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.
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, but in the hierarchy of factors, LSAT + undergraduate record sit at the top and look down from their Olympian heights at all the other stuff. 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. I would advise extreme skepticism in both instances.
Of course there are outliers for every situation, including law school admissions, and there are people out there whose life stories are so improbable and impressive that their numbers become secondary. They are few and far between, though. (That's what makes them outliers.) 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 of unique snowflakes out there.
Because the LSAT is such an important factor in admissions outcomes, don't coast on your ostensible "uniqueness." Take the test very seriously, and give it enough time for you to reach your maximum performance. For some people, that means two months of intensive, consistent training. For others, it's six months. Train like an elite athlete.
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.
3. Budget enough time and room to fail. Because the test is so hard, and a test of your mental toughness, build in enough timeline to mess up on your first test. It happens all the time, and you should plan for that contingency. Never walk into an LSAT unprepared. However, assuming you're giving it your best shot, be prepared for the possibility that you wig out during the test, or misbubble, or have a lousy day. If you end up needing to cancel your score, your timeline should allow you to take it again while still being able to devote your focus to your test and not having to work on other parts of your application at the same time. Multitasking your way through all the components of your applications will not serve you as well.
All that adds up to the following recommendation: Plan on taking the LSAT for the first time in February, with June as a backup if you have to cancel your February score or if you aren't happy with your February score. If you have to retake it in June, you'll get your score back in late June, and then you can spend July, August, and September (with October for cushion) working on the written 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 will affect your positioning in your applications. If I had a dollar for every time an applicant has told me, "I'm getting 175's on my practice tests, so I'm confident I'll score in the 170's," that would make for quite a nest egg. 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 it for the first time in September, aren't happy with their 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 their score. January is awfully late in the game to be applying, and in the meantime, you're trying to pull your applications together without even knowing what schools you'll be competitive for. It's doable, and it's an option, but it's far from ideal.
So for those of you who will be submitting your applications early in the coming season (rather than applying late in the current one), now's the time to be up to your elbows in LSAT prep. Dedicate the next six months to slaying that dragon, and then turn your full attention to rocking the written components.
More advice on this subject here. Good luck with the February test!
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.