Harvard is dropping the LSAT requirement. Will other schools follow?

Harvard Law School has announced it will accept both LSAT and GRE test scores for incoming applicants, hoping to expand and diversify its applicant pool. 

Charles Krupa/AP/File
Rowers paddle down the Charles River near the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Students hoping to join Harvard Law School’s incoming class of 2018 can throw their LSAT scores out the window in favor of submitting GRE results, as the school turns its back on a nearly 70-year-old tradition in hopes of expanding its applicant pool.

At Harvard, educators hope that doing away with the LSAT requirement will open access to those who cannot afford to prepare for or take more than one exam, as well as prospective students abroad who have less access to the Law School Admissions Test. Martha Minow, the Harvard Law School dean, said in an announcement that the school "is continually working to eliminate barriers as we search for the most talented candidates for law and leadership,” and that a more diverse student body of different backgrounds, nationalities, and income brackets would benefit the school as a whole. 

And another factor could entice law schools to make this move, says William Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University's Mauer School of Law who studied LSAT performance. LSAT scores factor heavily into US News & World Report rankings, as do undergraduate grades, so schools hoping to jump spots have to draw students from the limited pool where they overlap, he explains. 

“There’s no number that’s more slavishly followed in admissions than the LSAT,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “There’s not a really strong correlation between interesting people who are going to make a contribution to this world and an LSAT score in the 170s or higher.”

“There’s probably going to be a fair number of diverse candidates, but probably white candidates as well, who think they’ve got a great compelling story to go to Harvard,” Professor Henderson adds. “It will allow them to admit the very best people independent of LSAT scores.”

Standardized testing has come under increased scrutiny over the past decade, at all levels of education. Many educators, experts, and parents have criticized a one-size-fits-all approach to education in statewide tests of young children and for high schoolers preparing to take the SAT. Some research has shown that success in traditional testing environments doesn’t necessarily correlate to success in academia or the professional world.

Before announcing the policy shift, Harvard Law School studied current and former students who had submitted LSAT and GRE scores upon applying. The findings revealed that a GRE score predicts first-year performance just as well as the LSAT.

The LSAT, offered just four times a year, sees around 100,000 test takers annually around the world, and is accepted in the US, Canada, Australia, and several other countries. The test registration costs $180, plus $175 to send the information to law schools. By contrast, more than 300,000 people in the US have taken the $205 GRE in recent years, in addition to thousands from other nations. 

Other studies have found that law school rank looms large in the application and decision process among prospective students at elite universities. But those findings have revealed a disconnect, noting that student quality and LSAT scores, along with undergraduate grade point average, are not concrete predictors of law school success

Harvard’s announcement came just a day before the American Bar Association is slated to debate changing its own standards to allow for tests other than the LSAT during a three-day long meeting in California. The ABA is responsible for accrediting law schools across the country.

And with Harvard, a national leader in legal studies, already set to pave the way for a shift, other schools could easily fall in step.

“We look forward to working with the American Bar Association on finding the most effective ways to encourage the best students to enter the legal profession,” Dean Minow said.

While a leader in law education, Harvard isn’t the first school to ditch the LSAT requirement. Last year, the University of Arizona College of Law did the same, and two more schools have followed its example. As law school applications have dropped, those institutions received criticism for what some saw as a cheap ploy to expand their applicant pool.

It’s hard to imagine the same criticisms extending to Harvard, where reputation and tradition reign and applications continue to increase annually. 

Harvard and Arizona are the only two ABA–accredited schools to offer the no-LSAT option, but more than 100 law school deans across the country came out in support of Arizona’s decision.

Still, a Kaplan Test Prep Survey last year of 125 law schools found that more than half had no intention of accepting GRE scores in place of the LSAT. A majority of the same respondents said they believed law schools were admitting GRE scores for three reasons: to fill empty seats, encourage diversity, and circumvent US World News & Report rankings.

While many have championed the idea of bolstering diversity, others note that the high bar set by the LSAT test can weed out applicants who aren’t made for the field.

“Opening up law school to students who are not motivated to take the LSAT opens up the number of students who may unwittingly sign up for three years of staggering debt against the backdrop of a wilting job market,” Kathyn Rubino, an attorney and editor at the legal blog Above the Law, wrote last year. “Or students who are not prepared for the academic rigor of law school. Being a lawyer is [not a good] ‘back up plan’ for a career.”

And the Law School Admissions Council, a nonprofit that oversees the law school applications process and certifies LSAT scores, fiercely criticized the move last year, threatening to oust Arizona from membership. Pressure from other deans led them to drop the move.

But many say the change will usher in new opportunities by enriching perspectives brought to legal practice.

“Harvard is the game-changer,” Henderson says. “Think about all the great professional athletes that weren’t first round picks. This allows you to look for nontraditional criteria.”

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