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Care for a (writing) sample?

What’s the deal with the LSAT writing sample? It’s part of the LSAT (if you didn’t know, now you know) but no one talks about it much. There are no prep books devoted to the writing sample, at least not that I know of. For the most part, LSAT students ignore the writing sample. Why?

Here are the basics. The LSAT writing sample is always at the end of the test, after the five multiple-choice sections. You get 35 minutes to write your essay. No one will assign any grade or score to your masterpiece, but it will be sent to law schools along with your LSAT score. Those law schools may or may not read your writing sample, but they will see it.

As you may have guessed by now, the writing sample is unlikely to play a major role in whether you get in to law school. If you were to blow the writing sample off, that would look very bad. It would also look bad if you were to write My Little Pony-based erotic fan fiction instead.

Oh, one more thing that would look bad? If your writing sample and your personal statement were to appear not to have been written by the same person. That brings us to how law schools might use the writing sample, if they even read it. They know you, and nobody else, wrote your writing sample. They’re not expecting perfection. They know you’re writing in pencil on a fictional topic (more on that in a bit) right after taking a long and stressful test. They won’t judge you for every little mistake. The writing sample gives law schools a baseline: what’s the worst you can do?

Now to the format: the LSAT writing sample prompt begins with a fictional situation. Someone has to make a decision between two options. It’s your job to write an essay arguing for one of those options over the other option. For example, suppose you have to choose where to spend New Years’ Eve with your sweetie. One option is a hotel room downtown. The other is a cabin in the woods.

The prompt gives you two criteria to use in making your choice. Let’s say that, in this case, the criteria are that you want to have a good and festive time, and that you want to minimize your exposure to drunken morons.

Then they tell you some more details about both of your options. As you might imagine from this example, typically one of the options has clearer advantages with respect to one of the criteria, and the other option has clearer advantages with respect to the other criterion. There is no right answer — the prompt is always written such that you can make a plausible argument either way.

Your job is to write the essay you’re supposed to write. In other words, follow directions. You’re supposed to take a side. No middle-of-the-road wishy-washy crap. Take a side and stick with it. Also, your task is to argue that the option you pick better satisfies the stated criteria. So make that the thrust of your essay. There might be lots of reasons to prefer the option you argue for. But if you can’t relate those reasons to the stated criteria, they’re not good reasons.

Brainstorm it out: why does each option look good or bad as it relates to the two criteria? Then pick a side. Flip an imaginary coin if you need to. Then write the essay and make clear that you’re picking a side. It’s your job. Address each criterion and explain: why is your option better, and if the other side would seem to have an advantage, why isn’t that advantage a big deal?

Above all, don’t panic. If you do your job and follow instructions you’ll be fine. No one’s expecting a perfect essay. No one’s judging you, at least about this part of your application.

When you’re done, celebrate (silently) in your chair. The LSAT is over. You can celebrate loudly once you leave the test center.

You don’t need to prep intensively for the writing sample. But it’s probably worth looking at a few sample prompts. Brainstorm the pros and cons for each side and decide which side you’d pick. Once you’ve done that, actually writing the essay doesn’t seem like such a big deal.