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How to Prepare for Law School in College

published November 24, 2016

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Depending on where you are on the continuum—whether you're precollege or beyond college—there are some aspects of your law school preparation that are within your control and some that are not. It may be too late now to improve your grades if they're not as high as you would like, but you can evaluate your other credentials and get a realistic picture of your stronger and weaker points. Such self-assessment will be invaluable when you begin to gather information about law schools to decide where to apply.

Two important factors that will determine your admission to law school are your undergraduate grades and your score on the Law School Admission Test. You should bear in mind that other factors—namely, the undergraduate school you attended, your letters of recommendation and personal statement (part of your application), and certain aspects of your life experience, particularly if you can make it come alive in writing—will all be used to evaluate you as a candidate for admission.


Distinguishing yourself in any one area is by no means a guarantee of admission to law school, but neither is a less-than-exemplary grade-point average or LSAT score necessarily a deterrent to your acceptance. Each applicant will be considered on his or her own merits. All other things being equal, a school's wish to have a geographically balanced or culturally diverse student population can sometimes influence a decision. Therefore, when assessing your own chances, consider each component separately before giving any one undue weight. Meanwhile, take all the necessary steps to optimize your credentials in each area where you are still able to make a difference.

In this chapter we discuss some of the various elements in your prelaw self-evaluation, including both academic and nonacademic factors: your college years, the Law School Admission Test, and a variety of additional ingredients in your personal life. In later chapters, we discuss in more practical detail how all this material is conveyed to and assessed by the law schools, including suggestions on securing letters of recommendation and preparing a personal statement for your application package. For now, let us examine the most important components of your prelaw self-evaluation and explore ways you might make the most of the picture as it emerges.

Prelaw Preparation: Choosing a College

If you are still at the stage of selecting an undergraduate school—and you have law in the back of your mind—you will want to enroll in a college or university that is able to stand on its own merits as an institution that will demand the best of you and prepare you for a competitive and complex world. You will want to demonstrate to law school admission committees later that your college years have challenged your thinking and sharpened your analytical skills. When gathering information about undergraduate colleges to attend, you may also want to consider schools whose graduates have respectable law school admission records and law school performances. Find out if the college has a prelaw advisor on its staff. It's to your advantage to attend an undergraduate school that employs someone who is professionally experienced in counseling students who are considering law school.

College catalogs or admission personnel may provide information on the reputation of various departments within the college (especially if you have a particular major in mind), the number of Ph.D.s on the faculty, and the overall reputation of the school in the academic community. When seeking information of this kind, it's wise to gather information from additional sources besides the school itself, since most schools naturally want to promote themselves as positively as possible.

In some cases when an admission committee must choose among candidates with similar credentials, the quality of the college you attended may shed some light on the relative value of your GPA. Law school admission committees are informed about who has applied to their school from particular institutions, what the decision was, and what the accepted student's progress was once he or she enrolled. You should, therefore, be equally informed; the prelaw advisor on campus may be able to provide you with some of this information.

Once you have selected an undergraduate school, introduce yourself to a prelaw advisor as soon as possible. The advisor can guide you in your course selection and can help you prepare for law school at every stage, up to and including guiding you through the application process itself. You may also want to explore whether the college you are considering sponsors a prelaw club: such a club can serve as a valuable vehicle for information about the legal profession and as a focal point for law school admission officers, practicing lawyers, and others who may come to the campus to share information. This will become especially important when you begin to think more actively about choosing law schools to which you will apply.

Making the Most of Your Undergraduate Education

There is no prelaw curriculum of required courses that corresponds to the premed courses a student must take before being admitted to medical school. Law schools prefer that you reserve your legal study for law school and fill your undergraduate curriculum with broad, diverse, and challenging courses. Prelaw courses that introduce you to broad legal principles may present you with enough information to decide whether you want to continue with a legal education, but they are rarely taught with the same depth and rigor as actual law school courses. A prelaw curriculum that is designed to encompass a broad array of liberal arts courses, however, can be excellent preparation for law school. Be sure you know precisely what is meant by "prelaw" when choosing your undergraduate course of study.

Course Selection

Most law school admission personnel look beyond the raw number represented by your undergraduate grade-point average to evaluate the rigor and depth of the courses you selected. They are looking for evidence that you can master the basic skills required of a lawyer. Foremost among these skills is the ability to write clearly, reason logically, and analyze creatively. An undergraduate career that is narrow, unchallenging, or vocationally oriented is not the best preparation for law school. If you stick with a basic liberal arts curriculum, you will be headed in the right direction. According to the Law School Admission Council's Statement of Good Admission and Financial Aid Practices:

It is proper to prefer students who have taken courses such as those that develop skills in both written and oral communications, develop analytical and problem-solving skills, or promote familiarity with the humanities and social sciences to understand the human condition and the social context in which legal problems arise.

The range of acceptable majors is broad. Almost any course of study that engenders mental discipline and intellectual curiosity can lay the foundation for a successful legal education and professional career.

A prelaw advisor advises his students in this manner: "Read, read, read more than you think you can. Getting used to language as the coin of your realm is really smart. A course or two in economics or accounting [will give you] some familiarity with the way money moves through society.” Pearce also recommends "a course in public speaking; a course in logic—but calculus is just as good,"—and finally—"something with computers."

English language and literature courses are indispensable to every aspiring law student; courses in journalism are useful as well, particularly in training students to write clearly and succinctly. History is worthwhile, too, especially American history; political science relates strongly to the law, government, and politics. Philosophy courses are useful because they demand the same kind of rigorous, logical thinking as does the law. Natural science courses test your ability to analyze diverse and complex information and to arrive at creative solutions and conclusions. Engineering courses, too, have value to the extent that they prepare students for in-depth analysis, but a technical education must be balanced with liberal arts courses for breadth of study.

Major Course of Study

Nearly half of all law school applicants declared a major in the area of social sciences/helping professions (44.3 percent), with arts and humanities next (19.3 percent), followed by business and management majors (16.1 percent), natural science (6.0 percent), engineering (2.5 percent), health professions (1.7 percent), and computer science (0.5 percent).

The six largest single major categories (subgroups of the areas listed above) are political science (16.2 percent), English (6.6 percent), history (6.7 percent), psychology (5.6 percent), criminal justice (4.2 percent), and economics (3.2 percent).

Important: do not infer from this information that any one specific major guarantees more success than any other major in being accepted to law school. Rather, these statistics show that the most commonly chosen major fields of study emphasize skills that are useful in the study and practice of law. Indeed, some law schools will select students from less common majors just to assure a diverse student body.

Neither should you infer that any particular course of study will be more helpful to you later in law school. Although English and history majors have the opportunity to develop writing skills through their term paper assignments, engineering and chemistry majors are more accustomed to problem solving and recitation, a standard part of first-year law school. In fact, science students are often more schooled in analysis and logic than are students in liberal arts. Rather than looking for the perfect major, or courses that will serve you well in law school, you are better off looking for excellent teachers who will contribute to your overall education and enhance your skills as a thinker.

Transcript Evaluation

Many law schools consider trends in your transcript along with your numerical average. Thus, the student who started out with average grades and later performed exceptionally may be favored over the student who started out with excellent grades and then faltered after a time. In a similar scenario, every year there are a number of students who at one time flunked out of college but later returned and did well. Says one admission-file reader at a highly competitive law school: "We accept some individuals who either came back from military service 'reborn' or who, for a variety of other reasons, settled down and did strong academic work. We will readily work with someone who finishes strong despite a poor beginning."

If you are among the "reborn," be sure to offer some tangible evidence of your improvement. You're not likely to impress a law school committee merely by presenting a letter that proclaims you have suddenly found yourself.

In addition, a student who manages to earn a high grade-point average through easy, nondemanding courses will not fool law school admission staff. Such a transcript is not an accurate record of a student's capabilities: this student probably has not developed good study habits, critical reading and thinking skills, or a coherent writing style.

Along the same lines, be wary of pass-fail courses; keep them to a minimum. Admission-file readers usually find them an obstacle to accurate measurement of a student's achievement, and they suspect that a student may have put little effort into such classes. Some colleges do not offer grades for all or part of their undergraduate coursework, although they may instead provide comprehensive narrative transcripts. One way to supplement information relating to a "pass" grade you may have earned is to provide written support from the faculty member who taught the course.

