What Your Credentials Tell Law School Admissions Committees
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Although even candidates with less than stellar credentials can market themselves effectively—by tweaking essays, getting recommenders to write favorably about them, and interviewing well—you will make the application process easier on yourself if you start out with strong credentials. Let us examine each category of credentials to show you how best to shape your profile.
Your credentials include the following four items:
Your academic record
Your performance on the LSAT (and the TOEFL, for international applicants)
Your work experience
Your extracurricular, personal, and community activities
The Academic Record
What Are Admissions Committees Looking For?
Your academic record refers not just to the grades you received in college, but also to the quality of your university and the substance of the classes you took. Some law schools rely mostly on the index number (computed using your undergraduate grade-point average and your LSAT score) when looking at your academic credentials, without considering that a GPA can mean many different things depending upon where it was earned and what types of classes were followed.
Most top law schools, however, do indeed take a closer look at your record, considering your college grades in the true context in which they were earned. Admissions officers are accustomed to examining undergraduate transcripts with a practiced eye. A given grade-point average is more impressive if achieved at a top school in demanding courses, with the better grades received in the junior and senior years. A candidate with high grades in introductory courses and low grades in more advanced courses will be considered less favorably. Similarly, high grades earned at a college (even a top one) notorious for grade inflation will mean less than outstanding marks at a college known for its rigorous grading patterns.
It does not particularly matter what you major in at college. Law schools welcome all undergraduate majors, although there are a few that are most prevalent among accepted law school students. Columbia, for example, states that among recently enrolled students "25 percent have backgrounds in political science, 15 percent in history, 15 percent in economics, 13 percent in literature, 10 percent in pure sciences and engineering, and about 6 percent in philosophy."
It is always a good idea to take undergraduate classes that will provide you with substantive knowledge for use in a future law field. If you intend to practice family law, for example, classes in psychology as well as those in tax and finance will help you down the road. For those planning to practice environmental law, classes in the life sciences and economics are helpful; for commercial litigation or securities law, knowledge of accounting, statistics, finance, and corporate strategy is particularly useful. All future lawyers can benefit from courses that develop writing, research, negotiation, analysis, and public speaking skills.
Perhaps more important than the substance of your classes is that you excel at whatever academic endeavors you pursue. Quality work and serious involvement are the most important things to demonstrate in your university studies. It is best if you also evidence interest in your studies by taking extra courses in your major or in complementary fields, as well as writing a thesis.
The ideal undergraduate record would thus exhibit all of the following:
Top grades throughout, but especially in the junior and senior years
Courses developing useful substantive knowledge for your future legal field
Courses requiring exceptional writing ability, good research skills, and analytical prowess
How Important Is It?
Admissions officers view your undergraduate record as a key indicator of your intellectual ability and your willingness to work hard. The less work experience you have, the more important your college record will be. A strong undergraduate record earned at a leading university will demonstrate that you can make it through law school, especially if you have had a mixture of political science (or other theoretical) classes and courses demanding substantial amounts of writing. Law schools want people who can cover and quickly absorb an immense amount of material, write well, and are motivated to learn.
Improving Your Undergraduate Record after the Fact
If you have already graduated and do not possess a sterling record, is it too late for you to do something to help your candidacy? Not necessarily. You may not be able to do anything about the grades you got as an undergraduate, but you can always take courses (at night or on weekends, presumably) to provide another set of grades—more recent and potentially more reflective of your current ability—for law schools to consider. Admissions officers call this "building an alternative transcript." Note that there is no unanimity on the effectiveness of this strategy. Some schools will allow positive results from alternative classes to turn an otherwise questionable record into a favorable one; other schools, however, are more reticent to let new grades wipe out the sting of past errors. Check with individual law schools to determine how they regard a second set of grades.
Those schools that are willing to overlook past performances when a new and better transcript is provided will need help in doing so. Although the law schools are capable of interpreting the meaning of good grades received in courses at a well-known, demanding graduate-degree program, they may not know how to interpret your record in coursework from lesser-known programs. Be sure to do all you can to help them understand what your new record means (assuming, of course, that you have performed well in a highly-regarded program). For example, relate to the admissions committees what it takes to get into the program, the program's ranking or standing in its field, the average grades achieved in the program compared with your own grades, or even the average grades achieved course by course, if that helps to show that your record has been superb.
Law schools will value your efforts more highly if you take a series of courses showing in-depth investigation of a subject. Merely sampling a few classes here and there is not as likely to help you in your efforts to redeem an earlier weak undergraduate record. Furthermore, you should try to remedy the specific weaknesses in your original record. For example, if you have not taken any writing or writing-intensive classes, for example (or received poor grades in such classes), you should take expository writing or a writing-intensive course at a local community college or continuing education division of a nearby university. To achieve the maximum possible benefit from these courses, you will have to receive excellent grades in them. Getting mediocre marks may show that you are interested in improving your background, but will arouse serious questions about your ability to do outstanding work in a competitive law program.
