A Beginner’s Guide to the LSAT
- Jan 20, 2020
So you’re planning on taking the LSAT? You sure?
OK, of course you’re sure. You’re going to law school, so you know you have to take this exam. Perhaps you’ve been following our step-by-step approach to applying to law school, and you’re currently stuck on step number 2. Or maybe you just caught wind of LSAC’s newly released test dates for 2020 and 2021, and you’re thinking about signing up for one of the dates.
So you’re planning on taking the LSAT … but you barely know the first thing about the LSAT. You know it’s a test … and that’s where your LSAT knowledge tops out at. Or maybe you know it’s a test and you know all your pre-law friends studying will only respond with a curt, “I don’t wanna talk about it” when you inquire about that test. Or maybe you know it’s a test and you know your pre-law friends would rather not speak of it and that it’s also super important cornerstone of your law school application. And, no matter your level of knowledge about the LSAT, you’re worried about taking it.
That’s OK. Even if you don’t know much about the LSAT, and even if you’re super apprehensive about taking the exam, studying for it doesn’t have to be a terrible process. If you’re approaching the LSAT with a little knowledge and a lot of nerves, we have a beginner’s guide to taking the LSAT for you to follow. Let’s take it one question at a time …
What is the LSAT?
I appreciate you starting from the beginning, my rhetorical reader. It stands for the Law School Admissions Test. That’s a pretty self-explanatory name (and quite uncharacteristic of the test in general — most parts of the exam itself are decidedly less than self-explanatory). Pretty much every law school requires applicants to report a score from some standardized test, and the LSAT is the one standardized test accepted by all 203 ABA-accredited law schools.
The LSAT originally debuted the same year as the Ed Sullivan Show — it’s an old test — but it didn’t take its current form until June 1991. The exam is written and administered by the Law School Admissions Council, or LSAC. By the way, the first thing you’ll need to do in order to take the LSAT is create an account on LSAC’s website. That account is how you’ll register to take the LSAT, sign up for a CAS account you’ll use to apply to law school, and, eventually, apply to law school.
What does the LSAT test?
If you ask the writers of the exam, they’ll say it tests logical reasoning, analytical reasoning, and reading comprehension. Oh, and also your writing skills. This might raise the question of how reasoning logically is different than reasoning analytically. Or how reading comprehension is distinct from either. So yeah, it might be better just to talk about the actual sections that appear on the test.
The LSAT is composed of six thirty-five minute sections. But you’ll only take five of those on test day. That sixth section can be completed at home, after the test. And only four of the five sections you take on test day will contribute to your overall score. That unscored section is called the experimental section — it’s basically a “fake” section thrown in at some point during the test that won’t count toward your final score. Those four scored sections, however, will include:
• Two sections of Logical Reasoning: This is the section that tests your logical reasoning skills, obviously. But in other, more comprehensible words, this section tests your ability to draw deductions from a set of facts, and your ability to understand and evaluate arguments. Each question consists of a brief paragraph (usually an argument), a question about the contents of the paragraph, and five answer choices. You’ll get between fifty and fifty-two questions between both Logical Reasoning sections.
• One section of Analytical Reasoning: This section tests your ability to reason analytically, obviously. It’s called the Analytical Reasoning section, after all. Except literally everyone you speak to about this section will call it the “Logic Games section.” These so-called games will test your ability to follow directions, draw connections between rules, identify patterns, and project outcomes. They’ll do so by outlining a hypothetical situation. They’ll provide some rules that govern that hypothetical situation, and then ask between five and seven multiple-choice questions. Overall, there will be four games and between twenty-two and twenty-four questions on this section.
• One section of Reading Comprehension: This section tests your reading comprehension skills, obviously. If you’ve taken basically any standardized test ever, you know how these go. Super boring passage, questions about that passage, rinse, repeat. On the LSAT, somewhere between twenty-six and twenty-eight questions will be distributed among the four passages included in this section.
