Imagine a world where there’s no LSAT [Show Summary]
With talk of testing becoming an optional step when applying to law school, LSAT expert Steve Schwartz, discusses how test optionality would change admissions. What would it mean for applicants? Should applicants still plan to take the test?
Interview with Steve Schwartz, Founder and CEO of LSAT Unplugged [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 477th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. Before we meet our guest, I’d like to highlight the featured resource for today’s show. It is Accepted’s Law School Admissions Quiz. Are you ready to apply to your dream law school? Are you competitive at your target programs? Accepted’s Law School Admissions Quiz can give you a quick reality check. Just go to accepted.com/law-quiz, complete the quiz, and you’ll not only get an assessment of your chances but actionable tips on how to improve your qualifications. Plus, it’s all free.
Our guest today is Steve Schwartz of the LSAT Blog and the LSAT Unplugged podcast and YouTube channel, which we’re going to link to from the show notes at accepted.com/477. 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 to law school. He founded the LSAT Blog in 2008 and never looked back. Today, 14 years later, he has helped thousands master the LSAT, get into law school, and sometimes secure scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Linda: Today, we’re discussing a possible LSAT-optional world. Can you give us context for something that a few years ago neither of us would’ve imagined possible? [2:25]
Steve: It is quite a surprise. The general trend has been for more and more of higher education to go test-optional. We’ve seen this in a number of undergraduate institutions, but at the graduate level, they seem to rely quite a bit more on standardized tests. Overall, I think some of this comes from the fact that there’s a lot of grade inflation in colleges and universities. If everyone has a high GPA, then how are schools going to distinguish between different applicants? I think that’s part of the reason for the change.
Linda: I certainly agree with you. I think that the focus on the test score increased because the GPA was a less valuable signal.
Steve: That’s why they say that they might need exams like the LSAT for admissions purposes, but at the same time, there are concerns around the equity involved in members of different groups having different test scores and concerns over access. These two issues – on the one hand, grade inflation and on the other hand, issues of access – are seemingly at odds with each other. That poses a problem and a debate that all of higher ed is trying to untangle.
Linda: We’ve also seen really different trends. The undergrad world has really embraced test-optionality. A few weeks ago, MIT, which embraced test-optionality as a whole, suddenly announced the undergraduate school will be requiring a test once again because they felt it actually enhanced access and equity. Obviously, nobody in undergraduate or graduate levels wants to admit people who aren’t going to succeed.
At this point in time, what do you think LSAC is going to do? What actually is the issue? Is it schools making a choice? Is it LSAC imposing a policy? [5:05]
Steve: That’s a fantastic question. Just to backpedal a little bit, you mentioned COVID and how schools were going test-optional. Because of the American Bar Association’s requirement that law schools use a valid and reliable admission test like the LSAT, law schools could not do that in March 2020 when the pandemic hit North America. At that point in time, they canceled the March and April LSAT. But LSAC quickly moved the LSAT online and was able to “save the LSAT” for that entire testing cycle and for the pandemic as it continued to unfold.
There has been this debate about higher education going test-optional in different contexts. Even in the medical school world, the equivalent institution which is AMA has gone test-optional for the MCAT yet medical schools continue to use the MCAT. Right?
Linda: I think only two medical schools, to my knowledge, went test-optional in the 2020-2021 cycle. [6:24]
Steve: So, in other words, you’re saying that medical schools do use the MCAT even though they are not required to?
Linda: Oh, yes.
Steve: So, the default for those applicants is that they would submit a score. However, if [MBA applicants] don’t want to, they simply submit a waiver. Are they generally approved?
Linda: It really depends.
Steve: The legal field is a bit slower and more bureaucratic. This has been true for the LSAC and the ABA. They’re the last ones to come to this test-optional idea. They’ve been kicking it around for a while, but it finally seems like it’s actually going to go through. This most recent recommendation by the American Bar Association’s Strategic Review Committee has been to go forward and modify Standard 503, which is the rule that requires they use an exam and say, “Law schools, you are of course allowed to use an exam for your consideration of applicants, but you are not required to do so.”
This is the idea that’s been proposed. It has not yet been enacted. There is a period of consideration where people can submit comments and then they will review those comments. My guess is that it’s going to go through and when it does, very little may actually change because as we’re seeing in these other contexts, schools find these exams useful as a benchmark from which to evaluate different candidates, given grade inflation. That’s the short version, but we can go into any specific areas you’d like.