Law schools will want to look at the results of any graduate-degree work you have completed. Serious, well-done graduate work in a Master's or other program, especially if completed in a top discipline at a top university, will always work in your favor. Remember, however, that graduate-level grades are not factored into the index number. Furthermore, admissions officers know that the grading in many graduate programs is somewhat lenient, with nearly all students receiving grades higher than a C.
Although graduate-level grades are not necessarily factored as heavily into the admissions decision as undergraduate marks are, they can still be helpful to your case, especially if earned in a competitive, well-known program. Be sure to do all you can to aid admissions committees in interpreting your marks if they are not earned in a particularly well-known program by giving them as much information as possible about the school.
What Is LSAT?
The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a four-hour examination created and administered by the Law School Admission Council (also known as Law Services or LSAC) and required by every ABA-approved law school.
There are two closely related purposes of the exam; to predict which candidates will do well in law school and to assist schools in ranking applicants. It is, according to LSAC, a standard measure of acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills. The LSAT does not, however, attempt to measure your legal competence or knowledge.
The test consists of five 35-minute multiple-choice sections, separately timed, and followed by a half-hour essay portion that is not scored. A short break is given after the third multiple-choice section. The exam, including preliminary administrative matters, typically lasts from 8:30 a.m. until about noon, making for a very long morning.
The five multiple-choice sections vary in order for each test taker, but they include: one Analytical Reasoning section, two Logical Reasoning sections, one Reading Comprehension section, and a wild card section, which could be any of the above. This (wild card) section is used only to assist LSAC in experimenting with new testing methods and questions and is not scored, (Note that test takers do not know when taking the exam which section is the wild card and will not be scored.)
Analytical reasoning. This section gives questions that require you to make deductions from a set of statements, rules, or conditions. Often called the "games" section, a typical analytical reasoning question would give you information about the eight people seated at a circular table. You might be informed that Harold never sits facing due south, George always sits facing north (including northeast or northwest), Lisa always sits two seats away from Harold, Martha always sits opposite Lisa, and so on. You will be asked, for example, in which seat Harold must sit if Martha is not in a seat facing due north or due south.
Logical reasoning. These questions evaluate your ability to comprehend and analyze arguments that are contained in short passages. Test takers must be able to evaluate the strength of the evidence, and logic of the reasoning, as well as detect the assumptions in these arguments and draw reasonable conclusions from them.
Reading comprehension. These questions are based upon four reading passages, designed to test your reading and reasoning abilities. Passages are drawn from a variety of subjects (some of which you may not be familiar with) but all information needed to answer the questions can be found within the text. These questions require you to analyze the logic, structure, and details of densely written material, and to draw inferences from it.
Your score is now available approximately three weeks after you take the exam by TelScore, for a fee of $10. Otherwise, you will get the score by mail, from Law Services, approximately five weeks after the exam.
Your score is based strictly on the number of questions answered correctly; any incorrect answers will not affect your score. Scores are reported on a scale from 120 to 180. Thus, the lowest you can score is 120, the highest 180. You will also receive a percentile rank, which shows the percentage of test takers who perform (above and) below you. (Remember that the essay you write is not scored, but simply forwarded to your chosen schools.)
What Are Admissions Committees Looking For?
Top schools have average scores in the mid-to-high 160s, meaning that their students are typically in the top 10 percent of test takers. The range of scores is substantial, however, so a score in the upper 150s need not necessarily be cause for despair. To evaluate yourself, check out where your score falls in relation to those of first-year students at some of the top schools.
How to Register For the LSAT
The LSAT & LSDAS Registration Information Book provides a registration worksheet, as well as information about the dates, locations, and price of the exam. It is possible to register by phone, as well as on the Internet. You can obtain a bulletin by contacting:
Law School Admission Council
661 Penn Street
The exam is given in June, September, December, and February of each year. To be sure that you will be able to take the exam at the site you prefer, plan to register several months before the actual exam date.
General Tips on Preparing To Ace the LSAT:
Familiarize yourself with the tests by taking plenty of sample exams. Be sure to practice on actual prior LSATs available from LSAC. Review the answers you miss. Make sure, at the very least, you know exactly what to expect in terms of a test's format—what each section asks you to do, how long each section is—before going in. That way you will not waste time reading directions (or panicking), and will be able to concentrate on your performance.
Take care of your health. Get enough rest for at least two nights before taking the exam.
Be organized on the day of the test. Give yourself enough time to have a leisurely breakfast and prepare yourself. If the site is not familiar to you, be sure you have precise directions to it and know exactly how long it will take to get there, allowing for traffic or unexpected delays. Arrive at the testing site ten minutes early so that you have time to go to the restroom and calm yourself down.
Do not wait until the last possible administration of the exam to take it. You may fall ill and be unable to take it, or you may need to retake it to boost your score.
What Are Admissions Committees Looking For?
