The Growing LSAT vs. GRE Debate in Law School Admissions


Manhattan Prep LSAT Blog - Law School Admissions: The Rising LSAT vs. GRE Debate Q&A With Expert on Both, Mary RichterWe incorporate the latest discoveries in learning science into our LSAT course to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of your prep. Want to see? Try the first session of any of our upcoming courses for free.

Here’s the situation: The University of Arizona College of Law recently started accepting GRE scores in addition to LSAT scores from applicants for admission. Last week, The Wall Street Journal covered the move and the LSAC’s subsequent threat to ban the school from membership. Then, just yesterday, news broke that 148 deans of LSAC member law schools sent a letter to the LSAC’s president in support of Arizona Law. The issue has raised many pertinent questions about the merits of each test relative to the other as barometers for law school fitness. We wanted answers, so we turned to Mary Richter, LSAT (175) and GRE (166Q/168V) instructor and graduate of Yale Law School. Here’s what she had to say:

What likely motivated the University of Arizona College of Law to accept the GRE in applications?

It sounds like they wanted to open the doors to a wider applicant pool in terms of diversity and dual degree candidates. I view this as an exciting development, because regardless of motive, I do see it doing just this—making it possible for more people to get into law programs than might have otherwise. It’s cool!

What kind of test, fundamentally, is the LSAT? What does it test?

The LSAT is, I would argue, above all else a logic test. It is difficult to do very well on it without understanding the fundamentals of logic, regardless of how strong you are as a reader. The good news is that logic not only can be learned, it can be learned fairly quickly, relatively speaking, by adults (unlike, say, a new language, which usually takes years to learn), and as a result, the test lends itself to study over the course of several months—4-8, on average. LSAT takers who are able to prepare, whether through courses or on their own, do better than students who have not learned formal logical reasoning skills.

What kind of test, fundamentally, is the GRE? What does it test?

The GRE tests verbal, math and writing skills. Compared to the LSAT, it’s much more rooted in what you have already learned in school—the math tops out at geometry and algebra, so no need to dig out your calculus books or wish you’d paid better attention in trig. The Verbal section of the GRE is less logic-based than the verbal aspects of the LSAT, but it does require a more robust vocabulary than you likely already possess. I would say learning GRE vocabulary is one of the most important and labor-intensive pieces of GRE Verbal study, whereas for the LSAT, students generally don’t have to study vocabulary at all unless they aren’t native English speakers.

What skills are required for success in law school? Which test, if any, would you say best measures those skills?

Law school demands strong critical reading skills—being able to comprehend, analyze, and critique what you read, and to do so efficiently. Both tests measure these skills, the LSAT just devotes more real estate to them, to the extent that over a third of the GRE tests strictly math skills. Math is more or less irrelevant to law school, which is why there are jokes about how lawyers can’t do math! Viewed this way, the GRE includes two hours’ worth of reading and writing assessment compared to the LSAT’s three hours’ worth of the same.

If law schools are willing to accept that as equally indicative of a candidate’s ability to succeed in law school, I think that’s great, but my assumption is that when a school like Arizona says that GRE performance is as good a predictor of law school success as LSAT performance, they’re including Quant scores, which means that math skills are being relied on as a proxy for critical thinking skills even though math itself hardly comes up in law school. (I did once have a law professor tell me that if I didn’t understand the present and future value of money I’d be a bad lawyer. But that’s a very specific piece of math knowledge and incidentally one that is not tested on the GRE!) I can see how there would be link between logical thinking skills and math skills, but as someone who found logic much easier to learn than math, I know that logic and math aren’t interchangeable. Some people are going to be better at one and some people are going to be better at the other. That opens up opportunities for people to decide to which test they are better suited!

What are the key differences between the LSAT and the GRE? 

  • There is no math on the LSAT.
  • For the LSAT, you won’t study vocabulary; for the GRE, you almost certainly will.
  • For the LSAT, you will study logic; for the GRE, you almost certainly won’t.
  • Your essays on the GRE are scored; your essay on the LSAT is not. (Your GRE essay score is separate from your overall numerical score for Verbal and Quant, however.)
  • The GRE is taken on a computer and is adaptive; the LSAT is taken on paper and is not.

In your expert opinion, is the GRE a valid substitute for the LSAT in terms of law school admissions?

They’re such different tests! I don’t know! To overgeneralize (always fun to do), I think the GRE is, once you brush up on the math, easier and more predictable. I think the LSAT truly does measure logical thinking skills and in that way is a better direct match to what law school is really like, but it also, as I mentioned, rewards people who have the time and resources to prepare rigorously for it in a very, LSAT-specific way, usually with the guidance of a tutor or teacher, and with ample time to do a ton of practice. Not everyone has this luxury, and while the GRE does demand preparation—don’t get me wrong—I feel like I see fewer GRE students on the verge of a meltdown than LSAT students. It feels like a more manageable test to me.

Can you tell your readers a bit about your experience with both tests and the specific challenges related to preparing for each, as well as your law school experience?

I took the LSAT in 2005. I had started studying for it in the fall of 2004 preparing to take it in December 2004, but I wasn’t ready, so I postponed it until June, took a couple of months off from studying, and resumed studying in April or so. I found that that hiatus was helpful in that studying the second time around was easier. Soon after I took the test, I began tutoring/teaching it while applying to law school. I ended up taking another year off before going to Yale for law school. That whole time, I was teaching the LSAT. And after I graduated from law school and decided to leave law to write, I started teaching it again. It’s been a long one, my relationship with the ol’ LSAT.

The GRE is newer to me. I took it in 2004 thinking I’d go to grad school and didn’t touch it again until 2015, when I decided to prepare for and take it in hope of teaching it at Manhattan Prep. The Quant section (math) was a struggle for me initially—it had been over a decade since I’d done math! I found that I loved it, though. It’s a really fun test to take and to teach, and I like that preparing for it has real-world benefits. Who doesn’t want a bigger vocabulary and decent math chops? 📝

What are your thoughts? Feel free to chime in below! 

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Manhattan Prep LSAT Instructor Mary Richter

Mary Richter is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York City. Mary has degrees from Yale Law School and Duke. She has over 10 years of experience teaching the LSAT after scoring in the 99th percentile on the test. She is always thrilled to see students reach beyond their target scores. At Yale, she co-directed the school’s Domestic Violence Clinic for two years. After graduating she became an associate at Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP in New York City, where she was also the firm’s pro bono coordinator. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and more. Check out Mary’s upcoming classes here.

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