Hot on the heels of the newly-released US News annual list of law school rankings, an announcement of even greater impact has just been made: "Starting in the fall of 2017, Harvard Law School will allow applicants to submit either the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) to be considered for admission to its three-year J.D. program."
This news comes courtesy of Harvard Law Today, and marks the second ABA-accredited law school to begin accepting GRE scores in lieu of the LSAT for regular admission. However, while Harvard isn't the first, it is the industry standard, and indicates what will likely be a tipping point in the admissions process as other schools rush to follow suit.
Let's take a look at what this policy change may mean for the LSAT and law school applications in the years ahead.
The first thing I should say is that this is still entirely shrouded in mystery. By which I mean that aside from the vague press release linked above, Harvard has given no details on...well, anything, really, with the exception of some boilerplate about this allowing for a broader and more diverse applicant pool (both in terms of international orientation and academic background), providing candidates greater ease of access to an approved test, and an LSAT-similar level of success prediction.
And while much of that’s no doubt true, it doesn’t shine a very bright light.
So I’m going to get a bit more speculative than normal, and attempt to address (and with luck, satisfyingly answer) a number of questions that I’ve been asked thus far.
1. What is the GRE?
Good question! The GRE is the Graduate Record Examination, and is most commonly taken by students looking to go to graduate school or business school. It’s a standardized test much like the SAT and/or ACT you probably remember from high school, where you’re measured on quantitative (math), verbal, and writing skills under timed conditions.
Unlike those two tests—and unlike the LSAT—the GRE is typically taken on a computer (paper-based testing centers still exist internationally, but for our purposes I’ll stick to describing the much more common computerized exam). This creates a host of considerations that I’ll discuss in more detail below, but suffice it to say if your background of late is all LSAT, the GRE is going to hold more than a few surprises.
The best places to really start exploring are our Free GRE Help Area where you’ll find a ton of information about the exam as well as sample content and free lessons, and the GRE’s official homepage which will also provide an extensive overview of the test (as well as the ability to register for it). So rather than duplicate a lot of those details I’ll let you head directly to those sites and investigate on your own, as needed.
Further, take a look at our GRE Seminars page and see if any on offer there catch your eye. They’re a great way to get familiar with the test in a hurry!
2. Why would I want to take the GRE instead of the LSAT?
Well for one you’d be in good company. Of the big three grad-school tests—LSAT, GMAT, and GRE—the GRE dwarfs the others: 584,677 people took it between July 2015-June 2016, whereas the GMAT had 261,248 test takers during that time, and the LSAT? Only 105,883 from June 2015 to May 2016. Numbers rarely tell the full story, of course, but what they do give you here is a huge catalog of students to help keep the test extremely reliable, and to encourage the creation and accessibility of high-quality preparation tools.
Second, while there are a number of similarities in tested content between the LSAT and the GRE—Reading Comprehension, including short passages like Logical Reasoning questions, for instance—the GRE also tests subject matter the LSAT does not. The most notable? High school level math.
Some people no doubt recoil at the thought of revisiting, possibly relearning, coordinate geometry and quadratic equations and the like, but for the less math-averse (or the Logic Games-phobic) this can be the deciding factor.
Similarly, other content is distinctive and unique to the GRE: vocabulary is tested directly in two types of sentence completion questions on the GRE. There are two essays at the beginning of the exam that are both scored (unlike the unscored LSAT writing sample), and many multiple-choice questions throughout have multiple correct answers, each of which must be chosen in order to receive any credit.
The GRE is appealing to LSAT students for a ton of reasons beyond just content, too:
- As mentioned above it's computerized and can thus be taken any time you feel ready.
- You get your Quant and Verbal results RIGHT AWAY which is motivation enough for a lot of LSAT students who dread the long and uncertain waiting game between test day and score release.
- You can choose which scores to report to schools and which to hide (something called ScoreSelect, which is a killer feature), unlike the LSAT where all scores and cancellations within five years are reported.
