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Your LSAT score is one of the two most important factors (your undergraduate GPA being the other) in any law school application. And it’s in your best interest to get into the best school you can, since statistics show that your law school alma mater has a huge impact on your starting salary as a lawyer. Stephen Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University, puts it this way: “Firms assume that law schools have already sifted through the pool of potential lawyers, so they look to the top schools to produce top employees, the ones to which they will give the highest salaries. Think about what you would do if you wanted to draft a great basketball player for the NBA: You’d look to the players from the teams that made it to the Final Four rather than scouring the whole country.” And if you’re paying off three years’ worth of law school loans, that’s a persuasive argument to make a killer effort to get into the most prestigious school possible. Step one: Ace the LSAT. Unfortunately, this is a test you can’t actually study for. You may have burned the midnight oil cramming your way through college exams, but since the LSAT is not a test of knowledge, memorizing lists won’t help. The LSAT aims to test the level of logical and analytical skills that you’ve acquired throughout your education and professional experience. What you can study for is how to apply those skills to the types of questions you will encounter, and you can prepare yourself by becoming well acquainted with the nature and details of the exam. First steps: Learn why the LSAT is so important to law schools and find out when and where to register. WHY THE LSAT? The LSAT is a universal yardstick, used to quantify the abilities that law schools are looking for in candidates who come from disparate academic backgrounds. According to Seppy Basili, vice president of learning and assessment at Kaplan Education Centers, the LSAT is actually the most highly correlative predictor of a student’s performance during his first year of law school. And according to Trachtenberg, the first year is the toughest nut to crack: If you can get through it, you will most likely succeed in your second and third years as well. He asserts that the only thing a law school deems better predictor than the LSAT as a predictor of how well you’ll do as a law student is your performance in your first year at another school. In other words, if you get into a B-level law school and do extremely well, you can often trade up because A-level schools will look at you more favorably. WHEN TO TAKE THE TEST The LSAT is administered four times a year — Saturday mornings in October, December, and February and on a Monday afternoon in June. There are also alternate administrations for Saturday Sabbath observers. The administration fee for the test is $90, and the deadline for registration is generally one month before the test date. You can find out more specific information from the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) at www.lsac.org. In order to ensure that your scores are reported in time for fall admission, most of the 197 accredited law schools in the United States and Canada recommend that you take the LSAT by the December administration of the previous year. At the time of registration, you can elect to have your score report sent to as many as five law schools; after that, there’s a $34 fee for each extra report. Because your LSAT score is valid for only five years, you shouldn’t take it too far in advance of when you plan on applying to schools. Hint:If you’re planning to apply shortly after you get your bachelor’s degree, consider taking the LSAT during your senior year in college, while you’re still in academic mode. Here’s the good news: There’s no math. The LSAT is made up of five 35-minute multiple choice sections: two in logical reasoning, one in logic games, one in reading comprehension, and an “experimental” section that may comprise any one of the above. The experimental section tests new questions for future LSAT-takers. Unless you’re blessed with psychic powers, you won’t know which one it is, so don’t waste your time trying to figure it out. Hint:Because there is no penalty for a wrong answer on the LSAT, you should never leave a question blank. You may be able to garner a couple of valuable extra points by making some educated guesses. Here’s a rundown of the three types of questions. Examples are taken from the test administered by LSAC in October 1996. Logical reasoning (25-28 questions) is just as it sounds: You are presented with a statement or an argument called a “stimulus,” and your job is to answer questions based on the conclusions and inferences you draw from it. This tests your complex reasoning abilities, which will be integral to your success in law school. Logical reasoning is the most important question type on the test, because your performance on these two sections accounts for about 50 percent of your total scaled score. Remember, you must only consider the information you are given in the stimulus. The argument may be false, or you may disagree with it, but your job is only to identify its weaknesses. So don’t make assumptions, and read each question very carefully. Hint:Watch out for words like none, never, or always. They often signal a wrong answer. Example: Someone who gets sick from eating a meal will often develop a strong distaste for the one food in the meal that had the most distinctive flavor, whether or not that food caused the sickness. This phenomenon explains why children are especially likely to develop strong aversions to some foods. Which one of the following, if true, provides the strongest support for the explanation? (a) Children are more likely than adults to be given meals composed of foods lacking especially distinctive flavors. (b) Children are less likely than adults to see a connection between their health and the foods they eat. (c) Children tend to have more acute taste and to become sick more often than adults do. (d) Children typically recover more slowly than adults do from sickness caused by food. (e) Children are more likely than are adults to refuse to eat unfamiliar foods. (Answer: C) Hint:You have 35 minutes to answer about 25 of these. That works out to 60 to 90 seconds for each. Don’t get bogged down on any one question — if you find yourself suffering over two answer choices, make your best guess and let it go. You’ve got a good shot if you can eliminate one or more wrong answers, and you’re not going to be penalized if you don’t get it right — only rewarded if you do. Once you’ve answered the question, put it out of your mind and move on to the next one. Logic games (24-26 questions, usually four games), formally called “Analytical Reasoning,” is the section that most often throws LSAT virgins for a loop. Under no circumstances should you be seeing these types of questions for the first time on the day of the test. Logic games test your ability to organize information in intricate relationships and then draw reasonable conclusions to answer questions. While perhaps the most daunting, the logic games section is eminently coachable, and students tend to improve their logic games scores greatly with preparation and practice. Example: A jeweler makes a single strand of beads by threading onto a string in a single direction from a clasp a series of solid-colored beads. Each bead is either green, orange, purple, red, or yellow. The resulting strand satisfies the following specifications: If a purple bead is adjacent to a yellow bead, any bead that immediately follows and any bead that immediately precedes that pair must be red. Any pair of beads adjacent to each other that are the same color as each other must be green. No orange bead can be adjacent to any red bead. Any portion of the strand containing eight consecutive beads must include at least one bead of each color. If the strand has exactly eight beads, which one of the following is an acceptable order, starting from the clasp, for the eight beads? (a) Green, red, purple, yellow, red, orange, green, purple (b) Orange, yellow, red, red, yellow, purple, red, green (c) Purple, yellow, red, green, green, orange, yellow, orange (d) Red, orange, red, yellow, purple, green, yellow, green (e) Red, yellow, purple, red, green, red, green, green (Answer: C) Hint:Because logic games are so coachable, LSAC has responded by creating increasingly more difficult games. In order to ensure that you’re practicing logic games at the same level of difficulty that you’ll encounter on test day, don’t even bother practicing games from tests that are from the early ’90s — they’re too easy. Reading comprehension (25-28 questions, four passages of about 500 words), like the section of the same name on the SAT (renamed “Critical Reading” in 1995), tests your ability to deconstruct an excerpted piece of text in order to answer questions about its main idea, tone, writing techniques, specific details, assumptions, and application to a hypothetical situation. Topics can range from the evolution of woodwind instruments to the mating rituals of monkeys in the rain forest. Questions could include: Which one of the following best states the main point of the passage? Which one of the following best describes the author’s attitude? Which one of the following best describes the organization of the passage? Hint:Because these sections tend to be the most dense and difficult to get through, and because the questions are arranged by difficulty after each passage (rather than from beginning to end of the whole section), browse all the passage topics first, and start with the one that interests you most. It’s generally easier to focus on a topic that intrigues you, and if you run out of time and don’t get to one of the passages in the section, it might as well be the most boring one. At the end of the test, there is a 30-minute writing sample that presents you with a controversial issue and asks you to write an essay advocating a particular position. Though it’s never graded, copies are sent along with your score reports to the schools. The personal statement on your application is much more important, though. One DC lawyer and veteran LSAT expert says, “As long as you pick a side and answer the question, the writing sample shouldn’t detract from your application. Don’t waste too much time worrying about preparing for it, because it doesn’t get factored into your LSAT score.” Example: Roberto Martinez, owner of a small used bookstore, has recently purchased an adjacent store and is deciding how best to use it to expand his business. Write an argument in support of one plan over the other based on the following criteria: Martinez wants to attract a significant number of new customers. Martinez wants to retain the loyal clientele that looks to him for out-of-print books and first editions. One plan is for Martinez to begin carrying best-sellers and popular fiction. Because of his downtown location, publishers of these works are likely to put his store on their book tours; although the large bookstore chains have taken hold in the suburbs, none has yet located in the downtown area. Under this plan, however, Martinez would have enough room to keep only the best books from his current inventory. To capitalize on this collection, he is considering an occasional evening series called “Rediscoveries,” featuring discussions of authors whose out-of-print books he carries, particularly several authors who are currently enjoying a resurgence of critical attention. An alternative plan is for Martinez to use the new space to open a small coffeehouse with a limited menu. He would furnish the area as a sitting room with couches and chairs and a few regular dining tables. Although there are several restaurants nearby, they offer primarily full meals in more formal settings. Retaining much of his inventory of used books, he would add novels, poetry, and nonfiction published by small presses to feature lesser-known writers whose work is difficult to find in this community. These small presses include a number of local authors who are eager to read and discuss their work in the coffeehouse. Hint:Follow the directions and don’t come up with a third possible argument or get too creative with your answer. In their instructions, LSAC notes: “Law schools are interested in how skillfully you support the position you take and how clearly you express that position. How well you write is much more important than how much you write.” The LSAT is scored on a scale of 120 to 180. Score ranges vary from school to school, so research your schools of interest to find out what their middle 50 percent ranges are. A good place to start your research is at www.usnews.com, which ranks and reports on each school annually. Solid candidates for top-10 law schools score in the 90th percentile or higher. That means at least a 164. But don’t give up if you’re not squarely in the top tenth percentile — these are only ranges, and an impressive essay and stellar GPA can sometimes make up for the few missed points on the LSAT. One lawyer who’s been counseling prospective law school students since 1995 puts it simply: “A good score can whitewash a marginal GPA; a great GPA can make up for a marginal score. But it’s harder to do the latter.” You may take the LSAT up to three times in any two-year period, but be careful about taking the test too many