Law school is a popular destination for undergrads and established professionals alike. The life of a lawyer is filled with long hours of hard work, but comes with the promise of respect and a high paying career. This popularity has made law school admissions increasingly competitive, especially at the top schools.
While law school admissions are superficially similar to undergraduate admissions, there are differences which can trip up the unwary. In this guide we’ll cover how to apply to law schools, and what they are looking for from students. We’ll finish by answering some frequently asked questions about law school admissions.
Law schools want students who are able to think critically, use logic, write strongly, and interpret complicated information. Law is a complicated subject with a long history, and to practice it well you need to be able to understand and work within its eccentricities.
Therefore most of what law schools ask for from applicants goes to demonstrating these traits. Your major in undergrad does not matter much at all; a pre-law specialization is no better than majoring in math or English literature. Indeed, if there is some specific area of law you wish to focus on, then majoring in a field related to that subject is often beneficial.
To check your preparation, law schools look at the following things:
We’ll go through each of these, to explain its importance in the process, and see what exactly admissions wants to see from you.
Just as when applying to college, your GPA is an important indicator of competence. As with college, GPA is a bar to be cleared; having too low of a GPA will put many schools out of reach, and having a GPA below 3.0 will put most law schools out of reach. Indeed, the average GPA of admitted students at the top law schools has been steadily increasing for the past 20 years.
Your GPA should shape which schools you apply to, as it does when applying to college. There are sometimes set GPA minimums, but more generally having a high GPA is seen as an indication of your ability to do work at a high level, and handle the volume of work which is required.
Thus GPA is not the most important aspect of your application, but it is key to getting your application seriously considered. If your GPA is too low, your applications will be discarded out of hand. For the most prestigious law schools, your GPA is even more important, due to the number of applications they receive.
The difficulty of courses you took in undergrad does not matter as much. It is hard to tell from a transcript how easy or difficult a course was; merely its listing and the grade you achieved. While taking challenging courses can be good for you, if your goal is a top school, you should have a balanced course load to make sure nothing slips. If you are just now applying, your GPA and LSAT score will determine the tier of schools you should apply to.
Just as your standardized test scores mattered for college admissions, so they do for graduate school as well. Law schools require scores from the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), which is meant to measure your logical reasoning skills. Despite its name, the test is in no way related to the SAT.
The LSAT is offered six times per year. The test consists of four multiple-choice sections, one of which is experimental and unscored. The sections are: logical reasoning, reading comprehension, and logic games. These are meant to test your ability to interpret information, and logically reason through it.
There is also a writing section of the LSAT. This is unscored, but is scanned and sent to schools you apply to. Not all schools care about this, but many do, so you should still try to do well on this essay. If legibility of your handwriting is a concern, you may want to take some extra time to ensure that admissions officers will be able to read and understand what you have written.
How well you do on the LSAT is incredibly important, and we recommend taking sufficient time to study and prepare for it. While the various sections are challenging, they become more intuitive with practice. The scores you get on the LSAT determine which tiers of law schools you are likely to qualify for, and also let you qualify for merit scholarships at some institutions.
LSAT scores range from 120 at the low end, to 180 at the high end. Scores in the 170s are generally needed to qualify for top programs, and scores below 150 or so are considered poor. You are allowed to take the test up to three times in a single year, and up to seven times total. All of your scores are reported to law schools. If you did not score as well as you hoped, you should spend more time studying and take the test again. The questions asked are always of the same sort, and familiarity with the sorts of questions they ask, and the logic behind them, will greatly improve your score.
Some law schools have begun accepting the GRE in place of the LSAT from applicants. This tests a completely different set of skills, and is scored and structured differently. We recommend taking the LSAT instead, as it is more widely used, and considered more prestigious still.
If, however, you have already taken the GRE and scored very well, consider using those scores instead. You will have to make sure the schools you are applying to will accept your scores, but this can take a great deal of work and stress off your plate.
Your grades and test scores are important, but they do not form the bulk of your application. This comes instead from your personal statement, resume, and optional diversity statement. Law schools are looking for students who are interested in exploring the law, who are strong writers, and who have good analytical skills. Your essays are your venue for demonstrating these.
