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The Experimental Section Explained



Rumors about the LSAT experimental section are legion, and facts are difficult to come by. In the discussion below, we dissect the experimental section in detail.

What is the experimental section and why is it on the test?

As of August 2021, each LSAT contains four sections, but only three sections are scored. The extra, unscored section is known as the variable section or experimental section. According to LSAC, this section is used to "pretest new test items and to preequate new test forms." In other words, the experimental section contains items that will appear on future LSATs, and the results of your performance are used to determine future scoring scales (for related information on the LSAT Scoring Scale, please click here).

Although the experimental section has no direct impact on your score, your performance on this section is carefully analyzed by LSAC. Sophisticated statistical analyses are performed on your answers, and these results, when combined with information from thousands of other test takers, present a clear picture of the difficulty and logical validity of each question. Then, when future tests are assembled, questions can be selected with a high degree of confidence in how test takers will perform. Thus, entire tests can be assembled with a very accurate understanding of how many questions a 170-level scorer would miss, how many questions a 160-level scorer would miss, etc. With this information, scoring scales can largely be determined even before a test has been administered.

Where does the experimental section appear?

Up until the June 2007 LSAT, the experimental section number was the same for every test taker (for example, on the December 2006 LSAT every test taker in the country had section 1 as their experimental). From June 2007 to June 2011, LSAC began using test forms that gave different experimental section numbers to different students, but with the limitation that the experimental section was always one of the first three sections. Thus, on a given test administration, some test takers might have section 2 as their experimental whereas other examinees might have section 1 or section 3 as their experimental. Starting in October 2011, LSAC continued the practice of using test forms that gave different experimental section numbers to different students, but they removed the limitation that the experimental section must be among the first three sections, and allowed the experimental to appear among the final two sections. During the days of LSAT-Flex in 2020-2021, there were only three sections and no experimental section (and much higher scores). In August 2021, the LSAT became a four-section test with three tested sections and one experimental.  

What this means is that there is no longer a reliable way for individual test takers to predict or determine their experimental section number. Students will be able to narrow it down to the two sections that are the same question type, but essentially impossible to determine which of those two sections is unscored.

Does everyone have the same experimental section content?

Although every student has an experimental section, the content of individual experimental sections varies. For example, students taking the October 2010 LSAT may have had section 1 as the experimental, or section 2 as the experimental. For those students who had section 1 as their experimental section, some test takers had a Logical Reasoning experimental section and some test takers had a Reading Comprehension experimental section. This variation in sections underscores another fact about the LSAT: although the composition of each scored LSAT is the same for all test takers, the order of section topic varies. These different test orders are known as different test forms. Consider the following two test takers from the December 2007 LSAT, who both had section 1 as the experimental:

Test Taker #1:
Section 1: Logical Reasoning (experimental)
Section 2: Logic Games
Section 3: Logical Reasoning
Section 4: Reading Comprehension
Section 5: Logical Reasoning

Test Taker #2:
Section 1: Reading Comprehension (experimental)
Section 2: Logic Games
Section 3: Logical Reasoning
Section 4: Reading Comprehension
Section 5: Logical Reasoning

Note that each test taker has the same scored test components: two sections of Logical Reasoning, one section of Logic Games, and one section of Reading Comprehension. Each of these sections is identical for all test takers, e.g. everyone has the same set of Logic Games, the same Reading Comprehension passages, etc. But, each test taker does not have the sections in the same order, nor do they necessarily have the same experimental section topic.

The variation in test order is randomly assigned, and thus the order of the test is not matched to you personally—it is simply luck of the draw. The same is true for your experimental section topic, although if you get an experimental section that is one of your weaknesses (for example, two game sections), that can be a powerful psychological negative during the test.

Can I predict which section is the experimental prior to the test?

As discussed above, you cannot predict which section will be the experimental before the test.

Should I try to figure out the experimental while I am doing the test?

No. Although some test takers can determine which section was experimental after the fact (as discussed below), this information is only useful for deciding whether to cancel your score once the test is over. During the test you should focus on performing well on each section without regard for the experimental.

Unfortunately, many test takers ignore this advice and try to determine the experimental during the exam. While we understand the attraction of this idea (who wouldn't want a 35 minute break during the test?), the downside is considerable if you incorrectly identify a section as the experimental.

Some people claim that they can spot the experimental because the questions are unusual in nature, or that the section seemed especially hard or easy. This is an imprecise method for determining the experimental section. Let’s explain.

  • The LSAT is not comprised of sections of identical difficulty, but rather of a set of sections that are supposed to add up to the same overall difficulty every time. Within each exam the difficulty of individual sections tends to vary; for example, on some LSATs the Reading Comprehension section is very challenging whereas on other exams the Reading Comprehension section is fairly easy. The same is true for the other sections. While taking a demanding test, you would be hard pressed to make a fast, accurate assessment that a section is too hard or too easy to be scored.
  • During the heat of the test, questions that are very typical can appear to be unusual. For example, we have heard students comment after a test that the Games section contained a completely new type of game. Yet, after they assessed the test later, the same students realized that the game in question was simply a variation of an old standard. The game just appeared unusual and difficult while they were under the pressure of the exam.

How do I figure out the experimental section after the test?

For some test takers, this is easier, but for others it is quite difficult. Remember, each LSAT contains the same three scored section topics:

1 Logical Reasoning sections
1 Logic Games section
1 Reading Comprehension section

Because the experimental can be any of the section topics, the composition of your test will indicate which section topic you have as the experimental. Consider the following:

Test Taker #1:
2 Logical Reasoning sections
1 Logic Games section
1 Reading Comprehension section

Analysis: one of the two Logical Reasoning sections must be the experimental

If the experimental is unscored, why should I worry about it at all?

There are two situations where understanding how the experimental section is used is very helpful:

1. If you run into trouble on one of the sections.

Test takers can get very discouraged by a poor performance early in the test. But, because there is an experimental, if you have a poor performance on a section, during the remainder of the test simply assume that the section was experimental and do not let that performance negatively affect the rest of your test performance. Then, at the conclusion of the exam you can attempt to determine if that section was in fact the experimental.

2. If you are thinking about cancelling your score.

The decision to cancel your score can be very difficult, and every piece of information helps make the decision easier. Sometimes, knowing the experimental section can finalize your decision to cancel or not to cancel.

For some students, the experimental section number is irrelevant. They work through the test, are comfortable with their performance, and they do not need further information about the test. For other students, especially those considering cancelling their score, determining the experimental can be critical.