Let me preface this post with an explanation of my intent: I think as almost everyone approaches their LSAT administration there are moments when scores occasionally plateau and performance feels stagnant, and motivation can quickly vanish as a result.
This is especially apparent in the mid-ranges, as students creep their way through the 140s and 150s, grinding for every point—people starting out and generally scoring lower find that everyday brings new revelations and scores improve quickly, while people in the upper ranges (160s and beyond) are naturally motivated by the consistency of their success.
But for test takers toiling to get over the 150-level hump, a genuine passion for continued prep can be hard to find.
This is obviously troublesome, as, for a lot of people anyway, it kills their enthusiasm and desire to keep working, and that stalled waypoint becomes their ultimate and disappointing destination. So what I hope to do here is give people, particularly those in the aforementioned mid-range, a slightly different perspective on what even small improvements really mean, and in doing so help students find the will to soldier on.
And the way I hope to accomplish that is by taking a closer look at how this test is scored less from a number standpoint (“I got a 168!”), and more from the viewpoint of what your score means relative to your fellow applicants.
As a refresher, every LSAT contains approximately 100 questions and is scored from a 120 (lowest) to a 180 (highest). Since 100 questions doesn’t translate evenly into those 61 possible scores, the test makers use what’s called a Conversion Chart to turn the raw score out of 100 (the number of questions answered correctly) into a scaled score from 120-180. This Chart varies slightly from test to test to account for subtle differences in the overall exam difficulties and test taker performances, but roughly they all look very similar to the following from December 2013:
As you can see, the Raw Score in the right-hand columns is aligned with a corresponding Scaled Score on the left, such that answering either 55 or 56 questions correctly would produce a scaled score of 150, while a raw score of 87 would result in a 170 on this particular LSAT.
And that’s how most people tend to think of the test: in terms of their final score. “If I’m answering about half of the questions correctly, so 50 out of 100, I’ll get a 146, and if I can answer about 10 more correctly overall, I’ll increase my score to a 153…” and so on.
But what does that hypothetical 7-point increase really mean? Sure, a 153 is inarguably a better score than a 146, and a 158 would be better still, but how do you really make sense of those numbers in a broader, or even more meaningful, sense? How much better is that 153 than the initial 146?
And how, as I suggested when I started this conversation, can a different perspective beyond just “my score” be a motivating factor?
To answer those questions, we need to talk about percentiles. You see, the way that the test makers are able to adjust the scale from test-to-test to keep every administration consistent is that they seek to have each final score represent a certain percentage of the test taking audience. For instance, on every LSAT a 151 is designed to be essentially the halfway point, where 50% of people score above it, and the other 50% score below it. To do that, the test makers simply determine where to draw the midpoint line based on overall raw scores: 57 correct (in the table above) splits test takers into even halves, so that score of 57 then represents the 50th percentile, and is scaled to a 151. Perhaps on a prior LSAT 55 questions would have been the average, in which case a 55 would have been scaled to a 151 (that test would have been more difficult presumably, as people answered fewer questions correctly on average).
Similarly, a score of 172 is typically the cutoff point to score in the top 1% of all test takers, so again LSAC determines the raw score at/above which only 1 out of 100 testers remain, and that becomes a 172 (on the scale above, that number was 89 questions correct). Side note: when you hear people post-LSAT talking about the difficulty in terms of “minus-eleven” or “minus-thirteen” and so on, they’re referring to the number of questions that can be missed to score a 170.
So now, finally, let me get to my main point. Below is another chart with percentiles listed for all 61 scores from 120 to 180. Take a look:
You’ll notice that at the high and low ends the percentiles don’t differ all that much, with a 120 separated from a 135 by less than 6%, and a 167 a similar percentage away from a perfect 180. What that means is that as you climb out of the lower levels, or reach the highest levels of this test, a single point or two increase is only going to differentiate you from a very small number of your fellow (and almost certainly directly-competing) applicants.
But let’s look at the example we began with, where Student X began with 50% accuracy (50 correct) and a score of 146, and managed to improve to a 153. Remember, that’s only a 7 point increase, just a 2-3 questions per section improvement. But in terms of the applicant pool, Student X has just leapfrogged over a quarter of all the test takers out there, moving from the 29.5th percentile all the way to the 55.6th! If 100,000 or so people take the test every year, she just put about 26,000 people in her rearview!
And that’s only from 7 points! In our full-length and live online courses we see students increase scores by an average of approximately 13 points! Do that to a 146 and suddenly you’re in a whole different league of applicants, ahead of nearly 80% of all test takers. Imagine waiting in a line of 100 people, and you’re 70 people from the front, when all of a sudden someone offers you the chance to cut 48 of the people in front of you and move to the 21st spot in that line…that’s what a 146 to a 159 does, and represents the point increase our average student sees. If that doesn’t motivate you to work for every single point I really don’t know what would!
So when you start to feel like you’ve hit a wall, or a point here and there begins to lose some of its luster, remember that the game you’re playing isn’t about the score, it’s about your position in the applicant field, and even small improvements can serve to set you well apart from those people looking to take your seat in law school. Don’t let them!
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