Should You Cancel Your LSAT Score?

Congratulations to the LSAT test takers among our readers! How does it feel? Do you think you nailed it? Are you happy to have it behind you? Or are you feeling queasy and agonizing about whether to cancel your score and retake? Or maybe you want to see how you did on this test and then decide whether to retake it? Just having the option of canceling causes applicants a lot of anguish, so I'll post some thoughts on the cancellation analysis, and also on the leave-my-score-and-retake-it analysis.

Canceling Your LSAT Score

Before you walk out of your LSAT test, and (as of this writing) for six calendar days afterward, you have the option of canceling your score. While that score won't be reported to law schools, admissions officers will get to see that you took the test and canceled your score. Does that look bad? It depends.

Admissions officers understand that bad days can and do happen, and they generally won't look askance at a single score cancellation. Most of them remain agnostic in that situation.

However, if you cancel it a second or a third time, at best you start looking like a flake. At worst, you look like someone who can't handle the pressure of a half-day test, and they will rightly wonder how you're going to survive law school (you won't get to cancel and retake that six-hour take-home Property Law exam), let alone the bar exam (which lasted three days each in the two states in which I took it), let alone legal practice (think law firm partners are going to give you lots of chances for do-overs? None that I know of).  So if you do need to cancel, treat the cancellation as a one-time free pass.

However, don't treat the first test as something you can waltz into on the assumption that you can always cancel and retake it. First of all, admissions officers expect you to do better each additional time you take it, because it's less scary and more familiar when you've taken the real thing before. They think that taking the test and then canceling the score gives you an advantage over someone who doesn't have the benefit of having taken the test before. You should feel well prepared walking into that test, and use the cancellation option for a worst-case scenario.

So when should you cancel your score? If you've been prepping smartly for the test, you'll have a decent sense before the test if you're scoring where you want to be, and you'll have a sense during the test, too, whether things are going as planned. If you know, as you walk out of the test, that you didn't finish a section that you normally finish, or that you bubbled in the wrong lines, or that your stomach staged a rebellion, those are good reasons to cancel. If your next test goes better, no harm done — that's a happy scenario — and you're better off showing admissions officers your one great score rather than taking it over and over again on a reported basis.

If, instead, you can't pinpoint anything that went wrong, but you're just feeling a bit nauseated by the anxiety of having studied so hard and so long for this test and now you've finally taken it and you have to wait for a score that determines where you go to the law school that will determine the rest of your life and OH MY GOD NOW YOU'RE FREAKING OUT... well, that's called spiraling, and that's not a good enough reason to cancel. You might have done just fine, in which case, wouldn't it be nice to put the LSAT behind you and NEVER, EVER have to take it again? And when the score comes, if you learn that you didn't do just fine, you can take it again with the benefit of of your score report and being able to analyze which kinds of questions caused you the most trouble.

You won't get to see your score before you cancel, so you'll have to make the cancellation decision with imperfect information: you'll have to assess your performance against the benchmark of your practice exams. The more realistically you've been simulating real test taking conditions during your practice tests, the better you'll be able to gauge how did on the real thing.

And finally, before you get too trigger-happy with the cancellation option, keep in mind the LSAC rule that limits you to taking the LSAT up to three times in two years (including scores you cancel). 

Receiving Your Score and Retaking the LSAT

Schools will see results from all tests -- up to 12 -- for which you registered in the previous five years, including absences and cancellations. Some law schools say that they average multiple scores, but bear in mind that the ABA requires law school to report the high score, and it's the ABA data that US News & Word Report relies on for its rankings. For that reason, schools have an incentive to focus on the high score, regardless of what they tell you publicly.

What does that mean for you? If you walk out of the test feeling strongly that you can squeeze some more points out of the LSAT, and the LSAT/GPA calculator tells you that a few more points would make a difference for the schools you're interested in, you should retake it. Treat the next test as a clean slate. Many applicants tell me that they worry how it will look if there's a really big jump, to which I reply: If there's a big jump, pop the champagne. That can only be good news.

Second, don't assume that your score will necessarily go up -- it can go down, too. Even though admissions officers have an incentive to focus on the high score, they are still subject to the laws of human psychology (and consumer psychology), and you'll look better applying with one really strong score that stands on its own in shining glory than applying with multiple attempts that show incremental improvements (admissions officer: "hmmm....I wonder which test is the outlier here: the high score or the low score?"), not to mention a score drop. Nobody walks into a second or third LSAT exam thinking "my score will drop today," but it does happen. Score drops just don't look good when -- as admissions officers know -- most people's scores go up slightly with each successive test. It's better to take the test once, when you're feeling in peak form, with the understanding that you can always take it again if you have a bad day. And if you do take it again, you should feel quite confident that your score will go up, and walk into the test knowing that you did something different this time: you studied harder/better/smarter, or that you took the test more calmly/more smartly/more strategically.

If an application asks you to explain a change (whether an increase or a decrease) in your LSAT scores, see my previous blog posting on that question here.

So, test-takers: how do you feel? Are you inclined to cancel, or wait and see how you did? Please share!

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, downloadable as an e-book. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook