The Lowdown on the LSAT Essay

by Vault Education Editors | May 20, 2009

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After nearly three hours of choosing A through E, the LSAT wraps up with a 35-minute opportunity to use all 26 letters of the alphabet in your essay question. "Opportunity" being the operative word, as the essay is not graded as a part of your score on the LSAT, but gives prospective law students a window to speak to admissions offices. The essay is sent to all law schools to which you apply, and can be imperative to your acceptance. According to www.lsac.org, frivolous responses or no response at all to the prompt has been grounds for rejection. Conversely, a tight, well-thought-out essay can boost your app, by demonstrating your reasoning and writing aptitude, as well as your ability to think logically in a stressful, time-limited environment.

The setup

You will be given one topic to write about and a total of 35 minutes to sort out and compose your response. The essay requires that you discuss the given topic; however, you are not expected to have prior knowledge regarding the subject matter. You will be given two sheets of scratch paper to organize your ideas and outline your essay; a sheet of lined paper (front and back) to fill in your final handwritten response; and a black ballpoint pen to make the magic happen. Given the time and spacing limitations, you will probably write no more than 300 words, give or take.

What you'll see

The following are the actual directions for the essay that you will see on test day:

General Directions:
You will have 35 minutes in which to plan and write an essay on the topic inside. Read the topic and the accompanying directions carefully.

You will probably find it best to spend a few minutes considering the topic and organizing your thoughts before you begin writing. In your essay, be sure to develop your ideas fully, leaving time, if possible, to review what you have written. Do not write on a topic other than the one specified. Writing on a topic of your own choice is not acceptable.

No special knowledge is required or expected for this writing exercise. Law schools are interested in the reasoning, clarity, organization, language usage, and writing mechanics displayed in your essay. How well you write is more important than how much you write. Confine your essay to the blocked, lined area on the front and back of the separate Writing Sample Response Sheet. Only that area will be reproduced for law schools. Be sure that your writing is legible.

Directions:
The scenario presented below describes two choices, either one of which can be supported on the basis of the information given. Your essay should consider both choices and argue for one over the other, based on the two specified criteria and the facts provided. There is no "right" or "wrong" choice: a reasonable argument can be made for either.

The questions

As noted in the directions, the essay question poses a brief situation that lets the reader know what the issue will involve. It then describes two requirements that the situation hopes to accomplish through the courses of their action, as well as two paragraphs that describe each scenario in greater detail. You must choose which of these two paragraphs would be the better course to take, and use the rationale in both paragraphs to strengthen your argument and weaken the counterargument.

Here's a real sample question:

The City of Ridleyville must decide whether a decommissioned military base now owned by Ridleyville and located on its downtown riverfront should be developed as a business complex or converted to park and open space. Using the facts below, write an essay in which you argue for one option over the other based on the following two criteria:

  • Ridleyville wants to address a growing budget deficit.
  • Ridleyville wants to increase the amount of parkland and open space in the city, especially in the downtown riverfront area.

Ridleyville is considering selling the property for development as a business complex. Through tax incentives, the city could potentially preserve a small portion of the property as open space. The business complex would generate substantial tax revenue from the new businesses that would locate there. Before it realizes any of these revenues, Ridleyville would need to pay for a variety of costly infrastructure improvements, and these revenues would be partly offset by ongoing costs for increased municipal services. The city would likely incur greater environmental cleanup costs converting the base to a business complex than converting it to a park.

Ridleyville has no parks on its extensive river frontage, which is otherwise developed, and no parks in its downtown area. Several corporate sponsors are willing to underwrite the cost of converting the property into parkland. These corporations are also willing to contribute towards ongoing operating costs. The park could host revenue-generating events like concerts and the popular "Taste of Ridleyville," an annual food festival. Fees could be charged for boat launching. These combined revenues could enable the park to pay for itself.

In 30 minutes

After reading the full question, decide which of the two criteria offered makes the most logical sense and provides the best justifications as to why the decision-maker should opt for your selection. As you are likely to be a bit mentally drained by this portion of the test, we recommend you create list of pros and cons for each option, not only will it help you organize your argument, but you'll also be able to refer back the list once you actually start writing. After you've created your list, create an outline for your essay using the standard five-paragraph structure: introduction, three body paragraphs (more or less) and conclusion.

In the intro paragraph, clearly and succinctly state your position and quickly summarize you defense. Use the three or four body paragraphs to support your decision, using examples from the given paragraphs to convince the reader. You are not required to have any outside knowledge of the topic, and there is enough information given in the essay question to support your thesis. Finally, in the conclusion, wrap up your thoughts into a concise paragraph.

Try to leave about five minutes at the end so you can proofread what you've written and throw in any additional thoughts. This final time is crucial--it's your chance to think about your essay from a reader's perspective. Is your argument convincing? Did you fully explain your reasoning? Are there any obvious spelling or grammatical mistakes? If you don't leave this extra time, you may miss some major mistakes that could get in the way of your argument.

Last advice

If there's one thing you can do to help you tackle the LSAT essay, it's this: relax. Although school admissions departments' use of the essay remains a bit of a mystery, a general rule of thumb is that what you write won't help you much unless you are in a tie-breaker situation. In fact, the essay's importance is weightier when it's hurting you than helping you. In other words, it won't get your 143 into Stanford, but it could land your 175 on the waitlist.

So take your time, carefully plan your essay before you start writing and remember to review what you've written. And once you're done, the LSAT is over! Time to celebrate!

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