Law School Admission
A. How do law schools decide whom to admit? The way law schools decide whom to admit is not a mystery. There are variations that make each law school’s admissions process unique, but there also are common practices that make it possible to describe law school admissions generally.
The process begins with the school’s decision about the size of the first-year class. If a law school decides it wants 500 first-year students, it must admit many more than 500 in order to achieve that entering class target because not all of those who are admitted will actually enroll. The best law schools receive many more applications than seats available in their first-year class. All law schools must decide how to select the best students from among the typically thousands of applicants. The problem is complicated by the fact that people who want to attend law school listen to their pre-law advisors who tell them to apply to several law schools, and strong candidates are typically admitted to several law schools. Therefore, a law school cannot assume that admitting 500 students will yield a first-year class of 500 students.
Most law schools have admissions policies that assign each applicant a score that is comprised of both objective indicators (i.e., LSAT score and GPA) and subjective indicators. The subjective indicators include professional or other experiences; letters of recommendation; personal statement; legacy admissions; geography, because national law schools want students from across the country rather than just the state or local region; parents who contribute money for a new building; and perhaps racial or ethnic diversity, although the way these factors are considered has been challenged as unconstitutional and their use is now more limited. The score makes it possible to compare applicants, rank them, and admit the strongest students.
Although admission to law school is generally competitive, and admission to very good law schools is highly competitive, it is fairly easy to be admitted to some law schools and very difficult to be admitted to others. Some schools accept applicants with fairly low grade point averages and LSAT scores, or are willing to accept applicants with problematic or unusual records—but rely on attrition to “weed out” the weaker students. These schools tend to have higher drop out rates. The data on law school retention rates, which are reported in the ABA/LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools, provide valuable insights on a law school’s academic culture and grading standards.
Law school admissions committees also try to accept applicants who will perform well in law school. Committee members typically recommend accepting only those applicants whom they feel will succeed in law school. They base these recommendations on information in the law school application file such as LSAT scores, GPA, letters of recommendation, and personal statements.
B. The Law School Admission Test score. How do law schools use the LSAT? Law School admissions committees rely heavily on the LSAT. First, the LSAT is a required, standardized test. It avoids the apples and oranges problem of comparing applicant GPAs from different majors and different universities. The LSAT score also is more objective than subjective evaluations such as letters of recommendation. Scores on the LSAT range from a low of 120 to a high of 180. In other words, a person can take the LSAT and get all the questions wrong, but still receive a score of 120; and a person getting all the questions right receives a 180. The median is around 152, which means that about half who took the test scored higher and half who took the test scored lower. Because an individual’s score is interpreted as relative to all others who have taken the test, the LSAT is a valuable comparative score. The LSAT score is at least in theory a uniform measure. This makes it easier for an admissions officer to compare all the applicants with each other.
Law schools rely heavily on LSAT scores as predictors of success in law school. In recent years there has been a movement to develop admissions decision models or indices that rely less on the LSAT score, but the LSAT score remains an extremely important factor in deciding whether to admit an applicant. The Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools includes tables and other data on each law school’s admission practices. The following table shows the admission percentages for applicants with grade point averages above 3.5, the most promising applicants in terms of their academic performance in college, who applied to the University of Florida College of Law in 2002-2003 Academic Year:
These numbers show how important the LSAT is at the University of Florida. These numbers vary at other law schools. Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center reports that applicants with GPAs 3.50 and above, with an LSAT score 150 and above, had a “good possibility” of being admitted in 2002-2003. For full-time students, 605 of 1624 applicants were admitted (37%). The 25th percentile GPA was 2.70 and the 75th percentile GPA was 3.32; the 25th percentile LSAT was 146 and the 75th percentile LSAT was 152. These comparisons of the University of Florida and Nova reveal considerable variation in admission standards.
Nationally, about 55 to 60 percent of law school applicants are accepted at one or more schools, and about 40 percent are not admitted anywhere. Earning a high GPA is not enough to guarantee admission to law school. Boosting a GPA by taking easy courses is not necessarily a good strategy because students with a GPA above 3.5 who don’t do well on the LSAT have a small chance of admission to a competitive law school.
Nationally, half of those who take the LSAT receive a score of 152 or higher. While 12 points below 152 does not seem like much of a difference from the national average, the important comparison is between percentiles. An LSAT score of 140 is about the 18th percentile. In other words, approximately 82 percent of all people taking the test around the country do better than 140.
C. The grade point average. One way to predict academic success in law school is to look at past academic performance, as measured by undergraduate grade point averages. The Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS) provides law schools with information about an applicant’s grade point average: the overall GPA, GPA from each institution attended, GPA in the major, and trends in the GPA. Admissions committees assume that a person’s past academic performance predicts future performance, but they carefully consider the context of the GPA.
- GPA is not the only consideration. It would be simple for an admissions committee to admit the applicants with the highest grade point averages, starting with the top (4.0 or 5.0 depending on the grading scale) and then working down the list until the desired number of applicants is admitted. But ranking by GPA is problematic because it compares apples and oranges. The applicants may have attended a total of 300 different colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. The schools have different grading scales. The different grading scales could be converted to a single, four-point scale (A=4; B=3; C=2; D=1; F=0), but the mathematical conversion would not mean that a 4.0 GPA earned at one school represents the same level of academic achievement as a 4.0 earned at another school. One school may have very high academic standards, another school may have middling standards, and yet another school may have low academic standards.
