A reader recently asked:

Would you say that a high score is also a reflection of one’s natural brilliance? Or is it possible for someone who has been “average smart” their whole life to study and prep within the top 20% as you were saying, and come out with a 170+ score?

This this something that we all wonder when we decide to try the LSAT: How much of this LSAT thing is preparation, and how much of it is natural brilliance, “smarts”, etc? Do you have to be smart to do well on the LSAT?

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Scientists, so far as I know, have yet to weigh in on this with any data, so we are left kind of speculating. Prep companies certainly tend towards saying that LSAT success is mostly all preparation and technique, probably in significant part because it’s in their interest to do so. If you’ve been following this blog, you also know that I’m a heavy proponent of prepping your ass off for the LSAT. Why? Because I’ve seen that it makes a huge difference.

But what are the limits of preparation? I’ll try to give an honest answer.

From my time observing students tackling the LSAT this is what I’ve seen: studying correctly leads to huge improvements for a while. It’s not unusual at all to see 20-point boosts from a diagnostic score. However, at some point further study leads increasingly to diminished returns. From there, you need to keep putting in a lot of work to boost any further. Breakthroughs can and do happen frequently at this point, but all the gains are hard won.

Realistically, I think where you end up topping out does have a lot to do with “smarts”. The test seems designed to distinguish among very sharp people. If it were all preparation and technique, we’d see thousands and thousand of people honing their technique and scoring a 180 every year. Instead we see a handful. There is no escaping it — natural ability pays off on the LSAT, a lot. I’m not sure that “LSAT smarts” equate very well to general intelligence (whatever that is), but to do truly well on the LSAT, like around 99th percentile or better, you have to have some pretty serious natural LSAT brilliance.

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Now, does that mean if you get a low score that you’re are dumb? Certainly not. Smart people can and do bomb this test all the time. Often, they prove that it was a fluke by retaking and dominating the test. Some truly brilliant people, however, and by that I mean LSAT brilliant people, just can’t get it together to score high on the actual test. I had a friend who 180’ed tons of practice tests. Her raw talent for solving these problems was unmatched, yet she scored in the low 160s twice before finally learning to calm her nerves enough to get a score in the 170s on test day.

Others, even though they’ve succeeded roundly on other tests that undoubtedly take smarts, never see things click. They just aren’t super fast at performing the specific skills that you need for the LSAT. The trail to law school is littered with Yale and Harvard undergrads who can understand advanced number theory before they’ve had their morning coffee, but who can’t seem to reach the upper echelons of the LSAT. It’s a funny test that way.

Also, you might have not really shown up to the big leagues at anything you’ve done in academics so far, but you could be a quiet LSAT genius waiting to be discovered.

Basically, until you’ve prepped like crazy for this LSAT thing, you have no idea of your potential. None. 

And that’s the other point that has to be made about this test, and even though I’ve made it a lot before, I’ll make it again: the LSAT does MASSIVELY reward time spent in preparation, big time. This is by design. The LSAT has done studies showing the prep time correlates with higher scores, and it’s part of the reason that law schools consider the test desirable. Law schools want students who know how to put a lot of effort in on something. 

The perfect LSAT, as far as schools are concerned, is one that tests both natural smarts (the kind law schools want, anyways) and determination/motivation. Luckily for law schools, that’s basically seems like the LSAT we’ve got.

So to answer our reader’s question directly, I think that if someone is of truly average intelligence, like sitting right on the mean for humans, it will be pretty rare or non-existent to see them hit a 170+ score. 170+ scores generally take a lot of effort plus some substantial natural horsepower.

Average smart people do, I suspect, crack the 160 barrier (~80th percentile) with some frequency, so that would be way over-performing expectations for them if this were a straight IQ test.

Either way, you can leap over a huge number of candidates by putting in the time to prep right. Like I said in my last post, the LSAT is a competition and you’ve got to engage with it that way. It’s a competition both of LSAT smarts AND determination. Success on the LSAT is at least 50% brute force effort, maybe much more. Until you’ve put in a substantial amount of prep work, you have no idea where your ceiling is.

Another thing: if I’m right and there is such a thing as natural LSAT brilliance, you aren’t stuck with your baseline amount: It appears you can get more brilliant by studying, as intense prep for the LSAT actually alters brain structure.