Predictions of a “New Hierarchy” in Law Schools, Part Two: LSAT/GPA Data Aren’t the Law School Admissions Promised Land

Earlier this week, I talked about one law professor’s much-publicized prediction of a “new hierarchy” among law schools. In my last post, I talked about what the data mean for those who are trying to make a law school decision now.  For them, the data don’t warrant much of a shift in decision-making.

Beyond that are several assumptions, the most important of which is that top law schools make their admissions decisions pretty much exclusively based on the hard data of undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores as proxies for intellectual ability. Let’s call this the “hard data are the promised land” assumption.  As I noted in the last post, Prof. Henderson doesn’t say that, and it’s not particularly important for his purposes to qualify what he means.  If you plot out the current hierarchy, there’s a pretty reasonable correlation between prestige and rankings, on the one hand, and LSAT/GPA data, on the other.  But that doesn’t mean that any individual law school is making its decisions solely on the basis of those factors, as we’ll see.   

So, while it’s not the case that I think Prof. Henderson is promoting (or is concerned with) the promised land theory, it’s not hard to see how its promoters could turn what seems to be a convenient (and, in context, pretty innocuous) assumption into much, much more.  But it bears much closer examination if you’re a law school applicant.  If swallowed whole, the prospective law student might well focus fatalistically on her or his LSAT and GPA.  And, of course, that all-or-nothing focus on the LSAT in particular is in the commercial interest of the huge LSAT prep market.    

That would be a terrible mistake. No doubt, the single most important influence on law school admissions prospects, on average, is the LSAT. But that is a long, long way from saying it’s the only important influence. The fact that the LSAT is important is why Advise-In’s LSAT programs are personally designed by me for each of my clients, why they are carefully structured to build momentum for exam day, why I spend an inordinate amount of time with clients doing real-time analyses of their changing strengths and weaknesses, and so on. Advise-In Solutions is part of the LSAT prep market because LSAT scores matter—a lot, so it’s worth investing in whatever is necessary to get your best LSAT score.

But…the LSAT and your GPA are not everything, and applicants will end up hurting themselves if they believe they are.

I also spend equivalent time on clients’ admission and application strategies and the applications themselves and offer free webinars to law school applicants on both LSAT and application preparation. Why? Because it’s all important to securing your best admissions and financial aid opportunities. How do I know that? Well, in the first place, I’ve never heard any law school admissions directors say that their law schools decide admissions simply by applying a hard data grid. It’s unlikely that they’re all being untruthful. There’s recent survey data, for example, regarding the importance of letters of reference. It’s even more unlikely that law schools spend good money to pay admissions personnel, and impose file review obligations on their staff and faculty, if all they need to do is drop numbers into a spreadsheet. And I know it from personal experience, not only with my clients but also my experience in law school—not everyone at Yale Law School had perfect LSAT scores and GPAs (I had the first, but certainly not the second and, even if I had, I still would have worked very hard crafting my application).

Finally, there’s publicly-available data, which is so clear that it’s a little shocking that the hard data promised land theory persists. If hard data were sufficient to get applicants to the promised land, there would be very little variation (especially at the top of the law school food chain) in the hard data numbers that law schools do report, namely, the 25%, median and 75% LSAT scores and GPAs (especially for smaller law schools like Yale, Stanford and Chicago). But there is—and even the 75% numbers are not nearly as high as one would expect if the promised land theory were correct.

Let’s take Yale as the easiest test case (considering LSAT scores only), since in 2009 it made only 270 offers and received 214 acceptances (while receiving over 3300 applications), according to its ABA-reported data. Its 75% LSAT score was a 176 (percentile 99.6); its 25% LSAT score was 170 (percentile 97.5). Those are high scores, certainly, though note that these numbers mean that a significant chunk of its class scored below a 170.

During the 2008-2009 annual period, there were over 150,000 LSAT takers. Yale made offers to only 270 people, or approximately 0.18% of all LSAT takers. But even its 75th percentile in LSAT scores encompasses 0.4% of all LSAT takers, and its median (a 173) about 5 times the number of people to whom it extended offers. At its 25th percentile, that number grows to 12.5 times the number of people to whom it extended offers, and we’ve still only covered 75% of its class.

It would be preposterous to suggest that its admissions decisions were based solely on LSAT scores. You could do a similar analysis for most law schools. When law schools say that they aren’t making decisions based solely on the hard data GPA/LSAT matrix, most of them are demonstrably telling the truth. Especially in the upper reaches of law school rankings, law schools are spending a lot of time crafting their classes, not applying mechanical formulae.

Now, does this mean that a great LSAT score and GPA aren’t important? Of course not. It helps to think of that matrix as generally putting an applicant in an initial group of hundreds or thousands (depending on how high both data points are) of applicants to any given school. And that provides an initial estimate (from the applicant’s side) of her or his chances for admission. But that chance is malleable; what will make your opportunities move up or down depends on how compelling the rest of your application is (and therefore your care and effort in creating it), from your law school personal statement to your résumé, letters of reference and optional essays. Sometimes the upward or downward movements are dramatic; more often they are incremental, moving applicants up or down one to a few cohorts from what one would expect on the basis of applicants’ hard data. But it’s movement and, in view of the competitiveness of the current law school admissions and aid markets, any movement can be significant.

I put up a fair number of posts on the “soft data” aspects of good law school applications, found primarily in the “Law School Admissions” category of the blog. I write those blogs—and intensively counsel clients on their applications—because application packages matter, as publicly verifiable data clearly attest. The promoters of the hard data promised land theory are doing a serious disservice to law school applicants.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on December 3, 2010.

One Response to “Predictions of a “New Hierarchy” in Law Schools, Part Two: LSAT/GPA Data Aren’t the Law School Admissions Promised Land”

  1. […] I’ve discussed in numerous posts on this blog, getting into law school isn’t only about LSAT scores. I don’t care what LSAT prep […]

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