Linda: If LSAC rescinds its testing requirement, there still is the bar exam that you need to pass to become a lawyer. What happens then? Do you see law schools turning to waiver applications? Do you see programs going entirely test-optional? Do you see more tests being acceptable? What do you see? [9:32]
Steve: I do think that if the ABA goes through this measure, which they almost certainly will, then law schools will still want to see some kind of standardized test score. They will probably prefer the LSAT and give it more weight. It’s a more competitive pool of people taking the LSAT, and the GRE is taken by so many different people that a top score on the GRE isn’t necessarily meaningful or relevant to law school specifically. The LSAT is still a way to distinguish oneself as a law school-specific applicant, rather than someone who is going to go wherever they get in for any kind of program. I do think they would want to see some kind of exam.
However, the LSAT has already lost its monopoly. Over 80 schools take the GRE. A very small percentage of students are actually accepted with a GRE score, but it’s out there and that trend will probably increase over time. I do expect the top schools will require some kind of exam score, but the lower tier ones that aren’t really as concerned with how their students are going to do on the bar may go totally optional. The waiver is a nice compromise though. I could see the waiver happening.
Linda: What I’ve seen happening with waivers in the b-school arena is that the people who get the waivers are the ones who have a high GPA and great work experience. They basically don’t need the test. Those are the ones who are getting the waivers, and I assume it would be an equivalent group getting waivers in the law school market. [11:59]
Steve: That’s an interesting distinction. Is the average b-school applicant similar to the average law school applicant? In terms of work experience and age, I wonder if there’s a difference there. Also, the LSAT score is weighed so heavily in admissions currently, whereas in b-school admissions, perhaps the GMAT or the GRE does not carry the same weight.
Linda: The GMAT or the GRE do carry a lot of weight in the b-school process. I’ve talked to many admissions directors and even at schools, where the test is optional, especially when tests were much less available. They were saying, “Your application will be evaluated without prejudice. Even though you don’t have a test score, we’re going to look at everything else.” But you sensed and certainly, in private conversations, they missed the test score because it is an objective measure. B-school applicants are a very different pool.
I’m going to use a stereotype and exaggerate this but law school applicants are not expected to know how to add. Business school applicants are supposed to be quantitatively very skilled because they’re going to be taking graduate and quantitatively demanding courses in business. That’s one major difference. Law school applicants have to be able to write. At least, they’re supposed to be able to write. MBA applicants are supposed to be able to communicate and they definitely need to be able to write cogently. But the research level on a qualitative level is very different.
My point there was though, if you can show via your transcript and your extracurricular activities, whether it’s paid work or volunteer work, that you have what law schools are looking for, then they don’t really need the test score to graduate from a rigorous college, with a rigorous program in the areas that law schools value.
Do they really need the LSAT? [13:01]
Steve: That’s the question because my thought is that a b-school applicant may have rigorous quantitative work experience. Let’s say they worked at an investment bank or in management consulting. That’s hard to fake. McKinsey isn’t taking just anybody.
However, law school applicants may have gone directly from undergrad and have no work experience at all, which is quite common. Or they may have worked as a paralegal or maybe even in a totally unrelated field. Whatever they’re doing is not like being a “lawyer lite”, in the same way that being a management consultant or an investment banker is fairly close to what one might end up doing after business school.
I’m wondering maybe law schools do rely upon the LSAT as an objective measure. They can evaluate your writing and your essays, but it’s possible to get help from admission consultants to portray oneself in the best possible light. It may not be quite as objective a measure of one’s sole abilities in quite the same way.
I think the waiver is a fantastic compromise. This is actually the first time I’ve heard of such an idea, but I think it’s quite a good compromise. My question is how liberal might schools be in terms of granting the waivers, and then what is the waiver approval process like? I could imagine some schools getting inundated with waivers, and then saying, “We don’t need you to take the exam.” How close is that to an admit at that point?
Linda: I was at a conference recently and they said the acceptance rates were very similar. A waiver was not the equivalent of an acceptance. The LSAT correlates to academic success but there are also the non-academic aspects of being a lawyer or admitting somebody into a specific school’s community. It’s going to be really interesting to watch this whole thing unfold in a different context.
Let’s pretend that LSAC has made taking any test optional so now my dream school doesn’t require a test. Should I jump up and down and skip the hours of studying and the exam itself or should I call you Steve and say, “I still want to take the test” and why? [18:51]
Steve: Fantastic question. I would look at the schools that you’re considering and see if those schools still require an exam even if the ABA no longer requires that schools require an exam. My expectation is if you’re already at the point where you’re listening to a podcast like this or watching a video like this, you’re probably applying in the next year or two. Unless you’re way ahead of things. If you’re in middle school, things may change by then. Assuming that you’re applying in the next couple of years, the law schools to which you’re applying to will probably still require an exam like the LSAT. Some might also require the GRE. Chances are for the next couple of years, you’re going to want to take the LSAT if you are reasonably certain that law school is the path for you.
