A tense group of students gathered outside the gates of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 24, 2016. It felt too early for a regular Saturday morning. Yet these hundreds of students were eager to be admitted into the building to spend the next five hours writing the LSAT, one of the most important tests in their academic legal careers. Signs on the walls outside the auditoriums reminded students of some of the items they were permitted to bring into the test – pencils, erasers and highlighters, which had to be placed in a clear Ziploc bag. Other signs reminded passersby to be quiet, so as not to disturb the test takers.
“I sweated the entire time,” remembers a student who wanted to be identified only by her initials A.H, 23, who took her exam in 2014. She is currently in her first year of law school at the University of Toronto.
The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a key hurdle for anyone who wants to apply to a North American law school, and is just the first step in an anxiety ridden and expensive few months for tens of thousands of young Canadians every year. The student A.H, like many other students, took formal preparatory courses, shelling out hundreds of dollars to do so. There are so many private prep courses, public information sessions and study options, how can prospective Canadian law students know which is the best path towards acing the LSAT?
Let’s get down to the basics first.
The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) based in Newton, P.A., administers the test worldwide for about 60,000 applicants every year. Over 200 law schools are LSAC members approved by the American Bar Association. There are nearly two dozen law schools in Canada.
The LSAT is a five-hour test which thoroughly evaluates logical and analytical reasoning as well as reading comprehension. Law school hopefuls can take the test three times over a period of two years. It costs US $180 to register to take the LSAT exam. Most students also register for the Credential Assembly Service (CAS) which serves as a resource of information for law school applicants. The service is also where law schools can access the applicants’ academic reports, LSAT scores, transcripts and letters of recommendation. The service costs $175. Other fees for things such as late registration and test centre changes can raise the total to over $400.
There is no pass or fail outcome, just scores that range from 120 to 180. The lowest acceptable score to be admitted into law schools in Canada is around 160, but the average score hovers around 150. The LSAT score is considered alongside with GPA, personal statement and recommendations for law school admission. It becomes a struggle for students to pursue their dreams in law if they cannot do well on this standardized test. Some students are willing to shell out thousands of dollars for prep courses in hopes that it will boost their LSAT score.
Shivani Desai of Toronto took the LSAT twice already. She is taking it for a third time this year because she hasn’t been satisfied with her scores. She recommends taking the prep course route.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t go to the prep course. I wouldn’t have known where to start on my own, so the prep school helped me a lot,” Desai said, who studied with Kaplan. “After I finished I knew where I was struggling so I could focus on those areas.”
Before Andrew Sudano took the LSAT for the first time, he participated in a five-week course at The Princeton Review, which cost him $1,500.
“It was expensive,” said Sudano, who now practices as a law associate at Shawyer Family Law Practice in Toronto. He handles child welfare and family law cases. “But their selling point was that they provided actual tests and strategies. In retrospect, if I didn’t take the course I wouldn’t have passed the LSAT. So I did get value out of it.”
Reputation and regulation are the two big deciders for students when it comes to prep schools. Some students choose an LSAT prep school based on its name or status. Alexis Archbold is the Assistant Dean of the Juris Doctorate program at the University of Toronto. She says while private prep schools are not necessary to get a good mark on the LSAT, she acknowledges that these courses can be helpful for most students.
“Students learn what the questions are testing for and strategies for answering them,” Archbold said. “The best way to prepare is to answer loads of practice questions.”
Archbold suggests students go the route of trusted LSAT prep course providers rather than commercial prep schools.
“Prep courses are not regulated,” she said. “Most commercial prep courses are several hundred dollars each.”
A student can still take a lot of practice tests, within or outside prep courses, and still do poorly on the LSAT. The quality of the prep school often depends on how good the instructors are. Jeff Thomas is the executive director of the pre-law preparation programs at Kaplan Test Prep. The company competes alongside with The Princeton Review, offering preparation for the same tests, but with better instructors, Thomas claims.
“We have a faculty management team whose sole job is to comb through thousands of applicants who apply each year,” he said. “We hire fewer than ten per cent of them.”
Though Kaplan commits to hiring people who actually took the LSAT themselves, Thomas says that content regulation and accreditation are growing concerns within the industry.
“The test prep business is largely a word of mouth business,” he said. “Which means that if students weren’t successful using our products, the rest of them wouldn’t come to us.”
