Test optionality seems to be coming to law school admissions. Top schools have withdrawn mostly from the US News rankings. What does it all mean? We ask a law school admissions expert for his input. [Show Summary]
Welcome to the 509th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. Before we meet our guests, I’d like to highlight the featured resource for today’s show. It is the Accepted Law School Admissions Quiz.
Interview with Steve Schwartz from LSAT Unplugged podcast and YouTube channel [Show Notes]
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Our guest today is Steve Schwartz of the LSAT Blog and the LSAT Unplugged podcast and YouTube channel, which we are going to link to from the show notes at accepted.com/209.
Steve graduated from Columbia University in 2008. In high school and college, he tutored students in a variety of subjects and also helped prep test takers for standardized tests, including the LSAT. However, he really began to focus on the LSAT when he was applying for law school. He founded the LSAT blog in 2008 and never looked back. Today, 15 years later, he has helped thousands master the LSAT, get into law school, and sometimes secure scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars.
So Steve, thanks for coming back to Admissions Straight Talk. You’ve been on the show several times before, and I’m glad you could come back. [1:58]
Thanks so much for having me on, Linda. It’s great to be back as well.
Okay, great. Now let’s start first with the changes on the LSAT specifically. The ABA in November moved closer, and it keeps moving closer, to making entrance exams optional for law school accreditation, which means that law schools will be able to choose whether to require the LSAT, GMAT, GRE or any other exam from applicants basically before making an admissions decision. Can you go into that change a little bit more, and what can we expect? [2:07]
Yeah, sure, of course, Linda. So there has been a big test optional movement in higher education, of course, for quite a while now, and the legal profession tends to move a bit more slowly than others, a bit more bureaucratic, perhaps, and so it took this long for it to finally reach the LSAT and law schools and the American Bar Association.
There have been a few attempts, or at least a few proposals in the past to remove the so-called LSAT requirement, but I’m pretty sure this is the first time it’s ever made it this far, and at this point, we’re giving it the full rubber stamp to remove that requirement. At this point, it’s largely a formality, so we can expect they will remove that requirement in February 2023.
It will go into effect when? [3:10]
That’s a great question. A lot of folks are confused about this. There was a last minute amendment added to the proposed revisions stating that their changes, if they go through, will not go into effect until the fall of 2025. So this is all a rather drawn out process now.
Okay, and when it goes into effect, assuming it happens, which is likely, although you said it’s going to go into effect until2025, but when it goes into effect, how will law school admissions be affected, and do you think they’re perhaps even being affected now or in 2024 and 2025? I mean, until then. [3:29]
Yeah, for sure. So law schools will be free to remove the LSAT requirement and not require any standardized test at all. However, I suspect that most will not remove it and will keep the same policies in place as they have for many years. Of course, in the long term, who’s to say? But I would expect that for the next five, 10 years at least, most will keep the LSAT requirement, because they find the LSAT useful in making decisions.
What I’ve seen in the business school world in particular, I’m less familiar with undergraduate testing requirements, but in the business school world in particular, there’s been a whole continuum of experiences. So I think some of it, you’re already seeing in the law school world, right? They’re taking a variety of tests. Most law school applicants are still taking the LSAT, but they will accept the GMAT, they’ll accept the GRE, some will accept even the MCAT, which is a medical school exam, but what you’re seeing in the business school world is some schools, particularly the elite ones, are requiring an exam, usually the GRE or the GMAT. Some schools are taking a plethora of exams. Some schools are not requiring exams, and some schools are offering waivers, which means that the applicant makes an argument to the school why they shouldn’t have to take the exam, and the school either accepts or rejects it. If they accept it, they don’t have to take the exam, and if they reject it, they do have to submit an exam score.
Do you think that that might be an intermediate step, the waiver policy, in law school admissions? [4:17]
I love the waiver concept. I haven’t heard it discussed in the law school admissions context, but I could see that being a way to kind of maintain a soft requirement. So who’s to say what they’ll do? I’m sure that schools, law schools look at what other graduate institutions do, like business schools, and so they’re probably aware of this option, but I do think that law schools will require the LSAT or some other exam like the GRE in the vast majority of cases, and there is a key difference, I think, for law schools versus business schools, which is that there’s a big exam at the end of law school, the bar exam, and so law schools need to make sure their bar passage rates don’t drop too much, meaning they need to accept applicants they think are likely to do well on the bar and pass it.
