This is an introductory post for those wondering, “what does it take to get to law school?” At one time or another most people picture themselves in a lawyers shoes and wonder how they’d fit. However, if you want to be a lawyer, you’ll have to attend law school first. Here we break down what law schools are looking for in potential students.
So what does it take? Boiled down to one sentence, here’s what most law schools will tell you:
We are looking for smart, motivated individuals who have demonstrated an ability to perform on tasks similar to those required of you in law school.
That’s only part of the story however. You may have heard that law school admissions is purely a numbers game. What does that mean? Please don’t shoot the messenger- what I’m about to tell you might be considered a harsh truth:
Law schools mostly care about two numbers: your LSAT and your undergrad GPA.
Why is it this way? For those of you new to the subject of law schools admissions, law schools are ranked each year by the US News And World Report (current rankings are here). Law schools care deeply about these rankings, and for very good reason: law school applicants read the rankings and make decisions on where to go to law school based on them.
In order to rank the law schools, US News relies on a methodology that places a lot of weight on selectivity. US News measures selectivity by the LSAT scores and undergraduate GPA numbers of each year’s incoming class at each school. This ends up affecting how law schools pick students in a big way: if law schools want to do well in the rankings, they have a heavy incentive to admit law students with the best numbers (well, more accurately, students with the best numbers who they think they can get to come to their school).
The degree to which law schools care about these two numbers really can’t be overstated. With the exception of the top five or so law schools (Yale, Harvard, Stanford, U Chicago, and Columbia), your GPA and LSAT alone can generally predict where you will or won’t get in to about 90% or more of the time. Basically, law schools are looking for students with good numbers. The right LSAT and GPA numbers are what it takes to get into to law school.
So what do law schools REALLY mean when they say, “We are looking for smart, motivated individuals who can demonstrate an ability to perform on tasks similar to those required of you in law school.” What they mean is: “We are looking for smart motivated individuals (as evinced by your LSAT and GPA) who can demonstrate an ability to perform on tasks similar to those required in law school (by scoring well on the LSAT).” It’s a numbers game.
Now that’s obviously not the full story. If you are a career criminal, then you aren’t getting in to law school regardless of whether your not you were a good student who destroyed the LSAT. However, don’t do well in undergrad and don’t do well on the LSAT, and you don’t have much of a shot at getting in to law school even if you are otherwise a great person.
I know this is a harsh reality. Let’s look at two individuals who both want to go to the same school, NYU law. Here they are:
Person A: 174 LSAT, 3.86 undergrad GPA. Bio: Plays video games all day. Never got involved in any sports, volunteering or anything really. Has a steady job, but did not really do much to distinguish himself in his work yet.
Person B: 165 LSAT, 3.4 GPA. Bio: Played D1 Soccer in school. Energetic volunteer who founded a charity. Has done stellar at his job at an overseas NGO.
This might surprise people, but Person A is in a MUCH better position to get into NYU law than Person B. Why? Because his numbers are better.
Now is NYU (or any other law school for that matter) horrible for having this preference scheme? Maybe. But before you judge them, there is another reason that law schools care so much about numbers: good numbers really do indicate an ability to succeed in law school. Taken the together, GPA and LSAT are the best indicators law schools have as to whether you will do well in law school.
The LSAT taken alone is actually the best single predictor BY FAR of how you’ll perform 1L year (the year that really counts). This goes a long way to explaining why the LSAT is so important to law school admissions. Added to that, the LSAT is arguably fair and objective. A 4.0 from School A might mean something a lot different than a 4.0 from School B. The LSAT is the only factor law schools judge you on that is the same for everyone, which helps level the playing field.
Why Numbers Aren’t Everything
Luckily or not, number aren’t everything. Here is why:
Firstly, law schools are ranked based on the median LSAT and UGPA (undergrad GPA) of their law students. They can and do take students with numbers below the median they are shooting for so long as it won’t move the median down below the highest they think they can get with the available applicant pool. When it won’t affect median numbers, they take the law students they like the most, deciding based on everything in your application.