Unlike with your college applications, you will not necessarily be able to use the same personal statement for all of your schools. Some law schools want a statement of 500 words, while others ask for up to 1500. While you can use the same narrative for each, you may need multiple versions of this essay. Check the requirements of each school you apply to carefully.
Your personal statement should explain what drew you to apply to law school, the experiences which have prepared you for it, and why you are interested in law generally. While there is no one “right” topic, you should work hard to avoid cliches. Planning to save the world, enter politics, or impact the future are grand goals, but unless you are able to speak about them uniquely, you will fall into the undifferentiated mass of applicants with similar ambitions.
Your personal statement should clearly demonstrate the skills that will serve you well in law school. Demonstrating your analytic skills, attention to detail, and passion for legal work are important. If you have experience working with lawyers, or in a legal setting, this is a good place to discuss it. This experience is not strictly necessary however.
Any experiences you have that show your ability to reason and work through problems are valuable. These should tie into a narrative about why you want to be a lawyer. While making a huge pile of cash may be an honest answer, your personal statement should instead show off your passion for some aspect of the law.
Finally, you should pay close attention to your grammar, prose, and syntax. Your ability to write coherently is a key trait admissions officers look for, and a high quality essay is how they evaluate your linguistic talents. Be careful to avoid making careless errors here, and avoid stiled or awkward prose. You should also avoid overly flowery language; some linguistic flair is ok, but your essay should be comprehensible.
There is no activities list for law school applications, instead your resume serves to let admissions know what you have accomplished and participated in. You should detail your academic achievements, work experiences, and personal accomplishments. We recommend this resume not exceed a page in length.
Use active verbs when describing your accomplishments. Be brief, but provide enough detail so that readers can understand what you actually did. Be consistent in your formatting with your headings and activity descriptions as well. Do not include activities from high school on this resume.
Diversity essays are an optional part of an application, but they can enhance the narrative you present in your personal statement. We recommend including a diversity essay if any of the following applies to you:
Law schools focus on being rigorous environments where many viewpoints are discussed and considered. To this end, they value having a diversity of views and experiences represented in their student body. The purpose of this essay is to show how your unique experiences and viewpoints can contribute to this milieu.
We recommend not writing a diversity essay about study abroad experiences, or your relationships with minority populations.
As with the personal statement, the length of this essay will vary between schools. You may need to create multiple versions of this essay to meet the changing requirements. Always check the exact requirements of each school you are applying to, as careless errors will get your application thrown out.
This essay should not just discuss what your identity is, but how your identity shaped how you think, and how you view the world. There should be a core message to the essay, something you learned or a way you changed.
Finally, you should be as specific as possible when writing this essay. While describing these circumstances and experiences may feel awkward, an authenticity born of detail is necessary to make this essay impactful. Further, as with the personal statement, the less generic and cliche your essay is, the greater the impact it will have.
As with your application to college, your letters of recommendation should supplement and support the narrative you are crafting with your application. You are required to submit two letters, but may submit additional ones. We suggest you submit no more than four letters in total.
At least one of your letters should come from a professor, one who knows you and your work well. If you had a thesis advisor in undergrad, they are the logical choice for this task, as they will be very familiar with your performance as a student and scholar. If not, any professor you have a good relationship with can serve.
A supervisor or mentor at a place of employment is another good choice for a letter writer, especially if you did any work or internships in the legal field, or working with lawyers. They will be able to discuss your passion for law, and your familiarity with legal environments.
Finally, your letters should detail your ability to work well in a high-stress environment. Law school, and legal careers, often require long hours and high workloads. Schools look for students who have demonstrated the ability to thrive under pressure. Your past performance in this area is the best way to show your potential here.
You should ask for letters at least a month in advance of when they are due. We recommend beginning in late August or early September. Understand that your letter writers have many demands on their time, and writing a good letter of recommendation is a process.
Once your writers have agreed to help you, follow up by sending them your resume, a draft of your personal statement, and a list of the schools you are applying to. This will help your recommenders craft their letters to fit your application.
Be sure to thank your recommenders for their work. They did a great favor for you; show your appreciation.