You’ll also have to complete the “Writing section” within a year of taking the LSAT. Using exam software provided to you by LSAC, you’ll write a short persuasive essay in thirty-five minutes. It’s not a big deal and it doesn’t count toward your LSAT score, but many law schools you’ll apply to will require you to complete the Writing section, and all schools you’ll apply to will be able to read your essay.
When’s the LSAT offered?
Over the last two years, it’s been offered nine times per year in the US, Canada, and the Caribbean. The precise schedule changes a bit from year to year, but it should be offered in most of the months of whatever year you choose to take the exam. Some exams are administered at 8:30 am on Saturdays. Others are administered at 12:30 pm on Mondays. If you want to take the LSAT in a month in which the exam is held on a Saturday, but for religious reasons cannot take the exam on a Saturday, LSAC offers alternative dates to you.
The LSAT is also offered all across the world — not just North America — although the dates for the international LSAT administrations are slightly different, and slightly more limited, than the North American dates.
Also, if you believe you’re entitled to testing accommodations from LSAC, LSAC offers those. Occasionally, test takers who receive testing accommodations will have to take the LSAT a few days before or after the main test day.
Which LSAT should I take?
Well, that’s your choice, my hypothetical buddy! A couple factors to consider, though …
Some exams are given at 8:30 am and some are given at 12:30 pm. For many of us, the shock of recent consciousness makes doing anything — much less strenuous logical questions — quite difficult at 8:30 am. For those, a 12:30 pm test might be preferable.
Some exams are disclosed, and others are not. On disclosed tests, you’ll get your score, a copy of the test, the answers you selected, and a few other things. On tests that aren’t disclosed, you just get your score back. This isn’t a big deal for most test takers, but test takers who have to retake the exam sometimes find having a copy of the test and their answers helpful in guiding their study process.
If you’re applying to law school the same year you’re taking the LSAT, you should consider taking an earlier LSAT, if possible. Law schools use rolling admissions, which means they start sending letters of acceptance to applicants as soon as the schools start receiving applications in September or October. So applying early in the application cycle can give you a competitive advantage. And having to take a later LSAT — such as one in October or November — will prevent you from applying early in the cycle.
But your primary concern when selecting an LSAT date should be study time. Studying for the LSAT can be a twenty-hours-per-week-for-two-to-four(-or-sometimes-even-six)-months proposition. You want to make sure the two to four (or perhaps even six) month period before the LSAT you register for will afford you adequate study time. Which brings us to the next question …
How long will studying for the LSAT take?
It really depends. Some (truly loathsome) people are able to do great on this test without much studying at all. Most, however, will take somewhere between two and four months to prepare. Some will have to take six months or more to prepare. It all depends on how much time you can dedicate to your studies and how big of a score increase you’re aiming for. Which brings us to …
How should I start studying for the LSAT?
Start by taking a practice exam. Even if you have no idea how to do anything on the LSAT, start with a practice exam. And if you need a practice exam to take, sign up for our LSAT Toolkit, which will give you a free exam to take and score and receive a detailed score report.
The score you get back from your first practice exam will probably be unflattering, but that’s OK. Don’t worry about it. The whole point of studying for the LSAT is improving that score. The first exam simply provides a baseline score to measure your improvement after you start studying.
That exam can also help you plan how long studying for the LSAT will take. If you’re trying to improve only a few points before test day? That may only take a few months. In which case, take a look at our two-month and one-month study plan. If you’re trying to improve by around ten points? That may take as many as four months, so check out our four-month study plan. Trying to make a massive score improvement? That may take five or six months. The point is, the first practice exam will give you a realistic sense of how long studying for the LSAT will take, and you can plan your following months accordingly.
How should I study for the LSAT?
Great question — in fact, they’ve all been great questions, my rhetorical friend.
