I Took the LSAT with Zero Preparation

Some test-takers study for months, prepping so extensively it becomes a full-time job. I went in cold.

by Hanson O'Haver; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
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Nov 3 2017, 5:45pm

The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT)—the appropriately named test you take to be admitted into law school—is a three-and-a-half hour examination. In it, time is divided evenly between five multiple-choice sections covering critical reasoning, logic, and reading comprehension, plus one writing sample. Each multiple-choice section has around 25 questions, and each has five possible answers. The test is graded on a curve; a perfect score is a 180, and the lowest is 120. The writing sample is not graded.

I knew almost none of this information when I sat down to take the LSAT early one Saturday morning in September, because I had decided to take it without studying or researching the test at all.

Like most people, despite knowing better, I have always suspected that maybe somewhere out there is an activity at which I could be a genius. I've watched enough biopics to feel I possess some of the eccentricities—issues with shirt tags and sock seams and eye contact, repetitive food habits—that are the mark of singular achievers. But I am getting older, and lately have been aware I'm running out of time to be a wunderkind. I had been searching for my special talent when, at a dinner party, I found out one of the smartest people I know, newly unemployed, planned to spend four months studying for the LSAT like it was a full-time job.

"Do you have to memorize the Constitution or something?" I asked him. (I don't know any lawyers.) "No," he told me. The LSAT simply tests logic and reasoning skills, not factual knowledge. I've always considered myself a pretty reasonable guy, so why couldn't I just take the test cold? Why waste months of my life studying if all the test does is gauge my ability to think? (This is the sort of question someone who excels at logic would ask, I thought.) He laughed and said I would do terribly. Besides, the test costs $180, so it would be a waste of money.

Yet I went home that night wondering, What if going to law school is my genius?

For people of a certain milieu, law is the ever-present backup career for a less-exciting but more-stable future. It's not a life I've ever particularly wanted, but what if I could have it extremely easily? I might just take it. So I signed up to take the LSAT at Brooklyn's Medgar Evers College.

After you register, it quickly becomes clear that everything about the LSAT provokes bureaucratic dread, which makes sense given its source. Space is limited, so sign-up occurs months ahead of the actual test date. In the interim, you receive dozens of sternly worded email reminders: You must upload a clear picture of yourself, which must be different than the one on your accepted form of ID and match how you'll look on the day of the test. You may bring a sealed one-gallon Ziploc bag to the test with "ONLY the following items: valid ID, wallet, keys, feminine hygiene/medical products, No. 2 or HB wooden pencils, a highlighter, erasers, pencil sharpener, tissues, beverage in a plastic container or juice box." Absolutely no cellphones and so forth. Over time I became less nervous I would fail than that I simply wouldn't be allowed to take the test due to some improperly filled-out form.

I wasn't sure how to prepare myself the night before the test, so I stuck to business as usual. "You're probably the only person taking the LSAT tomorrow who's drinking Coronas on a stoop right now," my friend told me at 9 PM. Considering I had to be at the testing center no later than 8:30 AM, I decided to give myself a fighting chance and head to bed early. The LSAT was to be the first test I'd taken in the near-decade since college that wasn't either medical or on BuzzFeed, so I felt a bit worried.

Inside the college, I was led into a sort of holding pen to wait while everyone else arrived. Here I was introduced to our proctor, Nigel, who kept yelling, "Always follow the rules," in a charming accent. One woman walked into the room texting, which made Nigel extremely unhappy. He told her she should be kicked out for this, despite her protestations that last time she took the test it was no problem. Similar things happened over and over, with people being reprimanded for having the wrong items in their plastic bags, or for failing to have IDs out, or for having printed the wrong papers. The inability of LSAT takers to follow the test's extremely onerous rules is slightly disconcerting, considering these are the future arbiters of our legal system.

Around 8:45, the 15 of us were led into a classroom. I appeared to be the oldest and tallest one there. Realizing I was probably the only person in the room whose future didn't depend on the results was freeing, until I thought about how that meant I was probably destined to live a less remunerative life. I shouldn't judge, but everyone looked pretty square, and I thought about how the very process that allows someone to enter the professions to enact social change couldn't be better designed to repel the rebellious types who would want to enact such change.