As when applying to college, you should apply to a mix of reach, target, and safety law schools. Your GPA and LSAT score will determine which schools you have a reasonable chance of getting into. While no combination of grades and scores will make your admissions certain, high grades and scores correlate to a better chance of admissions generally.
The top 14 law schools are seen as more prestigious, and will lead to much higher prestige and paying careers. Indeed, almost every supreme court justice attended either Harvard or Yale law school. Top 30 schools have less national prestige, but have more impact in the region where they are located.
While you can still get a good education from schools outside the top 30, it will be much harder to land a job at a top firm, or pursue the most vaunted careers. While rank isn’t everything, the connections you make at a top school will go a long way.
For this reason, the top schools are the most competitive, and demand the highest LSAT and GPA. Compare your own scores to the averages admitted by schools to determine your chances of acceptance. If your scores are average, it’s a target. If your GPA is up to .3 lower, or your LSAT scores 4 points lower, a school is a reach. Conversely, if your GPA is .3 higher, or your LSATs 4 points higher than average, you have a very good chance of getting into the school, unless it is one of the top rated.
The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) has an admissions tool to help you estimate our chances. As this is the group which publishes the LSAT, we respect their opinion.
When you apply also matters. Many law schools practice some form of rolling admissions, with applications opening in September, and deadlines in February. Some law schools also offer binding Early Decision admissions. This divides the admissions sequence into thirds:
We recommend applying early, or regular at the latest. As most schools practice rolling admissions, the later you get in the admissions cycle, the fewer spaces there will be to fill, and the more competition you will face.
While applying early is ideal, it is not strictly necessary. You still have good odds of admission applying in the regular decision period. This can be beneficial if you wish to retake the LSAT to improve your score, or spend more time perfecting your essays.
This means you should start preparing for the LSAT and applications in winter and spring of the year you want to apply, in order to be sure that you have everything in order. If you plan on attending law school directly out of undergrad, this means starting in your Junior year. We recommend taking this much time to ensure you have sufficient preparation for the LSAT, and enough time to perfect your essays.
Law school is very expensive. While some top schools have much vaunted and sought after scholarships, most law students end up taking on substantial loans to pay for their degrees. This is why competition for the top schools, and the careers they lead to, is so fierce; because everyone knows they will need to pay the loans back, and the amount of money and effort that will require.
As with undergraduate loans, bankruptcy will not clear the debt incurred from law school loans. However, working for the government gives you access to federal loan forgiveness programs. What career track you are interested in pursuing should shape how you plan to pay for law school.
There are many high paying careers out there for lawyers, but there are also many that pay poorly as you struggle with loans. The more prestigious the law school you attend, and the more networking you perform, the better your chances of attaining the kind of career you desire.
We’ll conclude our guide by answering some questions students frequently have about the law school admissions process.
As with applications to colleges, you can and should submit a letter of continuing intent to indicate your ongoing interest in attending the school in question. We recommend only doing this for your number one school. As with college admissions, you should begin making arrangements to attend another school while waiting to hear about the waitlist. That way, you will have somewhere to go should all else fail. Always expect the best, but be prepared for the worst.
Most law schools do not require interviews, though there are some which do. Notably Harvard and Georgetown. The purpose of these interviews is to gauge your interest in the program and law school as a whole, and review some of your experience. Schools which conduct interviews want to make sure you will fit in with their program.
The addendum functions much like the additional information section of the Common App, and should be used for similar reasons. If your grades were majorly impacted by personal circumstances, including illness, family tragedy, disaster, or similar events, consider writing an addendum. These should not be used to explain every drop in grades, but they can provide schools with important context for your academic record. Only include an addendum if truly necessary.
As with college applications, there is a fee to apply to law schools. This can range from $60-100. This can be a factor in how many schools you apply to.
While the test used to be offered only four times per year, this has increased. This makes it much easier to schedule a sitting which fits your schedule. That said, your first sitting should come after preparation, and leave you time to retake the test if your scores are not within your desired range.
Many professionals attend law school after establishing themselves in a career. This is well known and accepted by schools. The most difficult task is often finding a letter of recommendation from a professor. Begin planning for this earlier than other applicants.