- You can repeat it every 21 days up to five times in one rolling year. Compare that to the LSAT's stingy four-a-year administration schedule and three attempts every two years repeat policy.
- It's by far the most versatile exam if you decide not to go to law school, and seems to be growing in applicability all the time (hence me writing this).
Lastly, a great many reputable experts that I’ve encountered would claim without hesitation that a high score on the GRE is easier to attain than on the LSAT. I wouldn’t go quite that far—I avoid sweeping generalizations if I can help it—but I will say that for many people out there the GRE is going to yield a better result. On that note...
3. How do I know which test is right for me?
Maybe the easiest and toughest question of all.
It’s easy because you can measure your abilities on both, right now if you like, for free! There’s a freely available LSAT (June 2007) which you should take under strictly-timed conditions and score using our Test Scoring System on that Self-Study Site page.
For the GRE, you can download official test software (POWEPREP II) and take the first test contained within.
Compare both your final percentile results for the two tests to see if one is notably higher, as well as your general level of confidence and comfort as you worked your way through them. From that you should have a better sense of which to focus on.
And it’s tough because where you start on tests like this and where you end up are often miles apart, and depend on a number of factors like how you prepare and your test day mindset and others beyond counting. I see it frequently: some people have a greater natural ability (starting score) on one, but a greater potential (more growth and ultimately a higher score) on the other.
So if you make a decision early on about which you suspect will turn out better, don’t lose sight of the alternative—keep it in mind and occasionally return to it to gauge if your feelings at that stage are still in line with how you felt when you began. Remember too that the majority of the skills you’ll develop while studying for either test are applicable to both, so you should find that you’re growing in parallel as you prepare.
Lastly, for now if you want to go to law school in the next two years I'd be all about the LSAT! This new policy is a fascinating development, and as I’ve said elsewhere will no doubt have huge implications down the road, but until we all know more about exactly how it will shake out I'd treat it as little more than the oddity it still is. And for those out there with a GRE score in-hand, celebrate its constantly growing utility!
4. Why are Harvard and other law schools suddenly accepting the GRE?
Part of this answer is stated directly in the Harvard article: “The change is supported by an HLS study, designed in 2016 and completed earlier this year, examining, on an anonymized basis, the GRE scores of current and former HLS students who took both the GRE and the LSAT. In accordance with American Bar Association (ABA) Standards for Legal Education, the aim of the study was to determine whether the GRE is a valid predictor of first-year academic performance in law school. The statistical study showed that the GRE is an equally valid predictor of first-year grades.”
So it seems Harvard believes the GRE to be as solid a predictor of first-year success as the LSAT based on the performance of dual-test students.
Now, it may have occurred to you that the reasoning in that is a bit suspect: of course most high LSAT scorers (you know, the people accepted to Harvard) would have high scores on other standardized tests, and perhaps it’s the LSAT skills themselves—the very skills that for decades have been a reliable predictor of success in law school—that led to the high GRE and favorable school outcomes, and the GRE itself tells us very little.
If you caught that, nice job.
In fact it reminded me of a Logical Reasoning flaw—the exact sort of thing you'd find on an LSAT—where some dodgy causal assumptions have been made about the transferability of skills: is it strong LSAT abilities leading to GRE/law school success, or a great GRE performance that’s producing LSAT/law school success? If it’s the former they've got a problem, since it may mean the GRE score is the result of LSAT skills, and not an accurate indicator of those skills on its own.
Of course, like most flaws that doesn't make the believer wrong per se...but it sure falls short of proving him or her right. Here’s hoping more thought went into it than those few lines in the article imply. :)
Fortunately it's Harvard so for now I'll withhold too much judgment, and instead explore some additional reasons that I feel have likely contributed to HLS’s decision:
- Diversity. This move is a great way to attract a much wider range of applicants (particularly international, where LSAT access is often extremely limited), and to do so from a broader, more math/science-based background than a lot of law schools encounter. That's great for Harvard and the legal community at large. This, and the point below, accord closely to claims Harvard has made directly.