Although it is not required for applicants to have had significant work experience, statistics show that rapidly increasing numbers of students are arriving at law schools having already worked full time for a year or more. Many have had accomplished careers, often entirely unrelated to the law. Law schools find this quite appealing. Columbia notes in its admissions materials that, "Our school has been strengthened by a maturity and experiential enrichment that older students bring to their classmates and faculty." Some schools are even willing to deemphasize a less-than-exemplary academic record if an applicant has demonstrated great potential in a demanding—or unusual—industry. The amount of work experience tends to be much less important than the nature and quality of the experience. Those applicants whose undergraduate performance was comparatively weak, however, should consider working a little longer in order to lessen the currency of grades and course selection, and to increase the amount of positive work-related information to show to the admissions committee.
The Nature of the Experience
Many successful candidates take the tried-and-true path to business school by working as paralegals. Although they get to see what actually goes on in a law firm (thereby learning a bit about law, which many applicants have little or no knowledge of) while simultaneously proving that they truly know what they are getting into, this is not necessarily the best pre-law work route to take. For one, admissions committees know that few paralegals develop real skills; most paralegals spend the majority of their time at the Xerox machine rather than learning anything substantial about the law. It is difficult, in fact, for the law schools to determine whether or not a candidate's paralegal experience was worthwhile or not. For another thing, it is difficult to differentiate yourself from the pool of applicants as a paralegal. You have a far easier time positioning yourself when you have gained substantial and relevant skills in a more unique profession. Thus, working in a law firm is by no means the best or only route to law school.
Accepted students are successful journalists, engineers, playwrights, teachers, businesspeople, and graphic artists. Do not assume that admissions committees will penalize you for having devoted a piece of your life to pursuing an ambition that has little or nothing to do with law. On the contrary, this experience makes you an attractive, unusual candidate, assuming you market yourself well.
Remember, too, that there is a big difference between simply doing a job for one to two years and becoming a true professional at something, with three or more years of work experience. This, of course, does not mean you have to work at something for three or more years before going to law school; but your efforts at selling yourself on the basis of your work experience will generally be more easily digested when your commitment to and accomplishments in a field are substantial. Remember, of course, that you must also show that a law degree makes sense in your life and that you have a bright-looking future; in other words, there is a point at which the value of your years of experience begins to decline. Do not squander away time in a job just for the sake of appearing to have career depth in a previous field; gain relevant skills, contacts, and knowledge—and then move on to your law studies.
Achievement and Impact at Work
The key to impressing admissions officers with your work experience is not a matter of your specific job or industry, or even of how long you have worked. What you accomplish is the key. Admissions officers want to see people successfully take on responsibility, perform complicated analysis, wrestle with difficult decisions, and bring about change. They want people to progress in their jobs and develop relevant skills, with consequent improvements in responsibilities, salary, and title. People who meet these criteria will be highly valued no matter what industry they come from. To impress admissions people with your work experience, see that you can demonstrate as many of the following as possible:
First and foremost, you have been successful at whatever your job involves.
You have worked well with other people.
No matter what your job has required of you, you have done more (and exceeded your boss's expectations).
You have had a wide range of experiences, each one requiring different skills.
You have acquired substantial skill in your job, which can be applicable to legal study and work.
You have done a better job than anyone else in a similar position,
You have achieved meaningful results.
You have gained in-depth analytical skills.
You have gained substantial writing experience.
If your work experience gives you little to write about, you face an uphill battle in your applications. If this is the case, consider waiting a year and devoting that year to making an impact in your job. Focus on developing your skills, assuming new and different responsibilities, and impressing one or more potential recommenders to maximize your chances of success when you do apply.
Extracurricular, Personal, and Community Activities
What Are Admissions Committees Looking For?
Extracurricular, personal, and community activities include all the nonacademic endeavors to which you have devoted yourself during college and since leaving the academic environment. These include team and individual athletics; artistic, dramatic, or musical performance; private activities such as playing chess or reading; religious activities; involvement in various clubs and organizations; newspaper or other editorial work; and community service.
Extracurricular and community activities are important to admissions officers for many reasons. First, your activity credentials generally show that you interact with others on a regular basis. Law schools generally prefer sociable types (especially leaders) to loners, although most schools will take a few candidates who appear a bit antisocial if they are strong enough in other regards. But the JD is not a degree for people who dislike being involved in group activities. In the same vein, the law profession is not for people who would rather hibernate than interact with varying sorts of people. Extracurricular, personal, and community activities also show how you choose to spend your time away from school and work; demonstrate leadership, initiative, special talents, and honed skills; provide evidence of personality and character traits; and complement ideas presented within your academic profile about how you will fare in a law career. In sum, they give admissions officers an idea about how you might contribute to the law school environment if accepted. Extracurricular achievement is, for obvious reasons, particularly important for those with little or no work experience.
A law school would much rather see that you have put many hours of valuable effort over several years into two activities than joined every group in college, playing very limited roles. Quality matters much more than quantity. In fact, a long list of activities merely dilutes the overall impression that your nonacademic profile gives an admissions officer.
The admissions officers are not looking for any particular activities on a student's palette of involvements. They do not much care whether you are editor-in-chief of the yearbook or director of your company's environmental and recycling team. They are, however, looking for students who have been involved in a few activities for a good length of time, showing commitment and passion. A bit of a balance is usually ideal, so that a student does not appear one-dimensional, but in general commitment and focus is better than being the "all-around" type.
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