Also, law schools sometimes have more applicants with the numbers they want than they can accept (this is certainly less often the case with applications falling as they are in recent years). In this situation, they look to factors other than the numbers to decide between applicants. This is a central feature of admissions at top law schools. Everyone with great numbers wants to go to Yale, but only 200 or so of them can get in. To make decisions, Yale has to look to so called ‘soft factors,’ which is admissions lingo for anything other than your LSAT/GPA.
Also, law schools have to like you and think that you’ll do well at their school before they let you in. Say you have a good GPA but it isn’t from a great school. Also, it appears that you have been fired from several jobs since leaving college. Even with good numbers, you might have a tough time convincing schools to let you in.
By contrast, someone who has started a successful business, been a Rhodes Scholar, or written a well-received novel has definitely indicated that they are the type likely to to succeed in any endeavor. Law schools might be inclined to overlook a lower LSAT score in order to let them in.
For more on this, check out our post discussing law school soft factors.
What Should You Do To Play The Numbers Game?
Well first, consider if being a lawyer is right for you. If your numbers are low, you are going to struggle getting into an advantageous position. Entry level legal jobs are assigned in significant part on the strength of the school you went to. It was never a good idea to go to a low ranked law school while taking on a lot of debt to do so. It’s even less of a good idea now with the legal economy flagging.
If you are still in undergrad, scrape, claw and bite for every GPA point you can get. It can make a difference. Generally speaking GPA is only half so important as your LSAT score, but it’s still the second most important factor.
The LSAT is really what’s going to make or break you. Get a really great 170+ LSAT score and even the top law schools may be willing to overlook a low GPA. If you are on the quest for the golden LSAT score, here is where you should start: How I Got A 177 On The LSAT Through Self-Study.
Read that and then study with a rigorous LSAT prep schedule and you will be well on your way to maximizing your potential on the LSAT.
We are here to help so ask anything LSAT or law school related in the comments. Comments can be anonymous if you wish so ask away!
I’m currently in my first year of undergrad and I’m considering Law School after obtaining my degree. Should I begin LSAT prep even though it will be at least 3-4 years till I take it?
Thank you so much!
This is more of a LSAT prep question, I’ve been finding it very difficult to prep for the LSATs along with my undergrad classes… I’ve started prepping around early September thinking I was going to take it December.. I’ve bought materials, did a diagnostic , and attempted a prep schedule.. But I found it very hard to stay on track of that schedule while taking classes full-time I have decided to take it in Feburary because I have Winter break.. Is it possible to put a heavy amount of LSAT prep into about 2.5-3 weeks? I’ve also heard that taking time off from work or school completely to study for the LSATs isn’t neccesarily a good thing either.. Thought?
The LSAT really isn’t the sort of thing that you can prep for in 2-3 weeks. I do think that 2-3 weeks of heavy prep (e.g, 30+ hours per week) at the end of your prep can be a powerful way to finish strong and help you reach peak performance levels as test day approaches, but that heavy sprint to the finish isn’t going to get you too far unless you’ve already laid the groundwork in the preceding months.
Anecdotally, I have heard from students who have done quite well using the 30-day cram schedule that I outline in this post. However, I want to make it clear that I wrote that schedule in response to a question from a student who had already been prepping for some time & wanted some tips on how to ramp things up during the final stretch.
You certainly don’t have to take time off from school/work, but you do need to make LSAT prep a priority during the 3-4 months before taking the exam if you want to realize your full potential on the exam.
I got a No Pass my freshman year of college in a 2 unit seminar class. So instead of my GPA being near the 75th percentile of the school I want to get into I am now near the median. How will this affect the way law schools view my GPA? Will I be seen as better than other students with a similar GPA because the drop was caused by one class my freshman year or will it hurt me because I was too dumb to just show up to class and get a pass? What can I do to help myself in the admissions process?
Attach an addendum explaining the situation as best you can and you might be a little better off. However, law schools mainly just look at the number because it’s so important for their rankings. It’s likely that they won’t judge you too harshly. You’ll probably be viewed as a slightly stronger applicant than someone who earned that GPA without a No Pass.