Can A High LSAT Make Up For Low Grades?

Those of you with low undergraduate grades are undoubtedly wondering: Is your LSAT score more important than your GPA? What if you have a perfect LSAT score but a bad GPA? Can a high LSAT make up for low grades?

When I was thinking about applying to law school, I wondered about the answer to this question as well. I was a college kid with a C+ average and wanted to know if I could get into a good law school. If not, I could move on and explore other career opportunities.

I asked around and most people gave me discouraging news. Especially the so-called experts. They all said: “Even if you got a super high LSAT score there’s no way you can get into a good school with those grades.”

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Today I’m a graduate of a Top 14 law school. Yes, it is possible to get into a top school with low grades. Still, I get a lot of questions from law school applicants asking me:

Can a high LSAT make up for my low GPA?

Absolutely. It’s true that there are some law schools that won’t accept your GPA even if you get a perfect score on the LSAT. But the vast majority of law schools are perfectly happy to overlook your grades if you have a high LSAT. Keep in mind that the LSAT score has to be high for the school you’re targeting. For example, a 170 is a fantastic score but would not be considered a high score for Harvard Law School. As a general guideline, a high LSAT score is one that’s higher than your target school’s median LSAT. Ideally, as a low GPA applicant, you want to shoot for a score greater than the target school’s 75th percentile LSAT.

The Bad News

You do lose some options with a low GPA.

First, there are some schools that will not accept you regardless of how high you score on the LSAT. For example, there are very clear GPA floors for the Top 3 schools (Harvard, Stanford, and Yale). There are also certain schools (e.g. U.C. Berkeley) that strongly prefer high GPA low LSAT applicants over low GPA high LSAT splitters.

To see law school-specific minimum GPAs, check out my post What GPA Do You Need For Law School?

Second, the pressure to get a high LSAT score is immense. For a traditional applicant with, say, a 3.70 GPA, there’s not a huge difference between scoring a 167 and a 169. Those extra two points might (or might not) help them get into one or two more schools they otherwise wouldn’t. But for a low GPA candidate, the difference between a 167 and 169 is HUGE. Scoring a 167 means you’re out of the running at Duke, NYU, Penn, Northwestern, Michigan, and Virginia because you’ve scored under their LSAT median. However, with a 169, every single one of those schools is in play.

The Good News

Let me repeat for re-emphasis: You can make up for 4 years of underperformance in college by landing a high score on a 4 hour standardized test. I’m not aware of any other graduate program that places this much emphasis on a single, high stakes exam. And, you’re allowed to sit for the LSAT exam 3 times in any 2 year period. If you don’t feel good about how you did, you can even cancel your score within six days. So while it is a single high stakes exam, you do have a few attempts to get a super high score.

Personally, I was able to redeem myself for my poor college performance. I graduated college with a 2.9 GPA. I endured lots of misery studying and agonizing about the LSAT over the next year and a half.

  • But two years later, I found myself as a first year law student at a Top 14 law school.
  • One year after that, I found myself with an offer to join a Vault 5 law firm as a summer associate, making over $3,000 a week.
  • One year after that, I received an offer to join that law firm as a full time associate at a base salary of $160,000 per year. (Nowadays, starting salaries are $180,000+)

In just a few years, I went from being a complete underachiever to becoming a highly paid, highly successful lawyer.

I wasn’t the only one who pulled it off. I met plenty of people in law school who didn’t do so well during college but dominated the LSAT and crushed law school.

Evidence/Discussion

Okay, so what’s my proof that having a high LSAT score can overcome a low GPA?

Exhibit A: Statements from Admissions Officers

You can glean a lot of information about what law schools care about simply by seeing what admissions officers have revealed (on the record) about how they make admissions decisions. You can Google admissions officers’ names and “high LSAT.” Sometimes admissions officers are equivocal about how much they value the LSAT. For example, here’s a snippet from someone from a “Tier 1” law school:

At most of the top top law schools, even with a 178 or something on the LSAT, it won’t balance out a 2.5 GPA. As you work your way down the law school rankings ladder, you’ll probably see more schools willing to do that.

(Funny how this admissions officer doesn’t seem to want to admit that they accept splitters. I wonder how “top top law schools” is defined since I had at least one classmate at my top law school with those approximate numbers.)

Other admissions officers are less coy about it. For example, these quotes are from admissions officers at top school and can be found in Richard Montauk’s book How To Get Into The Top Law Schools:

. . . a 2.9 GPA combined with a 170 LSAT may be OK if an external factor drove the poor grade performance . . . we pay much more attention to the potential implicit in the LSAT result than the GPA . . .

No admissions officer wants to go on the record as saying “you can make up for a terrible undergraduate GPA by doing well on one exam.” That’s why they don’t just come out and say it. At the same time, law schools do want to let applicants know that a high LSAT is valued highly, even more so than the GPA. So they say things like:

For those with relatively mediocre academic records, a strong LSAT is very important.