Right, and the LSAT is predictive of bar passage? [6:08]
I should be specific here. The LSAT is the strongest single predictor of first year law school grades. LSAT plus GPA is a stronger predictor of first year law school grades than the LSAT alone. So it’s only been studied to and shown to predict first year law school grades specifically. I would extend that a bit and say probably is a pretty good indicator of passing the bar exam as well, although perhaps not as strong an indicator, but the question also then is, if you remove the LSAT, what factors do you have left to consider in evaluating an applicant’s likelihood of passing the bar?
Right. The bar is a difference, but again, I know that what the business schools have done is they, largely forced by COVID… I think the move to test optionality was starting in business schools before COVID hit with lower ranked schools. When COVID hit and the tests were not available for a couple of months, and then it was only online, and in certain countries it was very hard to get, and of course, business schools were much more international than law schools. The schools kept the waiver policies, and they found they started testing, “Well, are the people who take the test doing better or worse in business school? Are they doing better or worse in getting the job after business school?” They, to a certain extent, reverse engineered it, and the results are not all out, but the schools that I have talked to say that they have found other measures that are as predictive or almost as predictive as the GMAT or the GRE.
So I’m wondering if, especially starting lower down the law school food chain, are they going to start waiving the LSAT, which will jack up their application volume, and then reverse engineer it to see, “Well, is there going to be a drop in bar passage rate? Are these people not going to do as well? Are there other ways that we can assess them?” I know that for decades, certainly since I’ve started doing this, law school admissions, more than business school admissions, have been very much about GPA and LSAT, GPA and LSAT, GPA and LSAT. Do you have any thoughts on that? [6:46]
Yeah, I do. You’re right that law school is unique in that admissions is largely number based in contrast to business school, which I understand is a bit more holistic looking at work experience, for example. The question is… I’m sure that it would be possible to reverse engineer it such that if the LSAT didn’t exist, maybe you could look at all the other factors combined and then make a prediction out of that. The question is, how do you do that at scale?
Especially… If you look at numeric factors alone, LSAT and GPA, remove the LSAT, GPA becomes more important, of course, but how do you deal with grade inflation? How do you deal with applicants who come from different universities and colleges with different majors? In pre-med, for example, I’d imagine the majority of applicants are majoring in something science related.
The majority. Absolutely. [9:09]
I would guess. Not everyone, of course. You can major in English and go to medical school, of course, but I think most are doing science. In contrast, you can major in literally anything and go to law school, and you, of course, see probably more humanities than STEM, but there’s a pretty wide range there, and the grade inflation question, I think, is a huge one. The executive director of LSAT, Kelly Testy, in these hearings with the ABA, she made the comment that GPAs are so inflated, it has to be virtually meaningless, which I thought was a bit hyperbolic, but I also kind of see her point.
No, that’s a very narrow range of GPAs that’s admissible at certain programs. It’s tiny, and it’s probable… Well, it is just tiny. I think that’s that… Let’s leave it at that.
Let’s say test optionality, or at least the waivers, comes to law school. Who would you think should take the exam, regardless of the school’s requirements? [9:39]
I would imagine that the majority of applicants who are admitted would be taking the LSAT, because there is still the factor of the US News rankings, which we can talk about in a bit if you’d like.
We will. [10:27]
It’s a way for applicants to demonstrate that they’re serious about law school and not doing this on a whim or, for lack of a better option, that they’re investing themselves and are going to invest themselves not only in the application process, but in law school itself, versus, “I’m going to apply to every graduate program and see where I get in, and then choose my career path entirely based on that.
I would also say that, for the person who has a low GPA, and whatever low GPA means to the schools you’re applying to, it’ll differ from school to school, a good LSAT score can really help you get in, and it may help you get a good scholarship, and we’ll go back to that… We’ll get to the US News rankings and the changes there, but again, for people with excellent GPAs, it may be relevant experience, whether it be volunteer internships or work experience, if the LSAT isn’t required, it may be that you can celebrate not having to take the LSAT, but if your grades leave something to be desired or you don’t have that experience, the LSAT could be a way of showing commitment. It could be possibly –. again, it remains to be seen – a way to get a scholarship. [10:47]
That’s exactly right. If your GPA’s lower than you would’ve liked it to be, or you just want to do something to improve your chances, given the emphasis that law schools place on LSAT and GPA relative to other factors, improving your LSAT score is the number one thing you can do, and I’m not going to say it’s necessarily easy, but if you can improve that number significantly, you’re going to maximize your odds of getting into a better law school, getting more scholarship money, or both, and again, with the rankings, law schools look to grant scholarships based on LSAT and GPA scores, because that’s how they raise their status in the rankings.
