GRE vs LSAT: Which Exam Is Best for You?

When applying to law school or any graduate-level program, the question of which admissions exam to take can be a tough one. Both the GRE and the LSAT are rigorous, highly advanced exams, and both can help you build a strong law school or business school application. So how do you decide which exam to take?

In this short guide, we'll provide a brief overview of the LSAT and the GRE, including some of the key pros and cons of each. Then, we'll give you some tips on how to decide which test to take.

LSAT Overview

LSAT study guide on a table

The Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, is designed to test the key skills that students need in order to successfully get a law degree. It's made up of six sections, each lasting 35 minutes. Those sections are:

  • Analytical Reasoning (Logic Games)
  • Reading Comprehension
  • 2 Logical Reasoning Sections
  • Extra Variable Section
  • Writing Sample

Only four of these sections count toward your score: analytical reasoning, reading comprehension, and the two logical reasoning sections. The writing sample is unscored and the extra section doesn't count—it's used by the testwriters to evaluate content for future tests.

While the extra section won't be included in the scoring information sent to law schools, you won't know which one of the sections you complete is the unscored one. You need to approach all multiple-choice questions as if they count.

The writing sample isn't scored either. However, it can be read by law schools and may still influence the admission decision. How much it influences that decision is subject to debate, but it's worth doing your best on it regardless.

The four sections taken together will give you a score ranging from 120 to 180. If you score below 150, you'll likely need to retake it to get accepted into a law school. The 150-160 range is average. 160-170 is above average. 170+ is considered exceptionally good.

Why Should I Take the LSAT?

Here are some of the main advantages of taking the LSAT:

A High Score Increases Your Chance of Admission

LSAT scores can account for as much as 50% of an admissions decision. Basically, if you get a great LSAT score, you're going to be able to get into a law school, even if it's not necessarily your first choice. If your GPA isn't that impressive or there's any other aspect of your application that you don't feel great about, a strong LSAT score can make up for it.

All Law Schools Accept the LSAT

The LSAT is, not surprisingly, accepted by all law schools. If you're only applying to law schools, then it might be more worth your while to spend your time studying for this exam. As mentioned earlier, the results carry more weight than other entrance exams.

Having these scores will also give you the option to apply to any law school you want, not just the ones who are willing to accept the GRE.

Unlimited Retake Opportunities

Where other exams have restrictions on how often you can attempt the test, the LSAT has none. You can sign up for every available exam date for the entire year if you want to. You probably don't want to but it's nice to know you have that fallback

What's Bad About the LSAT?

Here are the main drawbacks of the LSAT:

Fewer Opportunities to Take the Exam

The LSAT is only offered on specific days during the year, whereas the GRE is offered all year round. Even though you can retake it, you can only retake it the next time it is being offered. If the next available date isn't until after your application is due, you're stuck with the scores you've got.

With proper planning, you can work around this. Design your schedule such that you have at least one additional opportunity to take the test if your first attempt doesn't go as well as planned.

A Bad LSAT Score Is Hard to Overcome

The flipside of the fact that the LSAT counts for so much of the decision is that a bad LSAT score will essentially exclude you from getting accepted. Even if the rest of your application is incredible, a weak LSAT is something most admissions officers won't be able to overlook.

Even if you retake the test and do better, law schools will see every single score, good and bad. Of course, a better score on your third try is better than not trying. But if it comes down to you and another candidate who got your best score on their first try, you might not make the cut. You don't have this same risk with the GRE.

Hard to Study

It's not as easy to prepare for this test as it is for other entrance exams, especially without help. While you can get an exceptional GRE score with largely self-guided studying, you will probably need some amount of formal tutoring or prep coursework to get a 165+ score on the LSAT.

This is because there aren't that many shortcuts or tricks you can use on test day. You just have to practice, practice, practice until the patterns of the different question types feel familiar to you.

