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What Law Schools Look For in Your LSAT Writing Sample

Ah, the LSAT writing sample. You will never find a more wretched collection of half-formed arguments and poor writing. You should be careful.

Or not.

Because, in all honesty, it doesn’t matter very much.

The writing sample on the LSAT always evokes a feeling of dread from first-time LSAT test-takers. You’ve sat in a room for over three hours, nerves shot and caffeine headache pounding, with dozens of other students, many of whom haven’t showered in the past few days in order to maximize their study time. The last thing anyone wants to do is write an essay.

Well, not exactly true. The last thing anyone wants to do is read hundreds of essays written by others in these conditions.Not even LSAC, since they’ve now made the writing sample take home.

The people evaluating your law school applications know the testing conditions under which you take the exam. They know the writing sample comes last. And they know they have hundreds of these essays through which they can read.

For the most part, they don’t.

Sure, there might be a quick glance to make sure you can write intelligibly. But they’re not expecting something that would wow the Supreme Court.

“But Matt!” You lament. “Isn’t the writing sample closest to what you’ll be doing in law school?”

Yes, in a technical sense. No, in reality.

Law schools mandate a first-year legal research and writing class for a reason: none of you write like a lawyer. They assume you’re coming to law school with terrible writing skills and poor argumentative habits. They’ll train you to do better.

So they expect these essays to be substandard.

Focus on spelling things correctly. Put commas where they should go. Don’t try to use a semicolon if it’s not a regular part of your repertoire. And don’t drool on the page. Get those down, and you should be just fine.

More importantly, the LSAT writing sample is unscored; as in, it won’t affect your score at all! But this doesn’t mean you can skip it; if you leave it blank, they won’t even glance at your test.

The good news is that the writing sample is pretty easy. Basically, you get a situation where you argue for one of two courses of action while trying to satisfy two criteria. There is no “right choice.” As lawyers, you’ll be constantly arguing for things about which you are unsure, with insufficient information, so this is a little taste of things to come. For example, you might get something like this:

The freeways of Los Angeles have become far too crowded, and the city government has decided to do something about it this year. This will be accomplished by one of two possible means – either by widening and expanding the highway system, or by forcibly executing half the population. Using the facts below, write an essay in which you argue for one option over the other based on the following two criteria:

• The city government wants to clear up traffic as soon as possible for as little money as possible
• The city government wants to keep as many of its constituents alive as possible

One option is to widen and expand the freeway system. This could potentially take many years and cost a lot of money. However, very few people would die in the process.

Alternatively, the city could kill half of its residents. This would be cheap, and after the bodies were disposed of, traffic would immediately be thinned out.

Again, there is no right or wrong choice. So first you pick a side. Don’t make up your own third option, and don’t try to somehow combine the two. Doing that doesn’t show that you’re creative and innovative. It shows that you’re an idiot who doesn’t know how to follow instructions. Also, don’t bring in your own criteria of what’s important. The only weights that matter are the two bulleted goals.

So let’s say you choose the mass killing option. What you want to do is play up the pros of your side (cheap and quick) and the cons of the other side (takes a long time and expensive). But you also need to concede your weaknesses (lots of people die) and the other side’s advantages (few people die), but just downplay them. Really, that’s it. You get 35 minutes to do it, but even if you outline and plan the whole thing out first (which you should), you’ll still probably find you have more than enough time. You shouldn’t feel like it has to be amazing prose. Nobody really writes an amazing essay; it’s adequate or it’s not.

So take a look at a few writing samples to get a feel for what they look like, and do a few as practice, but that’s all you need. Pretty much everyone does fine, and it really is pretty unimportant – virtually everything else in your application carries far more weight. So go back to studying for the rest of the test, that’s what will make the difference.

An earlier version of this article was published September 24, 2013.