Are there any other changes that you see coming down the pike in LSAT land? Specifically the LSAT. Again, we’ll get to the rankings in a minute. [12:07]
Yeah, sure. The other big thing happening in LSAT land is the logic games section. The logic games section will almost certainly be undergoing some major changes in the next couple of years, and they’re basically looking to remove the current section and replace it with something else that might be called logic games, might be just simply be called analytical reasoning, which is the formal name of this section, but the previous prep materials and the previous exams that are released covering logic games will likely not be nearly as useful, and I can get into why, if you’d like.
Sure. So basically, there was a pre-law student, I think of a couple of pre-law students actually a few years back who sued LSAT. These were blind applicants, and they said that they were at an unfair disadvantage on the LSAT, because given that they were not able to see, they could not benefit from diagramming logic games the same way that most other test takers do. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the logic game, but it’s quite hard to do logic games without some diagramming or some scratch paper.
I haven’t looked at the logic games, but I occasionally play logic games, and I know I use a pen and paper. [13:13]
You kind of need to…
Not the LSAT Logic games, the newspaper kind of logic games. [13:16]
For those who aren’t familiar, imagine if you’re doing trying to do Sudoku in your head or crossword or…
Right, exactly. [13:27]
It would be prohibitive just because there’s too much information at once. LSAT logic games really push the limits of your short-term working memory, meaning you can’t really do this in your head unless you’re a total genius. So I think these folks had a point, and so they sued LSAC under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and LSAC settled the lawsuit and agreed to complete research and development into a new version of the test without the current logic games section within the next four years. That settlement was in fall 2019, bringing us to fall 2023 as being the deadline by which they need to complete that research and development, and they have already started that process. We see it publicly.
Okay. All right. Is the new section likely to be easier? [14:08]
That’s a great question. I don’t think LSAC can really make things easier, because they’re really sticklers about the standardized nature of the test, and so they can’t make it so that the new logic games versions of the test as a whole with the new logic games are easier than versions of the test with the old logic games. If they were going to make it easier, they’d have to adjust the raw score conversion charts, AKA the curve, accordingly, so that people were not at an advantage taking one version over the other.
The LSAT is not going away for at least two years, and probably longer. What are your top tips for LSAT prep given that the test is still required? The LSAT is still the most common aptitude test for law school admissions. Yes, many law schools are accepting the GRE or the GMAT, but when I’ve interviewed law school admissions directors, they all say that the overwhelming majority, usually 90% plus, are submitting the LSAT. So what are your top tips? [14:39]
Well, my first tip would be, given everything we’ve discussed here, we’ve discussed a lot of changes coming down the pike in a couple years. These things are changing, but as I said, also, nothing’s really changing. The LSAT is still going to be required at the vast majority of schools for the foreseeable future. We’ll see what changes down the line, but if you’re listening to this now or in the near future, you’re applying the next couple years, take the LSAT. It’s almost certainly going to be required, and take it seriously. The logic game section is another thing to talk about too.
If you’re listening to this now and planning on the LSAT in the near future, I would highly recommend taking the LSAT before the logic games section changes. As I mentioned, the previous prep materials for logic games will no longer be relevant. The changes are big enough that you’re going to need new study approaches, and we don’t have enough information yet about what that new section will be like. LSAT themselves probably doesn’t even know yet, and so what that means is that you can’t study for a section if you don’t know what it’s about. When the new version does come out, sure, I’ll work diligently, I’ll pull all nighters to put out new stuff as quickly as possible, but there still won’t be the same volume of information out there about the new thing, because by definition, it’s new. In contrast, you have about a hundred released exams, meaning 400 logic games of the current format you can use to study from. So take advantage of this opportunity to get the LSAT done now. Make 2023 the year that you crush the LSAT.