Hard to Get a Perfect Score

Of course, you don't need a perfect 180. But the closer you can get, the better, right? On the LSAT, it's just about impossible. The nature of the questions on the test is just not conducive to getting 100% of the answers right.

You can't just memorize formulas like you would for math or learn a lot of Latin and Greek roots like you would for vocabulary tests. There are strategies you can apply to do really well on the LSAT, but only about 0.1% of test-takers get a perfect 180.

Getting into the "exceptional" score territory will require extensive studying, repeated practice tests in similar conditions, and a very methodical approach to your study sessions.

GRE Overview

several GRE study guides on a shelf

The Graduate Record Exam, or GRE, is designed to test a broader range of skills than the LSAT. You'll be tested on verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills. This broader exam is intended to provide an overview of your ability to succeed in a wide variety of programs, most commonly MBA or other advanced business degrees.

The test is broken into three sections, each with 2-4 subsections. Altogether, you'll have about 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete the entire test. The exam sections are as follows:

  • Verbal Reasoning (1 hour)
    • Reading Comprehension
    • Text Completion
    • Sentence Equivalence
  • Quantitative Reasoning (1 hour, 10 minutes)
    • Arithmetic
    • Algebra
    • Geometry
    • Data Analysis
  • Analytical Writing (1 hour)
    • Analyze an Issue Writing Task
    • Analyze an Argument Writing Task
  • One unidentified unscored section in either verbal or quantitative reasoning

You will receive scores for each of the three sections. The verbal and quantitative sections are scored on a scale of 130-170. The writing section is scored on a scale of 0-6. If you score below a 150 in verbal or quantitative reasoning or below a 3.5 in writing, you should consider retaking the test.

Scores between 150-160 are average. Scores between 160-165 are above average. 165+ are exceptional. For writing, a 3.5-4 is average. 4-5 is above average. 5+ is exceptional.

Depending on the program you apply for, some scores matter more than others. In STEM fields, for example, your quantitative score is much more important and will likely need to be in the exceptional range. Meanwhile, your verbal and writing scores can be average. In the humanities, the reverse is true.

For law schools that accept the GRE, the verbal reasoning and writing scores will be more important, but all scores will be considered.

Why Should I Take the GRE?

Here are some of the main benefits of choosing to take the GRE:

Accepted by a Wider Variety of Programs

If you're not 100% sure about law school yet, or you're interested in dual-degree programs and career paths that don't involve being a lawyer, the GRE might be a better option. It's a more versatile test that will allow you to apply to just about any program, with the exception of medicine.

Only Show Your Best Scores

The GRE allows you to preview your scores right after the exam is done. You'll see your verbal and quantitative scores. The writing section takes a couple of weeks because it has to be scored by a person.

Upon previewing your scores, you get to decide if you're happy with them before you send them on to the schools you're applying to. So, if you decide you want to retake it, you have the choice to only send the best scores to schools. They don't need to see your failed attempts or even how many times you took the exam. The LSAT doesn't give you this option.

Available Year Round

You can schedule your exam day for a date and time that works for you. You don't have to fit your plans around the limited dates offered like you do for the LSAT. The GRE is offered all year round and offered at a wider number of testing facilities.

Easier to Hit Your Target Score

While the LSAT is difficult to study for without outside help, you can likely reach your target GRE score with nothing more than a self-guided study program. Depending on how far your base score is from your target, it might take a long time and a lot of work but the process is much more straightforward.

What's Bad About the GRE?

Here are the main downsides to taking the GRE instead of the LSAT:

Not Accepted by All Law Schools

Every year more and more law schools decide to accept the GRE, but the list of schools that take the GRE is still fairly short. Check the law schools on your wish list. They will usually have clear guidelines about what scores they will and will not accept.

If there's no information on the website, call the admissions office. If only some of the law schools on your list accept the GRE, you have to make decisions about which schools are your top priority and how important it is for you to skip the LSAT.

