The Written Essay on the LSAT Test
In this lesson, you will learn a safe and proven technique for tackling the writing sample. Perhaps the most misunderstood portion of the entire LSAT is the writing sample. You may have friends who have told you that the writing sample is not an important part of the test. Don’t believe them. Even though it is unscored, in some cases it could represent the most important part of your file.
Is the Written Essay Even Important?
In the writing sample section, you have 35 minutes to write a brief essay based on a given situation. The essay is not scored but it is sent to every law school to which you apply. Because the section is not scored, there are always vicious rumors going around that the section doesn’t really matter. If it didn’t matter, why would the test makers include it? Just for laughs? Just to torture you?
Remember that scores on the LSAT has been shown to have a very high correlation with success in law school. There is nothing on the LSAT that is there by chance. Everything on the test serves a purpose.
Your law school career will include a seemingly endless chain of well-written opinions and ideas. Your career after law school will undoubtedly include many written arguments, briefs, essays and other written expressions. Your ability to write great essays will take you far.
TestSherpa has talked to many law school admissions personnel who have indicated that the writing sample becomes extremely important in certain situations and has made the difference in admissions or rejections of individual candidates.
From the input we’ve received from law school admissions personnel, the writing sample seems to take on more importance on the margins. That is to say, the writing sample alone may not be enough to get you into the school of your choice, but it could nudge you ahead of another similar candidate.
It’s not hard to imagine a situation where you’re up against another candidate with similar grades, LSAT scores, and volunteer experience. If only a few seats are left when these candidates are up for consideration, the tie breaker could be the writing sample. Which candidate can express themselves clearly under pressure?
This is becomes even more critical in second choice schools. Think about the way most students apply to their second choice schools. Each person has one or two top schools that are their first choice and regardless of their scores and chances, they’ll probably apply to those schools no matter what. Then there are the third choice schools. Based on the your actual scores and GPA, you will have one or two “safety” schools where you’re almost certain to gain admission. But those second choice schools, the schools you really count on going to, tend to be somewhat of a stretch for all who apply.
You apply to these schools based on your score and GPA and how you compare to the average reported admission standards. All of the candidates do this, albeit better candidates apply to better schools. That means that there will be a lot of candidates with similar scores and GPAs competing for those schools since they applied to them based on their score.
With the differences in scores and GPAs minimized, the writing sample takes on added importance.
As many as 140,000 students take the LSAT every year. A good any of those study using TestSherpa or a paid method of study. And yet many students spend very little time on the writing sample.
This is probably due to two factors. First, the writing sample is unscored so students feel like there isn’t a clear way to judge their progress. With the skills used in the scored sections of the test, you can easily track your progress. You’re getting more questions right as you study. With the writing sample, you might feel like you’re on an island with no way of knowing if you’re studying successfully or not.
Second, writing generally causes anxiety in a lot of students. Avoidance kicks in as some people would rather ignore the problem than face it.
If avoidance is your problems, force yourself to plug right through the entire TestSherpa course, writing sample and all. By getting as much practice as possible, you will reinforce key skills for test day and reduce your overall anxiety about writing. Rest assured, very few writing samples are great prose. In fact, most aren’t very good at all. You only have 30 minutes to read the situation and write an essay, how good could it be? Even if you’re a terrible writer, by following the TestSherpa method you will find a comfortable formula to plod through the writing sample on test day ahead of the crowd. If you’re already a strong and confident author, the TestSherpa tips will hone your essay so that it stands out far above the rest of the pool.
If you’ve succumbed to the first problem — a kind of ennui from not knowing if you’re making progress or not — have faith that the TestSherpa method has seen many students just like you across the goal line. If you really need the feedback, TestSherpa experts will critique your practice essays for a fee. But you don’t need that extra service, you really just need practice writing this particular style of essay.
The Essay Stays on File
The LSAT Writing Sample remains a part of your application file. Sure, there are many other components to that file: letters of recommendation, forms, grades, the LSAT score itself, work experience, your personal statement and more. But if you’re competing for one of the few remaining seats at your top choice law school with candidates with similar files, your writing sample is there to be scrutinized. It might never be read, but if it is read, you can count on it being the most important tie-breaker in your school career.
