Articulating an answer to this question can help students understand why studying for the LSAT is important and help to dispel any lingering animosities they have about the place of the LSAT in the application process.
The need for a standard
While most law school applicants have GPAs measured on the 4.0 scale, grading standards at different colleges and universities are known to vary widely. A student who attended a school with a reputation of harsh grading, such as the University of Chicago or Princeton, might have achieved more than a student with a higher GPA who attended a university with more relaxed grading standards. While law schools may try to compensate for this in their calculation of GPAs, it is very difficult to do so in a precise manner.
Furthermore, when one considers the relative difficulty of some majors, for instance many sciences majors tend to have grading done on a bell-curve and hence have a lower average GPA than humanities majors, even two equal GPAs from the same university might not indicate equivalent academic achievement.
Grades, although often helpful for measuring academic success in a broad sense, do not lend always themselves to the fine-grained comparisons that admissions officers may need to make.
Too many A's
Moreover, there is the simple problem of having too many applicants that have very high GPAs. Many more students graduate from college with perfect, or near perfect GPAs than have perfect or nearly perfect LSAT scores. While every year many thousands of students from state colleges graduate with GPAs above 3.75, there are considerably fewer students who score above 170 on the LSAT. To the extent that admissions officers are simply inundated with too many applications, GPAs do not offer a sufficient method for narrowing down the applicant pool.
But why emphasize this test?
The need for a standard alone cannot justify reliance on the LSAT. After all, many other scrutinizing measures might have been employed. However, it turns out that undergraduate GPA, or prestige of undergraduate institution, or choice of major, are all fairly poor indicators of academic success. By themselves, these measures don't correlate very well with law school performance. Alternatively, the LSAT predicts law school success much better. Experts have argued that even a marginally better LSAT score is a strong indication that one will perform better in law school.
It's foolish to think of the LSAT as a measure of intelligence. But it does measure something that appears to be relevant in law school performance. Admissions officers stress its importance because they're trying to assemble the best class that they can, and the LSAT has proven itself to be a good indicator of law school success.
Why is the LSAT an indicator of law school success?
The three sections of the LSAT all measure different cognitive functions. The logical reasoning section of the LSAT tests a student's ability to make valid inferences from precisely worded propositions. This is a valuable predictor because the study and practice of law require a precise understanding of language and its logic. In an environment where the insertion of a comma or the presence of a single word can dramatically change the meaning of a contract or statute, those with a more precise understanding of the structure of arguments will tend to perform better.
First year law students spend an inordinate amount of time reading. It's common for students to have to sift through thousands of pages a week for their classes. In such circumstances, it's crucial for students to be able to quickly glean the gist of articles on a vast array of topics. The reading comprehension section of the LSAT tests a student's ability to do precisely this. While logical reasoning requires students to dissect short, precisely worded passages, reading comprehension challenges students to digest large passages of writing very quickly and assess their content.
Games might seem to be the section on the law with least application to law school. After all, games seem more like complex riddles than legal questions. However, games test a student's ability to make inferences quickly on the basis of abstract rules. Games ask a student to construct an abstract environment and understand its internal logic. While some students find themselves adept at logical reasoning because they have a strong linguistic faculty, games tend to strip away the language and force the student to make inferences on the basis of uncontextualized rules alone. This more than any other section on the test nakedly tests a student's grasp of logical inference.
Since all of these skills are commonly used in law school, preparing for the LSAT can continue to pay dividends long after a student has been accepted to law school. In raising LSAT scores, students might well be raising their future law school GPA as well.
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