Not as Influential on Admissions Decisions

You could get near-perfect scores on the GRE, and most law school admissions officers won't value it as much as they would an above-average LSAT score. That doesn't mean it's worthless. It just means that the rest of your application needs to be strong, too.

But if you do feel confident about the rest of your application and don't want the risk of a bad LSAT score weakening it, the GRE is a great alternative.

Limited Retake Opportunities

If you aren't happy with your results, you have to wait 21 days to schedule a retake. You are also limited to five attempts per year. That's probably more than enough to get the score you want. However, having that cap is an added pressure that you don't need for the already stressful process of applying to law school.

Can You Take the GRE instead of the LSAT?

In some cases, yes. More and more law schools are accepting the GRE instead of the LSAT. However, it's still far from the majority. So the answer to this question really depends on where you're applying and what your plans are.

In this section, we'll go over some of the specific cases where you definitely need the LSAT and cases where you definitely need the GRE.

When to Choose the LSAT

Here are some of the situations where it makes more sense to opt for the LSAT:

You Already Attempted the LSAT

If you've already taken the LSAT, those scores are going to be reported to the law schools you apply for. This is out of your control. Even if you decided afterward that you'd rather do the GRE and use that score, the law school will still see the LSAT scores.

So, if you've already taken it, it might be better to just commit to this path. If you're not happy with the scores you got, study and take it again. It would be more worthwhile to use your time to beat your previous LSAT score than to get a great GRE score.

Your Top Choice Schools Require It

This is an obvious reason. If your first-choice school only accepts the LSAT, then you need to take the LSAT. While other schools on your list might accept the GRE, you should always prepare your application based on the needs of your first-choice school. There isn't a single law school that will refuse the LSAT.

You Aren't Applying to Other Programs

If you're only applying to law schools, you might as well take the LSAT. Admissions officers are more familiar with that exam and have a better sense of how those scores reflect your likelihood of succeeding in law school. The GRE is still new territory, even for law schools that have decided to accept it.

When to Choose the GRE

Here are some of the most common reasons you might take the GRE instead of the LSAT:

You Aren't Sure What You Want to Do

If you're not sure about law school and you want to apply to a few different programs, the GRE will be more widely applicable. You'll be able to use it to apply to a wider range of programs. However, it will limit which specific law schools you can apply to.

This is the safer option to choose if you don't want to limit yourself to just law schools. It's also possible to take the LSAT later on, should you decide to. You can take the GRE now, while you're still unsure. Then, take the LSAT later if you see that your top choice requires it.

You Don't Think You'll Do Well on the LSAT

We don't just mean you're nervous. We mean you are positive you won't be able to get your LSAT score up to where it needs to be in time. If you took a practice test and got a pretty abysmal score and just felt totally lost through most of the exam, it's possible studying can help. However, if you don't want to risk it, take the GRE.

As mentioned earlier, once you take the LSAT, those scores will be shown to the law schools you apply to. So if you aren't confident you can get a respectable score or you'd rather not risk having to retake the test multiple times to get a good score, take the GRE instead.

You Have Less than 3 Months to Study

The recommended time it takes to properly prepare for the LSAT is between 150-300 hours. It's also recommended that you don't spend more than about 15 hours a week studying to avoid burnout. This isn't an exam you can really "cram" for in the usual sense. You need time for the strategies to absorb. That means you should spread that studying across 3-6 months.

The lower your practice scores were, the more months you need to spend studying.

Meanwhile, the recommended time to properly prepare for the GRE is between 40-120 hours. Cramming is possible on this exam because memorizing mathematic formulas and word definitions will go a long way toward helping you get a great score. So you can fully prepare for this exam in 1-3 months.

If you don't have at least three months to prepare for an exam, choose the GRE. You can do much better with much less time.

Final Words

Choosing between the LSAT and the GRE is a very personal decision that comes down to what your plans for the future involve and where your individual strengths lie. If you're still unsure, taking a full-length practice test of both exams will help give you a better sense of which option might make the most sense for you.