Who Gets To Attend A Top Law School?

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WHO GETS INTO A TOP LAW SCHOOL?
Top Law Schools are looking for thinkers – people who are not afraid of a challenge and were truly engaged in their educational environments. If you phoned it in during your college years, doing the bare minimum academically while focusing on less intellectual endeavors, Top Law Schools have the luxury of turning you away. When I review a law school applicant’s transcript and resume, it’s immediately obvious whether they took their college experience seriously.

What’s the difference between someone who gets accepted into Harvard Law and someone who doesn’t? Experience tells me there are 2 universal traits of people who get into Top Law Schools: the quality of their undergraduate education, and their involvement in extracurricular activities. They also have high LSAT scores, unless they have overcome significant obstacles in their life in order to excel in academics and extracurriculars.

QUALITY OF UNDERGRADUATE EDUCATION
Attending a prestigious undergraduate institution puts you at an advantage in the eyes of the Top Law Schools. You’ve been tested against the nation’s best and brightest, and – presumably – engaged in rigorous coursework with renowned professors. Earning top grades and writing a thesis in this environment is something Top Law Schools appreciate. It also makes it highly likely you will have a letter of recommendation (or two or three) from professors who are truly in a position to evaluate your work and can compare you to past students who have gone on to Top Law Schools. An applicant from this background, especially one who has supplemented their time with volunteer efforts, travel, and interesting and well-rounded pursuits, is ideally positioned for success in the law school admission process. For the Fall 2014 application cycle to date, my applicants who have been admitted to Harvard Law attended Berkeley, Yale, Penn, Stanford, Dartmouth, and (yes) Harvard for their undergrad work.

Top Law Schools are unlikely to admit people who attended less impressive undergraduate schools, especially if there were opportunities you did not pursue (such as independent academic research, challenging courses, and intellectual pursuits outside of the classroom.) However, if you have a near perfect GPA and stellar academic accomplishments at a well-known and respected school, especially where your major is known to be rigorous, the fact that you didn’t go Ivy League may be forgiven. Examples include studying Philosophy at Rutgers and Business at the University of Southern California because these are departments that are particularly respected within the academic community.

If you started at a community college, changed majors several times, attended a state university near home where you had few opportunities to interact with faculty members, majored in something not known for rigor, like Communications or Legal Studies, and still only managed a 3.5 GPA, Top Law Schools are unlikely to take you seriously.

For non-traditional applicants who have been out of school for many years, a lot can be forgiven if their work experience is truly impressive and if their LSAT score demonstrates academic abilities beyond what is evident from their transcript. But remember that Top Law Schools don’t have any incentive to overlook these issues because they are able to fill their classes with applicants who did everything right.

ACTIVITIES
What activities are Top Law Schools looking for? What actually impresses them? Here are a few examples:
• Participation in college athletics (no matter the division);
• Olympic or other high-level competitive sports involvement;
• Significant volunteer experience at home or abroad regarding an issue you are particularly knowledgeable and passionate about;
• Learning another language, along with significant international and/or multi-cultural experience; and
• Holding a leadership position within a journal, college newspaper, or political or service organization.

What doesn’t impress Top Law Schools? Applicants who spent most of their time on fraternity and sorority involvements, whose internships are scattered and primarily include marketing and public relations jobs, who have not spent significant time volunteering, and who only have traditional travel or study abroad experiences.

OBSTACLES OVERCOME
Merely having obstacles in your background won’t get you into a Top Law School; a lot of application fees are wasted by people who believe otherwise. The key to getting into a Top Law School is being able to show that despite growing up with significant disadvantages, you got yourself somewhere really amazing on your own two feet. In other words, it’s how you reacted to the obstacle, how you overcame the obstacle, that impresses Top Law Schools. One of these rare and amazing stories of triumph, coupled with impressive academic, extracurricular, and professional achievements makes Top Law Schools willing to dip lower on their LSAT score requirements.

BONUS TIP: APPLY EARLY
Among those applicants to Top Law Schools whose resumes and transcripts and LSAT scores fit the bill, my clients who applied early in the 2014 cycle were admitted, but those who applied in January/February were waitlisted. Keep in mind the impact of rolling admissions when deciding which LSAT to take.

