For thousands of undergraduate students and young professionals, law school is a tempting option. The promise of an intellectually stimulating and lucrative career encouraged an estimated 54,000 people to apply to law school in 2013, according to Forbes Magazine. The applicants varied in age, ethnicity and undergraduate background, but all of them had one thing in common -- they took the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT. With scores ranging from 120 to 180, the standardized exam can secure a spot for you at an elite school or relegate you to a less competitive program. The test remains one of the most important -- and most mysterious -- elements of the law school application.

Why Law Schools Care About LSAT Scores

Although a single test score from a single morning might seem like an arbitrary standard for judging applicants, law school admissions committees take LSAT scores very seriously. One reason for the weightiness of LSAT scores is that they allow comparison of candidates from different undergraduate institutions. According to Criminal Justice Professor Daniel Pinello, a 4.0 GPA at one college might be a greater achievement than a 4.0 GPA at a different college. The LSAT allows colleges to judge candidates by an equal standard. The scores are also fairly good at predicting how well students will perform in law school. The Law School Admissions Council, or LSAC, reports that the LSAT is “a strong predictor of first year law school grades.” Law schools want to accept students likely to thrive on their campuses, and the LSAT helps them achieve that goal.

How Schools Evaluate LSAT Scores

Each law school approaches LSAT scores in their own way, but all of them consider it an important criterion for admission. Most schools don’t have a hard minimum LSAT requirement, but the top schools rarely admit anyone with a score under 160. Ann Levine, author of the book "The Law School Admission Game," reports that even students with scores below 150 can win admission to less competitive programs. For students with low scores, a high undergraduate GPA can help. According to admissions consultant Anna Ivey, most law schools combine undergraduate academic records with test scores to form a more complete picture of their candidates. Ivey agrees, however, that LSAT scores tend to count more than GPA to admissions committees.

Retaking the LSAT

The LSAT counts a lot for law school applicants, so many people choose to take the exam multiple times. Retaking the LSAT can improve a student’s odds of acceptance, but it has some downsides. Derek Meeker, former Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, explains that many admissions committees consider all of an applicant's LSAT scores, not just the highest score. He also notes that students could end up scoring lower on their second or third attempts, harming their chances of admission. As a general rule, he says, applicants should only retake the exam if they have good reason to believe they can significantly improve their score.

Other Factors in Law School Admissions

The LSAT is the most important variable in a law school application, but other factors count. An applicant's undergraduate GPA is the second most important factor. Author and admissions consultant Ann Levine notes that applicants with great grades from good colleges can make up for low scores. Other factors can also help sway an admissions committee to accept a borderline applicant. Good letters of recommendation from professors and an exemplary record of professional or extracurricular achievements count in an applicants' favor. Although it's easy to get caught up in the numbers, law school admissions committees look at an applicant's entire profile before making a decision.

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