- Access. This is similar to #1. LSAT numbers have dropped significantly in recent years, and while they've shown a subtle uptick very recently, it's undeniable that many schools are feeling the effects. The Top 14 aren't going under any time soon, of course, but here's where the T14 is hurt: a (slightly) disproportionately large percentage of that shrinkage has been concentrated at the high-scoring end; simply put, the best LSAT candidates have disappeared at a greater rate than their lower-scoring peers. Now I'd argue that that's due to the tremendous cost of LS and the dubious employment prospects many graduates faced for an alarming stretch of years, and not due to a sudden disinterest in a legal career itself, but anything schools can do to make applying easier and more appealing to more people they're going to at least consider. The computerized GRE is undeniably a more accessible test than the LSAT in terms of actually sitting for it, so that box is immediately checked.
- Merit. If the GRE is indeed a valid predictor of first-year LS success, as is being claimed by HLS and as the LSAT has been shown to be, then why not? Falling test taker numbers or not, there isn't a law school in the world that doesn't want more applicants, particularly if they've proven themselves qualified, so this is a no-brainer step in that direction.
- Innovation. I almost called this "novelty," but felt people might mistake my meaning as "whimsy" or "caprice." No, what I mean is who doesn't want to be on the cutting-edge, potentially revolutionizing a decades-old (arguably stale and outdated) system, especially with the merits above working in your favor? Years from now if this is standard practice Harvard is on the podium rightfully claiming credit (sorry Arizona). I don't think this is the driving force...but if I'm Harvard it'd certainly be on my mind!
- Publicity. Not that Harvard needs the press (although the USNWR dropping them from #2 to #3 in the rankings this week probably stings a little), but boy are they about to get it. And when it comes to publicity, this is the kind you want, because...
- Choice. It's a fact: students love options. The LSAT is a test near and dear to me, but I'm in a microscopic minority. A school saying to students, "Look, you hate the LSAT and think it's unfair and we hear you...how about this test that feels more like college instead?," becomes instantly heroic. Again, Harvard's academic reputation is forever intact, but did anyone foresee them also labeled a champion of the people? In the corner of the little guy sucking endlessly at Games but with a legitimate shot at a 97th percent on GRE Quant? That's a hope that's just been endowed, and I for one think it's pretty cool (See? It's working already)!
I'm sure more factors are involved—and we'll no doubt be hearing A LOT more about this from Harvard and others in the days ahead—but those six are the ones that come to mind straightaway.
5. How will schools make admissions choices with two different tests?
That's so hard to know at this point! The simplest way is just a straight 1:1 percentile comparison between the two tests.
Slightly more convoluted would be comparing all GRE applicants with one another and taking a subset, then doing the same with LSAT applicants.
I doubt they'll settle on anything quite so straightforward as that though, particularly if an unreasonably demanding alternative exists. That is, I expect the answer will be opaque—"we consider a number of factors in our admissions decisions, and each applicant is evaluated independently on myriad criteria"—and involve some strange and mysterious algorithm possibly unique to each school, much as LSAT and GPA weighting is now. I'm also not sure what the ABA will require in terms of applicant statistics reporting, so how much we can even see to make our own judgments is uncertain.
Keep this in mind though: it wasn't too long ago that business schools (MBA programs) began accepting the GRE for admissions instead of exclusively taking the GMAT, and while that caused some confusion and (educated) guesswork at first, the fact that they continue to accept both means they've found a way to make the two tests reliably comparable.
Granted those two are practically siblings next to the GRE's and LSAT's weird, third-cousin-ish kinship, but it can, and has, been done.
6. What does this mean for applicants?
Most obviously there’s now the decision in point #3 above to be made: LSAT or GRE?
