After digital exams were introduced in July 2019, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) will now be administered digitally in entirety in the U.S. starting in September 2019, eliminating paper exams. Pre-law students at Amherst and across the country will have to adjust to this new format.
The digital LSAT is administered on tablets provided at the testing center. Students taking the exam will use a stylus to annotate and select their answers. The tablet’s features include highlighting, flagging so that students can mark questions to return to and a timer with a five-minute warning. While booklets or answer sheets are no longer part of the exam, students do have access to a pen and scratch paper.
One major change in the format of the LSAT is that the writing section will now be administered separately from the multiple choice section. While the multiple choice portion is answered on the tablets in the testing center, students will have to do the writing separately, either on a personal device or somewhere else, like the library, using a computer that meets certain requirements.
According to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), the writing portion will be proctored by a “secure proctoring software.” Students have up to a year after their multiple choice test date to complete the writing exam.
The transition from paper to digital testing began in July this year when half of all test-takers were required to take it digitally, while the rest took the traditional pen-and-paper exam. To incentivize students to take the LSAT on the day they piloted the digital exam, the LSAC gave students the unique opportunity to cancel their scores after seeing them. They could also sign up to take the test again for free.
According to Francesca Cicero, the pre-law adviser at the Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Planning, the July test exposed some “bumps in the road” to this transition. While she is not aware of many Amherst students who took that test, she has heard from other pre-law advisers that the added benefits provided for that testing session led to an overflow of students registering to take the test at later dates, such as in September or October. According to Cicero, after seeing their scores from July, a higher percentage of students than normal chose to cancel their scores and retake the test. As a result, testing centers could not sustain the demand and waitlists grew.
Cicero also noted other obstacles that students have faced and will likely continue to face during this transition, such as the stylus being imprecise and connectivity issues at some of the July testing centers. Students may not always realize that it takes three weeks for the writing score to be processed, Cicero added, which could impact their timeline for applying to law schools with rolling admissions.
Still, she considers these technical difficulties a temporary cost for an inevitable change. As the world becomes increasingly digitized, Cicero said it was just a matter of time before the LSAT went digital, and when asked whether she agrees with the change, she replied that she didn’t “see that there was any real choice.” She also said the new format “will really fit into the environment that students are already working in.” Students, after all, now use laptops in the classroom more than ever before.
Some Amherst students, however, do not necessarily think that the digital format will be easier to use. Audrey Cheng ’20, who took the paper LSAT in July 2018 and has been admitted into law school, said that students are more used to taking tests on paper and pointed to her teachers’ advice that it is easier to read on paper than electronically.
Her “eyes were falling out” after taking the three-hour paper exam, she said, adding that staring at a screen would be even more difficult.
“My first instinct is to say that paper is better,” Cheng said.
Jeremy Thomas ’21, who recently began studying for the LSAT, said that he “interacts differently” with paper than with a computer and hopes that having to switch between scratch paper and a screen will not negatively impact his score. He also prefers to read on paper. Still, because of the scratch paper, it “won’t be too difficult [for him] to adapt” to the new exam, he said.
John Kim ’20, who took the digital LSAT this past weekend, expressed a similar view, adding that he prefers paper and pencil but did not find it difficult to adjust. He acknowledged that many other students around the world are unable to purchase expensive devices and develop technological literacy, resulting in disproportionate advantages for students who have those privileges.
“The LSAT experience would have a greater chance of living up to LSAC’s stated expectations of a fair, unbiased test if they considered these factors,” Kim said.
Kim practiced for the digital test almost completely on paper and found that the most important skill to work on is not navigating the format, but rather developing test-taking skills like “master[ing] the different types of questions” and staying “composed under a strictly-timed environment.” As long as one employs these strategies, the new format should not have a major impact on one’s score, Kim said.
Cheng also noted that there are potential advantages to the digital LSAT. The ability to flag and easily move between questions on the electronic version will ease the difficulty of flipping back and forth in a paper booklet, allowing students to better budget their time, she said. She also cited saving paper as a benefit of the digital format.
Kim, too, showed some support, saying that the change could prevent cheating because it is impossible for students to work beyond the time limit or flip back to previous sections when they are not supposed to.
Several other standardized testing companies, including those that administer the GRE, MCAT, SAT and ACT, have already adopted digital testing formats. The SAT and ACT currently offer both digital and paper options, while the GRE and MCAT have gone completely digital. According to Cicero, it was inevitable that the LSAC would make this shift. She added, however, that the legal field is not known for quickly adapting to change and that the LSAC had some legitimate security concerns that prevented it from transitioning earlier. be changes in “the way we consider admissions into educational institutions as a whole,” he said.