What does the LSAT measure? The LSAT is not an IQ test. It does not measure intelligence the way IQ tests are designed to measure innate ability. A person who is very smart can receive a low LSAT score. A person who is very creative can receive a low LSAT score. Furthermore, because an IQ test presumably measures natural/innate rather than learned/acquired ability, a person cannot study or prepare for an intelligence test the way that a person can study, prepare for, and improve performance on the LSAT.

The LSAT does not measure knowledge of law. The LSAT is not a professional competency test; it is not like the bar exam, accounting boards, or nursing boards. It does not measure a person’s knowledge of how to write a good contract, will, or incorporation; it does not measure a person’s understanding of due process of law, the rules of search and seizure, or familiarity with the rules of civil or criminal procedure. Searching the undergraduate catalogue for courses with law in the title—whether it is business law or constitutional law or criminal law or health care law or education law—is not the best way to prepare for the LSAT. Law schools teach students about law. The LSAT is designed so that individuals from a broad range of academic backgrounds—majors literally ranging from "A" (art; architecture) to "Z" (zoology)—can do well. It is composed of five sections with 35 minutes to complete each section. There are three types of questions: reading comprehension; logical reasoning or logic puzzles; and an essay question.

The LSAT measures analytical reasoning skills. The LSAT is designed to measure analytical thinking, logical reasoning, and the ability to read and comprehend difficult prose. These skills can be developed in a broad range of challenging undergraduate courses of study that develop critical thinking. However, it is important to realize that professional programs that emphasize job training are very different from undergraduate programs that develop analytical skills measured on the LSAT.

Preparing for the LSAT. Is it necessary to take a formal LSAT preparation course such as Kaplan, Princeton Review, LSAT Intensive Review, Powerscore, Barons, or Peterson’s in order to do well on the LSAT? The simple answer is no. Taking a commercial test preparation course is not a guarantee that you will do well on the LSAT. Individuals who take such courses can do poorly on the LSAT, and individuals who do not take such courses can do well on the LSAT. It is a big mistake to assume that you are paying good money (approximately $1,200) to receive a good score. LSAT preparation courses cannot deliver the goods in this way. A person who has not developed the skills measured on the LSAT is unlikely to develop them during a test preparation course, which is why it is best to develop these skills over the course of time during the undergraduate education.

Who is least likely to need a formal test preparation program?

  • If you are already strong in the areas of analytical reasoning and logical thinking, then you are less likely to need a formal test preparation program.
  • If you can study and learn independently, then you are less likely to need a formal test preparation program.
  • If you can realistically assess your performance on tests (i.e., you generally know whether you have done well on a test or other graded work, or whether you have not done well), then you are less likely to need a formal test preparation program.

Who is most likely to need a formal test preparation program?

  • If you are weak in the areas of analytical reasoning and logical thinking.
  • If you learn better in a structured, group setting.
  • If you are not very good at judging your own performance.

Is independent study possible? Yes, you can practice on your own. In fact, that is how most people should begin their preparation for the LSAT. Take a sample test. See how you do. Then try improving your performance. Pre-law advisors often mention 50 hours of preparation as a ballpark figure. You can teach yourself—you can be your own LSAT coach—but most people cannot take the test without any advance preparation and do well. Self-study does not mean casual preparation or briefly scanning a copy of the test and quickly sampling some of the questions. Self-study means systematically preparing for the test. The most coach-able or prep-able section of the LSAT is the logic games. There are inexpensive puzzle books published by Dell Magazines or Penny Press that can provide the mental exercises to develop skills measured on the LSAT.

Improving your score. The LSAT is a test that can be "coached" or "learned" so it is best to practice. Practice tests increase familiarity with the test format, so test preparation often includes taking practice exams based on actual questions asked in past LSATs. The LSAT emphasizes speed, and practice develops skills that increase scores. Practice eliminates the element of surprise; the kinds of questions asked on the test are familiar to anyone who takes practice tests, which are available in bookstore test preparation books, or on-line test preparation programs, or commercial test preparation courses.

LSAT prep courses may improve exam performance, but there is some debate about whether there is solid evidence of a reliable connection between coaching and test results. The commercial classes are expensive. The people who teach the courses think the coaching is particularly helpful for individuals who are not self-disciplined and need the structure of a class. An individual who has good analytical/logical skills, generally does well on standardized tests, and is a disciplined learner, may do well with practice books. Princeton Review’s Cracking the LSAT is highly regarded, and the official LSAT tests that include the explanations of answers to questions can be a valuable learning tool.

Common mistakes:

  • Doing more is better. Individuals who study independently frequently assume that the best preparation for the LSAT is simply to do lots of problems. This assumes that doing more problems will improve the score on the LSAT. It seems logical that if doing 20 questions is good, doing 40 is better and 80 is best! But answering more questions will not improve the LSAT score if you are not getting it, if you are not learning what the test is measuring. The LSAT is not a measure of substantive knowledge. It does not test mastery of fields such as history, philosophy, social science, math, or science.
  • Memorization. Working on many sample LSAT test questions will not help if you are just trying to memorize or remember the problems because the actual test will change the words/problem and then you probably won’t know how to get the right answer. The LSAT does not reward memorization. Even good students who are very bright can do poorly on the LSAT if they only know how to memorize. This is one reason why there are so many good students (as measured by the GPA) who do not do well on the LSAT.
  • Common sense. It is a mistake to assume that you will do well on the LSAT because you are bright and know a lot. The LSAT measures formal logic not general knowledge or practical experience. You cannot rely on your accumulated knowledge (or background information or life experience or common sense) to answer LSAT questions. The questions require accepting the rules of the logic games. Do not choose an answer that you think should be right or which seems right based on what you know. Choose an answer that logically follows from the argument or question.
    The LSAT places a premium on speed. When running out of time, you may be tempted to take a shortcut by scanning the multiple choice answers and choosing the one that seems right to you, based on what you know. This is risky because the correct answer is based on the rules of the game, not common sense or background knowledge learned in school or absorbed from experience during daily life. In fact, relying on common sense or common knowledge is a mistake because some questions are designed so that an answer that seems right—a distracter—is wrong.
  • Stress. Stress is good; physical and mental exercises can develop body and mind. Distress is bad; it can produce poor LSAT scores. It is important to be psychologically and emotionally prepared for the LSAT. Try to take the test when other life stresses are at a minimum. Fixating on the test is not the best way to do well on it. The LSAT is important, and it is important to be prepared for it, but when the stress of preparation turns to distress the results are probably not good performance.

Re-taking the test. It is not a good idea to take the LSAT as a practice or trial run test, or to assume that you are likely do better the second or third time because you will have accumulated knowledge from the previous tests. The LSAT does not work this way. It is common for people to do worse the second time they take the test, particularly if they don’t take it seriously and prepare for it. Law school admissions officers will recommend that you retake the test if you did not do well on the LSAT or well enough to be admitted to the school of your choice. But the first score is still reported to law schools, and some schools average LSAT scores.

Paralegal/professional programs. What about the Paralegal, Legal Assistant, or Legal Studies programs that are widely advertised? The Kaplan College is an example of an organization that offers programs of study that train individuals interested in working in various law-related fields, including law offices. These courses of study are professional or career-oriented programs that provide valuable job training skills, but they are not good pre-law courses of study. The more a program emphasizes job training, the less valuable the program is for LSAT preparation. Job training and LSAT preparation are, to a certain extent, conflicting goals.