Taking The LSAT With No Preparation

Are you, unbeknownst to yourself even, a test-taking prodigy? Are you a legal genius diamond that has been hiding in the rough, just waiting to be discovered so that you can help the next generation shape legal policy in such a way as to finally solve society’s ills? Are you essentially a real-life legal drama character who, despite your unbearably acerbic personality, is tolerated because you are just so damn good at seeing the solution to winning the case? (In episode 1 of this hypothetical new series, it would be mentioned that you got into Yale despite taking the LSAT on a whim, while severely hungover.) Can you crack the mighty LSAT with zero preparation whatsoever? There is only one way to find out!

I will, however, do everything possible to talk you out of making such a huge mistake. Taking the LSAT with no preparation is such a monumentally bad idea that anyone who does it (unless purely for the sake of science), should be automatically disqualified from going to law school on the basis of their poor judgment alone.

In this article, we will tell you what would likely happen if you take the test cold. I’ll also try to convince you that the resultant terrible score doesn’t even mean that you are not a legal genius. You still might be!

First, a brief survey of the history of people who signed up for the LSAT and took it with zero preparation. One person, and only one, that I’ve met claimed to have done extraordinarily well on the LSAT with no prep. I had just gotten my (173) score back, and was enjoying a celebratory drink on a Brooklyn rooftop over the July 4th weekend. A very brash, very drunk party-goer was jabbering on to me about how he’d just gotten a 174 on the LSAT with zero preparation.

New York was then, and I imagine still is, full of liars, boasters, and braggarts. On intuition, I would bet a thousand bucks right now that he didn’t get a near a 174. If I am wrong and he did get that score, then I’d bet even more that he had, in fact, studied quite diligently to get there.

In the handful or so of actual, verifiable instances of taking the test with no preparation, I’ve yet to find much evidence of many people earning over a 155 or so, which is only a little better than the median score. A vice reporter who took the LSAT cold came up with a 158. A scan of the internet comes up with one redditor who claims (without evidence) to have gotten a 170 cold. Again, probably a liar.

Suffice to say that if great scores do happen with no preparation, they are vanishingly rare. I think two big factors are at work here: first, even the people brilliant enough to do even moderately okay with no preparation are the same people smart enough to realize that they will probably do a whole lot better with prep. Because smart people have a habit of preparing for tests, we don’t get to see how they would do without that prep. But we have an idea…

Which brings me to the second, bigger factor: that the LSAT is just plain hard for anyone and everyone who is unfamiliar with the format. Everyone I have met that did eventually do well on the test describes being terrible at first. If they did take a “cold diagnostic” (a practice test done with no prior studying or prep), then that score is generally well below the score they are able to achieve on test day after a few months of studying.

Josh Craven, my co-founder, for example, got a 152 on his initial cold diagnostic, only to earn a 177 on the real thing 3 months later.

Why should this be? The LSAT is, after all, not a test of memorized material. Why shouldn’t there be some naturally gifted people who can just walk in and casually destroy the test?

The LSAT Is A Skill Game

The best analogy is probably to sports. Say we had a great athlete, comparable to Lebron James (who by most accounts is athletic genius if ever there was one). Only our hypothetical athlete in this scenario lives in a completely isolated island nation where they play a game similar to soccer. This athlete is the best at that game. Now bring that athlete, at the peak of their athletic prowess, over to a country where they play basketball & put them on a court with NBA players on their first day over here. They know the rules and what you are supposed to do, but nothing else. How are they going to fare?

I guarantee terribly. They know the objective perfectly well I’m sure (same as I’m sure you understand the words on the page and what you are trying to do on the LSAT, even if you’ve never taken one), but there is no flow, no sense of control, no feel for the pace of the game.

The LSAT is likewise a “skill” type of game. Just as basketball requires motions that you don’t do every day, the LSAT is flexing mental muscles—cognitive skills—that you don’t flex every day (or ever really, in daily life). So although our hypothetical island athlete is going to be playing exceptional basketball in a few weeks, even a true LSAT prodigy, similarly, needs a little time to get used to the new environment.

The timing factor particularly is going to throw any unprepared person for a loop. Until one is more sure of their footing, they will tend to second-guess and double-check everything that they are doing. That’s just human nature, but in the context of a timed test, it is an instinct that must be overcome with practice.

