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Harvard Law School

Harvard Law School announced Wednesday that it will start an experiment in which it will accept the Graduate Record Examination for admissions, not just the traditionally required Law School Admission Test.

The potential of the GRE in law school admissions has been much debated in legal education circles in recent years, and the decision of Harvard Law to accept it could resonate well beyond Cambridge.

"Any time Harvard Law School comes out with a change, the law school admissions world will take notice," said Jeff Thomas, executive director of pre-law programs at Kaplan, which helps prepare students for the LSAT and the GRE, among other tests.

Harvard Law's announcement explained the shift this way: "The pilot program to accept the GRE is part of a wider strategy at Harvard Law School to expand access to legal education for students in the United States and internationally. The GRE is offered frequently throughout the year and in numerous locations around the world. Many prospective law school applicants take the GRE as they consider graduate school options. The law school’s decision to accept the GRE will alleviate the financial burden on applicants who would otherwise be required to prepare and pay for an additional test."

The statement went on to say that the shift complies with requirements of the American Bar Association. ABA guidelines state, "A law school that uses an admission test other than the Law School Admission Test sponsored by the Law School Admission Council shall demonstrate that such other test is a valid and reliable test to assist the school in assessing an applicant’s capability to satisfactorily complete the school’s program of legal education."

Harvard said it conducted a study, based on students who took both the GRE and LSAT, and found "that the GRE is an equally valid predictor of first-year grades."

Before Wednesday, the only ABA-accredited law school that accepted the GRE and the LSAT was the University of Arizona, which took the step last year. Marc L. Miller, the dean at Arizona, said at the time, "We believe that law schools and the legal profession need a greater number of high-quality applicants with the widest range of life, educational and professional backgrounds. Having only one admissions test as an access point automatically reduces that number and puts us out of line with every other profession and academic discipline, none of whose regulators require any standardized test for admission, much less a single test."

Arizona and Harvard may soon have company in letting applicants submit either the GRE or the LSAT. A spokesman for the Educational Testing Service, which produces the GRE, said ETS is working with 14 law schools on validity studies to show the reliability of the GRE in law school admissions. ETS is also working on a national study.

A spokeswoman for the Law School Admission Council said of Harvard's decision that "schools have that right under the current ABA standards."

The council has not always been as accepting, as seen when Arizona made its decision. At one point the council sent Arizona letters that were interpreted as a threat to kick the university out of the council, although after criticism the council said it was simply seeking clarification of Arizona's policies. That dispute led nearly 150 deans of law schools to write to the council to demand that it stop plans to oust Arizona. "Experimentation benefits all of us," the deans' letter said.

Thomas of Kaplan said that many would-be law students consider the GRE to be an easier exam than the LSAT. Further, he said that it is easy for students to take the GRE when they want, giving that test a logistical advantage over the LSAT.

The LSAT has sections on reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, logical reasoning and writing. The test does not have questions about the law -- or anything specific to law schools.

Thomas said that, in the near term, those who have decided they definitely want to go to law school may well have one or more law schools to which they are applying still requiring the LSAT only, and so will be forced to take the LSAT. But he said the many law schools -- unlike Harvard's -- that worry about attracting applicants also want to appeal to those who are looking at multiple graduate and professional options. For them, the ability to take one test and apply to both master's programs and a law school may encourage them to consider law school.

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