Are you thinking about law school? Would you like to be a part of a challenging, rewarding profession helping to protect the rights of others? Are you interested in a career that helps shape our laws and policies? Whether you're working on an undergraduate degree or contemplating a return to school after a few years of working, law school could be the right choice for you.
According the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), more than 60,000 potential first-year law students took the LSAT in fall 2009, about 20 percent more than in fall 2008. The increase is attributed to the downturn in the economy; many people turn to graduate school to make the most of a slow job market [source: SmartMoney].
Since the number of openings in accredited law schools remains fairly constant each year, getting into law school is highly competitive. For example, in 2008, Yale Law School received 3,400 applications for around 200 spots in its first year class [source: Yale Law School].
So, what sets the accepted apart from those who fall short? Law school admission committees are looking for applicants who will make the very best students and become successful professionals. To determine who makes the cut, law schools look at a number of factors that can be used objectively across all potential candidates. Two criteria that all schools in the U.S. (and several in Canada, Europe and Australia) rely upon most are the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) scores and undergraduate grade point average (GPA). Beyond these benchmarks, schools may ask for a personal essay, interviews or recommendations -- or all three. They may also seek out students with particular work experience, academic backgrounds, even ethnic or cultural backgrounds, to help create a diverse academic environment where different viewpoints are represented.
Think you've got what it takes? Read on to make sure. Here are the top five tips for getting into law school.
Understand the Application Process
Applying to law school is a lengthy process that begins at least two years before classes actually begin. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) administers the LSAT and serves as the liaison between the applicant and law schools. The Credential Assembly Service (CAS) centralizes and standardizes undergraduate academic records, and prepares a report for each law school that you're applying to for admissions.
Most law schools have their own application requirements and deadlines, so visit their Web sites and make sure you set up a system to keep you on track. Here's a brief checklist of the steps:
- Prepare for the LSAT
- Research law schools and application deadlines
- Visit the schools you're interested in, if possible
- Register for the LSAT and set up your online LSAC account
- Have your official transcript sent to the LSAC
- Ask for letters of recommendation and have them sent to the LSAC or to the school
- Take the LSAT
- Have your scores and academic summary report (multiple calculations of your GPA, compared to that of other applicants from your school) sent to the schools where you apply
- Schedule personal interviews that may be required by the school
- Use LSAC to monitor your file status and acceptances
Stack the odds in your favor. Examine the average LSAT and grade point average (GPA) ranges at the schools you're interested in. Choose several competitive schools with average scores in your range, some "safety schools" that fall below your range and one or two "reach" schools above it.
Tailor your application and personal essay to showcase why your background or aspirations make you an excellent choice for the law programs you choose.
Ace the LSAT
Doing well on the LSAT is just like getting to Carnegie Hall: You need to practice, practice, practice. The test is designed to measure skills essential for success in law school: the ability to think critically, comprehend complex texts, analyze facts and make reasonable conclusions, and evaluate the opinions of others objectively.
Familiarize yourself with test directions and question types, practice on sample tests, and study information on test-taking techniques [source: LSAC]. The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) offers publications with sample tests, guides to LSAT logic and answer explanations. Several companies also offer prep programs to help you hone the skills needed to perform well.
Prepare yourself the day of the test by getting a good night's sleep beforehand, dressing comfortably and eating a protein-packed breakfast.
You'll receive your score in about three weeks. The LSAT is scored on a scale of 120 to 180. The average score is 160, but it takes a much better score to get into the top schools. At Harvard, scores in the 25th to 75th percentile range from 170 to 175. (That means 25 percent of accepted students have scores over 175 and only 25 percent have scores below 170.) Even if your score isn't in the top percentile, there are many excellent top schools to choose from. Don't despair.
Sometimes test takers wonder if their score will improve by retaking it; while scores usually improve slightly, most law schools look at an average of scores, so do well the first time [source: LSAC].
Make Good Grades
A student's performance in undergraduate school is considered a good indicator of law school success, so law school admissions committees look very closely at your GPA. They also look at coursework: Straight As in basket-weaving and history of modern dance aren't as impressive as the same grades in honors international policy or philosophy.
