LSAT, GAMSAT, UMAT: Are They All That?

17 July 2018

LSAT, GAMSAT and UMAT—you’ve probably heard them thrown around in worried sighs by future lawyers and doctors stressing over the tests that will decide their fate. But what are these tests actually measuring, and is their cost justified? Are they a legitimate filter ensuring the best suited applicants get into their course of choice, or a barrier preventing poorer students from aspiring to a career in law or medicine?

So let’s meet this trio of tests that each seek to offer a standardised measurement of student aptitude in the fields of law and medicine.

You might remember the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), from Legally Blonde’s gem of a montage where Elle Woods studies her pink heart out to get into Harvard Law. The half-day test is run globally six times a year and is administered by the not-for-profit Law School Admission Council (LSAC). The test, which consists of a series of logical reasoning sections, reading comprehension exercises and logic games, is used internationally to identify students with an aptitude for law. At the University of Melbourne, LSAT results are used alongside tertiary academic records to apply for the Melbourne Juris Doctor. The cost of sitting the LSAT in 2018-2019 is approximately $257. The Melbourne Law School offers fee waivers for students recognised as Indigenous Australians, and for those experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage.

Then there are the two tests used as predictors of a student’s suitability for medicine; the Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test (UMAT) and the Graduate Australian Medical School Admissions Test (GAMSAT). These test results are used in conjunction with previous academic results and interviews to apply for medicine. The two tests are coordinated by the independent, not-for-profit Australian Council for Educational Research. The UMAT seeks to assess student’s logical reasoning, problem solving and emotional intelligence, while the GAMSAT seeks to assess students’ proficiency in biology, physics, maths and writing. The price of
sitting the UMAT in 2018-2019 is approximately $260, and the cost of sitting the GAMSAT is $505. Concession card holders are eligible for a reduced fee of $160 for the UMAT, though no similar discounts apply for the GAMSAT.

So how do students feel about these important tests? Nidhushie Tilak-Ramesh, a resident doctor at Bendigo Health, was critical of the suitability and cost of the UMAT.

“I am still yet to see the correlation between the UMAT and medicine, I think the other requirements to get into medicine are reasonable, the interview and ATAR, but the UMAT is a really random exam and sometimes I feel like it’s luck more than skill,” she said.

Like others Farrago interviewed, Tilak-Ramesh references the “steep” cost of the test, particularly for the UMAT’s typically high-school aged clients. “I feel the UMAT company and companies like MedEntry feel like they can charge as much as they want because they know students will pay, I almost feel like they take advantage of vulnerable students who will do anything to get into medicine.”

Anusha Jayasekera, a resident doctor in Gippsland, echoed this view. “I understand that there are costs associated with running the test, however it makes me a bit uncomfortable that if you don’t have the money you automatically lose your chance to study a number of health courses, when finance has nothing to do with capability.”

Jayasekera also had some qualms about how well the test assessed capability. “I know people who scored really well that are not necessarily great clinicians, but also a lot of fabulous doctors who scored quite poorly.”

She finds issue with the common assumption that because the UMAT cannot be practiced for, it is thus an accurate measurement of natural talent, claiming that it’s “absolutely not true.”

“My scores for section three would have probably inhibited my entry to medicine if I hadn’t been able to get extra tutoring,
this puts people who can’t afford extra help at a significant disadvantage.”

Shashank Murali, a third-year medical student with experience in both the UMAT and GAMSAT, claimed that the UMAT doesn’t accurately identify those capable of succeeding in medicine at all, and questioned the need for the test given that the ATAR already serves as a strong indicator of student ability. “I feel like getting a good year 12 score must show some sort of intellect in both comprehension and logical thinking,” Murali said.

Murali added that some universities placed too much emphasis on the UMAT in their application processes, potentially screening out highly suitable candidates. He cited an example where, in the past, Adelaide University wouldn’t look at the ATAR unless you received a UMAT score of above 80, meaning that, based purely on a low UMAT score, a candidate with an exceptional ATAR and emotional intelligence would have been overlooked. “They use, or at least they used to use, the UMAT as a screening which I think is really unreasonable, as it is just one three hour test.”

Student experience with the LSAT seems to be generally more positive.

Katrina Bell, a first year law student, felt the test was a good measure of aptitude, though expressed some reservations around its cost. “I think the test allows students to demonstrate some skills that are really important to law school. While there’s obviously not going to be an ideal way to identify who’s going to be the best lawyer, I would say that these are all pretty crucial skills in law.”

“I do think it was a little expensive, but I am also aware that it was possible to get a fee waiver for those on Centrelink,” Bell

Fortunately, the amount of free resources made available to students online are increasing. For example, LSAC is collaborating with the online platform Khan Academy to provide free LSAT preparation from 1 June.

Nevertheless, the whole process remains expensive, with most students confronted with steep costs that only the better-off are able to easily afford.

So, how are professionals justifying these high fees?

Dr Edward Boyapati, the founder of UMAT preparation course MedEntry, explained that the fee charged to sit the test
is necessary to maintain quality.

“Writing questions for high stakes tests such as UMAT is an exercise which requires extensive expertise and is very expensive. For example, each question may cost $2500 each, so ACER has to recoup those costs,” Dr Boyapati explained.

Dr Boyapati further noted that test fees were low in comparison with university subject costs. “Considering what universities charge for their courses, both the costs of the test and the preparation for the test are minuscule, when you consider that these skills tested are invaluable.”

Wendy Margolis, the senior director of executive communications and public affairs of LSAC, had similar things to say about the comparative expense and worth of the LSAT.

“It is a very high quality assessment tool and there are many steps involved in preparing the questions, making sure they meet LSAC’s high quality standards, and making sure that the test accurately measures the skills it is designed to measure,” Margolis said.

Dave Killoran, CEO of PowerScore and author of LSAT Bibles, said, “I’ve always felt the fees were overly high, and LSAC has built up a hefty reserve of assets over the years. Theynow have tens of millions of dollars USD in assets, so clearly they are making more than they spend.”

Killoran however acknowledged that the LSAT was useful in predicting success in law school, and noted that, “Fortunately,LSAC spends quite a bit of time assessing the value of the test.”

Associate Professor Anna Chapman, associate dean at Melbourne Law School, agreed that the test was an accurate tool, asserting that,

“We know the LSAT, in combination with grade point average, is the best predictor for success, we have done the research exploring what best predicts success and it is the combination of our selection instruments.”

She went on to add that the University had a strong commitment to maintaining accessibility. “When Melbourne Law School introduced the LSAT as part of our admissions process, we held a number of conversations with LSAC on the need for accessibility and we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that the policy of a fee waiver continues for those in need.”

While fee waivers and discounts are positive steps, the question remains as to whether students should have to foot the bill for these expensive assessments at all. If we truly value these courses and the careers they lead to, perhaps the costs for entrance should be taken up by governments and universities whose financial position is far superior to that of the average student applicant.

Unfortunately, for now most students will continue to have to pay these test fees. So, for the future doctors and lawyers out there: if price is proving a barrier to applying for your dream course, get in contact with your prospective schools, see what discounts and waivers are offered, and make the most of free university and online resources.

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