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March 10, 2009


Are some administrations of the LSAT more difficult than others?

Students studying for the LSAT have sometimes heard that certain administrations of the LSAT are more difficult than others. Rumors circulate that perhaps the June administration is harder than the September/October administration, or that the LSAT in December of 2006 was harder than the LSAT in December of 2005.

This is, of course, a myth. In order to ensure the continuity of scores from different LSAT administrations, the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) both (1) screens all LSAT questions and (2) uses the equivalent of a curve on the LSAT.

All of the questions that appear on an official administration of the LSAT have antecedently appeared in the experimental section of a prior LSAT administration. This allows the LSAC to see how many actual test takers miss each of these questions, enabling LSAC to gauge their difficulty relative to other LSAT questions. This is one way that the LSAC can ensure that different administrations of the LSAT are equally difficult.

Nevertheless, it is always possible that the questions on a certain administration of the LSAT are, as a group, more difficult than those from another administration. If the test were scored simply as a function of the number of correct answers given, applicants who took a more difficult LSAT would be at a disadvantage. In order to level the playing field, LSAC curves the test. Accordingly, the score the law schools care about when considering an applicant for admission is the scaled score, not the raw score.

Suppose, for example, that the June LSAT contained more difficult questions than the September LSAT. Assume Angela took the June test and got 75 questions right, while Bert took the September LSAT and also got 75 questions right. Because Angela's exam was harder, it might be considered unfair that law schools would see that she and Bert got the same raw score. It is in order to avoid such unfairness that all LSAT scores are scaled and that this scaled score is the one that law schools consider.

A student's scaled score is not determined by the absolute number he or she got right or wrong, but rather whether the student fared better on the test than other students. Since Angela took a more difficult test, let's suppose that her 75 correct questions resulted in her scoring higher than 84% of the people who took the test, whereas Bert's 75 questions correct on his easier administration of the LSAT resulted in his scoring higher than only 73% of the people on the test. In determining students' scaled scores, the LSAC uses the students' percentile rankings, not the absolute number of questions they got right or wrong. According to the scale that the LSAC currently uses (as of this writing), Angela's 84% earns her a 161 whereas Bert's 73% earns him a 157. So, even if they answered the same number of questions correctly, their scaled scores could differ if one of the tests was more difficult than another.

For this reason, it's irrational for students to hope for an easy LSAT. All things being equal, more students would score higher on an easier test, and thus one would have to answer more questions correctly in order to get a given score.

Furthermore, it's irrational to think that the LSAT given in any month or any year would be easier or more difficult than another. If the June LSAT always contained easy questions, for example, students would have to answer more questions correctly in order to get a high score. Conversely, one could miss more questions on a harder test and still receive the same score.

Some students believe that there might be certain times of the year when the people taking the test are, as a whole, poorer test takers. If it were true that all the dimmest test takers were to sit for the June LSAT, one would have an incentive to take this test because it would be easier to score better than one's competitors. However, with tens of thousands of people sitting for any LSAT, it's extremely unlikely that any one administration would be populated only by duffers. If there were only 10 people taking the test, the test-taking pool might contain an unusual number of dimwits. But with between ten and fifty thousand people taking the test, the quality of the average test taker tends to be the same. Analysis on tests from different administration shows that the curves tend to be of similar difficulty.

As such, one should hope, not for a test with easy questions (which would be unhelpful if it occurred), or for dopey testing population (which would be unlikely to occur), but rather to be better prepared than others. Since the only thing students really have control over is their own preparation, prospective LSAT takers should try to study as hard as possible.

Article written by Jodi Triplett and Trent Teti, founders of Blueprint LSAT preparation.


Filed Under: Education|Grad School

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