Do You Have To Be Smart To Do Well On The LSAT?

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 improvement 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.

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. 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.

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University of Chicago, J.D., 2012 Ready to Kickstart your LSAT Prep? Join the LSAT Mastermind Study Group

9 Comments

  1. Hi there,

    Awesome blog! I’ve read quite a few of the articles and they’ve been very helpful. I’m an undergrad currently (junior), and I had this weird desire to take the LSAT back in December (probably way too early, but it didn’t happen anyway). Why I ended up not taking it in December is because I didn’t even know where to start, despite having a ton of prep materials. My question is this: What does a successful LSAT study session consist of? What should you have achieved at the end of a 3-hour stint? I’ve read my prep materials and worked through a lot of the questions, but it feels like there should be more to it. Would doubling up on practice tests be a good way to feel like I’m getting somewhere? As a self-taught LSAT prep student, it just doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot of structure to the way I’m going about things. (Thankfully, I have plenty of time to prep the right way.) Thanks for the help!

    • Hi Chelsea. Definitely read our post on getting started with the LSAT. That’s a pretty thorough tour.

      Study sessions are going to look different depending on where you are in your study. At first you will be working through books our using a course to learn techniques. After that, your focus shifts to practicing the problems.

      There really isn’t more to it than that. You just learn the techniques and then practice them until they are ingrained. In that sense, it may not feel like you’ve accomplished as much as you might if you are learning a language or doing something else that requires a lot of memorization. Other than the techniques you’ll learn at the beginning, you aren’t trying to accumulate knowledge, you are trying to hone a skill.

      Think of it like getting better at skiing. You probably won’t notice improvements every time you hit the slopes. The progress is going to come over time.

      Don’t double up on pts. That would probably be too much. Instead, make sure you review all your questions properly, log your errors, and focus in on weaknesses. We discuss reviewing preptests here: https://lawschooli.com/reviewing-an-lsat-practice-test/

  2. Hello,

    I’m a URM applicant, and I would like to apply to law school this cycle. Unfortunately, I did not do well on the December 2013 LSAT. I scored between a 152 and 156. However, my highest practice test scores ranged from 158-160. I am hoping to score better on the Feb. exam. I have not submitted any applications to date. Do I have a chance this cycle? I would like to be admitted to a T-6 school. I have approx. 4 years of work experience at a federal agency and a was awarded a prestigious fellowship (think Fulbright or Watson). What should be my strategy moving forward? Your help is most appreciated.

    Kindly,
    Rhonda

    • Hi Rhonda,

      That’s a tough break getting below your practice average. It happens all the time though, so don’t worry. You can bounce back.

      For a T-6 school, URM applicants generally have scores north of 160. For that reason, you may not want to take the test in Feb unless your practice scores are now solidly in the 160+ range (the higher in that range the better obviously).

      Get that good LSAT score and those great soft factors should put you in a strong position. That said, applying in spring comes with some potential problems. The big worry is that a lot of the spots are already taken, lowering your chances of admission to reach schools. Also, often many of the scholarships are given out, so you may not be getting the best financial package.

      Be aware of this and prepare yourself to wait until next cycle and reapply if you don’t get good results this cycle. Don’t worry, reapplying does not hurt your chances.

  3. hello, nice blog, and this was an interesting post! So I saw that some schools’ applications ask if we think our GPA/LSAT reflect our future academic performance at their school. I took LSAT twice, and despite my hardcore prep and higher PT scores, my second score only increased a little bit, so both my scores are in mid 160’s. Well, I mean I honestly think 166 or so doesn’t really reflect my true academic capabilities.. For my SAT, I got around 2060 or something, and my undergraduate GPA from a well-known, good state school is like all A or A+’s. So I want them to know that my past standardized test scores haven’t accurately predicted my previous academic performance. Is this something of an addendum-worthy write-up?

    • Jen,

      I would definitely not write an addendum for that. A 166 is about in the 93rd percentile for all test-takers. That’s a damn good score!

      It’s a little tough to say that a score for which you did better than 93% of the other people taking the test isn’t going to reflect your future performance. Would you be claiming you will exceed that and be in the top 5% of your class? No one can say that with any accuracy (and the LSAT is nowhere close to that strong a predictor of 1L performance to begin with). Obviously I’m making a little light of the situation, but you get my point.

      Your 2060 on the SAT puts you in only slightly higher a percentile group, and the two aren’t that susceptible to cross-comparison, so you can’t say you under-performed here compared to the SAT.

      Generally that addendum would be used for people with a low GPA who wish to argue they have become more committed to school in the interim, often by pointing to an upward grade trend or better performance in a master’s program.

      With your good GPA, I would definitely just let the numbers speak for themselves.

      One last thing: If you were consistently averaging more than a few points higher on PTs, you might consider one more go at the LSAT, particularly if the results you get applying this cycle aren’t what you hoped for.

      Best of luck and let us know if you have any other questions

  4. I’ve been pretty close to throwing in the towel because I feel like I’m just not “getting” it. But this post has motivated me! Thanks!

    • Thanks Meghan,

      Yes, I don’t know if I stressed this enough but when it starts getting hard to improve, that not when you give up. Rather, that’s where the real work begins. You can make improvements slowly with work. At that point, don’t expect to see improvements on every practice test. Focus on fixing weaknesses and you’ll see an upward trend in your practice scores over time.

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