The LSAT and the GRE, from a Jedi Master who’s taught both.

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Starting next cycle, Harvard Law School will accept the GRE. If you want to apply, you’ll be able to choose between the GRE and the LSAT. It just so happens that once upon a time I used to teach the GRE. So let’s run through the differences between the GRE and the LSAT.

The GRE has math.

Math! It’s high-school level math. No calculus or anything. But it’s still math. Even though the topics you need to know aren’t terribly advanced, the harder questions can be tricky and annoying. Harvard hasn’t announced how they’ll evaluate GRE scores, so it remains to be seen how much weight they’ll put on the math score (the math and verbal sections are scored separately). But it’s math, and it’s on the test. That may be enough to send some people running back to the LSAT’s open arms.

The GRE doesn’t have logic games.

There isn’t much more to say about this one. If you love logic games, maybe stick with the LSAT. If you hate them, then maybe the GRE looks a little more appealing.

The GRE’s verbal section is more about vocabulary and less about logic.

The GRE asks you to do a lot of stuff like choose words to fill in sentences and passages. Some questions ask you to choose two words each of which could fill in the same blank. Others ask you to choose a word for each of two blanks in a passage. It’s not all about vocabulary — these questions also test your ability to read for context. But it’s still important to know the words.

The GRE has reading comp, just like the LSAT. It even has some short passages that may be somewhat reminiscent of LSAT Logical Reasoning. But whereas the LSAT is all about arguments and the ways they can go wrong, the reading on the GRE is much more focused on the content of the passage.

The GRE has two essays instead of one, and they’re scored.

When you take the GRE, you have to write two essays, one about an issue and one about an argument. Those essays are then scored and you get a writing score, reported separately from verbal and math scores. Will Harvard care about your GRE writing score? I don’t know. But you’ll have to write the essays and they’ll see the score.

The GRE is administered on a computer and is adaptive.

You can take the GRE almost anytime — just make an appointment. You’ll get two sections each of verbal and math. Your performance on the first section in each subject determines how hard the questions will be on the second section. The downside is that if you get off to a shaky start, it can be hard to recover. The upside is that the GRE would have to be longer if it weren’t adaptive.

Also, thanks to its computer format, the GRE isn’t strictly multiple-choice like the LSAT. Some math questions are free-response. On the verbal side, some questions ask you to do things such as select a sentence from a passage. Others have two answers, both of which you need to pick to get credit.

You can’t distinguish yourself as much on the GRE as on the LSAT.

If you get a 173 on the LSAT, you’re in the top one percent of everyone who takes the test. A 178 is at the one-in-a-thousand level. The GRE reports verbal and math scores separately on a 130 to 170 scale. A 170 on the math is only 97th percentile, or in other words a full three percent of test takers get a perfect score. On the verbal side, a 169 puts you in the top one percent. If you’re a top test taker, the LSAT gives you more opportunity to really show your stuff.

The GRE only gets you into two law schools.

So far, only Harvard and the University of Arizona accept the GRE for law school. If you take both the GRE and the LSAT, those schools will see your LSAT score. If you go, your LSAT score will count toward the school’s averages and therefore its rankings. That means that if you take both, they’ll still probably mostly look at your LSAT score.

Therefore, the only real advantage to taking the GRE is if you take the GRE only. If you’re after Harvard or bust (or I suppose Arizona or Bust) and you know you’d do much better on the GRE, then maybe it makes sense to take the GRE and hold off on the LSAT. Keep in mind, though, that no one really knows how they’re evaluating the GRE or what kind of GRE score they see as equating to a given LSAT score. But in general, if you’re trying to get into law school, the LSAT is the test to take.

Harvard is kind of a big deal, so other law schools may follow suit. If they do, that’ll change the equation considerably. Also if they do, LSAC will throw a fit and is unlikely to go down without a fight. It’ll be interesting to watch.

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