You never know how the writing sample will be used by admissions personnel. It might be standard practice to read the essays. It might only be read as a tie-breaker. But are you willing to take a chance on not writing the best essay you can? You should at least take the time to learn how to do a passing job on the writing sample, if not ace it by practicing the TestSherpa method over and over.
Writing an Essay Adds to your Test Day Experience
You know you’ll have to face the essay on test day. Of course, you could just turn in a blank essay and hope that it never comes up. But if it did come up, think about the red flag a blank essay would raise with the admissions committee.
You might be surprised about your feelings on test day. Things that didn’t seem so important several weeks earlier can throw you in a spiral of worry and depression. If you don’t prepare for the Writing Sample, you’ll just be adding stress to an already stressful day. It’s much better to take the test — the entire test — as prepared as you can be.
Writing Can be a Break
You’ll be studying hard for the test all the way up to test day. You’ll be reading thousands of arguments. You’ll read hundreds of passages. You’ll practice so many games you’ll want to throw up.
Practicing the writing sample can be a great break from your studying giving you time to catch your second wind and assimilate all the strategies you’ve been practicing. As a bonus, writing arguments will help you analyze all of the other arguments you’ll face on the test while putting those strategies into play.
Instead of feeling pressured that you only have 35 minutes to write, you might find that it is a relief in disguise. Again, everyone has only 30 minutes so no one has time to write a great essay. So relax an do your best in the time you have.
The space provided to you to write your essay is in itself quite short. Depending on your handwriting style (which shouldn’t be too small since legibility matters) you will probably only be able to fit in a maximum of 300 words. After all, of those 20 page papers you’ve written in your college career, this is a cake walk.
There is no right answer
You might also take solace in the fact that, unlike the rest of the LSAT, there is no right answer to the writing sample. You think the first option is the best, great. Write about that. You think the second option is best, write about that instead. You can’t decide? Flip a coin, because guess what, it just doesn’t matter.
The Writing Sample stimulus is deliberately vague to give you room to show your reasoning skills. It’s quite likely in your law school career or in your career as a lawyer that you will be asked to make arguments for cases you feel ambivalent about.
You’ll have to choose between two reasonable positions or solutions and then argue why one is better than the other. There isn’t a correct choice among the two, so relax.
What Happens on Test Day?
After you’ve completed the scored portion of the test, the proctor will collect all of the answer sheets. Then the proctor will hand out the writing sample (in a booklet) with a super cheap, crappy black ball-point pen.
The top sheet of the booklet is torn off and you can use it as scratch paper. The next sheet is what you actually write the essay on. The third sheet is an NCR carbonless copy for you to take home and frame as a lovely parting gift.
Can I Write Something Else?
We’re often asked by students, “what if I’m stuck or don’t like the essay topic — I’ve heard I should just write something else that is convincing and supports the rest of my file.”
While you’re at it, you could make pretty pictures by bubbling in certain ovals in your answer grid instead of actually taking the test. Can you imaging taking an essay exam about the Revolutionary War and writing all about your summer vacation? And yet, some students have this attitude, or even worse, have been given this advice.
The instructions on the LSAT are extremely clear: Do not write on a topic other than the one given. Writing on a topic of your own choosing is not acceptable.
So What Are They Really Looking For?
What are law schools hoping to find out about you by reading your writing sample? The LSAT instructions are quick to point out that there isn’t a right answer. They even go so far as to tell you that law schools are looking to see how clearly and carefully you can argue a position. No specialized knowledge is needed other than the facts given to you on the test. Schools want to see the level of your vocabulary, your organization skills as well as your punctuation and grammar.
It boils down to two things. First, are you competent with the English language, especially in written form? Second, can you form smart arguments? These are two of the most important qualities schools look for in their candidates. What better way to show off than on the Writing Sample under time pressure?