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GRE vs LSAT for law school admissionsYou’ve no doubt heard that, starting a couple years ago when the University of Arizona Law School decided to thumb its nose at the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) and became the first to accept the GRE in lieu of the LSAT, more and more law schools are hopping on board the growing trend of allowing candidates to apply with the GRE instead of the traditional law school admissions exam, the LSAT. In fact, over 20 law schools (including the prestigious Harvard Law School) now accept the GRE, and a recent study suggests that a full 25% of law schools have plans in the works to do the same.

The question is, what should we make of these recent events? Is this a short-lived fad? Or is it a trend that’s here to stay?

ABA Ruling Opens Door for the GRE

Let’s start with a logistical matter. Last month, the issue of whether or not the LSAT should remain the sole entrance exam for law school — or indeed, whether a standardized test should be required at all — came before the American Bar Association House of Delegates. The council tabled a formal ruling but decided for now that alternate tests can still be used, provided schools can demonstrate that the tests are “valid and reliable.”

In other words, law schools can accept the GRE (or other standardized tests) instead of the LSAT as long as they submit proof to the ABA that the tests are valid and reliable. The GRE test designer and administer, ETS, has conducted just such a national validity study, according to David Payne, its vice president and chief operating officer of global education. Several law schools have produced their own validity studies as well. How reliable the ABA will find those studies is still in question, however.

Lessons from Law School’s GRE Experiment

Harvard Law School, the highest-ranked law school currently accepting the GRE, is one of the schools that has submitted a validity study to the ABA and plans to continue accepting the GRE in the 2018-2019 admissions cycle, Jessica Soban, the law school’s associate dean for strategic initiatives and admissions, said in a recent statement.

In fact, now that Harvard Law and other early adopters have had enough time to see the first crop of applicants using the GRE work their way into classrooms around the country, some anecdotal evidence is starting to come out. Soban, for one, gives the GRE experiment “an enthusiastic thumbs up.”

She says this about the characteristics of the small sample size of Harvard’s GRE admissions to date:

“We had a lot of theories going in about what populations might find [applying with the GRE] to be an interesting option. What we found was exactly that. Our GRE pool of applicants was more likely to be international, and more likely to have significant work experience. They were more likely to have a graduate degree. They were more likely to have a STEM background, and they were more likely to come from an underrepresented racial group.”

You can imagine, of course, the positive impact that extra diversity of thought and experience will have in the classroom and future courtrooms. From that perspective, then, the GRE seems to have passed its first test.

Pandora’s Box

gre law school admissions usage is like pandora's boxThe knock against the GRE, of course, is that it’s not designed specifically with law school in mind, like the LSAT is. The LSAT, with its logic games and complex reading comprehension, in theory tests the skills required in law school better than does the GRE.

Moreover, LSAT loyalists claim that the only reason some schools have started accepting the GRE is to boost their applications in the face of declining numbers. (Fact check: LSAT administrations actually increased 18% last year.) Accepting the GRE relaxes the standard, in other words, and opens the possibility of law school up to an entirely new applicant pool. While some would view that as a good thing, GRE critics argue that it simply waters down the caliber of student in the law school classroom and ultimately will result in less-effective practicing lawyers.

Whether or not that argument holds water, the reality is this: Once Pandora’s Box has been opened, it’s nearly impossible to close it again and reverse the consequences. And while the University of Arizona may have been the school to open the proverbial box, enough other schools have picked up the torch and are eager to continue offering the GRE as an admission option. Especially now that the ABA has left the door open for alternatives to the LSAT to be accepted, it appears that the GRE in law school admissions is here to stay.

Final Thoughts from a LSAT Expert

I reached out to a colleague of mine, Mike Meresman, who has been teaching the LSAT for over a decade, to get his thoughts on this issue. Obviously he has a vested interest in the LSAT continuing to reign supreme, but even given that bias, I thought he made some pretty insightful points. Here’s what he had to say:

“I believe the ABA’s decision was simply to change ‘LSAT’ to ‘valid and reliable’ test. ABA membership still requires use of a standardized test, but simply relieves the ABA of the responsibility of deciding what is a valid and reliable test. The GRE has not yet been demonstrated to be a valid and reliable test by an independent party, only by ETS, the producer of the GRE, which is clearly a biased party.

Considering that most students will be applying to more than one law school, and the vast majority of schools still require the LSAT, I think students who previously would have taken the LSAT will still do so. The change at the 20 schools that accept the GRE is simply that they’re picking up more applications now from students who would not have taken the LSAT anyway.

In short, my opinion remains that the ABA’s ruling will not effect a material change. I maintain my position that the vast majority of schools will still require a standardized test and that the LSAT will remain the gold standard. The overall effect will be what the 20 schools that accept the GRE have already experienced, which is that, in addition to their usual LSAT applicants, they now also receive “non-traditional” applicants, thus increasing their total number of applicants.

Here’s a hypothesis: Since the increased number of applicants will increase competition, it may actually become more important to have an LSAT score, which will be more highly prized than a GRE score (or lack of any standardized score). The trend toward having more applications from students with undergrad majors far removed from traditional pre-law majors may in fact result in many of those students choosing to prepare for the LSAT in order to overcome a perceived weakness in their applications.”

Footnote: You can keep up with the growing list of law schools that accept GRE scores for their J.D. programs here: https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/law/.