Taking The LSAT Cold: Our Intrepid Reporter Does It

by Maya Itah on

ESSAY SECTION

We had 35 minutes to write about a hypothetical lawyer’s dilemma (did all the prompts have law-related themes?). There were two things this lawyer wanted: a good family life and influence on public policy. He had to choose between taking a low-profile but secure job as a judge and running for a volatile seat in the legislature. We had to make a case for one job over the other in two pages.

I argued that the lawyer should become a judge and simply exercise influence over the various politicians, businessmen, and hotshot clerks he’d meet during his service. Thanks to a recent “House of Cards” binge, I associated the word “politician” with Peter Russo, and I didn’t want my hypothetical lawyer getting addicted to drugs and becoming some senior legislator’s pawn. (I almost inserted a “House of Cards” reference at the end but tragically ran out of space.)

I finished, revised, edited out what was absolutely nonsensical, and ended up with a short piece of writing I was sort of happy with, considering the circumstances. I’d say I had the writing portion covered if I had any idea how it’d be scored.

AFTER THE EXAM, I FELT BIZARRELY CALM

Once the proctors said we could leave, we all sprung from our desks and shuffled out, barely looking at one another. Relieved test-takers chatted in the hallway. It was finally over.

When I exited the building and took in the view from the top of the hill, I felt bizarrely calm. I’d been testing from 12:30 to 5:00, and that’s honestly the longest I’ve gone without using electronics in months; plus, the test itself had given my brain a nice workout. I guess the LSAT isn’t miserable if you have nothing at stake. So, if you’re stressed, maybe try pretending you have nothing at stake? But that’s a good life lesson in general.

I got a score of 157 and a percentile rank of 71. Is it T14 material? Not at all. After all, to get into Harvard or Yale Law would require a score of 170 to 176. But I broke 130, and that, to be perfectly honest, is all I had dared to hope for. Heck, the average score is about 150, on a scale of 120 to 180, and that’s for people who really want to go to law school. 

To get an idea of how much I’d be able to improve my score, I took to the law school forums. Many people expressed the belief that you can only aim for about 5 points higher than your cold score. Still, many more talked about the (slightly insane) methods they used to boost their scores by 15 points or more. For example, on Lawstudents.ca, a user named robo-tron described the way he went from a 152 to a 167: “. . . at 9 a.m., I choked down the same fruit smoothie, knock-off red bull, and toast meal every time I wrote the test, and limited washroom breaks to the specific times they would be during the test so I could limit my liquid intake accordingly . . . . The LSAT became my needy and demanding best friend. I bought, begged and stole PDFs for it and probably would have pimped my sister to Steve Schwartz for it.” Intense.

‘HOW YOU PERFORM ON THE LSAT REFLECTS YOUR HISTORY OF COGNITIVE ENGAGEMENT’

In a 2012 study, UC Berkeley neuroscientists even found that rigorous LSAT prep physically alters your brain. “Our research provides a more positive message,” said Silvia Bunge, an associate professor of psychology at Berkeley and a senior author of the study. “How you perform on one of these tests is not necessarily predictive of your future success, it merely reflects your prior history of cognitive engagement, and potentially how prepared you are at this time to enter a graduate program or a law school, as opposed to how prepared you could ever be.”

But Sarah Zearfoss, assistant dean for admissions at the University of Michigan Law School, has a less theoretical perspective. She doesn’t think the test is gameable at all. “Honestly, I can’t tell you the number of people whose scores are modest at best who say that they’ve been working on it for a long time,” she says. Zearfoss has served a couple of terms on LSAC’s test development and research committee, so she’s seen a lot of data. “If you take the test multiple times, the vast, vast, vast majority of people score within 2 to 3 points every single time,” she says. Having some sense of how the LSAT runs is definitely helpful, but she wouldn’t advise anyone to spend a year obsessing over it.

