It's been about four weeks now since I first discussed the kickoff of the 2015-2016 LSAT cycle—the upcoming four exams typically taken for admission in the fall of 2016—and if you'll recall I noted that I'd be addressing these tests in two parts: general advice on why you should start preparing immediately, and a detailed look at each of the cycle's LSATs, June through February, in an attempt to steer you towards the most appropriate one.
This post will provide that test-by-test breakdown and comparison. But before I launch into it let me take a moment to recap what I covered in Part One:
Although the Part One post was lengthy, I believe I can (and did) sum up my prep advice in two words: start early! With a month now having passed my sincere hope is that you heeded that advice and are already well on your way, perhaps with self-study, perhaps with some personal coaching...but making progress! If you've yet to get started (maybe you're new to this, or weighing your options, or enrolled in a course that hasn't yet begun) that's okay; just know that time is of the essence and the sooner you can begin to better understand the LSAT the greater your chances are of conquering it.
More expansively, I listed four reasons why it's critical to get an early start, each of which I'll recap for you below:
The LSAT is hard! And that's putting it mildly. As I mentioned, the LSAT is arguably the toughest test you've ever taken, so much so that of the 100,000 or so annual test takers, only about 30 get a perfect score. That's a 0.03% likelihood of a 180, on a test where "perfect" still allows you to miss around 3% of the questions. This is a hard, hard test.
The LSAT is learnable! Despite its difficulty, the LSAT is still a "standardized" test. What that means is that the people who create it have to follow certain rules, strict guidelines, to ensure that every administration is consistent. And consistency, provided you know how to recognize it, means predictability, which, provided you know how to react to it, means vulnerability. In short, if you can see the patterns, and know what to do with the patterns, then you can BEAT the patterns!
What this means then is that, with the right tools, the right strategies learned from credible experts, you CAN crack this test! And that's a big part of my "start early" advice: the methodology to destroy the LSAT is entirely learnable, but the learning process can, and almost certainly will, take time. So get going!
Every point counts! Competition for 1L seats might not be quite what it was a decade ago, but make no mistake you're still fighting for every possible advantage. Again, I'll spare you a full retelling of what even incremental improvements can mean for you (I've covered this idea at length previously and strongly encourage you to give it a look), and instead remind you of a profound truth: from a very typical starting point of around 146 (that's about 50% accuracy), if you improve 13 points--and 13 points is just the average improvement we see from our Full-Length Course students--to a 159, you've gone from the 30th percentile to the 77th! That's a 48% jump, meaning about 48,000 people that year who were ahead of you no longer are. Every point counts.
The LSAT Matters! Again, this is not a philosophical statement, or an argument about the utility of the skills tested or the test's validity as an LS-success predictor. My point was simply that your score is very likely to play a big role in your eventual post-grad salary. If you're investing the time and money for the degree, it makes sense that you'd want your investment to pay off. And few things affect that payoff (literally) to the extent that your LSAT score does: it's the single biggest component determining where you will go to law school, and where you go to law school typically has a very direct correlation to future salary. Trust me on this, we've done the research and the numbers are conclusive.
Let me highlight the gist of that article, just in case you skipped it. The average, private sector starting salary difference for graduates from typical 155 schools versus those from 160 schools was over $30,000 a year (at the time of reporting). And let's not forget that that's a cumulative figure, meaning the same discrepancy holds true year two, and year three, and so on. Three years of post-grad employment sees the 160-schooler earn around $100,000 more than his 155 counterpart! The LSAT isn't just determining where you'll attend, but also what's likely to occur once you graduate.
Alright. Hopefully that's a decent refresher on the need to get going. That out of the way, let's look next at exactly where you might be going, as we consider the next four LSAT administrations and what each may mean for you as you prepare for the test and ultimately apply to schools.
Some background first. The LSAT is offered four times each calendar year—February, June, October (or late September), and December—although interestingly enough each admissions cycle really begins with the June test and ends with the following February's. So four a year, but it's a 3-1 split of sorts. I'll explain this in greater detail shortly, but as a preface that's because the application window typically begins in early September (making June the most recent exam) and ends in February or March (so Feb scores are the last that are generally accepted). Hence the timing of this two-part post: the upcoming test in June is likely the first shot for the vast majority of 2016 law schools entrants.
So here are my thoughts—most wholly objective, a few less so—on the four LSAT administrations, beginning with the next up, June.
The June LSAT
Boy, do I love the June test. This is far and away my favorite LSAT, and not just because it's given on a Monday afternoon instead of a painfully early Saturday morning like the other three (although it is, which is wonderful). No, even though it's all I need to prefer it, June offers much more than just a chance to sleep in.
One of the greatest benefits of testing in June is that it allows you to submit your applications at the very beginning of the admission cycle, meaning you can get out in front of the crush of post-October applicants and capitalize on the time-sensitivity of rolling admissions. Let me clarify. Most law schools use a "rolling admissions" process, wherein candidates are considered as they "roll in," and thus by applying early you have the least amount of competition for the greatest number of available spaces. Making the cut early, when schools are looking at empty rooms and needing to fill seats, tends to be easier than doing so late, when a whole host of qualified contenders are still in the mix and the admissions committee has only a handful of spots left to fill. To be fair that's more generalization than gospel, as applying late with outstanding credentials still trumps an early app with marginal stats. All things being equal, though, applying early is unequivocally better, and June is as early as it gets for most people.
Taking the June LSAT still gives you a few months to polish your application—from resume to personal statement(s) to letters of recommendation—before you submit it even if you intend to apply the very first day schools allow it, and also means that if things don't go as well as you'd hoped you have a tremendous time cushion for your retake.