If you see the schools to which you’re applying saying front and center on their sites, “No exams required,” then just ask yourself, if it’s really a top-tier rigorous school that you would want to attend. Some may be. Some may not. Also, look at your work experience and look at your GPA. If your GPA is really high, then maybe that’s strong enough. But if your GPA is not as high as you would’ve liked it to be, then an exam like the LSAT could help you increase your chances significantly and it’s much easier to increase your LSAT score than to increase your entire undergraduate GPA, especially if you’re near the end of college.
Linda: Do you think the LSAT currently plays a role in scholarships? [20:48]
Steve: Absolutely. It plays a significant role. Law schools weigh the LSAT much more heavily than GPA. Law school admissions is quite a numbers-driven process so if your LSAT and your GPA are above the medians of the schools to which you’re applying, then law schools will throw money at you because you will help them raise their rankings. Everyone cares a lot about these U.S. News Rankings. It’ll increase the prestige of the school to have you there if you can boost their numbers. You’re making them look good, and they will give you discounts on your tuition. In some cases, a full ride if you can help them out with that.
Linda: Will the schools that are test-optional require you to submit a score you may have taken for another program? What do you think? [21:56]
Steve: That’s a fantastic question. My understanding is that currently, if you have an LSAT score on record from within the past five years, it will not have expired and schools will see it. There is currently a score choice where if you are a first-time test taker, you can see your score before deciding whether or not to cancel it. This is an artifact of the days when law schools averaged multiple scores. Now, they only take the highest score.
In a world that is test-optional and the schools don’t require any kind of LSAT score at all, I could imagine that if your score was below the median of a school to which you were applying, then maybe you would not want them to see it and you would not want it to count. This would require the ABA to make some changes in terms of how they deal with LSAT scores. It’s a really interesting hypothetical. My expectation would be that your LSAT score should be above the median of the school to which you’re applying in order for you to want them to consider it.
Linda: Since a test is still required for this year and probably the next two as well, what are your top tips for studying for the LSAT? [24:25]
Steve: I have a couple of them. One is to start early. A lot of students only want to devote two to three months to the LSAT in terms of studying for it, but in my experience, it typically takes five to six months to reach your fullest potential. It might seem like a long time but the LSAT is worth it. As I said, it is weighed significantly more than your undergraduate GPA in the admissions process and it’s all very numbers-driven in part because of U.S. News Rankings. Devote the time that the LSAT deserves and you can really increase your chances significantly.
Another tip would be to make sure that you’re using official LSAT exams published by LSAC in their LawHub system because that exactly replicates the look and feel that you’ll have on test day since the LSAT is now online.
Linda: Do you see any other significant changes coming down the pike in LSAT land or will digesting this one be the big news for the next couple of years? [25:31]
Steve: This is certainly the big news for the year I would say. I can’t imagine anything bigger happening right now. One question I’ve been getting a lot from folks is, “Will the LSAT remain online?” Initially, it seemed like a temporary thing when they moved it online during the pandemic in a three-section format. Now, it’s a four-section format which is three scored sections plus one unscored experimental section. That appears to be the format for the foreseeable future. The LSAT is at home, online, and administered via ProctorU, and this will be the format for the foreseeable future. LSAC just published the test dates through June 2023, and they’re all online and at home. LSAC has modified the language on its website to indicate that the LSAT will remain online for the foreseeable future.
Linda: Is there anything you would’ve liked me to ask you that I haven’t asked? [26:51]
Steve: I think we covered it, Linda. We covered quite a bit.
One thing I just want to remind folks is that the LSAT can be discouraging at times. It is not an easy exam, especially at first, but it is learnable. It can be beat. Please don’t equate the LSAT with your self-worth or your intelligence or anything like that. Know that any practice test scores you have, especially prior to having done much studying, definitely do not reflect your ultimate potential on this exam. You can improve significantly. I would encourage folks to reach out to me if you need anything at all. I’m happy to help and I’ve got a free easy LSAT cheat sheet that you can access at bit.ly/easylsat.
Linda: Where can listeners and LSAT test-takers learn more about your coaching? [27:56]
Steve: You can find me pretty much anywhere online. I’m very active on all the social media channels, YouTube, podcast, Instagram, and even TikTok. You can also just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m happy to help.
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