How you would do if you attempted the test with zero preparation actually tells you pretty little about where you will end up. I didn’t take a cold diagnostic, but if I had I’m guessing I would have landed in the high 140s to mid 150s range. Josh took a cold diagnostic lsat and landed in that range as well, wildly far away from the 177 he ended up on test day.

All this adds up to mean that taking the test with no preparation isn’t even a good way to tell if you are an “LSAT prodigy” or not. I would hazard that a big predictor of how one does under such conditions is simply whether the person has or hasn’t recently done any test with similar elements, such as the GRE, GMAT, or MCAT.

So Is There A Way To Test If You Are An LSAT Prodigy?

Although I don’t have data to back this up, my hunch is that how you do taking the LSAT untimed probably does tell you a good bit about your potential on this test. The LSAT is a test of your ability to follow directions and think logically. Everything that you need to solve the problems is there on the page. If you take away the pressure and think with all your might, you may find it goes better than you think.

This is speculation, but getting above a 160 in such conditions probably shows the potential to get at least that high and likely higher on test day. Of course, how you do will still depend on a lot of factors like patience and prior exposure to similar questions (such as on other standardized tests).

If your sole goal is to determine how you will likely score on the LSAT in the shortest amount of time, here is what I would do:

Pick up The Official LSAT SuperPrep and do all three tests in there carefully, paying close attention to the problems analysis. Then, grab the Powerscore Logic Games Bible and go through that in about a week. Next, grab 10 real preptest here: 10 Actual, Official LSAT Preptests.

With those, work through the first three preptests untimed. Then, work through the remaining seven timed. All of this would probably take around 2.5 weeks. I would guess that with 90% confidence, the average of your score on the last two tests is within 10 points of where you will score on test day, even after a long course of prep.

This hardly a perfect predictor, but if you want to assess your potential without spending the usual three months or longer that it typically takes to properly prepare the LSAT, this is one way to do it. I guarantee it will tell you a lot more about your facility with the LSAT than a cold attempt will.

It may seem strange after all I have said, but we do recommend that when you get started with your test prep that you do take a cold diagnostic. So DO take a cold diagnostic. Preptest A in The Official LSAT SuperPrep is a great one to start with. Even though it doesn’t tell you much if anything about where you will end up, it is a great way to build quick familiarity with the test format and will give you a yardstick to measure your later progress by.

After that, DO get started on a solid prep plan with great resources like our brand new FULL LSAT Course (we just proudly released it after years in the making!)

DO NOT waste time and money actually signing up for the test and taking it with no prep UNLESS it is purely for science. In fact, on that note, if you think you are a decent writer and would like to blog about your experience taking the real test totally cold, we would be happy to compensate you. Let us know in the comments and we will get in touch!

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Anonymous

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

8 Comments

  1. costalesh

    On my end, I’m prepping – whether or not I plan to go to law school, that’s yet to be determined. My most immediate goal is to get a master’s and then we’ll see where my interests take me. I know I’m off topic, but I’m enjoying the process of prepping for the LSAT. I do hope you did well, Robert. Looking forward to learning the outcome. Cheers.

  2. Robert R.

    I just took the LSAT cold (first time, no studying) this November.

    After signing up for it, I dealt with family emergencies, medical issues, and a hurricane. Add in the pressure of taking 6 upper-level courses–needless to say, my available time to study was non-existent. My cousin took the November LSAT on the same day that I did. He took the prep courses, bought the materials, and studied regularly. I did not. As a matter of fact, the only preparation I did took place the night before: I drank a six-pack of Sam Adams Oktoberfest to have a bit of fun and calm my nerves.

    I woke up at 5 AM, slightly hungover on a cold morning and made the 45-minute walk to the testing center. When I arrived, they made me check in my hat (apparently they are not allowed), and I began to scan the room. Plenty of nervous people with ‘Prepmasters’ branded plastic bags. Some people had nearly 100 pencils with them (which I found silly).

    I figured I would just stop worrying about how I did and just use the test as a learning experience. So–I took it.

    I found it easy. The entire test is simply testing your ability to parse information quickly from dense or complex sources. It questions just how deeply you understand the material in a brief amount of time. Highlighting important information from the passages makes deciphering these passages much easier. The ordering games surely have the ability to trip people up, but I’d venture to say that they are very straightforward if you follow the directions and chart the options. I finished each section with time to spare, even going back and reworking problems.