times. LSAC reports not only your best or most recent score but all scores and test cancellations over the past five years. In addition, it will include a score average if you’ve taken more than one exam, plus a score band for each test you have taken. Score bands span from three points below to three points above your actual score, and indicate the possibility for error in gauging your ability level. These bands are intended to discourage admissions officers from placing too much emphasis on minute score discrepancies between students. Schools don’t like to see too many test scores — it’s indicative of a student who can’t get her act together to prepare for a test and perform to the best of her ability. Of course, if you feel the score is a serious misrepresentation of your ability level, it is to your benefit to take the test again. Hilary Abell, who recently took her LSAT for the second time, increased her score by five points over her first test. She attributes her initial performance to nerves and her unfamiliarity with the territory and exam-day situation. “I knew what I needed to do to make myself comfortable the second time around,” she says. She could visualize the test, see what was coming up next, and was familiar with the timing of each section so that she could pace herself accordingly. Her perseverance paid off: She will be attending Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law in the fall. Hint:If your score increases dramatically, you might want to address the original score abnormality — perhaps in an attachment to your personal statement (not within the personal statement itself). Kaplan’s Basili suggests having a recommendation writer drop a small explanation in his letter to the admissions office — for example, “I know that Nicole was having a difficult time coping with the loss of her grandfather at the time she was first preparing to take the LSAT.” “Preparation has now become the standard,” says Basili. “The cat’s out of the bag. Test prep works.” Not only does it familiarize you with the exam, but it reduces the stress associated with test-taking. According to Basili, “Confidence is a lot of the value that test prep provides.” If you know you’ve done all you can to prepare for the exam, you can walk into the room on test day and feel secure. You’ll know from your practice tests how well you’ve been doing and how much your score has increased; and even if you’re scoring spot-on in the 50th percentile, you’ll be able to look around the room and know that you’re going to do better than half the people in there. Also, because the LSAT is still a paper-and-pencil test (unlike the GMAT and GRE, which are administered on the computer), test takers have the luxury of skipping around within a section, getting points where they can and coming back to the more difficult questions later. Being familiar enough with the exam to have an attack strategy for each section is a security blanket: You’ll know what kinds of questions to expect, which ones you’re best at, and how to break up the section to maximize the number of questions you answer correctly. How do you find a method of preparation that best suits your needs? Start by taking a free practice test (LSAC offers a downloadable version at www.lsac.org, and Kaplan will provide a paper-and-pencil version upon request). This exercise will show you where your strengths and weaknesses are, and how many points you need to add to hit your target score. Hint:Don’t bother taking a practice test online — because it’s such a different format, it won’t predict your score as accurately as a paper-and-pencil exam will. If you download LSAC’s test, print it out before you take it. Then, do a little preliminary self-assessment: Are you already an excellent test taker, or do you have a specific weakness that needs to be addressed? If so, maybe a private tutor is right for you. Do you work better in a group setting and learn more easily when your peers ask questions and provide explanations? A prep course might be your best option. And — not to be overlooked — what can you afford? The biggest and best names in LSAT prep are Kaplan and Princeton Review. They’ve earned their reputations by hiring highly qualified instructors and then putting them through a rigorous training process, consistently reviewing and updating their curricula. Kaplan, which reports an average score increase of 7.2 points, touts its commitment to teaching strategies, not just “tricks.” Princeton Review hangs its hat on the fact that their classes are small and grouped by ability level, so you know you’ll be in a class with people who learn at the same pace as you. These reputations come at a price, however, so be willing to shell out close to $1,000 for a course. It’s always best to start preparing as far in advance of your test date as possible, and most courses will accommodate students who plan ahead, offering course schedules that meet once a week for eight to 10 weeks, running up until the scheduled test date. But these courses also make room for slackers and can still help you out if you have only a month or so before you want to take the exam — just be prepared to sacrifice two- or three-hour chunks of time for a few days each week. Hint:Make sure you get the most bang for your buck: Ask about extra help sessions you might attend and office hours with instructors. Test-prep companies want you to succeed so that you’ll tell your friends about your wonderful experience, and they’re usually willing to go out of their way to help you achieve your goals. If you’ve got the funds, look into hiring a private tutor. With personalized attention tailored to your ability level, you won’t waste time going over sections you’re already acing. You’ll probably also feel more comfortable asking questions and going over explanations until you get it right. Expect to pay between $100 and $150 an hour for a private tutor from Kaplan or Princeton Review, or between $50 and $100 for an independent instructor or graduate student. At the minimum, order a few practice exams from LSAC at www.lsac.org(they’ve published nearly all their exams since 1991) for $8 a pop. LSAC also publishes a book called “10 Actual, Official LSAT PrepTests” for $29 — definitely the thriftiest option. Remember that the tests have become harder over the years, so try to practice with tests that were administered within the past several years, saving two or three of the most recent tests for last. Hint:Simulate the testing atmosphere in at least a couple of your practice exams: Time yourself accurately; do all sections; take breaks where required; and be far away from phones, refrigerators, and the comforts of home.

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