Sounds good. All right. Now we’ve alluded to the other big piece of news in law school admissions, which I don’t think is as significant, actually, but it’s still big, and that is the withdrawal of a growing number of top law schools, starting with Yale and Harvard, from the US News rankings. Can you go into the background on that? Accepted’s blog has a list of the top 50 programs and whether they are participating in the rankings or not, and I’m going to link to that from the show notes, accepted.com/509, but for now, can you go into the background, what caused Harvard and Yale to leave the rankings, and, of course, other schools to follow their example? [16:28]
Yeah, of course, sure, and those schools are constantly changing. I haven’t even been keeping up with it. So it’s great that you’ve put together this list of the law schools that are staying in or not staying in. That’s important information for folks to know, because it does dictate, to some extent, how law schools may adjust their admissions policies going forward. Although I agree with you that this isn’t as big a deal as the other things we’ve been talking about.
The background is that Yale and Harvard, vocally, they made public statements on their websites and to the media that they were no longer going to submit information to US News, they were no longer going to participate in the rankings, because they disagree with how US News ranks different law schools, and I can get into why, if you’d like.
Yes, please. [17:43]
Sure. So there were a couple of big things that stood out. One is that these schools do not like the fact that US News effectively penalizes law schools for public interest fellowships. The way they calculate who’s employed after graduation. The public fellowships didn’t really make the cut, and so schools are at a relative disadvantage if they granted more public interest fellowships.
The other big thing is that, as we talked about, law schools give out scholarship money, merit aid based on your LSAT score and GPA, and so they were saying they don’t like that US News incentivizes schools to grant lots of merit aid to students to raise their status in the rankings when that money could have gone to need-based financial aid instead.
Those are the two big, big complaints about it, and another one that came up, I think, was that because the LSAT and the GPA are so highly regarded by US News, it was preventing law schools from taking a more holistic approach to evaluating law school applications. Certainly was the points that you made, but I think the third point was also something that was in there, and as you indicated, withdrawing from the rankings means that they’re not going to participate, they’re not going to submit their own information, and their deans are not going to respond to the surveys, but US News says it’s going to continue to rank law schools. So how will this withdrawal affect applicants? [18:25]
Yeah, sure. So US News, of course, like anyone, is free to rank law schools. I can rank law schools, you can rank law schools. No one can stop us from making rankings of things, and so if US News no longer gets this self-reported data from law schools, then they need to adjust the rankings in some other way. They can put placeholders or use previous data and kind of make their own estimates and projections of what’s going to happen going forward, or they can radically change the rankings entirely to focus only on publicly available data that law schools submit to the American Bar Association, which I think is probably the best way for them to go and what they should have been doing all along, given that there’s been so much malfeasance and cheating, essentially, on the rankings by a number of schools, both law schools and undergrads and all also sorts of schools.
And business schools. [19:47]
Business schools too. A recent law school example-
I think medical schools. [19:50]
All of them, I think. All of them, and they have a big incentive to do it, and who can check. There’s no validation, there’s no investigations. So USC Law School most recently got in trouble for cheating on the rankings. Columbia University, the undergrad, got in big trouble for cheating in the rankings, and their ranking dropped as a result, and so I think relying on self-reported data, on publicly available data, US News can do quite easily, because this information is available already in the American Bar Association’s 509 reports.
I assume that data includes average LSAT and average GPA for the entering class? [20:21]
Exactly. They have to supply the median LSATs and GPAs, and so given… I think they could quite easily make adjustments, US News could do that, and then it would really just become more neatly organized… I think you mentioned this when we were talking on LinkedIn. It’s like a neatly organized place for applicants to look at all the data, but of course, they shouldn’t place too much importance on these small differences in rankings.
No, I have said for a long time that the rankings are great storehouses of data, but the only ones ranking schools should be the applicants. [20:47]
That’s exactly right.
Because they should have their own criteria for what’s important to them in a law school. If it’s placement at a Big 10 law firm, Manhattan Law Firm, well, okay, then that’s important to you, then figure out what schools are going to get you that. If it’s public interest law, then what schools are going to get you that? If it’s certain programs or externships or internships, then go for that location, whatever it is, and a lot of that information can be found neatly organized, well summarized in the US News rankings, but not all, and I think Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted matters and not everything that matters can be counted,” and I think that applies to rankings and evaluating law schools also.
