Who Gets To Attend A Top Law School?

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

21 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.

    • 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?

  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?


  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.

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