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If you leave the test site knowing that your performance was a disaster, you have the option of requesting that your exam not be scored. Within five working days, you must write to Law Services, ATTN: Score Cancellation, Box 2000-T, 661 Penn Street, Newtown, PA, 18940-0995. Include your name, address, social security number or nine-digit Law Services identification number, the test date, test center code and address, and a statement that you want your score cancelled. If you take this option, no score for that test date will ever be reported to any law school.
But because your paper will not be graded, you will never know how well you did. Therefore, you should use this option only if you are sure that your performance was a disaster. If you froze and went blank, if you left most of the questions unanswered, or if, like the apocryphal student I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, you messed up the answer sheet, then you are in this category. But otherwise, you are best off letting the exam be graded. Students often can't predict their scores when they leave the test centers.
If you don't request cancellation within five working days, your score will be recorded. It can never afterward be expunged. Even if you take the test over, your second score will not replace the first. Law Services will report all the LSAT scores you earned within the last five years to every law school you apply to.
Even if you did very poorly, you ought not to rush into taking the test over. You're in the position of a poker player who has to decide whether drawing a card will improve his or her hand. Above all, you don't want to weaken your position. You are likely to do better the second time; few candidates do worse. But according to Law Services, you are unlikely to do very much better. And in order to improve your odds of acceptance, you must do significantly better.
According to Law Services, . . . research indicates that when an applicant has taken the LSAT more than once, the average of the scores has more predictive validity than any one of the scores unless special circumstances are present. Otherwise, a decision to use one of the separate scores rather than the average is probably unwise, [emphasis in original]
If the two scores are close together, law schools will probably assume that the test is measuring what you are capable of. If you score at the 40th percentile the first time and the 42nd percentile the second, you've simply confirmed that your abilities lie in this range, distinctly below average. At all costs, you want to avoid giving this impression.
However, if the two scores differ markedly-if, for example, the second score moves you from the 40th to the 60th percentile-then law schools will probably assume that special circumstances were present, that the second score better indicates your capabilities, and that some problem or handicap blighted the first performance. How realistic is it to assume that you can improve significantly? Think back to the day of the test and ask yourself the following questions:
" Was I sick during the test? Was I feverish or fuzzy-minded? Did I waste time fumbling with Kleenex and cough drops?
" Was I off my stride because of antihistamines or other drugs?
" Did I have some mechanical problem? (One student had to work with a torn muscle in his right arm and wound up doing much of the test left-handed.)
" Was I under unusual emotional strain?
" Were there distractions in the test room?
" Did I leave a lot of questions unanswered?
" Was there one kind of question I just didn't understand?
" Did I need a lot of time to decipher the questions before I began to write?
" Did I do less preparation than my friends?
You should presume that your first score represents your best effort unless you can answer "yes" to some of these questions, or know of some other specific, tangible reason why it does not. Be honest with yourself. Your test score won't improve by magic.
But it may improve if you can identify some specific problem and fix it. If you suffered from a lack of preparation, then you have to prepare. If your problem was caused by drugs, or emotional strain, or fatigue, then you have to deal with these things before the second test. If you can do so, then there is a good chance of substantial improvement. And you should approach the retest in a positive state of mind. After all, the flu is unlikely to strike twice, the mate whose infidelity was causing problems is unlikely to be around, and your poor initial showing should help you discipline yourself for practice.
But what if you can't point to some specific problem that affected your test performance? In this case, whether or not you should take the test over depends on how damning the first performance actually was. You will have to evaluate it in terms of your overall application position.
At one extreme are the candidates whose test scores are absolute disasters-typically, at the 20th percentile or below. If you're in this group, your options will narrow drastically. If your grades are very good-that is, if you have the 3.7 GPA normally needed for a top law school-then you may be able to get into a less selective law school on grades alone. If you're willing to step down in this way, your prelaw adviser can help you put together a list of law schools that de-emphasize the test.
But in my experience, few candidates have this option. Because the test correlates with grades, most candidates with low test scores have low grades as well. If you're in this category, you have no choice. You have to take the test over, and you have to do substantially better, or you won't be able to go to law school at all.
At the other extreme, there are students who have the grades for a top-ten law school but whose test scores, though good, aren't quite high enough. They're at, say, the 60th percentile instead of the 85th or 90th percentile. The choice here is to take the test over, hoping for the rise of a few points that my catch the eye of Harvard, or to stand pat and step down one level.
In such cases, I usually recommend taking the test over-but only if the student's record is truly of top-ten quality otherwise. A retest could produce one of three outcomes:
1. The student improves enough to catch Harvard's eye.
2. The student scores the same as on the first exam, leaving him or her law-school-bound but to a school in the second rank (that is, where he or she would have been without the re-test).
3. The student does worse. This is unlikely, but even so, the student's grades should ensure admission somewhere.
These are the extremes. But most of the students who ask me about taking the test over aren't at the extremes. They're in the middle. They have marginal or merely adequate grades, and their test scores are also marginal. They didn't feel particularly confident while they were taking the test . . . but no, they can't point to some specific reason why they didn't do their best. An improvement in their test score may make the difference between getting in and not getting in. But spending more time on their grades, instead of on test preparation, may also make a difference.
Marginal candidates will have to make an excruciating judgment call. I always tell them to reassess their total application position. When law schools assess marginal candidates, they consider such other variables as letters of recommendation, writing skills, work experience, and personal background. If an applicant is strong in the "other qualifications" category, he or she may well be accepted with a lower LSAT score. Some law schools consider favorably a transcript that shows substantial improvement in grades over time, even if the overall GPA is still relatively low. I'll discuss these variables in later chapters. If you're a marginal applicant, you should consider all these things before deciding whether you will retake the LSAT. And you should speak to your prelaw adviser to try to get a feel for how particular law schools will view your record.
You've given the law school something to look at, an accomplishment that signals an ability to do law school work. That may distract their eyes from your poor overall record. It won't get you into Harvard, but it may be the best way to play a marginal hand.