There's a strange aversion to June that some test takers seem to have acquired over the years, where two beliefs, one a misconception and the other a misinterpretation, have biased people against it. My adoration for June compels me to address both.
First, June has gotten an ill-deserved reputation as a test for the well-prepared. I hear it occasionally, albeit far too often, as, "aren't most of the test takers in June over achievers who've done a lot of work to be 'first in line,' and doesn't that mean the test will be harder to account for [offset] them?" No. NO. The June test is administered a bit differently with its Monday afternoon timing, but content-wise it's the absolute same as all the rest. I've been over this before, and nothing has changed since.
Second, people fear that June is the test when alterations are allowed, so it's less predictable than the others. There's just enough precedent here to imbue this myth with credibility. Consider: June 2007 was the first LSAT with Comparative Reading passages; June 2007 was also the first LSAT where the experimental section was no longer the same for every test taker; June 2012 was the first LSAT with two pages for each Logic Game. But aside from Comparative Reading which was announced well in advance, the "changes" either didn't matter (experimental section variability) or were a bonus (two pages per game). There's never been a June "surprise" that was detrimental, and frankly the word "surprise" itself overstates the magnitude of what June testers have seen.
The only real downside to June is that it's a summer test, a season that can be difficult for undergraduates to devote to studying as they're often working or otherwise distracted.
Fortunately my fandom finds itself in excellent company, as my colleague Nikki has very convincingly demonstrated in a recent pro-June post. Start studying. Shoot for June.
The October LSAT
Again, "October" isn't always accurate, since sometimes the Fall LSAT is given in late September (2014, for instance, although not 2015), but either way this is also a great LSAT to take. And people clearly agree: this has been the most popular test date of the four ever since 1989, when December just barely edged it out. To put it in perspective, during the LSAT's banner years—basically all of the 2000s (the "aughts," a word I never liked)—October outpaced December in test taker volume by an average of about 10,000 people, or roughly 20-25%.
Why? And what does this mean for you?
My suspicion about its popularity is that it's the first LSAT of the school year, and thus attracts a significant number of undergraduates who are back in full-bore study mode (or who've spent the summer prepping solely for the LSAT). It's also the first LSAT that occurs during the application period, so naturally it receives a certain heightened attention. But let's be clear, it's not more popular because it's easier, in content or scale. Content-wise the LSAT is the LSAT is the LSAT...take yours when you're most likely to be successful.
So taking the October LSAT does you no harm—you're right in the thick of things, after all—but it may cause some inconvenience, as test centers tend to fill up quickly. So sign up early!
The December LSAT
This is the last of the big ones, as the December LSAT is the final administration guaranteed to grant next-year acceptance into every law school (more on that in a second). It's also the second most popular LSAT of the four.
The only real point to make about December is that it's somewhat late in the cycle, and this is a concern for some people for two reasons: it may be the last test their school will take [true, but increasingly uncommon], and it puts you deep into the rolling admissions game [false, and I'll prove it].
The "last chance" concern is legitimate, but only because a retake after December truly does put you pretty late in the cycle, and that's assuming you school of choice takes February at all. I encourage people to prepare as though the new year was a deadline, and everything needs to be squared away by then. So treat December as a last chance, meaning you feel completely ready for either June or October, and December is a safety net, hopefully unused.
That said, let me preemptively, since I'm about to address February, talk about where December really is your last shot. Here is a post from a few years back listing the schools that accept scores beyond December, and allow me to note that the number has only grown since then. Truth is, schools are hurting for applicants at the moment so imposing an arbitrarily premature deadline on themselves to fill seats is more an act of self-abuse than of prestige or pretension. They want you. A number have even begun considering calendar-year June scores as wait list decision makers! The point, as should be obvious, is that even December these days is less of a penalty than a continued opportunity to demonstrate your worth, and if that means improving a few points from prior attempts this test has a genuine, and undeniable, appeal. Certainly the benefits of a strong December showing vastly overshadow any rolling admissions worries.
The February LSAT
This is where things get more interesting. Reason being is that while nearly every school will accept your February scores, there are still some that won't. The list is shrinking as schools become more desperate for applicants, and that's a good thing for you, but Feb is far from universally-allowed. It's also a dynamic and changing list, so you need to call and ask schools directly. And feel encouraged to be aggressive: as I've noted previously you have some negotiating power these days, and you should wield it.
But acceptance is the obvious concern about February, and one that's quickly resolved once you speak to a school directly. What bothers me, aside from the early Saturday start time and likely dreadfully cold conditions, is the fact that it's nondisclosed: because LSAC retains the test contents to potentially use for future administrations, Feb test takers do not get a copy of the questions, their answer sheet or answer key, or the test scale. A score and percentile is all that's released for February LSATs, so you'll never know what you answered correctly or incorrectly, or even how many you missed to attain your score.
Here's a further discussion of the specifics of a nondisclosed LSAT, and if you really want to investigate February I hosted a seminar on it that explores the exam in great detail (click the link within to launch the session).
What February is NOT is a last-ditch, hail mary scenario. Nearly every school will accept it, and if your score in February deserves admission—particularly if it's an improvement from a prior attempt—you'll get in. But having seen the toll it takes on peoples' nerves having to wait (or even having a score without evidence), I'd strongly encourage you to plan on taking an earlier test.
I know it's a lot to consider, and I also know that even the best plans can get derailed. That's okay. Simply have a plan, commit to it (and soon!), and realize that success still allows for some flexibility.
Questions? Comments? Let me know below!
Photo "Escalator to Hell" courtesy of Jakub Kadlec.