Yeah, but I think that there is a place for a storehouse, and it is valuable, it provides value to have that storehouse of data. Do you anticipate that more law schools will refuse to participate? I think right now, it’s about 15 that are not. [21:00]
Yeah, I think I’m almost certain that more schools will drop out of their rankings. I think that they’re kind of fed up with it. They’re kind of fed up with playing the rankings game, giving out lots of scholarship money and not being able to look more holistically, as you mentioned. At the same time, though, if US News is still ranking them anyway and applicants are still looking at them anyway, their influence may not diminish that much.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that there is a problem with… Let’s say law schools stopped granting so much merit aid because they want to give more need-based financial aid instead. Schools like Yale and Harvard with enormous endowments can do that quite easily. They can make law school free for everyone for quite a while if they wanted to. Of course, they don’t, but other schools that don’t have such large endowments, where their budgets are more closely tied to tuition dollars in particular, if they were to hypothetically stop granting so much merit aid, who would stop them from just keeping that merit aid for themselves and keeping the scholarship money for themselves?
US News… As much as I don’t love the influence that US News has, I think it actually plays an important and often overlooked role, that it gives schools reason to give out financial aid on the basis of LSAT scores and such and GPAs, and as we mentioned earlier, the biggest way you can improve your shot at scholarship money and getting into better schools is through increasing your LSAT score, which is, in turn, largely due to the US News rankings and the role that they play.
I think also recruiters, law firms will look at it in terms of where they’re going to send recruiting people. [23:32]
Do you have any concerns about the change? Do you see any negative impact? [23:40]
That really is the number one impact, negative impact that I’m looking at here. I work with pre-laws, I’m looking to help people get into law school and get lots of scholarship money, and so I’m taking the applicant’s perspective on this rather than the school’s side. So for me, I’m a bit concerned to see that the merit aid could diminish as a result of this, but I’m overall not really that concerned at the end of the day, because I do think that the rankings will still play an enormous role. They’ve been around for decades. I think they’ve been around since 1990 or so, for law school, and so I ultimately don’t really…
I think it’s earlier. [24:16]
Even earlier. Yeah, I think Yale’s been the top school for the past… Since 1990, before that’s been different, but I think given the importance that they have in public perception, I think the headlines around this will pass, and schools may get some good publicity for saying they’re not going to participate, but US News will still rank them anyway. So ultimately, I think this is another one of those things that will not really have a significant impact in the long term.
I had some concerns, and I think the ABA reports probably alleviate most of them, that this could lead to less transparency, that they’re not expected… Obviously, the rankings themselves, as you said, there was occasionally cheating, but I don’t think it would be good for applicants, let’s say, if they didn’t know the average LSAT and they didn’t know the range of LSAT scores, they didn’t have salary data for graduates.
Again, if people are going into public interest fellowships or public interest law, and somebody is interested in public interest law, I think that information is really, really valuable. That was my one concern, but I think if you have the ABA, one of the 509 reports, I think is what the title is, then that’s going to keep the law schools honest and transparent.
Is there anything you would’ve liked me to ask you? Anything else going on that you feel is relevant for law school applicants at this point you’d like to comment on, or changes? [24:41]
No, I think you were quite thorough and we pretty much covered everything we set out to cover. Again, I would just emphasize to folks that the logic games changes coming down the pipe, I would estimate that they’ll announce a new game section that will start in June 2024, since LSAC’s “year” begins in June, and June 2023 is too soon, because they haven’t done enough research and development yet, but I do think that 2023, if you’re listening, you hear this now or watching it now, make this the year that you crush the LSAT, because you want to take it with the current format. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
Steve, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate your taking the time to speak with me and our listeners. Where can listeners and LSAT test takers learn more about your coaching? [26:13]
Yeah, of course. Thanks for asking me. So again, I’m Steve Schwartz, LSAT Unplugged. I’m pretty easy to find online. I’m quite active online. I have the LSAT Unplugged YouTube channel, the podcast, Instagram, even TikTok, Facebook. I’m out there, and of course, if you would like support with the LSAT, I have a variety of options including live online classes, on-demand videos, coaching. You can reach me at help@LSATunplugged.com. I’m glad to help.
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