Another question that sometimes arises is whether graduate work will strengthen your credentials and increase your chances of acceptance at a law school. Generally speaking, law school admission personnel are more interested in your academic accomplishments as an undergraduate. Grades have a different value in graduate school, since most graduate students usually get "A"s and "B"s. Law schools do not combine your undergraduate GPA with that of your graduate record. However, your successful completion of a graduate program may be another element that works in your favor, especially if it was a demanding program—for example, a Ph.D. in physics—or if your graduate study took place at a competitive institution and you can demonstrate a dedication to your studies.

Other Things to Keep in Mind

As you proceed in your college career, taking rigorous courses and getting good grades, you will also benefit by developing good personal relationships with some of your teachers, especially those who stimulate you intellectually and who are in a position to observe your best work. Eventually, you will want to ask for letters of recommendation and you would be wise to lay the foundation for these requests early on. You will probably have an academic advisor; if you have any input as to who your advisor will be, try to select someone who has knowledge of, and an interest in, law school admission. The ideal advisor is someone who has a track record of writing recommendations for students who go on to law school.

As we mentioned earlier, register with a prelaw advisor, attend a prelaw orientation if one is offered, and stay alert for any other prelaw-related activities on or off campus.

Review your grade pattern and performance record periodically, taking corrective steps if necessary to improve any low standings. Read as much as you can, above and beyond your required reading if possible.

The Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

The Score and Its Relationship to Admission

All schools presently approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) or the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC) require you to take the LSAT as part of the admission process. Your LSAT score, while not the only deciding factor in admission to law school, is nevertheless a critical factor in the initial sorting of hundreds of applications submitted to a law school admission office. A low LSAT score will not necessarily block admission to law school, although it may block admission to the more selective schools. By the same token, a high LSAT score alone will not guarantee your admission to a particular law school, but it will allow you to consider a broader range of schools, particularly those that are more competitive. Individual law schools set their own standards, and when you begin to gather information about law schools, you can find out the acceptable range. Keep in mind that other factors—discussed in this chapter—can help compensate for a weaker score just as some factors can—though less often—detract from a strong score.

What the Test Measures

The LSAT is designed to measure skills that are considered essential for success in law school. It does not measure any common body of knowledge or specific discipline. There is no set of facts or theories to study, although there are ways to prepare for the test (discussed below). Rather, the LSAT tests such things as: the reading and comprehension of complex texts with accuracy and insight; the organization and management of information and the ability to draw reasonable inferences from it; the ability to think critically; and the analysis and evaluation of the reasoning and arguments of others.

The test itself consists of five 35-minute sections of multiple choice questions in three different item types. A 30-minute writing sample is administered at the end of the test. Copies of the writing sample are sent to all the law schools to which you apply. For a more detailed description of the various sections of the test, consult the LSAT/LSDAS Registration and Information Book on our website, www.LSAC.org. It is also available at no charge through the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) or at law school admission offices, undergraduate schools, and testing and counseling centers.

Preparing for the LSAT

The most important thing to understand about taking the LSAT was perhaps expressed most succinctly by prelaw advisor Margot Baker: "You don't just... show up one day and take it." Baker stresses most emphatically, as do virtually all prelaw advisors, "you need to prepare for the LSAT." But because the LSAT is not an achievement test, and does not test a body of knowledge, there is a limit to what any form of preparation can do. So how do you prepare?

Effective test preparation should concentrate on three things:

One, it should familiarize you with how the test looks, its sections and formats, the mechanics of taking the test, and the timing you can expect. In short, you want to assure that there will be no logistical or procedural surprises on the day you take the LSAT.

Second, a good preparation program will teach certain test-taking strategies that will both save time and increase your scoring potential. For example, there is no penalty for wrong answers; therefore, you should always guess, after eliminating answers you believe to be incorrect. Also, you should pace yourself; if you are spending too much time on a difficult question, move on. Because specific knowledge is not being tested, you should never answer a question based on your own knowledge or experience, nor should you read more into a problem than is on the page. Additional test-taking strategies are outlined in the test preparation materials published by LSAC.

Finally, a good preparation program will teach and reinforce the analytical and logical skills necessary for success on the exam. The best way to achieve this particular goal is to practice. Many students have found it useful to practice with sample questions from the disclosed tests published by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC): Official LSAT PrepTests, TriplePreps, and the

Official LSAT PrepTest With Explanations allow you to practice by taking disclosed tests under simulated (timed) conditions, so that you may familiarize yourself thoroughly with test directions, test mechanics, and question types. The Official LSAT Sample PrepTest (the October 1996 test) is included as part of the LSAT/LSDAS Registration and Information Book (U.S. and Canadian editions) and at LSAC's website, www.LSAC.org. Other test preparation materials offered by LSAC are listed in the Registration and Information Book and on LSAC's website as well.

