What's the ideal LSAT timeline? Your mileage may vary, and your LSAT instructor will be able to give you advice customized to your individual situation. But in a perfect world, here's how I like to work backwards from the end goal:
Plan to submit your applications in early November (or even sooner, but early November is plenty early). In order to maximize the time you have on your applications, and to let your brain focus on — and master — one thing at a time, that November submission date means I like to see people take the LSAT the February before that.
However, I find that many applicants aren't paying much attention to their application timelines that early (you'd have to start prepping for the February test in the previous calendar year), so what's the next best alternative if you plan on submitting this fall and you didn't take the February test? Easy: Take the June test. Do not wait until October. And that means you must start thinking about your LSAT prep timeline right now.
Why so early? A couple of reasons:
1. The LSAT is ridiculously important to admissions outcomes.
Your combined LSAT + undergraduate record are very likely to have the biggest impact on your admissions results. Other factors matter too — and for the most competitive schools, those other "soft" factors must be excellent as well — but in the hierarchy of factors, LSAT + undergraduate record sit at the top. You might hear people suggest that you can write your way around poor numbers, or you might hear a recommender say he has so much pull with a school that he can get you in. Yes, the rest of the application does matter. Yes, having the right connections sometimes helps. But I would advise healthy skepticism.
Of course there are outliers for everything, including law school admissions, and there are people out there whose life stories are so improbable and impressive, or whose immediate network has such pull, that their numbers become secondary. Even in that case, though, they can't be bad numbers (where "bad" numbers are relative to a given school's normal pool).
In particular, many parents tell me how "unique" their children are and that therefore their sub-par numbers won't matter so much. Oof! There's a 99% chance their children will learn the hard way that their parents are simply wrong. From an admissions officer's perspective, there are a lot and lots of unique snowflakes out there.
Because the LSAT is such an important factor in admissions outcomes, don't coast on your ostensible "uniqueness."
2. The LSAT is hard.
For most people, the LSAT is not just a cognitively challenging test, but also a test of endurance, time management, and anxiety management. Those are all mental muscles you need to build during your training period, and that's not a process that happens overnight. It can take time to work yourself into the necessary LSAT zen state. Never walk into an LSAT unprepared. Take the test very seriously, and give yourself enough time to reach your maximum performance. For some people, that means two months of intensive, consistent training. For others, it's more. Train like an elite athlete... and like a Zen Buddhist!
3. Working with a real score is better than working with a fantasy score.
You'll get your score back in late June, and then you can spend July, August, and September (with October for cushion) working on all the other parts of your application with the benefit of your score. That last part matters, because it's very hard to know what law schools you should be shooting for without an actual LSAT score, and your particular list of schools can affect your positioning in your applications, what kind of essays you write, if and where you apply Early Decision, etc. If I had a dollar for every time an applicant has told me, "I'm getting 175's on my practice tests, and I'm confident I'll score in the 170's, so let's plan around that," I'd be sipping pink-umbrella cocktails on my private island somewhere. You're much better served working off of an actual LSAT score rather than the one you fantasize about.
That's the perfect world timeline. We don't live in a perfect world, of course, so a lot of people take the LSAT for the first time in October. Best case scenario: the score turns out to be good, but they have to wait until the end of October to get their score back, and that pushes back their timeline for the other components of the application (and important application strategizing, which is impossible to do without the score).
Another possible scenario: You wait until October to take the test, you aren't happy with the score (or wig out and postpone, or wig out and cancel), retake it in December, and then have to wait until the following January for your score. January is awfully late in the game to be applying (and by then you've also missed Early Decision opportunities), and in the meantime, you're trying to pull your applications together without even knowing what schools you'll be competitive for. It's an option, but it's far from ideal. I don't recommend it.
So for those of you who will be submitting your applications early in the coming season, now's the time to get up to your elbows in LSAT prep. Dedicate the next couple of months to slaying that dragon, and then turn your full attention to all the other application components.
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. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook, or email us a new question for the blog.