    I get my score back on December 8th (estimated) and I’d be happy to share my score when I get it, even if it is poor. I’m not sharing my experience to brag. I’d like to imagine I did well, but perhaps my experience will show why it is important to prepare if you can. If I did decently well, perhaps it will show people not to stress themselves out so much about the test and be confident about their inherent abilities. Confidence is the most important tool you can bring into the testing center (besides a #2 pencil and your admission ticket). This test is not the end of the world or some insurmountable obstacle for people. Worst case scenario, you pay $200 for the best practice test money can buy. Best case? You do well.

    • Bob

      “Worst case scenario, you pay $200 for the best practice test money can buy.”

      Are you actually planning on going to law school? If so, your post is the dumbest thing I have ever read. If you get a poor score, it will remain on your record even if you retake. Law schools will see it. Some will take the average of the two. Others will take the highest. So, why take it if you are not sure? And you just potentially wasted 200 bucks that you could have spent prepping.

      As the article highlights, the vast majority of people cannot even score higher than 155 on a cold diagnostic. To suggest that the LSAT is something you can take cold is lunacy. Perhaps you did well. Even if you did, I would not recommend that anyone do what you just said you did in your post. Only 2 percent of all test takers get 170+. Some people prep for 6 months to a year before they reach their peak. Your post is fine if you don’t plan on going to law school and you are just doing it for fun. Otherwise, it’s dumb.

      • Robert R.

        Of course I’d like to go to law school. $200 to take a test “for fun” on a Saturday morning? No thanks!

        Let me tell you, there is a serious stigma surrounding standardized tests such as the LSAT. Futures do not depend on this test. Test taking companies would not make any money if prospective law students were not fearful of the test. That is the first step in failure: not trusting your inherent abilities. Of course, preparing will increase your chances of not being confused on test day, but it will not inherently increase or decrease your aptitude in dealing with the problems on the test.

        I’d advise you to take a moment and think critically. As an attorney, you should understand the situation you are dealing with so you can approach it from any angle–think outside the box. Why should you follow others blindly, taking advice from anyone other than yourself? If you want to take the LSAT, you don’t *need* to prepare. However, if you are worried, nobody is stopping you from looking at a practice exam to determine whether you will struggle with the questions. If you find yourself struggling, perhaps studying or a tutor are worthwhile. I just find it ridiculous that an aptitude test is being touted as such a hurdle for so many people. It’s not a test of how well you can study, it’s a test of your abilities. I will not fail to consider that mastering the material will give certain people an edge in the test, but personally, I feel that strategy defeats the purpose of why the test is being taken.

        I’d venture to argue that a majority of people who are hyper-defensive of their LSAT scores are simply fearful that somebody who did not study will score better than them. Unfortunately, that is the nature of aptitude tests. Some people will score low, a majority will get an average score, and a few will get a high score. People need to learn how to be comfortable with their abilities and stop promoting a culture of fear about taking the LSAT and getting an average score.

        “To suggest that the LSAT is something you can take cold is lunacy.”

        This proves my point. Despite personal issues preventing me from studying, you consider me a lunatic for even hinting that you can walk in and take the test with no preperation. You are either a sheep, following the flock of other fearful LSAT takers, or a wolf preying on the fear you instill in prospective law students. My message is simply that people should think critically and be confident. Your view, along with the culture of fear of which it is representative of, is the exact reason law schools are so competitive. Personally, I am confident in my abilities. If I got an average score, I’m going to be happy. It is what *my* abilities are, and I am trying to show law schools who I am.

        If you are angered by what I said, perhaps consider that you have been molded to be fearful of the LSAT. If you are too emotional to see past your views and think critically, maybe a legal career isn’t for you.

        • John

          Almost everything you just said is false. Anyone who follows your advice doesn’t know anything about law or the law school process.

          First, you claim that studying “will not inherently increase or decrease your aptitude in dealing with the problems on the test.” That is false. Your aptitude is demonstrated by your score. People study to get better scores. Otherwise, test prep companies would be out of business. Take the two guys that run this website. They got a score similar to yours without studying. Then, they used Powerscore and got a score 25 points better. Without it, they almost certainly would not have ended up at U of Chicago (one of the best schools in the country).

