract, or the facts of a legal case in relation to the law. In Analytical Reasoning questions, you are asked to reason deductively from a set of statements and rules or principles that describe relationships among persons, things, or events.”

Passages that have long, complicated rules may still be paired with simple questions. With careful reading, you might find that some questions only depend on a single principle from the passage.

Reading comprehension

Number of questions: 27

The reading comprehension section of the LSAT has four sets of questions. Three of these sets are based on long passages (one passage per set of questions). The fourth set of questions is based on two shorter pieces that directly relate to each other.

The questions based on two passages are referred to as comparative reading questions. Your objective for this set of questions is to analyze the relationship between the two pieces. LSAC gives some example relationships you may encounter on the test:

  • A generalization and a specific instance
  • A principle and an application
  • A point and a counterpoint

Here’s how the makers of the test describe this section:

“Reading selections for LSAT Reading Comprehension questions are drawn from a wide range of subjects in the humanities, the social sciences, the biological and physical sciences, and areas related to the law. Generally, the selections are densely written, use high-level vocabulary, and contain sophisticated argument or complex rhetorical structure (for example, multiple points of view). Reading Comprehension questions require you to read carefully and accurately, to determine the relationships among the various parts of the reading selection, and to draw reasonable inferences from the material in the selection.”

It might be intimidating to know that some of the questions are going to involve subjects you know nothing about, but you don’t need to stress out about that. You’re not supposed to be familiar with the subjects. It’s a better test of your raw skills—skills you will rely on in law school and practice—if you don’t know anything about the subject at hand.

Essay

The essay section of the LSAT isn’t graded—but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to take it just as seriously. The purpose of this section is pretty straightforward: it’s to demonstrate your relevant writing skills. The LSAC cautions test-takers that “Failure to respond to writing sample prompts and frivolous responses have been used by law schools as grounds for rejection of applications for admission.”

You’ll be presented with two positions on a mundane hypothetical situation, and then decide on one or the other. You cannot get this “wrong,” but schools will evaluate for themselves how well you defend your position and critique the other. Neither position is intended to be inherently stronger than the other.

The LSAC has several reasons for including this unscored essay:

  1. Law schools and legal professionals value the ability to communicate effectively in writing.
  2. It’s important to encourage potential law students to develop effective writing skills. (Especially for those who didn’t do much writing in their undergraduate studies.)
  3. A written piece produced under controlled conditions can be a useful indicator of someone’s writing ability.
  4. The writing sample can serve as an independent check on other writing submitted by applicants as part of the admission process.
  5. Writing samples can be used to evaluate and improve a candidate’s writing.

Interestingly, when the LSAC surveyed more than 150 law schools about these essays, about 7% said that they never use them in admissions, and only 9% said that they always use them. The remaining 84% use them at least occasionally.

How does scoring work on the LSAT?

Your LSAT score will fall somewhere between 120 and 180. You don’t lose points for getting questions wrong, and all of the questions are equally weighted. The average test taker gets about 60% of the questions correct, giving them a score around 150.

Like several other exams used for admissions purposes, the LSAT also shows you the percent of test-takers you scored higher than.

Interestingly, the LSAC can only be 68% confident that the score on your score report actually measures your proficiency. To account for the margin of error in measuring your score, they also provide a score band—a range that your proficiency most likely falls within.

You should receive your score report by email within three weeks of taking the test, and by mail within four weeks.

How to prepare for the LSAT

Like all standardized tests, the best way to prepare for the LSAT is to take practice LSATs. The Law School Admittance Test isn’t testing your mastery of any particular subject—it’s testing skills. To score higher on the test, you’ll need to develop and improve those skills.

Trying sample questions is a great way to get started, but the best practice tests are going to give you a score and an explanation of your score based on the LSAC’s criteria. There are a lot of test prep companies out there (with varying degrees of usefulness) but before you pay for anything, see what the makers of the test give you for free.

LSAC has sample questions below their explanations for each subject, including answers and scoring criteria:

They also have an actual LSAT from 2007 that you can take as a practice test. Additionally, they have test prep ebooks (for as little as $6) and print books you can pick up on Amazon or at a bookstore.

The LSAC recommends that whatever you do to prepare, you use actual time restraints to help gauge how long you’ll be able to spend on each question.

We hope this has been helpful—leave us a comment if there’s anything else you wish we’d included about the LSAT or preparing for law school. Good luck in your studies!

Ryan Nelson
Ryan has a B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University. If he could rewind and go to college all over again, he'd do it a little differently. For now, he's living vicariously through people like you by helping you find the best online schools for your field.

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