Admissions committees expect good grades in your junior and senior years, plus increasing advanced coursework. In fact, they like to see grades that improve throughout your college career, indicating maturity and intellectual curiosity.
A pre-law program is usually not a prerequisite for admission to law school, but your record should demonstrate a commitment to careful study, analytical thought, and written and verbal communications. Common majors for law school applicants include literature, history, philosophy, and political science, since these subjects help develop the ability to think critically and analytically. Writing skills are especially important in law school, so a minor in English can help you prepare for the rigors of law school -- and it will look good on your record.
If you have your heart set on attending a particular law school, see what undergraduate schools are represented among those currently attending. You may see a pattern: A highly rated school like Harvard or Yale accepts a large number of students from Ivy League schools; top regional schools may also have "feeder" liberal arts colleges.
Write a Personal Essay That Stands Out
It may seem that applying to law school is all a numbers game spun around GPA and LSAT scores, but in actuality, law schools are looking for individuals who are dedicated, hard-working, and show a commitment to a career in law.
Use your personal essay to explain your background, personal experiences, volunteer activities, and achievements. Relate why you're interested in pursuing a Juris Doctor degree in the first place. Were you inspired by a week of jury duty or have you been fascinated since seventh grade with the precedents set by "Gibbons vs. Ogden?" Whatever your story, tell it in a way that reflects your passion and presents why you will be an asset to the school's program and to the profession. Sell yourself. Your personality should shine in a way that sets you apart from the rest of the pack. The essay also represents a chance to showcase your writing skills.
Most first-year law school classes are reasonably small -- between 200 and 400 students -- so admissions counselors want interesting and likable students who can work well with the rest of the class. You'll be spending a lot of time with your fellow classmates over the next few years, so you'll appreciate having a sense of camaraderie and shared objectives.
In addition to a personal essay, some schools ask for letters of recommendation. Be sure to choose someone who knows you well and who genuinely believes in your capabilities; their sincerity and tone will speak much louder than words from a distant connection you barely know, even if it she happens to be U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Select a School That Suits You
To apply to law school successfully, it makes sense to look into the schools that are best suited to your academic background, areas of interest, test scores and undergraduate GPA. "U.S. News and World Report" publishes an annual roundup of the best accredited law schools that might be an excellent place to start [source: U.S. News and World Report].
Spend some time browsing the Web sites of the law schools that interest you and studying the student body profiles of those schools. You'll find a wealth of information about median test scores and GPAs, as well as demographic profiles, undergraduate institutions represented and previous areas of study.
If your LSAT scores and grades are in the very top percentile of applications, then you should consider the most highly ranked law schools. Even if your scores aren't top notch, there are many excellent schools where you can study and prepare for a successful legal career.
Finally, know what type of law you interested in practicing and where. If business or international law fascinates you, Columbia Law School may be the right choice. Perhaps you've set your sights on a career in Washington, D.C.; Yale or Harvard could help you develop the contacts to make it in government, or you can head straight to the capital by studying at Georgetown or American University. If your ideal situation is your own office on some small-town Main Street, look for a school in the region you want to practice.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Cohen-Wade, Aryeh. "Getting Into Law School." Gradspot. July 8, 2008. Accessed Mar. 15, 2010http://www.gradspot.com
- Estrich, Susan. "How to Get into Law School." 2004. New York: Riverhead Trade.
- "Law School: Tips and Stats." U.S. News and World Report. April 22, 2009. http://www.usnews.com/articles/education/best-law-schools/2009/04/22/law-school-tips-and-state.html
- Pinello, Daniel R. "Advice for Getting Into Law School." Department of Political Science. John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.http://www.danpinello.com/LawSch.htm
- Scaggs, Alexandra. "Will there be too many lawyers in 2013?" Smart Money. November 17, 2009. Accessed Mar. 15, 2010http://www.smartmoney.com/personal-finance/employment/Will-There-Be-Too-Many-Lawyers-in-2013
- Wu, Frank H. "Why Law School is for Everyone." U.S. News and World Report. April 22, 2009. Accessed Mar. 16, 2010http://www.usnews.com/articles/education/best-law-schools/2009/04/22/why-law-school-is-for-everyone.html