I received this great question today from an Ivey Files reader:
I know you've addressed this in your book and in the blog, but I had another question regarding the multiple lsat addendum. I took the test twice and experienced a 7 point jump the second time. I have no fancy explanation...the score increase was simply the result of altering my test preparation (I actually scaled back the amount of studying and took a slower, more methodical approach....much more effective for my brain). I am more than content to let the higher score speak for itself, as you suggest, but the language put out by some schools I'd like to apply to makes me think twice about it. For example:
Penn : "If there is a significant difference between an applicant's highest and lowest LSAT score (more than 4 or 5 points) the applicant should address this discrepancy in an addendum to his or her application."
Michigan : "If you have a significant disparity between scores (six or more points), it would be very helpful to address any explanation for the difference in an optional essay or addendum."
Virginia: "We encourage applicants with a significant difference in LSAT scores to include with their application any information that may be relevant to the interpretation of test results."
The language suggests they expect you to give them some explanation for two significantly different test scores. Does this mean that I should just write something short and simple that attempts to explain what I believe accounted for my score increase? If I ignore these statements and refuse to submit an explanation, will admissions be more inclined to take my average score?
You are asking all the right questions. I would argue that you don't actually know why your score jumped seven points, because if you look at your LSAT reports for the two test, you'll probably see a pretty wide score band in each for score accuracy. So yes, maybe your score jumped seven points because you studied better/harder/smarter (fill in the blank), but when you're within the margin of error (as reflected by the score bands), or even if you've moved outside the score band, you don't actually know what's behind the difference.
What's a score band? If you look at your LSAT report, LSAC tells admissions officers to view your "real" score as falling within a range of scores. Most LSAT reports that I've seen show a band that's plus or minus 3 of your scaled score, so that's a band of 7 scaled points. Pretty huge, right? Your "real" score is anywhere in that band, and even then the score band captures the "real" score only 68% of the time.* That leaves a whopping 32% of the time when the score band -- which is already pretty big -- doesn't even include someone's "actual proficiency." (For statistics junkies out there: am I missing something? Am I being unduly harsh? Please post if you have an opinion.)
Given what LSAC itself is saying about the accuracy of its own scores and score bands, can most applicants say something meaningful or even accurate about a movement in scores? I would say no. You are not omniscient. Sometimes you have a good day, sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes it's just the margin of error. You'll never really know. And you're not the one writing the test questions, or grading the exam, or calibrating it against other exam administrations and other test-taker pools, or determining what the statistically appropriate score band is for a given test or a given score. LSAC employs an army of statisticians for that, and the score bands are the best they can do, with an accuracy rate that leaves a lot of room for error. And somehow you're supposed to know more about your scores than they do? Go figure. But over the years, more schools have added language to that effect, asking about score differences as small as four points. So I advise the following:
If a school expressly asks or encourages you to comment on an X-point score difference, you should say something about it, even if realistically you can't be expected to justify or explain the score difference.
If they ask and you stay silent, I don't think they are necessarily going to average your scores, since they have to report the high score to the ABA, and that creates powerful incentives for the school to focus on the high score. However, staying silent after they expressly ask about it would suggest to them that you're not following instructions, and that's not a good outcome, even if the instructions themselves are silly. You should say something, anything, even if it's just: I studied differently/had a better day. In your case, tell them about your different approach to the test.
What if an applicant has to explain a decline in scores? That's a tougher situation, obviously, since most people do better with each successive test. (LSAC says: "Data show that scores for repeat test takers often rise slightly.") The things that can go wrong on a test day are wide and varied, and in a perfect universe, if you were having a bad test day, you should have canceled the score. But if you haven't canceled the score, explain what happened, and try not to give an impression that will undermine anyone's confidence in you as a future law student and lawyer. For example, it doesn't reflect well on an applicant to say that he panics in high-stakes testing situations. (How is he going to survive the much longer, more grueling bar exam? Or even law school exams? Or oral argument in front of a judge?)
I'd love for readers to post their own thoughts. Why do you think your score went up or down? How are you answering application questions about score differences?
* Here's what LSAC says on page 24 of its Information Book for 2009-10: "Score bands for the LSAT are designed to include your actual proficiency level approximately 68 percent of the time."
Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).