Inside the testing room, which was just a classroom with cubicle dividers between the desks, we were given another stern talking-to from Nigel. He told us he has to follow the rules to the letter, not because it's fun but because sometimes the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), the corporation behind the test, sends the equivalent of secret shoppers to make sure it's being administered properly. Nigel asked the guy next to me if the Rolex his father had given him had a camera in it. Nigel looked at me, and I wondered if I looked like an LSAC snitch. He told me I couldn't keep my Chapstick out, not buying my argument that it's a medical product.

We were all forced to sign documents promising we were taking the test for no reason other than the intention of applying to law school, which made me nervous. I'm probably no match for LSAC's legal team.

Part 1 of the test was handed out, and I was stunned to find I wasn't lost at all. Basically, I had to read brief legal or academic–seeming paragraphs and then answer questions about things that would summarize, strengthen, or weaken the presented information. It sounds boring, but it was sort of fun. It's possible that reading articles on the internet eight hours a day for a decade perfectly prepared me for Part 1 of the LSAT. There were a few questions I was shaky on, but I finished the section feeling pretty confident.

Part 2 was bad. I've since learned this was the notorious "logic games" section. The test sets up a situation. Say, "You have shirts, shoes, and pants, each in red, blue, and white. You cannot wear a shirt and shoes of the same color. You cannot wear the same shirt two days in a row. White shoes must be paired with red pants or a blue shirt."

Then it asks a series of questions in the vein of "If you wore a white shirt and blue shoes Monday, which of the following outfits cannot be worn Tuesday?" I had never really seen anything like these questions, and had no idea how to go about solving them in the allotted 35-minute time frame. My dreams of getting into Yale (median LSAT score: 173) were dashed. After spending ten minutes trying to plot out the first question, I rushed through the remaining 22.

Fortunately, the third section was similar to the first. Maybe I wasn't getting into Yale, but what about UConn (median LSAT: 156)? It had been years since I'd held a pencil for longer than a sentence, so I was working through serious hand cramps by this point. I was relieved when Nigel announced it was time for break.

We spread out into the hallways, eating trail mix, stretching, and avoiding conversation. Everyone looked pretty out of it, understandably. The school staff looked at us like we were nearing the culmination of the hardest months of our lives, and I stole a sense of pride. After 15 minutes, we were called back in. A boy in a New York Giants hoodie did a set of push-ups before entering the classroom.

Sections four and five were roughly the same as sections one and three. The writing sample was easy but also doesn't get graded, so who cares. I walked out into the hot Brooklyn afternoon stimulated. Minus one bad section, was it possible I actually did pretty good?

I was told my results wouldn't come for a month, and in that time, my feelings wavered. Maybe I was delusional and did very poorly. I worried the answers I selected were decoys for people who didn't study. I had a dream I got a 153, which would've seen me finish around the 50th percentile. I talked to people who had studied, and they seemed slightly insulted by my endeavor.

At some point, Barack Obama, everyone on the Supreme Court, and Judge Judy all took the same test. As I waited, I wanted to know how a bunch of logic problems let a school know if I'm good enough to share their rarefied air.

"Sometimes young people don't know exactly what they want to pursue," Kellye Testy, the president of LSAC and a former dean at the University of Washington School of Law, who is very nice and has "test" in her name, told me. "We thought it important to make sure we're opening the legal profession to all walks of life."

Directly testing one's knowledge about the legal system would defeat this aim. Instead, LSAC, "survey[s] lawyers and legal educators to find out which skills people need to do well." A group of people with PhDs in psychometrics—test-making, essentially—then puts together an exam to assess these skills. "The abilities to think critically and creatively and to solve problems have always been at the top of the list."

Testy told me she too once took the LSAT, though she doesn't remember her score. Unlike many of today's students, she didn't spend months studying. "Honestly, I didn't even know at the time people did that." She says LSAC actually worries test-takers spend too much time preparing. It suggests students familiarize themselves with the test and the rhythm of the questions and maybe take an online course. (LSAC will launch a free one next year.) Scores don't usually improve much, so taking it multiple times isn't advised.

So what would happen if someone took it without studying at all, I asked. "I find it's good to at least have looked at the kinds of questions," Testy told me, before conceding it's not absolutely necessary. "You know, you might do great. You might have a mind that thinks really critically."

Which led me to feel my 158, while respectable, doesn't make me a prodigy.

Follow Hanson O'Haver on Twitter.

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