63 thoughts on “Who Gets To Attend A Top Law School?

  1. Billy on said:

    T14 schools don’t care where you got your UG, they care far more what your GPA is. This article is misleading. Going to some random state college with a 4.0 can get you into Harvard. Going to Princeton with a 3.6 will not.

  2. Catherine on said:

    I’m beginning my Law School Application process, hoping to submit for Fall 2015 acceptance. I’m taking my LSAT in June and have already collected my transcripts and sent out some recommendation requests. I’ve been out of school for a couple years, so its looking like getting recommendations from professors is proving a bit difficult for one reason or another. I’m still just a bit overwhelmed by the whole process, and can already feel application paranoia setting in. I know a lot of the schools I want to apply for are relatively selective (even reflecting the recent trends in applications). I’m always afraid I just won’t stand out enough, especially since I waited until after achieving my B.A. and M.Ed. and being in the work force for a little while before applying. I tend to be very personally critical and can’t help but wonder if I’ve done anything to WOW the admissions boards. I’m not necessarily looking at schools at the very top of the list, but the ones I’m interested in certainly seem prestigious.

    • Ann Levine on said:

      Hi Catherine,
      Sounds like you’re getting things ready right on schedule, and it’s natural that it would be hard to get professor letters given the time you’ve been out of school. I don’t think “WOW” is the thing to go for – I think it’s sincerity, authenticity, and seriousness of purpose. I think you can probably create that impression pretty effectively!

  3. I will be a junior this coming academic year at a state university after having transferred from a community college last year and hope to apply to law school upon graduation. I had some major financial setbacks that delayed me from attending undergrad and as such I will be four years behind the traditional student. While I fear graduating law school too late, I do not want to rush the procedure. I have been and continue to work full time (for the past 2.5 years I have been in the banking/financal sector) while attending undergrad. Currently I hold a 3.74 GPA and plan to take the lsats in june. What are my chances of getting into a top-tier law school? How well should I do on the LSATs to consider a school of that caliber? And will law schools look at my transfer college GPA?

    • Correction: I am a junior and will be a senior this coming academic year…. I plan to take the LSATs in september, not june. The GPA score is that of my junior year.

    • Ann Levine on said:

      Hi Gin,
      I’m glad you don’t want to rush – better to do things right. I don’t know where you are enrolled in school and I don’t know your full story. Schools will see all of your grades – they all count toward your LSAC GPA so no one gets a fresh start unfairly. Good luck on the LSAT – that will really make a big difference in your chances at different schools. Your current GPA is very promising, obviously.

  4. Pingback: Should I Apply to Law School this Cycle? | Law School Expert

  5. Hi Ann,

    I was wondering if you offer any advice to international students who studied at an institution that is not in the U.S.?

  6. Hi Ann,

    I played a sport my first year and a half of college, after competing in it four years in high school. I feel like it would be weird to put it on my resume if I quit part way through my college career, but would it help me? I have heard similar statements other places about athletes being successful in law school, and law schools liking them. I have considered writing my personal statement about my decision to leave the team, but didn’t want to focus on being a quitter either. Thoughts? Thanks!

    • Hi Syd, You should absolutely put athletics on your resume – yes!!!!
      I have read a good personal statement that was about the decision to quit, to show what you did, how you changed for the better, found your way, focused on academics, etc. But you don’t necessarily have to go that route.
      Ann

    • John,
      It’s something that is highly respected by law schools, but you will also need an LSAT score that shows you can compete (assuming grades are lower and that’s why you’re asking?)

  7. Jessica on said:

    Hi Anne,
    I am a mother and currently pregnant with my second child. I am going to Virginia Commonwealth University for psychology and have a 4.0. Would top law schools be impressed with the fact that I am going to school, participating in extracurriculars and maintaining a high grade point average? I would love to the chance to go to a top tier school, but I also want to be realistic. What are your thoughts?
    Thanks!