          Second, you claim that you are trying to “show law schools who [you are].” That is great. Unfortunately, applying to law school is largely a numbers game. You could write an addendum claiming that you did not study. But, the school has no way of knowing if you are telling the truth. For example, we have no idea if you are telling us the truth regarding your circumstances. In any case, law schools have medians. Your score is good enough for schools in the 125-150 range (maybe). Sob stories rarely work. Of course, your story may be the one that does. But, others reading your post should not be fooled. The LSAT is the most important part of your application. Your story, especially the part about being hungover, makes a mockery out of the process. People should only take your advice if they are comfortable going to a lowly ranked law school.

          Third, you claim that attorneys must “think critically” regarding their situation. Thinking critically is always a good thing and it works in many different fields. However, law is largely about following rules and standards. Putting aside the hurdles you must cross just to take and pass the bar, our legal system is a good example. Our system is based on precedent. That means you must follow the law as it has been previously decided. Thinking critically is great unless your defiance of following settled rules results in a loss for your client. Then you will find yourself unemployed. If I was you, I would consider taking your own advice. Perhaps a legal career is not for you.

        • Tony R

          @John I think you missed a large part of thesis of the article… Scoring higher on the LSAT is not a measure of aptitude (natural ability) but a measure of your ability to conform to the tests standards, particularly in the context of time.

          Your score on the actual test is a measure of both natural ability AKA aptitude and your ability to play by the rules of the game AKA take the test under a time limitation.

          If you dont have the aptitude, no amount of study in the world will get you above a 170 or probably even a 160… After all 2 out of 3 testers score below a 156 and while hard data is hard to come by, given the general recommendation that you do some sort of prep, its probably a certainty that at least 5 out of every 10 of those scores came out of someone who probably has some amount of prep work and its not hard to imagine a higher percentage… 6 out of 10? 7 out of 10? 8? 9? Who knows.

          On the other hand, you might be able to score a reasonably ok to good score on aptitude alone but to get the really good score, you also need to follow the rules of the game and take the test under time constraints. The best way to get good at the “rules” and timing of the test is to practice, practice, practice.

          It should also be noted that the LSAT 120-180 score is curved grade. While we have been able to statistically break down the raw score and more or less reverse engineer a number of questions needed to be answered correctly to a score between 120-180, the score ultimately is curved for each test group. So if everyone in the group were to take the test without prep, what is a 152 on a “normal” test batch, could be a 180 on a “no-prep” test batch or a 156 on a normal test batch where a significant number aren’t feeling well.

          So no, the previous post, though potentially misguided isn’t false.

          I dont really disagree with your points about “showing a law school who you are.” A good admissions essay might be able to explain a poor score but a sob story is unlikely to be successful, especially one mentioning being hungover.

          Your points about the LSAT being the most important part are a bit misleading however. Your LSAT plays an important role in determining the tier of school you are eligible for but grades and/or work experience, recommendations and who you are (both in terms of familial legacy and “grit”) are just as critical and each plays an important part in the admissions process. A failing in one of these categories might be compensated for by excelling in another category but it depends on how significant the failing is. You probably stand a better chance getting into Colombia (#5 on the list of top US law schools) with a 165 LSAT score, a 4.0GPA and a good reason for not scoring higher on the LSAT than you would with a 180 LSAT score, a 2.5 GPA and no justification (good or bad) for your GPA.

          As to your last points about rules and precedent, new case law is made by those not afraid to buck convention and try to set new precedent. The key to being a truly successful attorney is to be able to employ that critical thinking to analyze the situation and determine if you how far to push it… In this regard you are a gambler placing a bet and Kenny Rogers says it best:

          You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
          Know when to fold ’em
          Know when to walk away
          And know when to run
          You never count your money
          When you’re sittin’ at the table
          There’ll be time enough for countin’
          When the dealin’s done

          A cautious attorney may have more in the wins column on a case load basis but chances are the aggressive attorney has brought more money in even if they have more losses overall. The aggressive attorney is the one bringing in high-profile cases that win or lose get the firm press, get them recognition for their work and therefore gets them paid. Be the cautious attorney if you want but be aware that that attorney may be the one left unemployed in the end regardless of how many wins they’ve brought home

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