Take yes for an answer; or, you had me at 97%

LSAT scores from the December sitting were released to law schools yesterday. For many folks in our applicant pool, this was the first time they had taken the test; for them, the release of the scores means that their applications will be completed in short order, and soon, the other readers and I will be cuddling up with their files at home.

For others, though, this test was a second or third attempt. Deciding whether to retake the test is fraught; there is the hopeful promise of a higher score balanced against the reality of a considerable expenditure of time and money, not to mention the haunting possibility that one’s score might actually decrease. I’ve been told by a couple of Law School Admissions Council geniuses who really grasp psychometrics that the phenomenon of regression threat makes retaking particularly perilous once you get to a certain score level, because the odds that your score will go down start increasing. I thought taking a peek at the actual data would be instructive.

But before we dive into the numbers, I am going to be tiresome and briefly reprise my personal philosophy that retaking is often a bad idea. Certainly, in the event of an unexpectedly poor score following some identifiable disastrophe at the time of the test—extreme nausea, a marching band practicing nearby, an abscessed tooth, and family tragedy the preceding night figure prominently among recurring stories I see—a test retake makes perfect sense. The call becomes a little less clear when nothing in particular occurred, but the test score is markedly worse than practice tests; it may seem clear that you can do better, but then again, it’s possible your practice-test environment was flawed in your favor. And when the decision to retake rests solely on an amorphous intuition that one can do better, I’m usually dubious. I think that’s a very difficult sort of self-assessment to perform. Better to put effort into all the other elements of the application than to drive yourself crazy chasing that will-o’-the-wisp.

Exegesis ended. On to the facts.

On average, LSAC tells us, repeat test-takers gain an average of 2.8 points on their second try, and 2.1 the third time; for a little light reading on the topic, check out one of LSAC’s many technical reports. But that average is unnuanced; what I want to know is, how many folks regret the retake?

Now, the number of people in Michigan’s applicant pool who took the LSAT in December for a second or third time is relatively minuscule: 61, out of what I would guess were about 12,000 retakers nationwide. (I’m making a pretty random estimate that 36,000 people took the December LSAT, and historically, roughly one-third of test-takers sit for the test a second or third time.) So, you know, safe to say that our 61 are not statistically significant. But I was interested to see that the percentage of people who went down or got the same score was 45%—and that this was true across-the-board, regardless of one’s initial score.

The search for better data led me to a fascinating chart (no, I’m not being sarcastic; I totally love this kind of thing) of LSAT Repeater Data that LSAC makes available, showing all the candidates in 2010-11 who took the LSAT after having taken it previously. Here we have statistical significance!

As you might expect, the people with the lowest scores were most likely to see their scores go up on a retake: 10,058 people who originally had a score of 141 or below (the bottom 15th percentile) retook the test, and 70% of them had their scores go up. By stark—and I do mean stark—contrast, 68 people with scores of 172 and above (the 99th percentile) retook, and only 37% of them saw their scores go up. In between 142 and 166, between 65% see score improvement upon retake, and at 167 you begin to see a precipitous and steady decline in success, until you end up with only about a third seeing any improvement.

On the one hand, you may think—who cares?!? Only the highest score gets reported, so schools are going to put the most weight on that. It’s worth the roll of the dice. But isn’t that a lot of work to go through for what is likely to be at best a neutral result? (A decreased score can slightly tarnish an otherwise beautiful application, so I don’t think this is entirely cost-free.)

So that’s why I’m in favor of learning to take yes for an answer. If you are fortunate enough to get a score in the top 3% nationwide, seriously consider sticking with it!

-Dean Z. Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions, Financial Aid, and Career Planning