To prepare for the Law School Admission Test the summer before senior year at the University at Buffalo—SUNY, James Ingram hired a tutor, worked through prep books, and even acquired a special LSAT watch to practice keeping track of the exam’s six strict 35-minute time intervals, five devoted to testing his ability to comprehend and analyze complex material and one to an unscored but important essay.
Not satisfied with his score of 158, Ingram doubled down on doing practice tests and took the LSAT again. His 166 impressed several top law schools, including those at Boston University, the University of Iowa, Emory University and George Washington University Law School, where he is a first-year student.
Ingram’s belief that a strong LSAT score is essential to “get your foot in the door” at the best schools has long been true. But people pondering a law degree now stand to benefit by an across-the-board softening in scores accepted, says Anna Ivey, former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting, an admissions advising company.
The top schools do remain extremely competitive, but overall the number of applicants is down considerably since law jobs began disappearing during the recession.
At GW Law, applications are off 21 percent since 2011, prompting a drop in median LSAT scores from 167 to 165. Boston College Law School and the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill School of Law, both of which accepted Ingram, have seen decreases in applications of 36 percent and 44 percent, respectively, and a similar drop in median scores.
There’s little doubt that your test scores can have a big impact on your competitiveness in many disciplines, experts say; graduate programs still use scores as their top indicator of an applicant’s likelihood to succeed. And great scores improve your odds of landing scholarships: Ingram earned a merit scholarship at GW that covers half of his $56,000 annual tuition.
How much scores count is the No. 1 question applicants ask him, says Stanley Dunn, vice provost and dean of graduate education at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. RPI looks at test scores as a starting point, Dunn says, and if scores are on the low side, checks to see if the applicant makes up for it in other ways.
Grad school advisers say it’s essential to get to know the test you are taking and to prep for it carefully. Here’s what to expect of the various other exams.
The Medical College Admission Test: Future doctors need the ability to master new information rapidly and the communication skills to succeed in a patient-centered system. Thus the MCAT overhaul in 2015, which added questions on sociology and psychology as well as biochemistry and now tests skills in scientific reasoning and problem-solving, research design and data analysis.
The test nearly doubled in length, with four multiple-choice sections each lasting 90 or 95 minutes. Instead of zeroing in just on scores and grades, reviewers also are increasingly doing a holistic review, looking at applicants’ backgrounds and experiences.
The Graduate Record Examination: The GRE tests verbal, quantitative reasoning and writing skills and is required for most programs in the arts and sciences. The three sections last 30 or 35 minutes each.
Many graduate programs look for balanced verbal and quantitative scores. Alexander Wiseman, associate professor at Lehigh University’s College of Education, says many applicants have strong verbal scores, but students who also show strength on the quantitative side have an edge.
Engineering schools typically look for strong quantitative scores. But given the need for engineers with communication skills, a low verbal score can really hurt, Dunn notes.
The Graduate Management Admission Test: Students weighing business school generally take the GMAT, a 3 1/2-hour online exam with writing, integrated reasoning, verbal and quantitative sections. B-schools are continuing to track very high GMAT scores for incoming classes.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management saw an eight-point increase in its 2016 average, and among the top 10 business schools there was a 3.4-point average increase, according to the latest U.S. News data. Most business schools also accept the GRE.
It’s important to know, too, Dunn says, that reviewers look for signs that the program and applicant are a good “fit.” He wishes more people obsessed with the tests would focus first on whether a program is the right match.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Graduate Schools 2018” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.