  8. Hi Ann,

    I have a 3.48 GPA (science major) from UT Austin (graduated in may 15′) and I’m taking the LSAT in february for the first time. I’ve been studying really hard for it and am hoping to do well on it. I know my GPA isn’t stellar and that applying closer to deadline is disadvantageous because of rolling admissions. I have a variety of leadership roles from my undergrad including two years of resident assistant experience as well a semester of teaching assistant experience for an undergraduate public health class. I also had officer positions at student organizations but I don’t know if that really counts for much. I don’t really have a question for you but just wanted to hear your thoughts about where you think I stand in terms of my chances of getting admission in UT law school or others of comparable caliber.

    Thank you!

  9. Ashlica Malcolm on said:

    Hi Ann,

    I currently attend a non-so-impressive undergrad university. I am a sophomore and currently looking at law schools to attend. My GPA is a 3.875, I am President of various clubs and a Honor Society, and I also hold a job on campus while being Vice President of my class in Student Government. I also recently just became a Student Member at Large on a National Council for a honor society. While my undergrad isn’t so competitive what other law schools can I get into?

    Best,
    Ashlica

  10. I went to a small school in Long Island and am a senior I am on pace to graduate with a 3.5 GPA, i am also a college athlete. In your earlier post you said colleges prefer bigger schools with harder majors. I majored in Political Science which I am not sure if its considered an easy major. Would this hurt me for Law School, I took hard electives level 3000 Psych and 3000 Sociology classes. I would like to go to a top 25 school would i have a chance if i did well on the lsat.

  11. Hi Ann,

    Thank you for writing such a helpful and informative article for those of us getting ready to dive into law school, this definitely helped me feel better prepared for what’s to come. I am a 3.9 ASU Honors student with another 3 semesters left and am majoring in Political Science. My biggest concern going into next year is time management. So my question to you is when exactly should I start preparing for the LSATs, school applications, etc.? Also with the fact that I am attending a university that is not as distinguished and renowned like that of Berkeley or Yale how much weight would my extra curricular and LSAT scores pull? I have quite a bit of travel experience as I took time off before college and lived in Australia as well as England and will be volunteering in Nepal for six weeks this year. I also am involved in things like the debate team, toastmasters, and local homeless shelters. I also work full time while going to school full time and am financially independent. I apologize for the information overload, I would just like to know where you think my focus for the next two years should be to better my chances. Thank you so much for your time and look forward to hearing from you!

  12. Hi Ann, I am 31 years old working for a top IT company for the past 8 years. I have a Bachelors in Engineering from India (GPA:3.5) from a top 5 ranked college in the country and a Masters in International Business from a top school in France(US GPA:3.65). I have also led teams at work as a manger and worked in Europe, Latin America and now in California.In school i was helped setup the student body and was elected for 3 years straight alongwith founding and setting up the placement cell for university. I am yet to take the LSATs and would only want to go to a top school. Do you think considering my circumstances (not being a young 25 year old anymore), i might be of interest to a top school? Also, based on the data points, what LSAT score should i be targeting to get into a top 10 school?

    If possible, i would like to consult with you 1:1 to discuss my case. Please let me know if this is feasible.

    Thank You.

  13. Rebecca on said:

    I am a Biomedical Engineer at a lesser known state school. I have a 3.75 GPA in my third year. I plan to do quite well on the LSAT as I have been preparing diligently for it. Will my not so prestigious undergraduate school hold me back from a T14 law school?

  14. I am a recent graduate at a top 10 (USNWR) university. I have a 3.81 gpa with a 173 lsat. I am currently working and plan to go to law school after about two years of work. I have a question about Letters of Recommendation. I thought that I had read that for people who have work experience, they can choose to have one academic LOR and one business LOR if they want. I recently read a blog from the dir of admissions at Yale where she says she really wants only academic LORs since since what she cares about is their ability as a student – not the worker. What is your advice?
    Thanks

  15. Mikhael on said:

    I am a sophomore Journalism major at a lesser known university. I have a 3.87 GPA and currently hold executive positions in my fraternity and the interfraternity council. I was elected president as a sophomore and continue to hold multiple positions. I have been actively preparing to take the LSAT and believe when the time comes, I will do well. I noticed you stated that top-tier law schools are unimpressed with being involved with either a fraternity and sorority, will holding positions in greek life at a lesser known university hurt my chances?