Most will want to use some sort of study materials or LSAT course to prepare for the LSAT. If it was the kind of test you could just show up and crush, your pre-lawyer friends probably would’ve been a bit more forthcoming about the exam. If you want to get a full, comprehensive course — and making a score increase beyond just a few points will generally require such a comprehensive course — we have a few options for you. But think about which learning environments you thrive in. Consider whether an in-person class or an online course is right for you. Or if you’ll work best with a one-on-one tutor.
To explore your options, we’d try to sit on any free classes that are being offered, to see if you dig that teaching style. To explore some of our options, we recommend signing up for a free LSAT Toolkit and speaking to one of our Academic Managers, who can help you find the study plan that’ll work best for you.
Is there anything I should know about the specific sections before I start studying?
The good news is each LSAT tests, broadly speaking, the same core concepts. The advice given to test takers in 1991 could still help test takers in 2020.
For Logical Reasoning, you’ll need to learn how to make deductions — especially deductions based on conditional statements. You’ll learn precisely what a conditional statement is in your studies, but making deductions with them will require you to brush up on how to diagram conditional statements, and learn a bunch of conditional keywords to help you do so. Also, aside from those conditional relationships, causal relationships are the most common type of relationship on this exam, so being able to identify and understand cause-and-effect is another central skill.
In Logical Reasoning, you’ll also need to learn a lot about arguments. You’ll need to learn how to deconstruct arguments, understand their structure, and, most of all, identify why these arguments are bad. Doing the latter will help you in all sorts of ways on this exam. Whether you’re asked to strengthen an argument, weaken an argument, identify an assumption made by the argument, or simply to relate why an argument is flawed, knowing all the common reasons arguments on this test are bad is a crucial skill.
For Reading Comprehension, being able to look past the topics of the passage and understand how the authors are making and supporting their conclusions is the central skill you want to develop. To do so, you’ll want to focus on discerning the author’s opinions, making solid notes on the function of each paragraph in the passage, and looking to common devices authors use to support their points — devices like cause-and-effect relationships, examples, rhetorical questions, and lists). Also, the Reading Comp section was changed the most by last year’s switch to the digital LSAT, so you’ll want to learn how to approach this section in its new digital guise.
For Logic Games, you’ll need to learn how to make organized set ups to help you visualize how the game will play out, and make methodical deductions from the rules to save you time on the questions. There are certain common games that you have to master, but you should be fairly comfortable with any game the test might throw your way. Since this is the most unfamiliar section for most test takers, find some example games (here and here and here) we made to give you a sense of what you’re up against.
I mentioned the same advice we’d give in 1991 could also help in 2020. And broadly speaking, that is true. But there are a few recent trends on this exam you should be aware of. In Logical Reasoning, questions that ask you to strengthen an argument — specifically those that ask you to do so with a “principle” — have become increasingly prominent. Reading Comprehension as a whole has gotten more difficult in recent years, so brush up on some tips on how to deal with inevitably difficult passages about science, the law, and the arts. And on Logic Games, many of the recent games have been “underbooked” and almost all of the recent games can be better defeated through something called “scenarios,” so you’ll definitely want to address those in your studies.
Can I take the LSAT more than once?
Yes, hypothetical pre-lawyer, you can. There are limits to how many times you can take the test, but you can certainly take it more than once. You can take the LSAT three times in an “LSAT year” (which, for some unknowable reason, spans from June to May), five times in five years, and seven times in your life.
I bet I know your follow-up question, though (and not just because I’ve been, technically speaking, writing all of these questions): “Does it look bad to retake the LSAT?” Not really! Or, not at all, really. It might be ideal to have one LSAT score when you apply to law school, but almost every law school will judge your application almost entirely on your highest score. Almost no school will average your score or anything. As we’ve discussed, schools looking at just your highest score is not only in your interest, but in theirs as well.
OK, those are all my questions!
Right on. Good luck on the test, my made-up future legal counsel. This blog is over.
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