Lawyers Who Can Read

Changes in store for admissions test used by law schools.
October 26, 2006

“Modest” changes to the reading comprehension and writing sections of the Law School Admission Test will go into effect beginning June 2007.

The changes will pose “no noticeable benefits or challenges to test-takers,” said Wendy Margolis, spokeswoman for the Law School Admission Council, a nonprofit corporation that administers the exam. However, one of the major test preparation companies is already recommending that students consider taking the test before the changes go into effect to avoid uncertainty.

As of June, one of the four sets of questions on the LSAT’s reading comprehension section will focus on “comparative reading,” in which students read two passages and answer questions on how they relate to one another. Currently, each section includes questions on one single, longer passage.

In addition, the admission council has announced that instead of randomly assigning students to one of two types of essay prompts – decision or argument – all students will be assigned a decision prompt, in which they choose to defend one of two equally defensible alternatives, rather than champion one side of a presented dispute. As is currently the case, the writing samples will be sent to law schools, but will not be scored. More details and up-to-date test preparation materials will be available online by mid-February.

Margolis said the changes weren’t championed by any particular law school leaders – the LSAC counts more than 200 law schools as its members -- but came as a result of feedback from the council’s test development and research committee. The council is introducing the comparative reading section because it closely parallels a typical law school task, she said. Meanwhile, the argument prompts are being dropped after a one-year trial period in which test designers explored whether or not they should be incorporated on the exam.

“It’s a modest change; it’s not going to undermine the broad underlying construct of the LSAT,” Margolis said. “It’s not anything where you would advise, ‘Take the test now because it’s going to be very different next year’ – that’s not the case.”

However, a director at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions is recommending that potential law students consider taking the test before June, if possible.

“While it’s not something to panic about and it’s certainly something that they’ll be able to adequately prepare for in June, if they are taking it in the next year or so, they should, if they have time to prepare, take it in December or February. Anytime there is uncertainty in the exam, regardless of the magnitude, it should be avoided if you have the opportunity,” said Steven Marietti, director of pre-law programs at Kaplan.

Marietti said that the writing change essentially reverts the test back to its 2005 form and will likely be relatively insignificant. But he added that the comparative reading section will comprise six or seven questions on the exam – which could account for a three- to six-point difference on the test, scored on a rubric of 120 to 180.

“The difference between being comfortable and well-versed on those six or seven questions could be substantive, and is in fact substantive,” Marietti said.

Yet, Kaplan’s main competitor, The Princeton Review, isn’t recommending that students alter their test plans to avoid the comparative reading questions. “With the reading comp passages, it’s only a slightly more sophisticated way of looking at these comparative passages; however, a lot of the passages that students see already require that kind of comparative logic to be used,” said Jeff Meanza, director of graduate programs at Princeton Review. “In fact, you see this type of dual passage on the SAT currently; it’s nothing students wouldn’t have seen before.”

“I think June is a better time to take the exam, in terms of how it fits into the admissions cycle,” Meanza added. “I don’t think that it’s ultimately that big of a deal -- I don’t think we need to scare students into doing something just because of two minor changes.”

The LSAT, required for admission at all American Bar Association-approved law schools, consists of five 35-minute multiple-choice sections, four of which count toward the total score, and tests students on reading comprehension, analytical reasoning and logical reasoning. A 35-minute writing sample is not scored, but law school data suggest that 67.9 percent of law schools use the writing sample to evaluate applicants on at least an occasional basis.


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