John W. Weeks Bridge with clock tower over Charles River in Harvard University campus Boston
John W. Weeks Bridge with clock tower over Charles River in Harvard University campus Boston (Shutterstock.com)

Harvard Law School announced on Wednesday that starting in the fall it will accept the GRE as an alternative to the LSAT from applicants seeking to enroll in the school.

Harvard becomes only the second American Bar Association-accredited law school to accept the Graduate Record Exam. The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law announced last February that it would accept either the Law School Admission Test or the GRE in an attempt to expand its applicant pool. The school admitted 12 current students who submitted GRE scores.

Harvard officials said Wednesday that accepting the GRE will expand access to the law school because the exam is offered frequently throughout the year, and in many locations internationally. By contrast, the LSAT, which is administered by the Law School Admission Council, is offered only four times a year.

“Harvard Law School is continually working to eliminate barriers as we search for the most talented candidates for law and leadership,” said Dean Martha Minow in an announcement of the decision. “For many students, preparing for and taking both the GRE and the LSAT is unaffordable. All students benefit when we can diversify our community in terms of academic background, country of origin, and financial circumstances.”

Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE, partnered with Harvard in a study comparing the LSAT scores and GRE scores of current and former law students to gauge the ability of each test to predict first-year law grades — the aim of the LSAT. The GRE proved an “equally valid predictor of first-year grades,” Harvard found.

The Law School Admission Council said through a spokeswoman Wednesday that, “schools have [the right to use alternative tests] under the current ABA standards.”

Harvard’s decision to accept the GRE is a strong signal that the alternative test could eventually challenge the LSAT’s longtime dominance of law school admission. Arizona’s move to allow the GRE created a stir and was initially met with opposition from the council, which threatened to boot the law school from its membership. But law deans from across the country rallied to Arizona’s defense and called for further study. Still, no other law school until Wednesday had gone public with plans to accept the GRE.

The possibility of a genuine LSAT challenger got a boost in October when the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education voted to create a pathway for the widespread adoption of alternative tests.

The ABA’s law school accreditation standards now require the use of a “valid and reliable test” in admissions. The LSAT is currently the only test designated by the ABA as valid and reliable. Schools requesting campus-specific exceptions to use other standardized tests, such as the SAT, ACT or GRE, must provide the ABA with statistical evidence of the reliability of those tests among its students.

Under the new system, the ABA would evaluate a test such as the GRE on a national basis, and potentially deem it valid for use by all law schools.

Jessica Soban, associate dean for admissions and strategic initiatives at Harvard Law, said in an interview Wednesday that accepting the GRE should help the school draw more students with science and technology backgrounds, which are sorely needed in the legal profession, and applicants who already have graduate degrees. Those students most likely will have already taken the GRE.

The change should also make the application process easier for international students, she noted, given the GRE is administered around the globe. Fully 17 percent of Harvard’s first-year law students are from overseas, she said.

“This is one of a series of changes we’ve made in the admissions process in the past number of years — everything from Skype interviews to piloting a program to allow students to apply earlier in college,” Soban said. “This is about reducing the barrier to legal education.”