LSAT undergoes change for 2007
Kate Antonacci | Thursday, November 9, 2006
Four times a year, students with dreams of becoming lawyers sit in hundreds of locations around the world and take a $118, half-day standardized test – one that has remained nearly unchanged for the last 15 years.
Beginning in June 2007, however, this exam – the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) – will feature two small, yet significant, changes recently announced by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC).
The main change is to the reading comprehension section of the exam, which currently features four different long passages, each with six or seven questions, said Ben Baron, vice president for graduate programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions.
“One of those passages will be replaced by comparative reading [with] two shorter side by side passages,” he said.
The two passages together “are of roughly the same length as one reading comprehension passage, so the total amount of reading in the reading comprehension section will remain essentially the same,” the LSAC Web site reads.
While a few of the questions about the comparative reading section pair may concern only one of the passages, most questions will ask about both passages and their relation to one another, according to the Web site.
Though the change directly affects only six or seven questions, Baron said a student’s score – which can range from 120 to 180 – could vary by three to six points depending on his work in the section.
While a three-point difference would still be within a student’s score margin, a six-point different would be dramatic, said Ava Preacher, pre-law advisor at Notre Dame.
“The LSAC is constantly trying to find ways to make the test more predictive of law school success,” Baron said. “[The LSAC is] looking to find the best kinds of questions to ask.”
The new questions are ones that the LSAC, which represents all law schools, believes will correlate with the type of reading required in law school, Baron said.
“You will be reading various cases and doing analyses,” Preacher said.
A significant change was also made to the essay section. LSAT test takers are required to complete a writing sample the day of the exam – and though the sample is unscored, it is included with the scores when they are reported to law schools.
In the past, there were two potential types of prompts – a decision prompt, in which a student is asked to make a choice among a couple of options and defend one opinion; and an argument prompt, in which a student is asked to analyze a given prompt. Beginning in June 2007, the argument prompt will be eliminated, Baron said.
The elimination of one type of prompt means that students now only have to prepare for one type of question, he said.
“Now everybody will be assigned a decision prompt,” Preacher said. “I think [the change may come] in part because it may have been somewhat confusing to students before and they didn’t quite get what the difference was.”
While the writing sample is unscored, Preacher said it still plays a critical role in admissions.
According to a 2006 LSAC survey of 157 U.S. and Canadian schools, nearly all law schools use the unscored portion of the exam in some way, Preacher said. When asked how often the writing sample is used in evaluating a candidate for admission, 9.9 percent said always, 25.3 percent said frequently, 32.7 percent said occasionally, 25.3 percent said seldom and 6.8 percent said never.
The June 2007 exam is a significant one, Baron said, as it tends to be the first date for that particular year’s cycle of potential law school applicants.
“I don’t think they’ve been made aware of the changes,” Preacher said about Notre Dame students applying to law schools or considering taking the LSAT.
In 2004-05 academic year, there were more than 110,000 different LSAT test takers, including 439 from Notre Dame.
The LSAT is required by all 194 law schools approved by the American Bar Association.
For students currently considering taking the test, Baron said the December or February tests are a good idea, as the student has time to prepare without the level of unpredictability that may come with the newly formatted exam.
“The whole idea of preparing for a standardized test is to take out all the unfamiliarity,” he said.
Preparation, in whatever form a student chooses, is key, Preacher said.
“I always tell students that they should prepare before they walk into the room. I don’t care how they prepare, but they have to devote the time to adequately prepare,” Preacher said, adding that she normally recommends four hours of studying a week for the four months prior to the test, minimum.
The entirely paper-based test will still be offered only four times a year – in December, February, June and September – despite recent changes to the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) making it both computerized and offered more frequently.
“The GRE is on computer, the GMAT is on computer, the MCAT is on computer,” Baron said. “The LSAT is not and there are no current plans to move it. I think they feel that the test works fine … to predict academic success in law school. As an organization, that’s ultimately their responsibility to administer a quality test.”
Preacher said at pre-law advisor conferences, the pre-law liaison continually assures advisors that the test will not go to computer any time soon, largely because of the high volume of test-takers.
Securing the computers and scheduling test times, Preacher said, would also add an extra burden.
“Plus, most students are used to taking paper and pencil tests,” she said.
No matter the format, Baron said in the more competitive programs, it is not unusual for an LSAT score to make up as much as 50 percent of an admissions decision.
“It is critically important,” Baron said. “In fact, the LSAT is really unique in terms of graduate admissions tests in terms of how important it is in the admissions process.”
Though she did say that the LSAT is “significant,” Preacher added that “it’s not huge.”
“What it does is change the range of law schools that you can consider,” Preacher said. “In other words if you get a 160, Harvard, Stanford and Yale are going to be a stretch unless you have something really remarkable to offer … that’s not to say they don’t take someone with 160.”
Baron said a candidate’s grade point average (GPA), quality application and personal statement are all important for admissions.
While the type of preparation for the exam will not change dramatically, the lack of study material could pose a problem, Baron said, as the new sections have never been on the exam previously.
Still, Baron said that “every type of change imaginable” has been seen before and the test should not have a huge effect on the number of law school applicants.
In the entering class of 2004 – the most recent year for which Preacher has figures – there were 470 law school applicants from Notre Dame, of which 182 were seniors and 288 were non-seniors.
“In the 2004 entering class, the average LSAT of all applicants was 159, for seniors the average was 160.4 and for non-seniors 158.2,” Preacher said.
Despite the high numbers – which Baron said places Notre Dame high nationally among numbers of law school applicants – Preacher said the University is experiencing a decrease.
“By all accounts, it’s dropping,” Preacher said. “We had a peak in 2003 or 2004, but now we’re seeing a drop.”
Preacher said the drop in law school applicants from Notre Dame may have something to do with the economy, and that people “tend to apply to law school because it is a secure profession.”
Not that she sees the drop as a bad thing. Preacher said she is notorious for advising students to take time off before heading to law school.
“It may be the only time in your life that you have the freedom to do what you want to do without any strings,” she said. “I think it also gives you the chance to be absolutely certain that law school is what you want.
“I’m seeing more and more students who are taking time off, but we still have many who go directly in.”