    • Mikhael,
      I love your leadership and GPA. It’s not that your leadership won’t count in the admission process, but standing alone it’s not what will make a huge difference since it’s a pretty common involvement (although leadership positions at a young age are impressive). It won’t hurt you that your primary involvement has been though the Greek system, but it’s good to show you are well rounded too.

  16. Alicia on said:

    I am an Environmental Science and Political Science double major and know I want to pursue Environmental Law. I currently run my own startup NPO dealing with promoting environmental sustainability, I’ve been the president of my university’s environmental club since I founded it my freshman year, I have done biology/enviro research with my university (although, it is a rather small school/department) and I have had several papers published dealing with the environment. I have also had several law internships over the course of my college career, one of which being with environmental attorneys specifically.

    Grades and LSAT scores aside, would T14 schools take to seeing all the work that I do with the environment or would they be turned off by it being too homogenous? I have a few more leadership positions under my belt, but I would like to focus on the work I’ve done with the environment, as it is my passion.

  17. Alison on said:

    So I am in a sorority but do not hold a position and am just an active member. I am also a part of a pre-law association club, and I didn’t get on the school newspaper. Should I leave my sorority off my application?

  18. Nicole on said:

    Where could I find a list of colleges that are represented by each top law school? I am trying to decide on a University for my undergrad in preparation for law school.

  19. Dana Katherine on said:

    Hi Ann,

    Thank you for continuing to answer questions!

    My undergrad GPA was 3.63 (private/liberal arts), and my master’s program 4.0 (smaller for-profit college). I’ve recently been worrying these are not impressive enough because especially my master’s program was not at a particularly well-known institution, and I do wish I’d proven myself more in undergrad.

    I surprised myself actually doing alright on my cold diagnostic, and really think my studying efforts could lead to a great LSAT score… Is there anything specific I can be focusing on to strengthen my applications? (or push through GPA anxiety?) My grades are done, and I want to make sure I’m presenting my best for consideration as a competitive applicant.

    I know answering questions with little information from comment boxes must seem vague, and I truly appreciate your time and resources you provide!

    • Hi Dana, An LSAT that shows you can compete with a school’s students will go a long way. You can’t change your GPA now but you can show your abilities through your LSAT score. I always believe it focusing on the things you can control and letting the rest go….

  20. Hi!
    Do you know how American Law Schools look at international students who have studied Law before in another country as an undergraduate degree? For example a bachelor in Law from England?
    Will this be a disadvantage or will they just look at your GPA, LSAT score and extracurricular activities?

    I know international students can study for a Master degree but I’m really interested in studying for a JD.

    Thanks

    • Tim, I have worked with people in your situation before. Many start with the LLM and then transfer to a JD program. Different schools have different policies on this.

  21. You said that it would be very unlikely for a student from an “unimpressive” college or university to get into the top law schools. How come when you look at some of the top law schools’ accepted students’ undergraduate university catalogs you see a very diverse range of schools? I have no doubt that the majority of law school students come from the “prestigious” schools but there still must be a sizable percentage coming from state colleges and lesser known universities.

    • Ed, I think it probably comes down to a definition of “unimpressive” – a wide range of public and smaller schools are represented, of course, but it’s harder to get in from very small, lesser known, or less competitive schools.

  22. Cathy on said:

    Ann,

    I am currently finishing up my sophomore year at a public state university (ranked #115 nationally by US News). I am double majoring in finance and accounting. My GPA is currently a 3.92 (3.95 if you include the summer classes I took at a community college last year). I’ve taken an art history class and a philosophy class and I plan to take all of the business law classes offered by the time I graduate.

    Do I have any chance whatsoever of getting into a really top-tier law school (at least T14), seeing as I’m attending a university that is not prestigious? Also, will my majors hurt me? I’m considering changing the accounting degree to economics, but I am undecided at this point. I understand that a huge part of this depends on my LSAT score, but I haven’t taken it yet so I am just trying to get an idea of where I stand. Thank you!

