When I took the LSAT back in nineteen-dickety-two (actually, 2006), it consisted of five multiple choice sections of thirty-five minutes apiece: one section of Reading Comprehension, one of Logic Games, two of Logical Reasoning, and one Experimental section that constituted an extra unscored section of any one of the three section types. I and most of my LSAT contemporaries felt brutalized by each one of those five sections on test day, and we were glad when it was over.
The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) — the makers of the LSAT — apparently thought that was too easy. Or maybe they like even numbers or have something weird with the number five. Whatever the case, soon after that, they decided to add one more 35-minute section: the writing sample. This raised numerous questions: Why would they do such a thing (other than the fact that they dislike you intensely)? What exactly is it? How important is it? How much should I study for it and how? Well, let’s take just a few of those in turn.
During the writing sample, you will receive a prompt that provides some background on a situation. You will find out that an individual or institution has some kind of choice to make regarding that situation. There will be exactly two options, and it is your mission to pick one of them, argue for it, and then argue against the option that you do not pick. The situation will include facts that you can draw upon to marshal your arguments.
Many of the decisions LSAC makes are opaque. They have a monopoly, and so they make changes without consulting the public or bothering to explain them. Here is their explanation of the format, purpose, and usefulness of the writing sample. It mostly talks about allowing law schools to evaluate the writing prowess of potential students, something that the multiple choice sections do not provide insight into. Fair enough. To this, I’d add that it allows schools to evaluate a student’s argumentative writing prowess when that student’s brain is absolute mush. (It’s always the last section.) This is actually helpful to law schools, because your brain will be mush during finals. Look it up.
There is another why, as far as I’m concerned: it gives law schools a means of gauging just how much of your personal statement you actually wrote. Of course an essay that goes through many drafts and revisions and a bunch of fine tuning will be better than what you write under stressful, exhausted, time-constrained conditions, and so schools don’t expect it to be anywhere near as well-written as your personal statement. However, if your personal statement is the Return of Shakespeare and your writing sample is verbal excrement, they have good reason to think that your personal statement isn’t so personal.
The How (including, “How important is it?”)
As far as studying for the writing sample, it really ought to be a minimal part of your studies. If you have experience writing essays of the argumentative variety — which every humanities/liberal arts major ought to — then you already know how to do this. Just follow the directions and make an honest effort, and you’ll do fine. It does not factor into your overall score.
As far as its effect on your prospects at a school, most schools look at it just to make sure that it’s done correctly and with the requisite effort. If you’ve passed that very low bar, then it will never be the difference between admission and rejection at a particular school. One of the primary missions of law schools is to teach students legal writing. You don’t need to be there when you set foot through the door.
All this is to say that you should take the writing sample seriously — including doing a few practice prompts before test day — but you should not worry about it. The September LSAT — writing sample included — is just around the corner, so best of luck!