There are commercial test preparation courses, although LSAC does not endorse or sponsor them, nor do these courses represent LSAC. All students should exercise care in selecting such courses, especially with regard to the accuracy of information these courses provide regarding the LSAT and any other law school admission policies. Complete and updated information regarding the LSAT is made available each year in the Registration and Information Book. Students should also be skeptical of any extravagant claims made about a preparation course's ability to raise a student's score.

You should approach the LSAT seriously and realistically, without panic or undue anxiety. A certain degree of tension is normal, and may help to keep you alert. But you must keep your anxiety level under control so that it does not impair your performance on the test. The key to success is preparing responsibly and then concentrating on the test itself.

When to Take the Test

The LSAT is administered four times a year, usually in June, October, December, and February. You should plan on taking either the June or October test in the year preceding your expected admission to law school. If you're planning to attend law school directly after college, the June test would take place at the end of your junior year; the October test would take place in the fall of your senior year.

There are several reasons for taking the test earlier rather than later. The deadline for many law school applications is in February, and it is advantageous—though not necessary—to know your score before you mail out your applications. Knowing your score will help you identify the law schools most likely to admit you. If you take the test even earlier—in June—you will have the opportunity to retake the test if a problem should arise (see next section). You should certainly take the test by the December preceding the year you wish to enroll at the very latest. If you intend to attend law school directly after college, this would be December in your senior year. February scores will not reach law schools in time to meet most application deadlines, but some schools will wait for late scores in special cases.

Retaking the LSAT

Under normal circumstances, a student should plan to take the LSAT only one time. For most students, retaking the test does not result in a significant increase in the score. If, however, you feel that your current score does not accurately reflect your capabilities, you may want to take the test again, especially if there were special circumstances—such as illness—that are relevant to the poor score. You should also let the law schools know about any extenuating circumstances, providing documentation, if possible. Understand, however, that most law schools will average your scores—unless the disparity is great, in which case the admission office is likely to review your entire file for an explanation. (For more information on repeating the test, refer to the LSAT/LSDAS Registration and Information Book).

Any test score on your record during the five years prior to your application will be sent automatically—along with your current score—to the schools to which you apply. You may also request (in writing) that scores from as far back as 10 years be sent, but it is best to inquire of individual schools whether sending those scores will have any value in the application process.

(See Chapter 7 for more about the Law School Data Assembly Service [LSDAS] and the mechanics of applying to law school in general.)

The Registration and Information Book and LSAC's website provide additional information about test registration (including changes in your test date or test center, alternative dates for Saturday Sabbath observers, accommodations for test takers with disabilities, and other information on the scoring of the LSAT).

Preparing to Return to School after an Absence

As we mentioned earlier in the book, there are those students who go to law school right after they graduate from college, and there are those who—entertaining some last-minute uncertainties—delay law school for a year, or several, until they've clarified their goals satisfactorily. There are also those who choose law school later in life, as a career or life change, or for other personal reasons such as wanting some work experience prior to law study. The amount of time that elapses between college graduation and application to law school can affect how admission personnel regard a candidate's admission.

Joseph Burns, prelaw advisor at Boston College observes, "If they're out longer than five, six, or ten years, law schools do look at them differently, they do (look at) their most recent work—whether it's graduate academic work or employment—and weigh that more heavily. Simultaneously, they (may) discount to some degree the GPA, but that makes the LSAT more important."

Some potential applicants—particularly those who have been out of school for some time—may find it helpful to go back and take even one class, just to get back into the academic environment, to remember how it feels to be treated as a student ("It can be tough on your ego sometimes," Burns points out), and to get used to studying and writing again.

For those of you whose professional positions entail a good deal of reading and writing, especially if it involves analysis, problem solving, and so forth—you will want to highlight these aspects of your work in your personal statement; you will want employers whom you ask for letters of recommendation to emphasize these strengths as well.

Additional Factors That May Affect Admission

A poor GPA or weak LSAT will make law school admission difficult but not impossible. Other criteria are taken into consideration as well, and—particularly if your letters of recommendation are strong, and you can articulately state your case for admission in your personal statement— factors such as the ones listed below will be considered as part of your education by admission personnel. Law schools do want to make a sincere effort to evaluate you as a person, not just as a collection of numbers; however, it is up to you to supply the information that will help the law schools learn who you are and what outstanding characteristics make you special. In Chapter 7, we discuss the importance of letters of recommendation and your personal statement in rounding out the picture of you as a law school applicant. Below are several categories of information you may want to keep in mind while assessing your own chances of admission. If a particular category applies to you, be sure to expand upon it in your personal statement (see Chapter 7) which you will submit with your law school application.

Extracurricular Activities and Community Activities

Merely having your name associated with a particular group or association will not gain you any special recognition/since most students do take part to some degree in extracurricular activities. However, it is your active participation and demonstrated leadership abilities that will put you in a more favorable light. If you have not been in college recently, community activities will serve a similar purpose in rounding out the picture of you that emerges on your application.

These need not be law-related activities: you may have been active in student government, political groups, an honors organization, magazine or newspaper work, sports competition, the debate team, volunteer work for a community agency, PTA, fund-raising for a charitable institution, and the like. What is important here is that you are able to cite examples of how these activities employed your ability to work with others, or how these endeavors relate to the basic skills of lawyering, such as writing, analyzing, decision making, and so forth. Quality is more important than quantity; a list of organizations and activities on your application with no attendant explanation that evaluates the experience has no meaning to an admission-file reader. Remember to state, then evaluate.

There is one other caveat, however. In discussing the relative importance of community and extracurricular activities for undergraduate students, prelaw advisor Thomas Pearce advises students to "dive in, but never at the peril of (your) grades." All the well-meaning activity in the world will not do you any good if you cannot keep up with your academic work, so do not let your grades slip because you don't have time to study. No admission officer at any law school will overlook poor or slipping grades based on this excuse.

Work Experience

Referring to your employment experience can be very important, particularly if you have been out of school for some time. Be sure to cite specific examples of achievement that relate directly to the experience of lawyering such as writing, analyzing, decision making, and leadership. Your task is not to highlight the job, but to demonstrate how you have excelled at it.

Minority Status

Law schools are instructed in the Statement of Good Admission and Financial Aid Practices, set forth by the Law School Admission Council, to

give equal opportunity to applicants who are members of cultural, ethnic, or racial groups that have not had adequate opportunities to develop and demonstrate potential for academic achievement and would not otherwise be meaningfully represented in the entering class.

Specifically, most law schools still actively seek qualified African American, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian students and other students of color. Additionally, many schools consider such factors as economic and educational disadvantage when considering a candidate for admission.

This endeavor has wide-ranging benefits for students and for the profession as a whole. Among the benefits are increased diversity in law school as well as in the legal profession, and a growth in the number of legally trained professionals to serve an increasingly diverse society. Accordingly, it is to your advantage to note on your application any relevant information concerning your ethnic, cultural, or racial background, or any aspect of your life that may contribute to a diverse student body.

For more comprehensive information on this subject, go to our website, wzuw. LSAC.org and link to "Minority Perspectives."

Military Service

Some schools weigh military service and achievement more heavily than others. If you are a veteran, consider how your military record has enhanced your potential as a prospective law student. Focus on key themes such as discipline, leadership, and tenacity. Use your personal statement as an opportunity to bring these issues to light.

Parents and Relatives

If you are a relative of an alumnus, you may be given special consideration by admission personnel at some schools—provided you already have met the school's basic admission requirements.

As one law school dean admits, "I don't think it's in the interest of the law school to go out of our way to make enemies of alumni. There may be an institutional interest that is served by admitting that applicant: good will and good alumni relations might be served. However, [the institutional interest factor] is definitely not going to get any applicant up over the line who isn't in the admission range already." Some schools have strict policies against this.

Summary

If you've done all that you can to prepare yourself for law school up to this point, and you've realistically assessed your own credentials so that you can build your strongest case, you are ready to take a look at the schools themselves. Your goal is to find those schools that will meet your individual needs, and to the extent that you are thoughtful and realistic in your choices (which does not preclude aiming high as well), you will still be involved in the self-assessment process to some extent.

See the following articles for more information:

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