The Old College Try

It's more difficult than ever to get accepted to a top college; those applying now have likely dedicated their high school years to this very moment. Here's how to give it your best shot without losing sight of broader life goals.

Do Standardized Tests Predict Your Future Success?

Standardized tests figure widely in admissions, but what do they predict?

A new season of standardized testing is underway, with thousands of students taking SAT's, GRE's, GMAT's, and LSAT's in the hopes of landing a spot at a prestigious school.

Two things to consider. First, gender and racial gaps continue to plague these tests. Second, many schools strongly emphasize these scores in their admissions processes, particularly when the applicant pools are large and staff reviewers are few. This means that if you're a woman or a minority student, you're immediately at a disadvantage in gaining access to these schools.

Given that institutions of higher education are essentially the gateways to professional training and jobs, the impact of these testing gaps reverberates far within society. Employers often call for greater diversity in their law offices, their hospitals, their universities, and their startups (see, for example, this recent article in CNN). However, to really address racial and gender inequality in the workplace, employers need to look at the factors that lead to homogenous applicant pools in the first place, and a good place to start is standardized testing.

This is precisely what two of my colleagues at Berkeley have done in a recent article published in Law & Social Inquiry (Shultz and Zedeck, 2011). The LSAT, they note, does a good job of predicting grades at the end of the first year of law school. The further out one goes into the profession, however, the more poorly the LSAT does in predicting what really counts:Effectiveness as a lawyer. Stated another way, one of the main criteria that is used to admit—and reject!—people into law school is not a particularly good criterion for deciding whether you'd actually want to have a given lawyer representing you in a court of law.

Shultz and Zedeck conducted extensive interviews among law school alumni, clients, students, faculty, and judges to arrive at a set of 26 qualities of effective lawyers. Among these qualities are things you'd expect such as "analysis and reasoning," but also things that might not seem as immediately obvious such as "able to see the world through the eyes of others" and "developing relationships within the legal profession." And, as it turns out, the LSAT predicts very few of these qualities, suggesting that the gateways to the profession are holding some people back that they should be welcoming with open arms.

OK, but who?

This is the question Shultz and Zedeck addressed in the second phase of their study. They developed an alternative battery of measures that correlated with a majority of these effectiveness factors. The battery includes questions about what one should do in critical ethical situations that lawyers can face (e.g., "what would you do if you caught a colleague photocopying confidential information from the company files?"), biographical and experiential factors (e.g., how much a person finds new, creative ways of doing things that others don't think of), and even dispositional factors such as optimism! What's better, the battery items showed very few differences as a function of race or gender, which matches the observation that lawyer effectiveness, in fact, does not differ as a function of these group differences. 

Shultz and Zedeck's work is potentially revolutionary in that it provides a well researched, viable alternative to law school admission criteria in a field that often calls for change but has lacked concrete solutions. Already a few law programs are using Shultz and Zedeck's findings for reform. Next up, I hope: Engineering schools, medical schools, graduate schools, maybe even college.

Now if someone put on a bake sale to support that effort, I'd happily break my diet and buy a whole batch!

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.

The Old College Try