Why Law Schools Love (Well, Like) “Splitters”

For you statistics junkies (and any other prospective law school students), the relative frequency of “splitters” in law school is notable.  “Splitters” is a term that describes students who either (1) have a high gpa and low LSAT score, or (2) have a high LSAT score and low gpa.   Why do we see such a high frequency of “splitters” in law school?   It isn’t the norm, after all – generally speaking, there is a positive correlation between high grades and high LSAT scores (although lots of exceptions occur).

To understand why law schools may like “splitters,” consider things from a law school’s perspective.  There are a couple key stats that law schools care about.  The first one is the AVERAGE (mean) gpa and LSAT score of their student body.  Law schools like those averages as high as possible –  among other things, it helps their rankings. Although that statistic is important to law schools, it does not help explain the frequency of “splitters.”

To understand the value of “splitters” to a law school, one must consider another statistic that law schools also care about:  the percentage of students in its class that  are above/below a median “cumulative undergraduate gpa” and above/below a median LSAT score (often seen as the 25th/75th percentile stats).

For example, a law school’s 25th percentile LSAT score (meaning only 25 percent are at or below that score) may be 155, and its 75th percentile score (meaning only 25 percent are at or above that score) may be 160.  The remaining 50 percent of students, for purposes of this hypothetical, would have a LSAT score between a 155 and a 160.

Each law school wants those 25/75 numbers to be as high as possible.  Let’s assume for the sake of argument that, for a particular law school, the 25th/75th percentile gpa is 3.1/3.5 and the 25th/75th percentile LSAT score is 155/160.  They want those numbers to go higher, and they want to avoid those numbers going lower.

Note that for purposes of this 25/75 statistic (unlike the AVERAGE gpa and LSAT score), how MUCH one is above a 3.5 gpa (or below a 3.1 gpa), or how MUCH one is above a 160 LSAT score (or below a 155 LSAT score) is irrelevant.  All that matters is whether a student is above or below those numbers.

In this example, the law school would like to have applicants above both a 3.5 gpa and a 160 LSAT score. However, the law school also knows that those applicants will be in very high demand, and (depending upon that law school’s ranking) they may not get many of them.

So, what does our hypothetical law school do with the rest of the applicants?  It looks for the next best thing – an applicant who is above the median for ONE of the two criteria (i.e., above the median gpa OR above the median LSAT score).

To see how this plays out, imagine two hypothetical students applying to this law school.  Student 1 has a 161 LSAT score and a 2.0 cumulative gpa.  Student 2 has a 154 LSAT score and a 3.0 gpa.  For purposes of the above/below (25/75) statistic, Student 1 is much more valuable to a law school than Student 2.  That is true even though, objectively, Student 2 might appear to be at least as strong an applicant as Student 1.

Why might law schools prefer Student 1 over Student 2?  Because Student 1 falls in the “above” category in one of the two criteria (LSAT score), whereas Student 2 falls in the “below” category in both.  In other words, Student 1 is above both the 25th and 75th percentile for LSAT scores (and below both for gpa); Student 2 is (barely) below the 25th and 75th percentile for both LSAT score and gpa.  Note that Student 1 is a “splitter,” Student 2 is not.

And there you have it – an explanation for the frequency of “splitters”:  by at least one measure, a “splitter” is more useful to a law school, economically (or statistically) speaking, than a student  who fell just below the 25th percentiles in both categories.

Finally, this is not to suggest that law schools necessarily would prefer Student 1 over Student 2 in the above hypothetical.  There are a lot of other factors going on.  But by one measure, the 25th/75th percentile statistic, Student 1 (the “splitter”) is going to be more valuable.

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