Doesn’t get more clear than that! Some other public admissions of the LSAT’s ability to overcome bad college grades:

If an applicant has worked successfully for several years — performed well and progressed — and has done well on the LSAT, the undergraduate record will receive much less emphasis.

There are two ways to compensate for a mediocre undergraduate record: an outstanding LSAT and some significant experience out in the world. These can serve as useful counterweights to the college GPA.

If you’re still skeptical, why don’t we take a look at some data to see if having a high LSAT score makes up for bad grades.

Exhibit B: Law School Admissions Data

To test our hypothesis that a high LSAT can make up for a low GPA, let’s see how admissions results play out in the real world. The below data is pulled from MyLSN, a website that provides statistical analysis from data drawn from LawSchoolNumbers, a self-reported law school application database.

We’ll take a look at admissions results for applicants with GPAs between 2.50 and 2.99. We’ll see how they fared over the last 3 admissions cycles (2013 to 2016) with three different LSAT score ranges: Low 150s, low 160s, and low 170s.

For the sake of simplicity, we will exclude early decision applicants (because it skews the data) and under-represented minorities (since their admissions requirements are lower and more random).

LSAT Score: 150-154
Courtesy of MyLSN.info (Click Image to see full results)

With a LSAT score range in the low 150s, your hypothetical applicant has no chance at the Top 14 schools, and has virtually no shot at most of the Top 50 schools. (Click the image to see full results.) In the end, this applicant will most likely end up at one of the few Top 100 schools he/she gets into.   

LSAT Score: 160-164
Courtesy of MyLSN.info (Click image to see full results)

With a LSAT score range in the low 160s, your hypothetical applicant still has no chance at the Top 14 schools. But if you scroll down the results, you’ll see that they have a chance at a handful of Top 25 schools. In fact, they are overwhelmingly likely to get into schools ranked between 50 and 100. In the end, this applicant would likely attend a Top 25 school or a Top 50 school with a sizable scholarship.   

LSAT Score: 170-174
Courtesy of MyLSN.info (Click Image to see full results)

This is where it gets interesting. With a LSAT score range in the low 170s, your hypothetical applicant has an outside shot at the Top 14 schools (Virginia, Northwestern, and Georgetown) and maybe even a scholarship. And if you scroll down you’ll see that not only will this applicant get into multiple Top 25 schools, they’ll almost certainly receive large scholarship offers up to $100,000.  In the end, this applicant may attend a Top 14 school or a Top 25 school with a massive ($100,000+) scholarship and graduate with little to no debt.   

Okay, but why does the LSAT matter so much?

Why does LSAT matter so much more than GPA? I’ve often wondered the same thing. There are 3 possible reasons that come to mind:

First, law schools care a LOT about maintaining their high LSAT numbers. I mean, a LOT. LSAT scores of the entering class is a big factor for law school rankings, so admissions officers need to admit high LSAT scorers. Law school deans who see their rankings plummet tend to get fired or resign. So you know that the rankings matter A LOT.

Second, and related to the first reason, there’s just a limited number of high LSAT scorers out there. There are far more applicants with a 3.60+ GPA than there are 170+ LSAT scorers. So schools are more forgiving towards low GPA candidates with monster LSAT scores.

Third, the LSAT is a more reliable indicator of an applicant’s capabilities. It’s hard to compare grades from a top notch engineering program with grades from a BS major at a party school. The LSAT cuts through all of that. Either you score well, or you don’t. Schools care a lot about the quality of their student body, and the LSAT is the only standardized way to compare applicants.

Conclusion

How much more the LSAT is weighed compared to the GPA does depend on the school. There are some sources that say the LSAT is weighed less heavily at the Top 10 law schools, and more so at lower ranked schools. That may be true. But no matter what, you can absolutely overcome bad college grades by getting a high LSAT score. The extent to which a high LSAT score can help you may be dependent on the school. But it’ll help you be a stronger candidate at all schools.

It bears repeating that yes, you can overcome a low GPA with a high LSAT.

Remember, the stakes are high. When you take the LSAT you must get a high score. God forbid you take the LSAT 3 times and score low every single time. Are you prepared to do what it takes to get a high LSAT score?

That’s something you should think long and hard about before committing to applying to law school. You should be prepared to take tons of practice tests, and consider taking a LSAT prep course. Do whatever it takes to break out and score a 170+ on the LSAT. Any money you spend on your LSAT prep will have huge returns when the $100,000+ scholarship offers start rolling in.

If you’re serious about applying to law school, then you should sign up for my law school admissions e-mail list to receive a free copy of 30 Tips for Law School Applicants with Bad College Grades. 

And for more info and advice, be sure to check out How To Get Into a Top Law School With a Low GPA.

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