- GPA related to academic major. Some majors are believed to be harder than others. A law school applicant who earned a 3.0 GPA in a very challenging major (e.g., physics) is not being treated the same as an applicant who received a 3.0 GPA in a major that is not believed to be very challenging. Some undergraduate majors have limited admission, which means that a higher GPA is required for admission to the program, but then higher grades are given in courses. Graduate grade distributions are not like undergraduate grade distributions. The GPA does not take these comparative qualitative differences into account.
- Grade inflation. The problem of grade inflation has made it more difficult to use grades as a way to differentiate among students, to discriminate between those applicants who are likely to succeed in law school, and those who are likely to fail. If many undergraduate students are receiving A grades, or if most students are receiving A or B grades, and only a few students are receiving C, D, and F grades, then the effective grade range—the actual distribution of grades—will be so narrow that a law school admissions committee cannot use GPA to predict success in law school. This means that they will rely more on the LSAT.
- Gaming the GPA. Pre-law students have a reputation for being grade-conscious students. But you need to think carefully about some of the familiar strategies for getting or maintaining a high GPA.
One strategy is to take easy courses in an easy major. Avoiding hard courses is risky business because following an easy course of study—the proverbial basket weaving—will probably leave you unprepared for the intellectual challenge of the LSAT. It is a “pay me now or pay me later” situation: you can pay for a high GPA with a low LSAT score, which is not a bargain.
A second strategy is to keep a good GPA high by withdrawing from the courses in which you are not doing very well. This strategy can be costly if you accumulate a large number of withdrawals on your transcript. A law school admissions committee member may interpret the withdrawals as course shopping or an inability to finish what you start. If you are failing a course, by all means withdraw from it, but do not overuse this option. And it is important to remember that while your university may have a “repeat course” policy (where you can repeat a failed course and the F-grade is forgiven), the LSDAS does not recognize such policies. Finally, it is not a good idea to register for lots of Pass/Fail courses because a pass grade is not included in the GPA.
- Keep your eyes on the prize. Do not fixate on good grades. A single-minded focus on grades is not a good strategy because it can cause you to lose sight of the fact that the best strategy for getting into law school is to perform well on the LSAT.
D. Letters of recommendation. In order for a letter of recommendation to have an impact, it must refer to specific skills, abilities, strengths and weaknesses, or other factors that are relevant to the decision whether to admit an applicant. However, the admission process is moving toward standardized form letters that are assembled by the LSDAS and sent to law schools.
It is a good idea to get letters of recommendation from people who can assess different aspects of your qualifications: a teacher can comment on academic qualifications; an employer can comment on professional performance, which is particularly relevant if the work record includes skills that are related to the study or practice of law, or professional skills that are transferable to various settings; a community leader can comment on citizenship, character, or commitment to public service.
Law schools are emphasizing character and values and civic commitment; therefore a letter that comments on these can be useful in differentiating students with similar objective qualifications (i.e., GPA and LSAT). Letters of recommendation provide qualitative assessments of a variety of indicators of intellectual abilities, academic performance, and even the character attributes (i.e., discipline, oral and written communication skills, ability to work well with others) that law school admissions committees consider relevant to predicting success in law school as well as the legal profession. Thoughtful and detailed letters of recommendation can carry some weight in the admissions process but, as so many letters of recommendation are enthusiastic and positive, it is difficult for them to make much difference in the decision.
E. The personal statement. There are two general approaches to writing a personal statement. The first is to treat it like a job interview and explain why you should be admitted. The second approach is to use the personal statement to say something about yourself that is not readily available in the other parts of the application file or to clarify something about yourself or your record that needs explaining (e.g., a poor grade, a poor semester, a discrepancy between the GPA and the LSAT score). Like letters of recommendation, personal statements can provide interesting information that may not be available elsewhere in an application file. But personal statements are, by their very nature, advocacy briefs on behalf of the author, and therefore not likely to provide the kind of information needed to guarantee that the person will indeed be the best law student or a valuable addition to the student body. In order to be confident that the admissions decision is based on the best available information, committee members will place their emphasis on other items included in the admissions file.
Do not spend too much time worrying about the personal statement. There is no single “best” personal statement; effective personal statements vary greatly stylistically and substantively. An effective personal statement is one that, first of all, demonstrates that the author can handle the language, and clearly and succinctly communicate ideas. The personal statement is not a place to convince a law school admissions committee member that you know legal terminology. Do not sprinkle the personal statement with Latin legal phrases that are intended to impress. It is best not to use the personal statement to display creative writing skills because the legal profession values descriptive, expository, logical writing that clearly communicates the main ideas that you want to communicate. Concise writing is preferable to long-winded essays. The readers are pressed for time, so keep the statement to approximately two pages.
FAU, like many other schools, has many part-time students who work while attending school. Applicants are tempted to write a generic “I worked therefore I did not do very well in school” personal statement. This is not particularly helpful because so many law school applicants can make this claim, and it can make the writer sound like a victim, which generally is a mistake in a personal statement. Do not make “I had to work” the main point of the personal statement unless there are exceptional circumstances. The need to work can be mentioned but don’t expect it to open the law school door. In general, the larger the law school the more bureaucratic the admissions process and the more likely that admission decisions will be determined by objective factors such as the LSAT and GPA rather than subjective factors such as a personal statement.