TWO KINDS OF LSAT TEST TAKERS

As far as I can tell, there are two main kinds of test takers. There’s the kind that thrives on the idea of doing the impossible, the kind that actually derives energy from a sub-par initial score. If the thought of going from zero to hero fires you up and gets your adrenaline pumping, study to your heart’s content.

But there’s also the kind of test taker that wilts under self-imposed pressure. I’d put myself in this category. I’m pretty sure meticulous preparation would’ve made me flunk out of sheer nervousness.

If I had to take the LSAT all over again, I would spend a few months taking timed practice tests and reviewing my answers (while drinking tea, not Red Bull). I would prepare my testing materials a week instead of a few hours before the test. But that’s about it.

You know yourself; you know what’s worked in your life. Be yourself, and you’ll have a good chance of getting where you need to be.

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  • I took my first LSAT with pretty limited prep and also got a 157. Studied for ~3 months, 2 full days a week, which resulted in a 166 (+22 percentile points). It seemed like an entirely learnable test, and I felt like with more time I could have done even better.

  • sam

    Thanks for the article. However, I have taken the test and have met multiple people who have taken it also and taking the test cold with little prep will not get you a 157. Just wanted to let others out there know that this is a mere exceptional case. There is no way to get even five points right without understanding how logic games work. Also, the test requires test takers to be knowledgeable in formal logic and existential quantifiers which are not part of a basic university student’s education, aside from the philosophy major that too logic courses.
    Do not be deceived, remember to study hard for that 157! Good luck

    • EPOC

      That is not true. Many people are born test takers and they tend to keep friends of the like. Probably a majority is not good at tests, but the fact is that most people in my social circles would in fact be able to score in the 75th percentile on any of these tests cold. These are also people who scored in the top 2% of MCATs or GMATs or LSATs (myself included) with a bit of prep. Fact is, there is the haves and the have nots.

  • RAGA

    Can anyone recommend some books for the preparation of LSAT.

    • vienna

      LSAT Logical Reasoning Bible & the other 2 in the series – better than all other guides out there….

  • Denise Nicolet

    I am curious as to the background of the LSAT takers that have done well. I took the LSAT once and scored terribly. I took it with no preparation and a bundle of nerves. I also found the atmosphere to be difficult. I took the LSAT at Cal Northridge and the lighting was poor and the print was small on the test and scantron. Has this changed at all?

  • Patty Furzer Tanji

    Makes me want to take the test. I think I’m getting smarter with age!

  • ljwdhfj

    yeah, you have to realize that the author has to be relatively intelligent to begin with, she graduated from usc – a good school, magna cum laude, and in 3 years. so this is not the ‘average’ person on the street taking the test cold.

  • Suicidal_JD

    Law school ruined my life! I have no job and I have student loan debt that will follow me to my grave. Now is a horrible time to go to law school. Save yourself; DON’T GO TO LAW SCHOOL!

  • Ann

    I realize this article is old but it’s super interesting. I just took the test cold yesterday (although my prep consisted of reading this article and the Wikipedia page about the lsat). I’m really excited to see how I end up scoring as I found taking the test a bit of an adrenaline rush. I did have an awkward moment where someone asked what type of law I wanted to practice and I couldn’t really articulate that I just wanted to take the test. I honestly have no idea how I did but am excited to see how different my score is from the author’s — at the very least, I did manage to finish each section.

    • Ann

      Scores just posted. Ended up getting a 152 and found myself disappointed even though it literally doesn’t matter at all since I’m not going to law school or have any intention of using the score. I started off pretty strong but my sections got progressively worse as the test went on. Everything I’ve read since taking it says it’s a learnable test and I can see how taking practice tests would give someone a more reasonable idea of what to expect.

      • Thanks for telling us how it went, Ann! Test fatigue is no joke – especially with the LSAT. And you’re right, it is a learnable test and a 152 with no prep bodes well for you if you ever would want to take it seriously and go to law school.

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