Slightly less obviously, I see two ways to look at this:
- As an applicant you now have more choices than you've had previously, so you have the ability to examine both tests and pursue the path that's most likely to produce the better result (see point #3 above). Struggling with the LSAT? Go check out the GRE and see if it's preferable (for a lot of people it will be). For students hoping for an LSAT alternative—and these people number in the tens of thousands—it looks like soon you'll have one, and that's great news!
- Any increase in the number of law school applicants naturally increases competition for admission. And if the GRE truly is the easier test (as most people believe it to be)—that is, if there are now a swath of applicants who'd top out at say an LSAT 165 but who can reach a combined 335-340 on the GRE—then that's going to hurt high LSAT scorers...the exact people to whom Harvard's decision applies.
To elaborate on that last point, this seems likely to push fringe admits out in favor of GRE applicants with combined 335+ numbers (or whatever Harvard deems Harvard-worthy), of which there will certainly be plenty. Again, more apps coming in equals more competition for seats, and if that competition also has the potential advantage of an easier, or at least easier-for-them, exam then someone suffers for sure. That's the simple math of it, I'm afraid.
The counter to that is, "Well 172s should go take the GRE then and get their numbers up!," but that's not much of a consolation.
In the short term this is going to be hard to determine: I have no clue how this policy change plays out in terms of what'll be reported (to the ABA or the public), when reporting will start, how schools will compare one test to the other, how they'll weigh Quant vs Verbal (Is one more important? Are they combined or kept separate?), whether high LSAT and GRE scores make someone more desirable than a single high score (if each is a uniquely solid predictor, then together they're an even better predictor, right?), and a dozen more unforeseeable outcomes. We'll know most of that eventually, but for now I only have my suspicions (which I warned you would be the bulk of this).
What I can say with confidence is that if more people apply and class sizes stay the same, then it's harder to get in. And if more people who appear highly qualified apply then the cut line moves up even further. This decision gives an alternate path to making oneself seem highly qualified. So if I'm a 173 LSAT right now (Harvard's current median) and looking to apply to HLS against GRE people, I'd be a little nervous.
One quick disclaimer: we don't know yet what Harvard's GRE requirements are going to look like, so while one might be able to say it's easier to achieve a 90th percentile GRE score than an LSAT 163, if Harvard wants perfect Quant and perfect Verbal in order to compete against that 173 that drastically changes the conversation.
7. What does this mean for the test makers (LSAC)?
What LSAC does in response is anyone's guess, but I'd lay a heavy wager that they're freaking out.
I know they've been talking lately about experimenting with a computerized testing system, however that will take years to create and perfect: part of the reason they only offer it four times a year, and don't disclose February’s exam, is because it's so expensive to make reliable LSAT content. Having to build and constantly update a library of thousands of questions—and that's what you need if you want to offer digital tests much more often than four times a year, especially if you want them to be adaptive like the GRE or GMAT—would cost multiple millions of dollars, would almost certainly take 4-5 years minimum to implement appropriately, and would run off a huge portion of their audience as people retreat to more familiar ground...like the GRE.
That said, there are a number of less drastic measures LSAC could take straight away to make their exam more attractive (and competitive).
- LSAC could implement a ScoreSelect type system where applicants can pick and choose which scores to report, rather than having every attempt visible to schools. That would be huge! And since law schools now only need to report the highest scores it seems like a reasonable accommodation.
- They could increase the repeat policy from three times every two years to something less severe. Or for that matter do away with it altogether! Who really cares after all, and given the landscape ahead of us LSAC's going to need that extra cash flow.
- They could tidy up their confusing score release behavior and either get scores out in a more timely manner, or at least announce a day and stick to it.
- And/or my personal favorite: LSAC could remove the digital licensing stranglehold they've recently adopted and make it easier for test takers to purchase and access prior exam content.
Every barrier to convenience they erect—and lately they've been building a wall that Trump would happily slap his name on—is one more reason to pivot towards newly-emerging alternatives.
I don’t know what exactly they’re going to do. But they'd better act fast because this changes everything.
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