Median LSATs

David Bernstein has an excellent post up over on Volokh about the law school admissions process and the Supreme Court’s consideration of racial preferences in the upcoming Fisher case.

The notion that law schools evaluate applicants holistically (as the Court said in Grutter) is highly dubious.  Most schools, because of the US News rankings, care primarily about median LSAT scores.  This is true because (as I’ve posted about before), the US News Rankings don’t give you any credit for being diverse.  The opposite is true–you get penalized.  Now are there a few schools (read Yale and Harvard) that do look at things holistically because they get applicants with ridiculously high scores?  Sure.  And are there individual applications that are reviewed holistically?  Sure, if they are at or close to the median LSAT.  But that is a fraction of schools and a fraction of applicants.

Basically, the US News Rankings are more powerful than the Supreme Court in dictating how law schools operate.

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11 Responses

  1. David Bernstein says:

    Thanks. But I’m not convinced that U.S. News very much discourages “diversity”, if by that you mean a larger representation of URMs. A school that wants to admit a racially diverse class can simply admit, e.g., an URM with a 148 and a 3.6 GPA instead of a non-URM with a 160 and a 3.6. For US News purposes, assuming the school’s medians are, say, 162 and 3.5, the two candidates are identical–they help with meeting the GPA median, but hurt w/r/t the LSAT. Law schools could, in theory, also do this with elite athletes, people from interesting backgrounds, people with good work experience, etc., to some extent, but they have neither the ideological impetus nor ABA pressure to do so as they do with URMs.

    Or, put another way, I don’t think it’s correct that law schools care primarily about LSATs to the exclusion of GPAs. LSATs are weighted more heavily, but GPAs are easier to manipulate, because there are lots of students with high GPAs from weak schools with easy majors.

  2. Gerard Magliocca says:

    I’ve never heard a Dean brag about higher GPAs when the median LSAT has gone down, but perhaps I don’t get around enough.

  3. dave hoffman says:

    David’s talk of weighting suggests that perhaps he thinks that the USNWR weighting of various variables is what determines rank. But that’s largely incorrect – what’s important is variance. See Seto’s article for details. His analysis consequently doesn’t match with how a very cynical school (which cared only about rank, as he assumes all schools do) would behave.

  4. David Bernstein says:

    “His analysis consequently doesn’t match with how a very cynical school would behave.” No matter how you slice it, it’s better for US News purposes to have a higher median LSAT than a lower one, and a higher median GPA than a lower one. And it’s not like school number 75 can win on “variance” by matriculating all 180s. So I really don’t know what you mean.

    “I’ve never heard a Dean brag about higher GPAs when the median LSAT has gone down, but perhaps I don’t get around enough.” If LSAT goes down 1 point, but GPA goes up .4, and that results in the law school going up 10 notches in US News, you better believe the dean is going to brag about it, though, in fairness, likely without explaining the inputs.

  5. Brett Bellmore says:

    “The opposite is true–you get penalized.”

    The ratings actually penalize you for having a diverse student body? Independent of any other variable? I’m having a hard time believing that.

    Perhaps you’re just assuming that efforts at “diversity” have to come at the expense of academic merit? Maybe a reasonable assumption, but not precisely the same as the ratings actually penalizing you for being diverse.

  6. dave hoffman says:

    The problem is that you think that a law school cares solely about LSAT/GPA because you see how much those variables are weighted by USNWR. But if, in fact, LSAT/GPA don’t have as much variance as other categories, then, all else equal, the cynical school won’t spend the same single-minded energy on them, would it? And further the idea that a school would prefer GPA to LSAT would turn on variance, not on relative “weight”, as you hypothesized.

    Seto makes these points at length.

  7. Bryan GIviden says:

    So one of my favorite ways to demonstrate schools obsession with numbers–and consequently non-holistic admissions process–is looking at “corners” in admissions data. If you plot the GPA and LSAT of all of the students accepted to a school (not just the matriculants) you will see corners at a school’s targeted medians. Since that data isn’t publicly available, the best substitute I have to demonstrate it is data from, a site that has applicants self-report numbers and admittance information. (Disclaimer: I know there are a TON of issues with the data, but I think (1) looking at it is still useful and (2) that the actual numbers would create a similar pattern.) Here’s a plot of UVA’s from last cycle, excluding any students who identified themselves as an under-represented minority.

    The graph has a strong corner at 3.85 and 170. Only two of the 187 data points fall insider the corner (meaning that both their GPA and LSAT are below those numbers).

    While I don’t think this has anything to say about affirmative action, I think the facade that schools use a holistic admissions process is a disservice to a lot of students. (But what school in its right mind would tell hundreds to thousands of applicants with very little-to-no chance of admission that they should not pay the application fee.) I can even accept that once you have one of the numbers a school wants, it is somewhat holistic. But holistic from start to finish? Not a chance.

  8. David Bernstein says:

    Dave: You are missing something very important, which is that law schools have very limited control over most variables considered by US News. E.g., short of having a major scandal (like Illinois), or getting bought out by a more prominent university (like Penn State), it’s almost impossible to move reputation numbers. Schools have lots more control over the scores of the students they admit, especially GPA. And note that I didn’t say that law schools focus single-mindedly on LSAT and GPA, I said that they focus singledmindedly on LSAT and GPA when it comes to admissions decisions. That doesn’t mean that law schools aren’t also spending time and energy on lots of other things in other contexts.

  9. dave hoffman says:


    Reputation numbers aren’t as highly variable as spending, particularly direct/indirect ratio. Similarly faculty/student ratio, and bar passage. I think you are stuck on the variables that USWR actually puts in the columns in the magazine, as opposed to what actually drives their equation. Again, I can’t recommend Seto’s article enough.

  10. David Bernstein says:

    Spending is very important, but your ability to spend for U.S. News purposes is cabined by (a) how much money you actually have to spend; (b) how much the main campus will cooperate with you in allowing the law school in arranging the accounting so that the law school “spends” more than it really spends (e.g., will you university let you raise tuition by $3,000, but then effectively offer every admittee a $3,000 scholarship); and (c) whether you are subject to FOIA and how willing you are to use accounting gimickry fudge the spending numbers.

    Similarly, while bar exam passage rates are variable, there’s not that much a law school can do to improve it’s bar passage rate beyond admitting better students, which in turn is dependent on(you guessed it) US News ranking.

    By contrast, it’s very easy to take students with 3.7 GPAs but low LSATs, or with LSATs at your median with low GPAs.

    And besides, once again, I’m not saying and never said that law schools don’t try to improve their ranking on other margins. I just said that law schools don’t engage in holistic analysis of applicants. If I said, the Dodgers are trying to improve their ratio of successful stolen bases from 70% to 75%, it’s not much of an answer to say, “no, they wouldn’t be doing that, because it’s much more important that they improve their on base percentage.” Why not both?

  11. Jonah Falcon says:

    Like I always say, law schools have and always will determine their admission cut off criteria with a straight line. The notion that a fancy personal statement can be enough to get anyone into a good school is insane. Too bad good LSAT scores doesn’t necessarily translate into good lawyers/people: