How Important Is the LSAT vs. GPA?

 Clay Daniel, Director of the LSAT Program

Clay Daniel, Director of the LSAT Program

We at Clayborne have built relationships with several excellent professionals in law schools admissions and admissions consulting. These colleagues have helped us gain a nuanced sense of the crucial role the LSAT plays in law school admissions.

The first thing any law school candidate must understand is that law school admission is, as a rule, a holistic process. Although law schools used to have hard and fast formulas by which they interpreted candidates’ LSAT scores and undergraduate GPA (UGPA), this is generally no longer the case. Law school admissions officers really do take the time to consider each candidate as a person and not simply as a composite of make-or-break numbers.


With that said, put yourself in the law school’s shoes. Maintaining standing is an important consideration, and the reality is that US News’ yearly rankings go a long way toward determining that standing. Those rankings unquestionably value median LSAT score more highly than they do UGPA; in fact, a peek at the full details of the rankings (only available to those willing to pony up $29.95 for inside access) shows the LSAT score placed front and center, whereas it takes several clicks and some scrolling to discover the average UGPA.


So we’ve established that a law school cannot afford to downplay the LSAT score. But let’s go deeper: we’re talking about median LSAT, not average (arithmetic mean). If you’ve been well instructed in statistics, you will recognize that median, unlike mean, only tells us about the score that is exactly in the middle of all the data. This means that if a law school’s matriculants have LSAT scores anywhere from 150 to 170, their median LSAT score will not necessarily be 160 … in fact, it could diverge widely from that figure. To take an example from Clayborne’s backyard, the middle 50% at our beloved UVA Law School (currently tied for 9th place in US News’ rankings) is an LSAT score of 163 to 170. But the actual median (50th percentile) nestles way at the high end of that range: 169. UVA has a great deal of incentive to make sure that roughly half of its next entering class possesses LSAT scores at or above 169, as well as the following class, and the one after that, etc.


None of this is to suggest that UGPA doesn’t matter. After all, law schools have standards to maintain with regard to GPA as well; the median UGPA for UVA law schools is a sterling 3.87, and the school no doubt wants to maintain that standard. But here’s the difference: for most schools, a candidate with a high GPA is easier to find than a candidate with a high LSAT score. Tens of thousands of law school aspirants do well at their undergraduate institutions, but only a fraction of those students will navigate the gauntlet the LSAT throws down and come out with impressive results. The reverse outcome—applicants with high LSAT scores but low UGPA—is simply less common.


These realities lead to what may be an unsettling conclusion: since applicants with above average GPA and below average LSAT are somewhat common, this is not the profile you want to have. Sure, it’s far better to be above the median GPA than below it, but you must remind yourself that law schools need to nurture their medians in both GPA and LSAT. If high LSAT scores are harder to come by, that makes them all the more valuable … as economics teaches, scarcity makes a commodity precious!


What does all this mean for you? We see several important “dos” and “don’ts”:


  • DO raise that GPA, if it’s not too late. You’ll need a 3.8 or better to be above the median for a top 14 law school, and a 3.6 or better to be above the median for the top 50.


  • DO your homework, and determine exactly what you need. If your GPA is (or is going to be) below the median for any of the schools you’re applying to, you need to pull out all the stops to make sure your LSAT score is above the median for those schools. Know your goals, do the math, and cultivate a good relationship with admissions at all your schools of interest.


  • DO cultivate the virtue of the few. A high LSAT score is like gold, and you want that gold in your pocket. At the risk of beating a dead horse, consider: if you are targeting a school with a median LSAT of 165 and a median UGPA of 3.75, and your GPA is 3.9 and your LSAT 163, you are not in good shape just because your GPA is well above the median and your LSAT is only a little bit below it. Medians are everything, and you need to pull up that LSAT score in order to feel secure in your position.


  • DON’T give up if your GPA is low. Remember the median principle here. Even if your desired school has a median of 3.6 and you’re at 2.9, all is not necessarily lost. If you can get above the median LSAT score for that school, you have at least some hope in the outcome, because that law school (as often happens) may have all the high UGPA’s it needs but not enough LSAT scores above its median … putting you right in the mix!


  • DON’T leave money on the table. Tuition for the top 14 schools averages over $180,000 over three years. For the top 50, the average is still well over $120,000. Most schools have substantial scholarship funds available (many Clayborne students have gotten free rides or substantial tuition reductions). Doing what it takes to maximize your LSAT score is extremely likely to pay off in big ways for those who expend the time, money, and sweat in pursuit of a better future.


Contact Clayborne today to find out more about how to hurdle the medians in your life!