  23. jack on said:

    Hi Anne,

    I am currently at Miami University and I am hoping to attend a t-14 law school. Currently I have a 3.64 and I am a veteran from the Air Force. My practice LSAT’s I have been scoring in the late 160’s and early 170’s is there any chance to get into a top law school with such a low GPA?

  24. Chris on said:

    Thank you for writing this article. I am a 34 year old senior at a small university in Texas graduating with a BS in Industrial Technology with a expected GPA of 3.80. I understand getting into a good law school would be greatly dependent on my lsats, however I’m concerned with my age, transferring from a community college, and going to a small university. Law school is expensive and I am not exactly in my 20s; time is limited. My question is what are the chances of getting into a top 15 school with my so so background and age even with a decent GPA? I’m an INTJ personality, I feel very confident that I will do well above average on the lsats.

    • Hi Chris,
      Without knowing an LSAT score or range, it’s hard to say whether you would be competitive for a top 15 law school. Depending on your score, work and life experiences, writing ability and letters of recommendation, you could be in that range.

  25. Aylin on said:

    Hi Ann,
    I am currently a freshman trying to decide on whether to double major in Economics and Government or minor in international relations. Do you think that double majoring is more advantageous when it does to applying to law school?

  26. Hi Ann,

    I am a recent high school graduate. I’m going to a private university this Fall and plan to major in History. I know aiming for one of the best law schools in the country might be a bit far-fetched, but I plan to give it my best shot. I’ve never been athletically inclined, but I’ve always been very interested in learning new languages and studying abroad. I also compete in national beauty pageants and am very passionate about volunteering. Is there any advice you would give to a young student planning to go to law school who is just beginning her journey?

    • Liza,
      Thanks for asking. Take time to find your passion. Don’t choose anything because others expect it of you or because it sounds like something law schools will appreciate. Enjoy college. Challenge yourself. And keep reading the blog : )

  27. sarah on said:

    I’m starting undergrad next year at UC Berkeley and Harvard Law has been the dream ever since I was little. I am going to major in Political Science and minor in creative writing, join and hopefully gain leadership in the humor magazine and the Amnesty International chapter, and intern in the fields of film, writing, and politics. I also would probably take a year or two off before applying to law school to work perhaps as a creative writer. Is that too scattered? I am passionate about Political science and law as well as creative writing for film and hopefully will continue this passion through entertainment law. I am also prepared to work as hard as possible to get top grades and a top LSAT Score. Please let me know what you think.

    • Sarah, enjoy this time. Worry less about Harvard and more about finding your passion – enjoy every opportunity that comes your way.Ask the tough questions and have fun exploring your college experience. I look forward to hearing about all of your adventures over the coming years.

  28. Aman on said:

    Hi Ann,
    First of all I would like to thank you for writing this article and helping guide students like me with it.
    I had a question in regards to what you had mentioned about the consideration admission officers take for the undergrad school that is attended. I am going to the University of Washington, a huge state university, and would really like to get into a T5 law school. Would it benefit me or harm me to try and transfer to a more selective school for my undergrad? Would you recommend it or should I stay?

  29. Brent on said:

    Thank you for posting this blog. I obviously want to get into the best law school that I can, and I wanted to know the realistic possibilities about this endeavor, considering my academic and extracurricular activities. I have two semesters left until I graduate from Middle Tennessee State University with a bachelor in marketing. I know that MTSU is a low-tiered, unimpressive undergraduate school and that the marketing major is not known for it’s academic rigor. But I have a 3.9 overall G.P.A, and will have some experience interning for a law firm before I graduate. However, I do not have much civic service experience. Hypothetically speaking, say I make a 160 on the LSAT: What are my chances at getting into a top 14 law school? And is it worth it to go to a less prestigious law school if I can’t get into a t14?

  30. Hi Ann,

    I have 3.0 GPA in chemical engineering from a top school and an lsat of 167, what tier of law school will I be able to get into?

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