Law school applications: How important is the LSAT?
For a number of reasons, both good and bad, law school admission committees rely heavily on the LSAT (and undergraduate GPA) in making their admission decisions. Do not fool yourself into believing that the rest of your application is so strong that it will cause the law school to overlook your sub-par LSAT—in very few cases is this true. It’s also important to know that law schools use the LSAT (and GPA) not just for admissions decisions but also for decisions regarding scholarships. A strong LSAT score that gains you access to a highly selective school will also gain you substantial scholarship money—sometimes even a free ride—at many other, slightly less selective, schools. As a result, the LSAT is literally a “high stakes” test—the stakes being the cost of your legal education.
For admissions purposes, the LSAT is used as part of a two-step process. In the first step, the law school looks at your LSAT (and GPA) relative to its targeted median range—the 25th to 75th percentile range the school hopes to achieve with its entering class. The specific range for each school is available to you via the school’s ABA Standard 509 Information Report (often referred to simply as the school’s “509”). You can find the 509s for every school here, or simply look up an individual school’s report by googling the name of the law school plus “509”. The 509 lists the median ranges for LSAT (and GPA) for the most recent admissions year, and can give you a very good idea of your chance of admission at any particular school—above the 75th percentile, and you’re in the “presumptive admit” category, meaning you have a very strong chance of admission at that school. Below the 25th percentile, you’re in the “presumptive deny” pile—only 25% of their admitted class had numbers like yours. But remember that you’re also not out of the running for that school: a quarter of their admitted students had LSAT scores BELOW that number.
So also remember that the LSAT (and GPA) review is just the first step. Based on where your numbers fall relative to the school’s target range, your application is then placed in one of three categories: presumptive admit, presumptive deny, and “everybody else.” In the second step, each application is reviewed based on the category it falls into: The presumptive admits will generally be accepted barring any serious negative information in the file. Likewise, the presumptive denies will generally be rejected unless there is some compelling information in the file—something that makes the candidate stand out as truly extraordinary and worth admitting notwithstanding the negative impact the applicant’s LSAT score will have on the school’s target LSAT range. The majority of applicants at any particular school—the “everybody else” pile— will fall somewhere in the middle of the school’s range. With these candidates, the admission committee explores the rest of the files to see what each individual might bring to the law school community and legal profession, and how s/he fits in with the rest of the incoming class. (For more on what makes a candidate “extraordinary” and on how to demonstrate what you might bring to the table, please see this overview of you application package.)
Law school admission officials will tell you that they rely so heavily on the LSAT score because it is a reliable indicator of first-year performance and of bar passage. Most will also admit that the US News & World Report rankings (which rely heavily on LSAT scores to rank law schools), and the law school’s interest in maintaining or improving its rank, play a role as well.