Call it the LSAT disconnect. Although college grads with majors in science, technology, engineering and math tend to score high on the law school entrance exam, those taking the test and applying most often have majors in the social sciences and “helping” professions that typically score lower, according to recent studies.
An analysis by Pepperdine University School of Law professor Robert Anderson shows that college grads who major in mathematics, physics and biomedical engineering on average score 160 or higher on the law school entrance exam. On his blog, Witnesseth, Anderson found that chemical engineers, biologists and mechanical engineers also do well on the exam, on average. The only other majors breaking the 160 average were classics and linguistics.
At the same time, however, grads with so-called STEM majors (science, technology, engineering and math) don’t seem all that interested in going to law school. They accounted for just 5.7 percent of all 2014 applicants, according to a recent study by the AccessLex Institute, which looked at the law school pipeline and undergraduate majors.
“We are sorely underrepresented in people with quantitative and science backgrounds,” Anderson said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s harming our law schools and draining us of the intellectual rigor that could otherwise be there, and it’s reducing our students’ employment prospects.”
The gap is spurring schools to look beyond the LSAT for strong applicants. Harvard Law School’s decision in March to accept GRE scores in addition to LSAT scores was, in part, a bid to appeal of applicants with STEM backgrounds. (The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law was the first to take GRE scores in 2016.)
At the time Harvard made the announcement, admissions officials pointed to a growing demand for lawyers with STEM skills. Accepting the GRE appeals to STEM majors, Harvard and others reason, because many college grads already take the exam, which is used for most graduate-level programs outside of business, medicine and law.
The variation in performance between the types of majors seems to be a left-brain, right-brain issue. The format of the LSAT plays to the strengths of STEM majors, said Jeff Thomas, executive director of pre-law programs for Kaplan Test Prep. STEM courses deal with finite rules and absolute conclusions, and students learn to reach definitive answers quickly, he said. Not so with many majors in the humanities and social sciences.
“Philosophy, history and English majors—those whose study persuasive points of view, learn how to opine, and make arguments that aren’t necessarily rooted in fact—sometimes struggle with the black-and-white nature of the LSAT, where there is one right answer and four wrong ones,” Thomas said.
Aspiring lawyers with degrees in the social sciences and helping professions, which includes social work and psychology, made up nearly 48 percent of 2014 applicants, AccessLex found. The arts and humanities majors had nearly 24 percent of all law school applicants, and business and management majors accounted for almost 16 percent. Political science majors alone made up almost 19 percent of applicant pool. Business, criminal justice, psychology and English rounded out the top five.
Compared to the 160 average score of STEM majors on the LSAT, the average score among the 12,693 political science majors who applied in 2015 was 153. Business majors scored an average 149, while criminal justice majors a particularly low average of 146, according to the Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT.
But there is some good news for law schools hoping to bring in more STEM majors. The percentage of undergraduate degrees awarded in STEM fields in the United States. has been steadily creeping up over the past decade, according to the AccessLex study. They comprised 17.5 percent of all bachelor’s degrees from 2014.
Conversely, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees from the top 10 majors that traditionally feed the law school applicant pool has been on the decline for the past 10 years. That may be yet another factor in the 25 percent enrollment decline at American Bar Association-accredited law schools since 2010, which stems largely from high tuition costs and a stagnant entry level job market. (Read what legal leaders say about luring back top law school prospects here .)
Anderson’s analysis focused on both the LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages of applicants from different majors, looking to see whether GPAs are equivalent across majors. He found significant disparities, with STEM majors tending to have lower GPAs than applicants from the humanities and social sciences, even though they generally score higher on the LSAT.
That dynamic works against STEM majors in the law school admissions process, Anderson said. Lower GPAs likely discourage some STEM majors from applying at all. Engineering in particular is know for its relatively low GPAs, he noted.
“The fact of the matter is that someone with a 3.0 in engineering is often a pretty good student,” Anderson said. “Whereas in some other majors that would be pretty low in the class.”
Law schools should combat the undergraduate GPA disparity by taking those significant differences into account when making admissions decisions, Anderson concluded. Yet, the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings discourage law schools from adjusting applicant GPAs because the ranking counts all GPAs as equivalent across majors and undergraduate institutions, he said. That, in turn, hurts the acceptance chances of STEM majors, whom the LSAT indicates generally perform well in law school.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