Chad Chasteen is the national content director of The Princeton Review, a commercial company based in Framingham, Massachusetts that offers curricula for standardized tests including the LSAT. Chasteen acknowledges that not all Princeton Review LSAT prep instructors have taken the test.
“We don’t ask them to take the LSAT for real,” Chasteen said. “But we do ask them to take a practice LSAT with us in order to measure their skills.”
Based on the score they got sitting for the company’s practice test, Chasteen says, managers gauge how much training the prospective instructor would need in order to teach the course.
“Somebody starting out with us who may have lower test scores than our other competitors become better over time.”
In other words, the instructors themselves need to take the course in order to teach it.
In Toronto, Sergey Kouk regularly posts on the website MeetUp.com to advertise his private LSAT prep course services. He offer free information sessions and mock exams that way. The actual courses are held at Anderson College in Toronto. Kouk is managing director and senior trainer at Admit Master. Kouk says he tends to hire instructors with successful prep course experience.
“Mostly they come from larger companies,” he said. “We usually hire people who have already gone through training and worked with other companies.”
Kouk’s Toronto-based company, with courses offered also in Montreal and Chicago, has a benchmark of 170 on the LSAT for anyone applying to be an instructor, although they do not have to also be lawyers.
“The person is usually not a lawyer,” Kouk said. “The person is a trainer.”
Kouk also posts personally on Eventbrite.com, where he markets free information sessions, free diagnostic testing of prospective student skills, and a free LSAT practice session. If the student chooses to continue with the paid course after these free meetings, they will receive a broader introduction to the world of being a lawyer.
Sometimes students just want to go to law school to become lawyers and make a lot of money, but we explain what that actually entails. Sergey Kouk
“We go through what a day in the life of a lawyer looks like, and a day in the life of a student,” he said. “Sometimes students just want to go to law school to become lawyers and make a lot of money, but we explain what that actually entails.”
Not all prep courses cost money. Osgoode Hall Law School at York University offers free LSAT instruction.
“Osgoode is one school that has a free LSAT prep course for students from low income and middle income backgrounds,” said Alissa Cooper, the manager of admissions and financial services at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Osgoode’s Access to Law and Learning free prep courses are for students with proven financial need. Like commercial prep programs, the classes run for several weeks. Throughout the course students attend seminars with current law school students and law professionals. The University of Toronto Faculty of Law also offers a similar program.
The LSAT only counts for one third of the law school application, Cooper said. Schools look for strengths across all academic areas, including the applicant’s grade point average (GPA) and the ability to communicate efficiently in a written personal statement and essay. Osgoode practices a “holistic admissions” approach, she added, describing it as a policy that looks at a number of factors when considering admission to the program.
“We look at non-academic achievements and experiences,” she said. “We look for diversity, we look for sustained engagement within the community.”
Sarah Samwel took the LSAT in her final year of university in 2012. She registered for a Kaplan prep course for $1,500, and found it useful as a resource.
“I’m the kind of person who needs someone in class to teach me, so that’s important,” said Samwel, who is now studying journalism at Centennial College in Toronto. “It also motivates you to get things done and keeps you accountable. Also you can ask questions if there’s something you don’t understand. You have that resource of the instructor who got a ridiculously high mark to help you.”
Though these prep schools are unregulated, Samwel was confident taking the Kaplan route to the LSAT. “Their reputation preceded them.”
However, Samwel believed that the LSAT as a whole is not a fair measure of what it takes to be a successful lawyer.
“It’s a barrier to law school, and I believe that some very talented individuals are not getting into law schools because of it,” Samwel said.
Sudano knows what she means. He knew as soon as he took a practice test that the LSAT would prove difficult for him.
“For whatever reason, I didn’t have it. As you can imagine, that can have a serious effect on your confidence. You begin asking yourself, ‘Maybe it’s not meant for me, maybe I’m not meant to be a lawyer’,” Sudano said.
The LSAT continues to be a challenge for him, despite his professional success.
“A few months ago when I was in Chapters, I was looking at the LSAT prep books, and just to kill time, I thought ‘I’ve been a lawyer now for over four years’ so I did a couple of the questions and didn’t do particularly well, so I thought ‘Hey, I’m a lawyer, so this doesn’t prove crap’,” Sudano said, with a smile.
“What really matters, is that people become good law students and lawyers, not good test takers,” says Aaron Lindh, LSAT prep course instructor at The Princeton Review. “The LSAT covers a handful of skills that you need for law school such as reading and logical reasoning. It’s not sufficient to do well in law school.”